Public relations is hot. Businesses from tech startups to nonprofits have come to recognize the value of a strategic PR campaign executed by a talented team. But PR’s popularity has given rise to some misconceptions. Here’s what every business person, from marketers to CEOs, should know about public relations.
Occasionally a tech startup or small brand will tell us that the company has committed most or all of its marketing budget to public relations. That vote of confidence is great, but in most cases a PR campaign is a poor substitute for a marketing plan, and it’s not typically designed to drive demand. With some exceptions, public relations is best used to build visibility and shape reputation over time. It doesn’t compare to paid advertising when it comes to frequency of message, and it will never offer the type of control that paid content will. But a good PR program will support a brand marketing campaign in a variety of ways, like educating prospective customers and boosting a brand message.
The social media explosion has greatly expanded the toolbox of tactics comprised in a PR campaign. Whereas PR used to be considered “below the line” within a marketing budget and was loosely (and inaccurately) defined as “coverage you don’t pay for” in contrast to paid advertising, there’s now a significant gray area between PR and marketing. What we call PR can include paid influencer marketing, content or inbound marketing, social content, and other varieties of paid creative services.
Like other disciplines, public relations and grown and changed over the years. Most consultants or agencies operate individual profit centers that may be organized by sector, from food to fashion to financial services. There are also deep specialist expertise by PR function. Some individuals and agencies concentrate strictly on reputation management, litigation PR, or crisis management. Others are more publicity oriented, and still others are focused in that gray area between earned and paid media. Any business seeking PR services for the first time should be aware of both vertical and horizontal specialist models and the ways in which they may fit their needs.
Good PR takes time. For many companies the most visible manifestation of the work is the earned media placement — an article, interview, or segment that features their brand. But like any kind of marketing content, the brand stories are the culmination of weeks or even months of work. They’re typically preceded by category and brand research and a differentiated positioning to set up the story. Media messages and various materials are needed for an all-out media outreach. Most importantly, each contact is part of a plant to develop and spur momentum. They all work together.
At its essence, PR is about telling a brand story, but a good team should also serve as a source of feedback, intelligence, and insight on what target audiences are thinking and saying. Business people who aren’t using PR tools and tactics to better understand customer, influencers, employees, or partners are probably not maximizing their investment. A top PR program should improve relationships with key audiences, but not by merely broadcasting through media. It can and should work in both directions.
Most companies still think of publicity, or earned media, as a successful outcome of a PR campaign, but the coverage is often the beginning. The way we consumer news and other content has changed drastically, so successful promotion of earned media is essential to success. A good PR team will urge clients to promote their coverage on social media, include it in sales presentations and proposals, share it with stakeholders in company communications, add it to the website press center, and merchandise it to get more media coverage, of course.
The tools and platforms have changed and grown more sophisticated (and in some cases, data-driven), but the heart of a good PR program is the story. We have a wealth of ways to shape a brand narrative, from influencer videos to high-level opinion content. But what hasn’t changed is the importance of story and its power to grab someone’s attention, engage them, and influence their attitude or behavior.