This study exhibits the credibility of public relations as a brand image crisis communications function over other communications channels in marketing. This is the most significant contribution of this study. It was proved that organisations are placing increased preference on public relations function both in their marketing communications plan and budget. This is another noteworthy attainment from this research.
Before carrying out the primary research, a critical review of relevant previous research, theories, assumptions and organisational implications were undertaken in order to put together a conceptual framework of this study. This helped to understand the nature of the outcome which simplified the data collection and analysis procedure. Due to the exploratory nature of the study, the possibility of variation in the primary data was anticipated. However, such variation was reduced to a minimum through the development of specific interview guide that supported a similar interpretation of the interview questions by the respondents and resulted in structured responses. Moreover, the 'content analysis' method assisted in easier interpretation of the semi structured interview responses. The research findings were shown in tables, figures and bar charts wherever applicable. From the broader understanding of the roles, functions, models, theories, programs and applications of public relations, a wider definition for PR can be suggested as following:
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"Public relations is a mode of communication with key public(s) of an organisation which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an organisation that is favourable to public interest and executes programs of direct or indirect communications in order to (a) create premium value for products and services (b) influence public opinion and behaviour, (c) earn public appreciation and acceptance, (d) defend negative publicity, and (e) uphold corporate or brand image"
5.1.2 Research Objectives and Outcomes
The first objective of this study was to analyse the degree of preference given to PR as a brand image crisis communications function in different organisations. The study reveals that, in recent years PR has matured as a specialist brand restoration function in various organisations. The rationale behind such shift in emphasis on PR is due to the superfluous exploitation of the popular channels of marketing communications such as advertising, sales promotion, personal selling and direct marketing, etc. These popular marketing communications channels have loosened publics' confidence because of their unnecessary exploitation and therefore can not be relied on to attain greater attention of the targeted audience in a sophisticated brand crisis communications. In this context, PR is the sole communications function which people still perceive as relatively unbiased. Moreover, it is less expensive than other communications mix and a properly planned PR initiative can prove to be more influential than advertising, sales promotion, etc. If a brand is damaged by negative publicity PR creates the ground to apology to public and to admit organisation's responsibility. Most of the PR initiatives use third party means to communicate with public those are positively interpreted by public.
The second objective was to determine the level of shift in various organisations' PR budget. In this context, it is evident that majority of organisations exhibit greater public relations spending than their past record. Most of them experienced an increase in PR budget out of their total marketing and communications budget. In fact, a number of organisations show significant increase in their PR budget in recent years.
The next objective of this research was to evaluate the credibility of public relations in defending negative publicity during brand image crisis and to compare its effectiveness with other channels of marketing communications in influencing public opinion. The comparison of the credibility of public relations with other means of marketing communications revealed that, maximum number of organisations perceived it most effective for crisis communications. Whenever a crisis hits a brand, PR best fulfils the crisis communications objectives of an organisation. The most important objective of a crisis communications program is to apology to the public for any mistake and to inform the organisation's attempt to avoid repetition of such fault or offence. In order to meet this objective, PR is the most suitable channel of communications. One extraordinary quality of PR is that it can refuse false charges about an organisation or claim as false through building positive perception among public using means those are perceived to be unbiased by public. It can successfully redefine an organisation's commitment, intention, policies and values and create premium value for products or services.
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The subsequent objective was to identify the most persuasive PR program or technique among various practices for changing consumers' perception. The study shows that press release and media relations are the most influential in changing consumer behaviour. Because, people perceives the information in the form of news written on a newspaper or telecast in electronic medias as more factual than other forms. Again, sponsorship is effective to promote an established brand. Because, it can easily reinforce one's past favourable experience with the brand.
The fifth and the last objective was to establish the best practice between holding an in-house department for PR practice and hiring an external PR consultancy. In relation to this, the study found that hiring an external PR consultant is effective. However, the recommendable solution would be to practice a combination of both so that the regular PR activities may be handled by in-house department and complex situations can be complemented by the PR consultants. Because, the study found that PR consultants can criticize as well as create favourable image about the organisation as they can play the role of 'outsiders' for the organisation. Again, carrying out entire PR functions of an organisation through external consultants will cost a lot of capital.
Above all, findings from the study can be summarised as follows:
"Public Relations (PR) is gaining increased emphasis and expenditure than any other communications mix in brand image crisis management as the most credible communications channel for influencing public opinion"
5.2.1 Implications for Organisations
Several issues were identified that the organisations need to address in their marketing and communications strategy development, decisions and implementation:
Organisations should regard public relations as the principal brand image crisis communications function and give special considerations to it within their marketing and communications strategy formulation and execution.
Organisations can achieve cost benefit from PR programs and techniques those are less expensive and more influential than advertising.
Bad reputation due to lapses in performance standards can be reduced to a minimum through organising and implementing adequate PR programs.
As with all other channels of marketing communications, PR should get similar preference while allocating organisations' communications budget. In fact, preference to PR expenditure should be greater because it has the capability to raise the public awareness with a fraction of advertising.
Organisations should acknowledge that, PR does not require compensating for the space or time taken in the media. It compensates only for the team or individual who write and pass the story or organise any occasion.
When the tide of public opinion is flowing in the reverse direction, PR is the most credible communications channel to defend reputation successfully.
If an organisation confront to image crisis, the very first step would be to determine the depth of publics' knowledge and then the decision should be taken either to remain silent or to tell own bad news to maintain or restore positive image.
For business interests, whenever organisations take decisions against public welfare, it should be sufficiently communicated to public using means of public relations.
Appropriate and well thought-out PR programs or techniques can demonstrate an organisation's attempt to avoid repetition of any fault or offence and create premium value for its products and services.
Depending on the nature of image crisis and the message to be delivered, PR programs or techniques should be determined. However, press release and media relations are recommendable since people tend to believe news written on a newspaper or telecast in an electronic media more than other means.
Organisations which can afford to employ PR practitioners should rely on them to put together well written, influential press releases that are competent enough to catch public attention.
Organisations which can not afford to regularly employ PR practitioners may choose a combination of in-house PR practice and external consultants where regular PR activities may be handled by in-house department and complex situations can be resolved by the PR consultants.
Large organisations those have need for regular PR practice, should hire permanent consultants because in-house professionals will have sufficient knowledge about the organisation and access to internal lines of communication and can contribute more to achieve organisation's crisis communications objectives.
5.2.2 Implications for Practitioners
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The findings of this study also provide some important implications for the marketing and PR practitioners:
Following the discovery of any image crisis or negative publicity, practitioners should consider three important things: (1) what went wrong, (2) how it will be fixed and (3) what will happen to ensure it doesn't happen again
Before planning for a campaign, they should compare the cost and potential output from the campaign. The campaign should have the capability to persuade an entire population to behave as organisation wants. Objective of the campaign may have to be reduced if financial constraints necessary.
Practitioners should develop influential message based on their investigation of the characteristics of the crisis.
Professionals should consider what makes the organisation competitive than the market and determine the key audiences of a campaign.
They should not alone decide the quality and quantity of the information flow between organisations and its strategic 'publics'. It should consult with top personnel in an organisation, usually the senior management for planning and organising PR activities.
They should consider press release and media relations foremost because people tend to have positive perception regarding these two.
Careful considerations to the content of the message and to the characteristics of the target audience should be given for choosing specific PR programs or techniques.
Practitioners should maintain honesty, since the community is keener to forgive an honest mistake than a calculated lie.
5.4 Scope for Future Research
This exploratory investigation opens doors to much of future researches. In fact, the role of public relations can be studied in different aspects of corporate communications, for example, in cases of introducing a new product to the market, communication regarding corporate mergers-acquisitions, informing customers about sudden changes in service policy, etc. The eleven crisis communications objectives described in the literature review can be a good issue for further exploration. Again, the persuasiveness of different PR programs and techniques can be studied alone in a broader platform. The specific utility of various PR functions can be investigated. A relational analysis of the cost and contribution of different communications mix will bring new arena in marketing literature and practice.
5.2 Limitations and Ethical Constraints of this Study
Due to the exploratory approach to the study, the interpretations of gathered data were subjective.
The number of participants was small and maximum of them were from medium or large product based organisations. So, the sample size and type may not be representative and it would be hard to generalise the findings.
Moreover, most of the interviewees were either mid-level or upper mid-level managers who had limited influence in the organisations' policy decisions.
The semi structured in-depth interview data collection method lend the study to ideas than numbers, leading to percentages that are less straight forward than quantitative research data.
The responses might be influenced by interviewer's interference or distorted by subjective interpretation.
All the interviewees might not be aware of or interested to express all the factors that influence their decisions.
The data analysis method deployed was non statistical in nature and therefore could not guarantee specific, measurable, clear and unambiguous interpretation of the results.
Reliance on individual informants from each organisation can not represent the attitude and values of the whole organisation.
Obtaining the respondents' informed consent to participate in the study was not easy.
For securing confidentiality and considering the possible consequences of the study for the respondents, some data needed to be restrained from presentation.
Most respondents preferred not to have any transcription of their statements for the sake of confidentiality of critical and sensitive information, so all the data provided by them in form of comments could not be retained.
The analysis and interpretation of gathered data might be influenced by researcher's own perception.
Some information could not be disclosed or permitted to reproduce by respondents for the sake of their moral obligation to their organisation.