How to Engineer What People Think of Your Business, Your Product and You Our job is to engineer strategies that will influence our target audience to change the way they think about something.
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What exactly is public relations? I think every PR pro has been asked this question a hundred times.
However, it's sometimes worse when people think they know what public relations is and start referring to a TV show like Scandal or a movie where the public relations professional is "the fixer" for a celebrity trying to hide the truth from the mass public. This scenario is amusing at first until you realize that the person truly has no idea what you do for a living.
When I'm asked what I do, I occasionally explain with a smile that I'm a perception engineer.
After a long pregnant pause, a fellow PR flack who overhears my description usually audibly chuckles or gives me a knowing glare. But think about it. The term perception engineer is actually an appropriate description of public relations. Our ultimate goal in PR is to influence what others think about a company, product, person or topic.
While the target audience may be unique depending on the situation, the overarching goal to influence what people think remains the same regardless of the tools we use (e.g., social media, pitching reporters, op-eds). The effort to influence also remains the same regardless of the communication need (e.g., crisis, pro-active, reactive, internal).
Related: Are You Wasting Your Money on PR?
Being a perception engineer is significantly different than being an "influence peddler." Our job is to engineer strategies that will actually influence our target audience to change the way they think about or perceive something. Forget about thinking outside the box; we, as perception engineers, reshape the box. In contrast, an influence peddler pushes the same wallpaper messaging from the box to everyone in sight. For PR pros, it's that personalization of the message and risk of failure that keeps public relations fun, challenging and vital.
There are different examples of how to engineer perception. Sometimes an entire business can be built around selling a perception. Other times, the strategy can be centered on breaking a long-held practice, demonstrating and highlighting something uncommon.
Let me share some business examples:
Open rates for email or mass mailings are statistically very small, so if you want 1,000 people to see what you've sent them, you need to send several thousand more, knowing that most of your efforts will be ignored. Yet an actual, handwritten (not computer printed) first-class stamped letter sent to your home has an extremely high open rate because the person the letter is addressed to believes it is a personalized letter just for them. Simply Noted is an automated handwritten letter company that helps businesses communicate and build relationships through real, pen-written letters. Companies send in addresses and messages, and the company's proprietary technology writes out the personalized cards and envelopes with real pens at scale. The perception is that it's truly handwritten, and the goal is for this to increase open rates.
Another example would be a local Phoenix-area company called Forrest Anderson Plumbing and Air Conditioning. The family-owned business is now in its third generation but has one glaring difference compared to nearly 90% of plumbing and HVAC companies--it's led by a woman. The company doesn't spend a lot of money on paid advertising but has done a great job sharing its story as a women-led business. Its leader, Audrey Monell, has been featured on the cover of national industry magazines and has won numerous local and national awards as a female owner in a heavily male-dominated industry. By breaking a long-held perception and highlighting how the company is different, the company has engineered its own perception, which has helped the company grow and expand.
Now, when you think of public relations, think of "perception engineering." Companies that excel at this or implement strategic public relations plans can generate impressive results to benefit the company's overall goals, ranging from selling products, landing clients, employee retention, and more.
Does your company have a perception engineer in your corner?