What is Public Relations and Why Should You Care?
A Primer in Public Relations and Getting Your Idea to Stand Out in the Crowd
As a public relations professional, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with public entities and high-tech startups and business-to-business (B2B) enterprises.
This experience was an enlightening one, but never more so than engaging with startups and enterprises. I have worked extensively with programmers, coders, engineers and product specialists who knew their product (or idea) inside and out, but had no idea why they were talking to me.
The reality was that very often a wise advisor or investor would insist they hire a PR firm. So there we would be, them explaining their cool idea in one breath, and in another asking me when their advertising plan would be ready.
It became clear to me that the general public, and many business owners, have a rather vague notion of what public relations really is and why it’s important to business. Any business.
So, let’s start at the beginning. As I noted above, public relations can mean different things to different people. Therefore I thought it would be interesting to begin with some basic definitions pulled from our friend Wikipedia.
- Public relations (or PR) is the practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organization (such as a business, government agency or nonprofit organization) and the public.
- Public relations may include an organization or individual gaining exposure to their audiences using topics of public interest and news items that do not require payment. In other words, PR is the idea of creating coverage for clients for “free,” rather than paid for advertising.
- Item 2 differentiates it from advertising as a form of marketing communications.
I also found it interesting that when Ivy Lee, who established the first definition of public relations in the early 1900s, was asked about his role in a hearing with the United Transit Commission, he said “I have never been able to find a satisfactory phrase to describe what I do.”
Lee’s definition — “A management function, which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization… followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
The Often Misunderstood
As you can see, it is no wonder that PR is an often-misunderstood service. Essentially, it is at the very core of defining your product or business and when done properly can provide the basis for how your customer perceives and understands your product or service.
And while description #2 is somewhat accurate, it’s also misleading since you are actually paying a PR professional to gain that coverage. As with most things in this world, it isn’t free.
PR tends to fall under the marketing budget, but it can also be a major part of a large organization’s communications or legal department, depending on the size, the status and the vulnerability of a company. Think about healthcare, pharmaceutical government or financial institutions and you’ll see what I mean.
Different Types and Focus
There are not only different definitions of PR, but also different “types” that can vary in scope. Think of it like this.
If you study to be a doctor or a lawyer, regardless of what specialty you end up practicing, you must learn a set of basic tools and skills that will carry you through your career. Public relation is very much the same way. There are basic strategies and tactics that must be applied to any business, product or service right from the start, regardless of your scope.
However, it’s important to understand the various PR specialties out there. You’ll probably recognize some of them:
- Product public relations — manages the release of new products into the market
- Financial public relations — builds up relations with shareholders and customers
- Corporate public relations — communicates the core conception of the company for customers
- Employee public relations — manages the relationship between the employer, employees and human resources
- Government public relations — maintains and monitors a correct attitude towards political perspectives
PR Tactics — Different than marketing and advertising
While marketing and PR work hand-in-hand, PR professionals have a different focus. Marketing folks tend to focus on getting the word out to the customer, the end-user, or the constituent. They work with the advertising team who may create and develop everything from logos to ads to setting up the vehicles (radio, TV, newspaper, online advertising) in order to share the information.
Before any of that happens, however, the PR team should have developed the initial positioning and messaging for the company and then any product, to ensure marketing, advertising and finally the media all are on the same page.
What does PR really do?
While there are many nuances within the PR strategies and tactics toolbox, these three elements are imperative to any successful campaign:
Positioning and messaging (P&M) including core messaging, mission statement, taglines, elevator pitches, identifying key benefits, developing differentiating statements and establishing keywords. It is the backbone for any marketing or advertising efforts.
Content development that is based on the P&M. This content will be used for website, press releases, media alerts, blogs, thought leadership articles and speaking abstracts, to name a few.
Media relations to manage a brand’s public image while assuring the press publish the correct message.
If you are a startup or a new business, implementing PR tools from the beginning is crucial before taking the next step in developing your business and marketing plans.
If you are an established business, public relations at a minimum will help you evaluate your messaging across all mediums, including collateral, website copy, social media channels etc. to ensure consistency.
Over the coming weeks, I will provide a more in-depth look at each of these strategies.