Public Relations by Geoff Lancaster©
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Public Relations is an important and versatile marketing communications tool. It can be employed both within and outside the organisation. Many feel that public relations is an external marketing tool, with the firm attempting to communicate with a wide range of external ‘Publics’ in order to cast the organisation in a favourable light in peoples’ minds. This way of thinking is very limited, and fails to appreciate the great value of public relations as an internal marketing communications tool. Good internal marketing i.e. achieving the right internal organisational culture and getting everyone ‘pulling’ in the same direction in terms of marketing effort, is a vital prerequisite to effective external marketing, particularly those based on the concepts of long term ‘relationship’ marketing. Public relations has a vital role to play in the creation of an effective internal marketing culture within an organisation. In this sense it has seen a realisation of its importance as a strategic internal communication tool.
Public relations Is a very versatile communications tool and is today used by just about every type of organisation whether it be a charity, a political party or a commercial organisation. It is concerned with strategic management of information in such a way that certain publicity objectives are achieved. It is not always the case that positive publicity is the outcome of a managed public relations campaign, because it is often impossible to achieve a net positive outcome. For example public relations has a particularly important role to play in ‘crisis management’ scenarios. Where a catastrophe has occurred, especially where people have been injured or lost their lives, it is often a case of containing the situation, putting a fair and balanced account of events forward to the general public and mitigating the adverse effects of the disaster to the organisation concerned.
2 A Brief History Of Public Relations
Public relations (PR) is not new. Its modern day origins in the United States can be traced as far back as 1807 with President Jefferson’s address to congress, although evidence suggests that the ancient Greeks and Romans gave much attention to influencing public opinion. PR in the UK began as a Government information and propaganda machine during World war One and was then used more extensively in World war Two. Industry showed little interest in PR as a commercial communications tool until after 1945, but thereafter its use increased rapidly over the next 30 years in a sort of PR explosion. PR’s relatively poor image over these 30 years has been a result amateurish practitioners. In the 1970s the PR profession was referred to by derogatory terms such as the ‘gin and tonic brigade’. People who made up this ‘brigade’ often carried considerable social influence and were able to ‘open doors’ because they had the right connections. Their main function seemed to be the ‘wining and dining’ of important clients. The situation has changed a great deal in the late 1990s and now PR professionals are trained in the art of communications management. Unfortunately the profession still operates under its earlier shadow.
Public relations has now spread throughout industry and commerce. At first, full time PR appointments were less common than the use of the services of a PR consultant. Because of this slow internal adoption of professional PR practitioners by industry and commerce, external public relations firms quickly developed, many of them lacking skilled staff of sufficient expertise, but merely taking advantage of and exploiting the ‘boom’ in the PR profession. This phenomenon is common; it happened at the end of the 1980’s when ‘total quality management’ was the latest ‘fad’ and many became experts in the art of TQM virtually ‘overnight’. Consequently, because of the hasty expansion of PR firms, the poor reputation of PR among journalists, businessmen, politicians and the general public that persists today, can be traced back to this period of uncontrolled growth. In the last 20 years, however, many PR agencies have built reputations for highly marketing orientated practices. Many of these firms tend to specialise in consumer PR, trade relations, corporate PR, financial, industrial, service and technical PR. A number of firms are now offering PR services for ‘not for profit’ organisations such as charities and politics.
3 Recent Developments
From the mid 1970’s onwards a change has developed in the role and perceived value of PR, leading to a growth in this form of communication which has continued right up to the present day. Explanations for the upsurge in public relations activity are many and varied. Many in the industry identify the late 1970’s recession as a major turning point. Companies were keen to reduce costs in order to stay in business. As often happens in times of economic downturn, managers of many firms look to marketing budgets as a ‘first strike’ and regard marketing expenditure as a ‘luxury’ and a cost rather than a necessary investment. Many managers found that PR, with a much broader base and cost effectiveness, would be preferable to maintaining a conventional advertising budget.
The ‘cost saving’ aspect of public relations is certainly one of the major reasons for the growth of its popularity. Other factors include the increasing complexity of the business world that has produced a need for more complex communications to get the commercial or corporate message across. Another possible factor is the growth of fast-developing new business sectors such as information technology, financial services, travel and leisure which has lead to a ‘new breed’ of marketing manager who appreciates the value of PR as a communications tool. A further factor is a recognition that management, especially those working in business to business marketing, of the importance of creating and maintaining ‘relationships’ with a wide range of people and groups. There has been recognition for a number of years that in industrial and organisational marketing situations there are complex buyer-seller interactions involved in the marketing process. Some of these take place in the ‘official’ marketing channels of communications e.g. between the sales person and the official buyer or at least the purchasing team or committee within the buying organisation. However, interactions also take place on a less formal basis, amongst technical personnel from both the marketing and buying firms. It was recognised that these informal buyer seller interactions were just as important as the more formal contacts and that these too had to be managed and not left to chance. The recognition that organisational or business to business marketing involved an often complex web of formal and informal, but no less important, commercial interactions become known as the ‘interactive approach’, and was basically the precursor to what today is often referred to as the ‘relationship marketing approach’. Of course, throughout its development as a marketing communications ‘tool’ PR has always been first and foremost an instrument for establishing, crystallising, cementing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with various groups of people or ‘publics’. It is, therefore, no surprise that as the recognition of the importance of the interactive and relationship driven nature of modern marketing practice became accepted and practised by firms. The adoption of public relations as a key marketing communications tool also grew in stature and importance, particularly in the area of corporate communications. The role of public relations in achieving sound relationship marketing practices as well as its contribution to achieving good internal marketing is examined later.
4 The Role And Nature Of Public Relations
4.1 Defining Public Relations
The task of defining the exact nature of PR is not easy. A plethora of definitions currently exists, each emphasising a slightly different approach and each attempting to arrive at a simple, brief and accurate form of words. The difficulty in developing a single acceptable definition reflects the complexity and diversity of the profession. For the purposes of this discussion two definitions are useful. The Institute of Public Relations (IPR) states:
‘Public Relations practice is the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and it’s public’.
The essential features of this definition is that PR practice should be deliberate, planned and sustained; not haphazard, and that mutual understanding is necessary in order to ensure that the communication between the organisation and its public’ is clear, i.e. the receiver perceives the same meaning as the sender intends.
An alternative definition is provided by Frank Jefkins who states:
‘Public Relations consists of all forms of planned communication, outward and inwards, between an organisation and it’s publics for the purpose of achieving specific objectives concerning mutual understanding’.
Jefkins is a modified version of the Institute of Public Relations definition and provides two new elements:
- ‘Public’ becomes ‘Publics’, since PR addresses a number of audiences:
- The inclusion of ‘specific objectives’, making PR a tangible activity.
4.2 Achieving a marketing orientation through PR
In marketing literature there is a lot about how it is important for an organisation to become ‘marketing orientated’, ‘customer focused’ and adopt the ‘marketing concept’. For a firm to be truly marketing oriented all the staff working for it have to be so. There is a saying adapted from Buddhist philosophy that states ‘for a forest to be green each tree has to be green’. This principle also applies to the marketing orientation of the firm for it comes from within the minds of the people making up the organisation. But how does senior management achieve this change in attitude and bring about the right customer focused ‘spirit’ within their organisation? Internal PR on its own cannot achieve this, but it can certainly make a significant contribution.
4.3 Communications and Public Relations
Communications is central to PR. The purpose of PR is to establish a two-way communication to resolve conflicts of interest by seeking common ground or areas of mutual interest. If we accept that this is the primary function of PR, then we must also accept a further implication. PR ‘exists’, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether an organisation likes it or not. Simply by carrying out it’s day to day operations, an organisation necessarily communicates certain messages to those who, for whatever reason, interact with the company, who will then form an opinion about it and it’s activities. The need for PR is to orchestrate, as far as possible, the behaviour of the organisation and the messages that result form such behaviour in order to help develop a corporate identity or personality.
PR is not ‘paid for’, unlike advertising, although the marketing firm will have to pay fees if it employs a PR consultant or a salary if they have an internal specialist. Because PR is not perceived by various publics as a paid for type of communication, it tends to have greater ‘source credibility’. That is because the ‘write-ups’ in the press or business journal, television or radio programme etc. are seen as emanating from an independent third party rather than a commissioned advertising agency. It is often said that the mark of good public relations is that the receiver of the message does not realise public relations has been employed. If it is obvious that the message has been ‘cooked up’ by ‘spin doctors’ or ‘PR gurus’ then the message looses much of its intended effect. In a sense good PR is in some ways analogous to good security. If a firm, a film star or a politician are employing security personnel to look after them, one of the key criteria for success in this line of work is that no one knows or is suspicious that they are anything to do with security. They simply blend in to the background and are indistinguishable form other members of the public. It is this anonymity that makes them so effective.
4.4 Corporate Identity
The concept of ‘corporate identity’ or ‘personality’ is inextricably linked to public relations. All PR activities must be carried out within the framework of an agreed and understood corporate personality. This personality must develop to reflect the style of the top management, since they control the organisation’s policy and activities. A corporate personality can become a tangible asset if it managed properly and consistently. However it cannot be assumed that all managers will consider the role of corporate personality when they make decisions. Therefore, the PR executive needs to be placed so that he or she is aware of all the issues, policies, attitudes and opinions that exist within the organisation that have a bearing on how it is perceived by outsiders.
The use of the term ‘personality’, rather than the more used ‘image’ term is deliberate. An image is a refection or an impression that may be a little too polished and perfect. True PR is more than ‘skin deep’. This is important because a ‘PR job’ implies that somehow the truth is being hidden behind a glossy and even false facade. But properly conducted PR emphasises the need for truth and full information. The PR executive, as a manager of corporate personality can only sustain an identity that is based on reality. Corporate public relations is concerned with image. This image is based on a long-term carefully planned programme designed to achieve maximum recognition and understanding for the company’s objectives and performance.
5 What PR is not
Misunderstanding and ignorance as to the nature of PR has led to it being confused with other disciplines and activities. It is appropriate at this point to clarify certain distinctions:
- Public Relations is not ‘free’ advertising
- Advertising emphasises ‘selling’ whereas public relations is ‘informative’, ‘educational’ and creates understanding through knowledge.
- Public Relations is not ‘free’. It is time consuming and therefore costs in terms of management time and expertise.
- Editorial space and broadcasting time are unbiased and therefore have more credibility than advertisements.
- Every organisation necessarily has PR.
- Public Relations involves communications with many groups and audiences, not just consumers.
- Public Relations is not propaganda
Propaganda is designed to indoctrinate in order to attract followers. It does not necessarily call for an ethical content, so facts are often distorted or falsified for self-interest. PR on the other hand, seeks to persuade by securing the willing acceptance of attitudes and ideas.
- PR is not the same as publicity
Publicity is a result of information being made known. The result may be uncontrollable and either good or bad. Public relations is concerned with the behaviour of the organisation, product or individual that leads to publicity. It will seek to control behaviour if this is possible, in such a way that publicity is good. Sometimes the actions or events that lead to adverse publicity are outside the control of the organisation. The role of public relations in such circumstances is to mitigate the effect of possible adverse publicity.
6 The need for Public Relations
As PR is essentially a process of communication it is needed most when normal communications are strained and some people are left uninformed. In a modern economy commercial organisations have a need for sophisticated communications which can be accurately tailored and targeted at specific groups of people. In a very real sense, especially in areas such as political campaigning, communications itself has become a 20th century skill. With the development of communication there has been a parallel development in the sophistication of the audience. People are better educated and better able to make objective judgements about the messages they receive. The very word communications is a ‘buzz word’. Failure to communicate can be identified as the principal cause of many industrial, commercial and non-commercial organisational problems. PR is by no means a universal answer for every situation, but at least it is a formal system of communications and as such employs the concepts of analysis, action, review and control which can provide structure and a way forward in many situations. Changing social attitudes have forced a new responsiveness and sense of responsibility in official and commercial life; it is in this social climate that an appreciation of public relations as a management and advisory function is now recognised.
PR encompasses all attempts by a company to anticipate, track, review and possibly influence or control the type of publicity communicated to various sections of the public. In doing this, the organisation hopes to be able to cultivate and maintain a positive corporate image. In fact the strategic management of publicity through the employment of public relations is referred to as ‘corporate communications’. PR is concerned with communicating to a wide range of publics and not just to the organisation’s customers or clients.
The public relations practitioner has to conduct activities that concern every ‘public’ with which the organisation has contact. This is because in order to exist, succeed and survive, an organisation depends on many individuals and groups of people. Even in the distribution of products for example, a manufacturer must communicate with sales people, delivery staff, servicing staff, wholesalers, mail-order houses, agents, importers, exporters, overseas agents and many different kinds of retailer including chain stores, co-operatives, department stores supermarkets and smaller independently owned shops. There are many other people or groups that may affect the success or failure of a commercial enterprise. These include printers, package manufacturers, transport contractors, media owners and advertising agents. To these we can add others such as journalists who may write about our products or company, television producers of consumer affairs programmes and technical programmes. Business analysts, professional bodies, trade associations, government departments and other organisations are also important ‘publics’.
The publics of an organisation are those groups of people with whom it needs to communicate. The exact nature of these groups and individuals will vary in different organisations. These are now considered under various headings
7.1 The Community
Good community relations are important for every organisation. An organisation can and should act as if it were a member of the community and not abuse its power. It should behave as a responsible ‘citizen’. The situation is one of inter dependence; industry needs the support of the community and the community must understand industry. It is important for an organisation, through its public relations function, to establish a community relations programme that both deals with complaints and involves itself in community activities. This may include local press relations, special visits to the workplace, open days, sponsorship, community projects etc.
The general public tends to judge commercial organisations by the way they conduct themselves in the same way that individuals form a good or bad impression of the people that they come in contact with. Commercial projects such as the building of new plant, or the processing or storage of waste materials, may affect or interfere with local conditions and amenities. Care should be taken by the firm to anticipate such resentment and an attempt then made to mitigate this resentment and placate it as far as possible. An increasingly important aspect of community relations is the subject of pollution particularly with the rise of environmentalism and ‘green politics’. Increasingly firms are taking environmental management issues into account when planning their commercial operations. This thinking has had a big impact on the public relations industry.
Internal or employee public relations is often a neglected area in the study of PR. Worker/management relations are still often ‘them’ and ‘us’ and potentially confrontational in nature. The solution can lie in involving employees in all areas of decision making, in setting organisational goals and establishing ‘mutual understanding’. Appropriate objectives for management to set for public relations in the area of employee relations could include increasing awareness of company policy, improving safety standards and determining the cause of high staff turnover. This can be symptomatic of problems within the organisation and unhappiness amongst the work force. A discontented and disaffected work force can be unfortunate for an organisation. Marketing orientation within firms requires the co-operation of all staff and this cannot be done with a disaffected work force. Internal PR embraces those matters that encourage employees to make their maximum contribution to the productivity and the prosperity of the organisation. It overlaps with personal welfare, industrial relations, education, staff development and marketing orientation. PR can contribute to the creation of an atmosphere in which people will work more effectively; it can initiate a suggestion scheme, a safety campaign; it can lessen waste, carelessness, absenteeism etc, and it can enable management to communicate more effectively with employees at all levels.
Perhaps the biggest growth and development in PR over recent years has been in the areas of government relations and political lobbying. This form of PR activity has two main purposes; first to keep companies informed of legislative changes that may affect their business and secondly to attempt to influence the government or local government in favour of their industries. Political public relations is often misunderstood. The success of some businesses depends heavily on decisions made by the Government which is the reason for the existence of certain pressure groups. Some companies have politicians as directors who keep management abreast of relevant political matters, and often put forward a case for a company, or industry in which the company is operating when needed.
7.4 The Financial Community
Take-overs and mergers illustrate very aptly the need for financial PR. There is a need for commercial organisations to communicate with a diverse range of interested parties like as investors and city institutions such as pension funds, share analysts, financial journalists etc. Effective financial relations will produce certain benefits to the firm. Those companies that have established reputations will have less difficulty in raising the additional capital that may be needed for future investments. Many companies rely for their very existence on the support of banks. Such organisations are highly ‘geared’ and much of their capital structure is made up of bank debt. The bank finance supporting this capital structure is often of a short term or medium term nature. Financing arrangements are continually under review. Short-term loans are repaid and further loans are often negotiated. Good relations with the bank is fundamental to an organisation’s financing strategy. Holding companies often hold shares in their own subsidiary companies. These shares are often offered as collateral in support of bank loans. Clearly, the holding company has an interest in keeping the price of such shares at an appropriate level otherwise the value of the collateral on which their loan finance is based falls in value. PR is used to communicate the commercial health of an organisation and the favourable future prospects that investors can expect. This information is intended as assistance to support market sentiment for the company and hence support the share price, and to assuage any doubts potential lenders may have about the commercial robustness of the firm.
Distributors handle goods between producers and consumers. They include an array of businesses, wholesalers, retailers, dealerships, agencies and factors. It is essential that these marketing intermediaries are informed and educated about the company’s products, services and methods of carrying out their business. The more staff working for marketing intermediaries know about the manufacturing company and its products and services the greater will be the confidence and expertise they can afford to their customers. After all, marketing intermediaries are often independent businesses with their own distinct set of commercial needs and wants. The manufacturing or service firm who markets through a distribution network is relying on these marketing intermediaries to achieve their own commercial goals. There are many PR techniques that can be applied to create greater knowledge and understanding amongst the staff of marketing intermediaries including videos, talks, training courses and works visits.
A manufacturer can be affected by the behaviour and efficiency of marketing intermediaries. Assessing and influencing their attitudes is of paramount importance. There are many instances where the goodwill of the dealer or distributor can make the difference between success or failure for a manufacturer. Much activity on advertising, sales promotion, merchandising and packaging can be wasted if the wrong relationships exist at the point of sale. For many commercial enterprises the effective use of marketing intermediaries is a key factor in the success of their business. PR can play a key role in maintaining long term commercial relationships that are important to success.
Consumer relations is thought by many people to be the only public which concerns public relations. As we have seen this is not the case. However, it is an area of considerable importance because although other groups of publics are important, customers are especially important. The whole purpose of the profit making firm is the generation of satisfactory returns by the satisfaction of customers’ needs and wants more effectively than competitors.
It is large retailers who have most dealings with customers, and this group of traders has done much in the way of public relations activity over the past 20 years aimed towards this important group. Stores are normally conveniently laid out, service is good and products are presented such that they represent fair value for money. Many retail groups distribute brochures to staff to show them how to improve the image of their store as well as creating better customer relations. They attempt to show that they are a ‘live organisation’ constantly listening and responding to customers views and opinions.
A major aspect of customer relations is the subject of complaints and returns. This subject is particularly applicable to mail order firms. Where purchasing is carried out ‘at a distance’ and the organisation is not actually physically seen, in the sense that a customer can visit a shop, then it is essential that the subject of complaints and goods returned be treated by marketing firms particularly carefully. Operators of mail order catalogue businesses now pay particular attention to this aspect of business.
7.7 Opinion Leaders
As the name suggests, this is a person or group who may have a particularly special or strong influence on the opinions of others. Such people or groups are often held in high esteem by the wider public for a number of reasons. From an individual product point of view, consumer affairs programmes and consumer magazines are held in high esteem by the public who believe them to produce fair and unbiased views on various products, services and organisations and that they act in consumers’ best interests. Companies attempt to gain favourable reports from such programmes and publications as they know that positive messages will be more readily accepted and believed by the market than advertising. Other opinion leaders can include professional bodies, trade associations, pressure groups and government.
8 Media Used In Public Relations
Personal communication is the strongest and most persuasive means of putting across a message. The message is aided by the force of the personality of the communicator who can adapt both matter and manner to the reactions of his or her audience. A polished speaker can do much to enhance the image of the company, particularly at press conferences. The job of the public relations officer is not necessarily to appear personally on the ‘platform’, but to organise events so that an appropriate representative of the organisation can address the audience.
Printed Communication includes direct mail which is a very versatile medium and suitable for a variety of purposes including direct marketing, general advertising and public relations. Direct mail can be used to send copies of press releases to interested parties, and can be used to despatch house magazines to employees, customers, distributors, agents and others. This medium is also used to send invitations to sponsored events, exhibitions, conferences, demonstrations, film shows etc.
Literature is obviously related to direct mail as it is often used to target certain literature to the desired target audience. Literature for direct mail purposes consists of leaflets, folders, booklets, books and other media including wall charts, diaries, postcards and pictures. PR literature tends to be explanatory and educational, that provides information or tells a ‘story’, rather than trying to persuade or sell something. Literature can be usefully distributed to visitors, customers, dealers and members of the local community, while hand outs and press kits are used at conferences. PR efforts of this nature can inspire confidence and trust in an organisation.
The press release is probably regarded as the most important form of PR by practitioners. Two important factors are timing and distribution. Choosing the correct moment to release news and seeing that it reaches the right people. The aim of press relations is to gain maximum publication or broadcasting of public relations information through newspapers, magazines, radio and television, in order to achieve specific communication objectives with clearly defined target audiences. The common method of achieving this is a press release sent to appropriate journalists.
Visual Communications includes photography that can have an impact and appeal that is lacking in printed media. To see a photograph of some event that has happened lends further credence to the report as it provides ‘proof’ in the audience’s mind that what has been reported actually happened. Photographs are normally used in conjunction with a press release, the one form of public relations supporting and augmenting the other.
Films were once the province of larger organisation because they were expensive to make. The development of video technology has meant that a ‘film’ can be produced relatively cheaply and is suitable for many PR purposes.
Television is a medium of high visual impact. Not only can points be explained verbally on TV programmes but products can also be shown. Sometimes footage of a company’s participation in a sponsored event or some other organised public relations event is shown on television programmes. The increase in sponsored events by commercial firms both in sport and in the arts has increased dramatically over the past 20 years and it now features regularly when reporting events like motor racing football are screened. There is a growing demand for company personalities to appear on TV programmes and give interviews on radio. There has also been a dramatic increase in interest with anything to do with ‘business’. This offers opportunities for firms to capitalise on the public relations opportunities offered from this popular, and increasingly sophisticated medium.
There has always been a strong public relations dimension to exhibitions. They offer marketing communicators an opportunity to come in face to face contact with high status decision making unit (DMU) members. Many visitors to exhibitions go to view the market offering in its entirety in a short space of time and under one ‘roof’. Visitors treat the exhibition as a shop window and an opportunity to gather technical information. Often products are available for inspection along with working models and videos of the company and its products. There is often a strong ‘entertainment’ component to exhibitions with stands offering complementary drinks and food to serious potential clients. Networking can thus be achieved and quite often such exhibitions afford the opportunity for corporate hospitality through tours or tickets to local events such as the opera or a concert.
Sponsorship has a strong PR component to it and firms can use it in a variety of ways. Being associated with the arts can give a strong sense of supporting and being part of the fabric of society. Important clients and other key individuals form other important groups of ‘publics’ can be invited to artistic events such as concerts, plays or opera. Afterwards they can mix with artists and directional staff so in this way key individuals who have been targeted for such promotion can be contacted, entertained and long term relationships built and maintained.
The term ‘internal marketing’ is the process of applying the general principles of marketing to the staff and work force of the organisation. Marketing as a business philosophy is all about achieving the right internal company culture that will result in that company becoming marketing orientated. The process of internal marketing involves much more than simply the application of internal public relations inside firms. Internal marketing operates at the interface between marketing and human resource management and involves both of these management disciplines. The application of internal PR has a salient role to play in the overall process of achieving an internal marketing ‘culture’. The most common means of achieving internal PR objectives is through company communications. If these are to be effective, they must be more than paternalistic house journals and should provide a forum for open, two-way discussion on company issues. Whatever methods are employed, the important requirement is that they represent a genuine desire to communicate on behalf of both workers and management. This reinforces the point that PR can only reflect reality.
PR is an important and versatile marketing communications ‘tool’. It forms an intrinsic part of the integrated marketing communications mix. There is a PR application to most marketing communications variables whether this is personal selling, sponsorship, exhibitions, direct mail or telephone marketing.
PR can be applied both within and without the organisation. The process of achieving marketing orientation within organisations is a vital prerequisite to effective external marketing strategies, particularly those based on relationship marketing principles. PR has a vital role to play and contribution to make to the creation of an effective internal marketing culture within an organisation and to creating, fostering, nurturing and maintaining mutually beneficial long term relationships with customers and other key groups of people. In this respect PR has seen a dramatic increase in prominence as both a strategic internal and external marketing communications tool.
The role of PR is to help build an understanding a company has with its ‘publics’. This has the effect of augmenting and increasing the source credibility of marketing messages from other elements in the communications mix by improving the image and reputation of the company and its product and services. An organisation is judged by its behaviour. PR is about goodwill and reputation. At its best, public relations can be the discipline that really determines the content of the messages companies send to their customers and other target audiences.