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North Central Business Journal News

(December 1999 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

     The purpose of Public Relations is to create a positive image of the company in the minds of people.  Besides the normal human desire to be liked by others, the intent of public relations is to enhance the company’s sales in some way.  Customer loyalty cannot be assumed.  People make their purchasing choices for many reasons, only some of which are rational.  Price and/or quality of product or service are the rational reasons for choosing a particular company.  But the intangible factor of positive impression is equally powerful in the decision.  That is the focus of public relations.

     Many companies may forget that every contact impacts public relations.  When talking about public relations, most executives think in terms of the tasks typically covered by a public relations department – sponsoring community activities, developing promotional materials that highlight the company, ensuring quick turn-around time on delivery, standing behind the product or service.  These are essential aspects of creating and maintaining a positive public image.

 But at least equally important, and possibly more important, are the ordinary interactions employees have with people outside the company.  Take, for example, the two minor incidents described below:

      Maxine Wright called the pharmacy she had always used to refill a prescription for a dental product.  The next day, the pharmacist called to say the product was on back-order and suggested Maxine call other pharmacies to see if they had it.  While this was a thoughtful response on the part of the pharmacist, a better response would have been for the pharmacist to call around within the pharmacy chain to find the product.  The pharmacy probably lost Maxine as a customer.  The pharmacist wasn’t thinking as a public relations person, probably because the company didn’t think of the pharmacist as a customer relations expert.

      Josh Miller was visiting his grandmother at the senior home for the first time, and entered by the wrong door.  He wandered through the halls, trying to figure out how to find his grandmother.  No one noticed his confused look.  When he asked someone, the aide apologized that she didn’t know anything about the sections outside her area and left.  The apology was nice, but a better response would have been to find someone who could help Josh find his grandmother’s room.  The aide wasn’t thinking as a public relations person, probably because the senior home didn’t think of the aide as a customer relations expert. 

      In both of these incidents, an employee not usually classified as doing public relations probably hurt the company’s image.  While the responses would not have generated a negative impression of the companies involved, both of them said to the two outsiders, “you are not important.” 

      People who feel valued and important are likely to turn to a company when purchasing that company’s product or service.    The company that does this best is probably the Disney company.  All employees at their theme parks have customer relations as their first priority.  Even the groundskeepers and cleaning personnel smile and chat with visitors as they go about their tasks.  None of the employees publicly grumble about their job overload; they do not indicate, by behavior, tone of voice, or words, that the customers are getting in the way of doing their job.  In fact, the impression is exactly the opposite – visitors feel that their own concerns are important to each employee with whom they interact.  This positive impression pays off for the company in repeat business.

      To generate that Disney approach,  public relations needs to be intentionally incorporated into all the human resource tactics of the company. 

           1. Public relations is written into every job description.
           2. Customer relations is incorporated into employee 
               development and training.
                     Training in how to focus on public relations is essential for   employees to know when and how to address the  needs of customers.  People tend to think narrowly about their job’s task  They need to notice opportunities such as those described above, and to practice better ways of responding to the public. 
            3. Supervisors reward employees putting customers first.
                     A lot of companies give lip service to the idea that the customer is the first priority.  But they often penalize employees who stop
their work to handle outside tasks.  Supervisors need to be reminded to reward employees who are focusing on customers.
           4. Customer relations is discussed at each performance appraisal meeting.
                    Companies that are serious about developing exceptional public relations need to connect that priority with their employees.  Not    only does customer relations belong in the written job description, but employees who are doing so need to have that noted in their written performance review.
           5. Publicize employees doing exceptional public relations.
                    Companies should recognize employees who do things that benefit the company.  Companies need to devise ways to recognize those
employees who put the customer as top priority.   When employees realize that this is an important priority, they will enact that priority in their job.

  Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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