What is Public Relations?

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At a recent speaking gig, I asked for a show of hands of who in the audience used public relations in their business. Out of a crowd of around 100 people, about 20 hands went up, and so did my eyebrows. In actuality, the room should have been a sea of waving arms.

Every business uses public relations to some extent, whether they realize it or not. When I asked people why they didn’t raise their hands, they gave me reasons that begged for the writing of this blog. It’s important that you develop a fundamental understanding of what public relations is, and what it is not, before you wade into the waters of publicity and content creation. Why? First, because without public relations, your business has no soul, and second, you fail to play the biggest card in your deck of professional possibilities.

Public relations is about the way your public relates to you, and the way you relate to your public. It concerns itself with the image you project, your sterling reputation, and your leadership brand.

Public relations has existed since ancient times, when humans first began communicating with one another. One’s survival depended upon how well he or she was perceived by the members of the tribe. And the tribe itself survived by how well it was perceived by other collectives of humans with which it engaged, whether in mutual cooperation or deadly conflict. “Word” got out about your tribe that you produced the best clay pots, the most beautiful seashell necklaces, the fastest horses, or the fiercest warriors. Your very survival, i.e., how well you fared in trade and fed your people, depended upon how well you communicated your message to others and the word-of-mouth that followed.

I met a woman the other day at a group coaching session. She runs a small bookkeeping firm. When I talked with the group about public relations and content marketing as tactics to stimulate inquiries from prospects, build brand and generate awareness, she shuddered visibly. “What will I do,” she said, “when my phone’s ringing all the time? How will I handle the volume?”

As it turns out, she’s afraid of drawing attention to herself. Like so many others out there who want to be in business for themselves, she confuses public relations with publicity, and publicity with shameless self-promotion. To her, getting publicity means immodestly shining a spotlight on herself. This is a common apprehension, deeply grounded in the belief that telling your story is “bragging”— that publicity is “tooting one’s horn,” which is a bad, bad thing in a culture that values the pretension of modesty. News flash: Publicity is not solely focused on the tooting of horns. It’s concerned with getting you the kind of exposure that creates opportunities for your business.

It’s fair to assume that the last thing you want is to be invisible to potential customers. If you’re reading this blog, it’s because you need people to know you exist and to take the actions necessary to achieve that thing that feeds and rewards your passion, whether you’re selling something, sharing ideas, changing behaviors or inspiring them to take up your cause. This is the essence of public relations, stripped to the skivvies. No business or concern can exist without relating to its target publics.

Public relations has always been about the transmission of messaging through content development and dissemination, and getting excellent content out to the appropriate individuals or groups in order to achieve mission critical results. Public relations is also concerned with listening to the needs of your various publics and creating meaningful dialogue so that relationships are mutually beneficial.

Although the methods of communication have changed since ancient times, the root being of public relations has not. The difference is we now have communications technologies and channels that have created staggering levels of opportunity for anyone who wants to get the word out on a massive scale. We can harness and spread content in ways that, even a few decades ago, were unimagined.

Depending on whom you ask, the term “public relations” was coined and organized as a profession circa 1900. If you want to know more about the history of public relations, there is a plethora of reading material about it. Let’s assume however, that you’re not here for a history lesson. Our PR forefathers and mothers have gone to a great deal of care to develop definitions, establish codes of conduct and create various motis operandi so that human resources people can write accurate job descriptions and so that public relations practitioners can articulate exactly what it is they do all day.

Public relations can be defined in numerous ways. Years ago, when I earned my accreditation in public relations (APR) from the Public Relations Society of America, we were required to recite it this way:

Public relations is the management function which establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the various publics upon which its success or failure depends. (“Effective Public Relations,” Cutlip, Center and Broom.)

I like this definition. It’s simpler:

Public relations is about creating, curating, managing, distributing and marketing content to support and promote initiatives, recruit media attention and develop brand loyalists.

I also like this one, even though it’s a bit longer:

Public relations describes the various methods a company uses to disseminate messages about its products, services, or overall image to its customers, employees, stockholders, suppliers, or other interested members of the community. The point of public relations is to make the public think favorably about the company and its offerings. Commonly used tools of public relations include news releases, press conferences, speaking engagements, and community service programs.

When we use the term “public relations,” it is to describe a communications outreach that is intentional. It has a strategy with a desired result. Public relations is a top line management function and discipline. It is not something any business or initiative can do without¾it is not an optional activity. Even if you don’t draw a box for it on your organizational chart, your relations with your publics exists. It lives in the DNA of your business. It is the articulation and dissemination of your corporate soul.

Your public relations program defines how you wish to be perceived by your key constituencies. It’s behind the formulation, articulation and conveyance of your “brand.” And this brand, in turn, must be infused into the organizational body down to the cellular level. It is manifested in every action, every word, and through every employee.

Thus, when I speak to an audience comprising people who are in business, every hand in the audience should go up when asked, “Do you use public relations?” A better question might be, “How do you use public relations in your business?” This question, too, provokes a series of answers that reveal a misunderstanding of what public relations actually is.

The Difference Between Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations

Business owners comfortably use the terms “advertising” and “marketing” to describe how they attract people’s attention in order to achieve business objectives, but here, too, most people (including people who claim to be marketing experts) lack a refined understanding of these disciplines and how they differ in purpose and scope.

The terms advertising, marketing and public relations are often used interchangeably, although they shouldn’t be, and all of them, incorrectly, are used to mean “promotion,” as if they were synonymous. All three of these functions have unique distinctions, but increasingly, these lines are blurring and advertising, public relations and marketing are being dumped into the “promotion” bucket. In the case of public relations, this lack of proper distinction is problematic, because the oversimplification blocks out a wide range of other, more ingenious (and less expensive) strategies for building brand.

Here’s a look at advertising, marketing and public relations as separate entities. Keep in mind, as we go through this, that all of these things should be evaluated for strategic value and then folded into the fabric of your business. All of them have specific and important uses and strengths, depending upon your business objectives.

Marketing is the soup-to-nuts, high-level function that describes how you will bring a product or service to market. We typically describe marketing with the four Ps: Packaging, pricing, (paid) promotion and place (distribution). What will the product or service look like? What color is it? What will we call it? Who will buy it? Why would they buy it? How much will it cost? Is it cheap, or expensive? Who’s going to sell it, and how? How much money will we budget to buy advertising and pay other promotional costs? Who’s going to manufacture it? How will we get it into stores?

Marketing needs to be a well-oiled machine, and it has dozens of moving parts, but people compartmentalize it into a single function: promotion. “Promotion” is only one, tiny sliver of marketing to achieve an overarching result: sales.

Under each of the four Ps are a thousand ideas, tasks, considerations, reams of research data, hours of implementation and a small handful of strategic decisions. It includes advertising (commercials, direct mail, billboards, print ads, sponsorships, etc.), market research, graphic design, business development, promotional collateral development, etc.

For the record, some companies, usually the large, old school ones, believe that marketing and sales should be separated into different departments. I strongly disagree. Separating them creates siloes that result in internal family feuds that lead to blaming and finger pointing.

Advertising is a promotional tactic. It is but one of the dozens of tools available to you to sell your products or services. The decision of whether to use advertising to promote your product or service is made when the marketing plan is created and how much of a budget you have to work with.

Advertising costs money because you’re buying space, audience size, keywords and production. The price depends upon how much exposure you will get and how often you will run the ad. Super Bowl commercials cost millions, not just because of the size of the audience you’ll reach, but also because of what it costs to produce the commercial, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars. For the price of a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, you could purchase a brand new, fully appointed mid-sized automobile. And, of course, running an ad only once is like squeezing a drop of water onto a hot skillet. Poof!

An advantage of advertising is that you can guarantee your ad will appear in the place and at the time you paid for. You also control the messaging in the ad; no outside force or subjective opinion can change any of the copy or graphic design.

A disadvantage of advertising is that people have increasingly become immune to it. On television, commercials can be muted or fast-forwarded through. Traditional newspapers are going out of business because the advertising dollars are moving online. And, we are all exposed to so much advertising in our daily lives that we’ve begun to tune it out. Increasingly, as more and more channels of information become available, people have become weary of “being sold to.”

If you plan to have any success with your advertising, you must have a budget that’s large enough to run ads in as many places as possible for as long as possible. Frequency and repetition are absolutely essential, because most people don’t even notice your ad until you’ve run it many times.

Public relations is also a high-level, soup-to-nuts function that aims to achieve organization states of being and achieve objectives that are not purely focused on sales or the delivery of your products and services to the marketplace.

The aim of public relations is to educate and communicate, generate awareness, boost public confidence, manage image and reputation, and to convince people to change attitudes and behavior. (An area of public relations, called “publicity,” is a wonderful way to attract interest and desire to your products and services, and we’ll talk about this in the next chapter, but public relations and publicity are not the same thing, the same way as marketing and advertising are not the same thing, or that strategy and tactics are not the same thing.)

Because public relations raises awareness of an organization’s existence, and of its products and services, there is a hierarchy of positive effects, one of which is that sales tend to increase. Public relations activities are empirically proven to have a measureable impact on an organization’s bottom line.

There are many different areas of focus under the public relations umbrella: media relations, government relations, public policy, investor relations, community relations, shareholder relations, employee relations, internal/external relations, etc.

In any organization, large or small, there are unique sub groups of people, or “publics,” with whom a business communicates and forms relationships, and each of them requires a specific strategy and set of messages.

In marketing, the focus is solely to acquire customers, because we want people to buy our stuff. In public relations, our publics are potential customers, existing customers, the media, shareholders, employees, the community, legislators, decision makers, influencers, suppliers¾the list goes on. These are our “publics.” Building strong relationships with the ancillary effects of earning trust and credibility is the primary agenda, not selling, but rather educating, creating value and persuading.

You’ll often hear me say this (and I didn’t make it up), that “public relations” should really be called “publics relations,” because there’s not such thing as a single “public” where business is concerned.

The public relations department does, or ought to do, the lion’s share of the content writing, while marketing handles the sales copywriting. Many PR practitioners are former or trained journalists, which gives us an edge in the media relations part of our jobs, but it also means that we’re good writers who know how to get to the point and write for our readers. We write newsletters, blogs, white papers, website content, speeches, press kits (explained in detail in a later chapter), press releases, crisis communication plans, annual reports, eBooks, social media profiles, and anything else that’s meant to communicate, educate, persuade, build brand or explain.

There are few disadvantages of public relations, because public relations is a strategic business discipline. It is a box on the org chart that usually reports directly to the CEO. It is a staff function. It interacts with all other departments, or line functions. In contrast, marketing is a “line” function.

A disadvantage with publicity is the lack of control of whether you’ll be selected by media outlets as one of the stories they’ll cover or how you’ll be perceived by target audiences. Another disadvantage is the amount of time involved to execute initiatives and the level of expertise required for seamless execution.

In any case, take the time to ponder the composition of your “publics” and how you’re communicating with them. Every one of them, even if they’re not potential “buyers,” is important to your survival. Don’t forget¾include the media as one of your most important target audiences. If you neglect the media, you risk the perils of leaving your very existence to speculation.