Book review: Thinking Big, Staying Small

Here’s a quiz: What percentage of businesses in the US have fewer than 20 employees?

(Answer at end of post)

In “Thinking Big, Staying Small” (IABC Research Foundation, 2005) the authors emphasize the central importance of public relations activities of the chief executive of the small organization: The success of the organization’s public relations often rests in the communication skills and perseverance of that single individual. Another theme that emerges repeatedly is that the key component of public relations for the small organization often is the role of building relationships rather than getting publicity.

Most businesses in the US are small. But until this study no one had attempted to measure their methods of communication and public relations practices. The four-year study by authors Dixie Shipp Evatt and colleagues breaks new ground by focusing on small organizations (those with 50 or fewer employees) in four sectors: for-profits, nonprofits, trade associations, and government agencies.

The study found three distinct perspectives among small organizations: For one group, the relationship is an objective in and of itself. This group tends to see public relations as a long-term commitment to the community and society and draws a strong distinction between publicity and public relations. A second perspective involves those who view building relationships as more of a strategic function. That is, relationships are a way of getting somewhere but not necessarily the destination. For the final group, the idea of relationship building is all of a tactical nature. They have confidence in the persuasive power of public relations, and see it as having a stronger internal, staff focus on public relations.

Communicators in small organizations generally do not put media coverage high on their list of importance when it comes to public relations. The authors found this surprising because they had assumed that small organizations would likely equate media and press work with public relations.

The findings suggest that individuals offering services to small organizations, especially public relations consulting, would do well to forget about the “how-to” instruction for mundane communication production activities and instead concentrate on the “how-to” of relationship development and maintenance.

The quiz answer is: 90 percent of US businesses have fewer than 20 employees.

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