What is public relations?

Posted on: 2012-05-13   |   Tagged: b2b pr what is public relations?

An in-depth definition of public relations.

The best way I can think of to explain what public relations is starts with an explanation of what it isn't.

If you open a newspaper or magazine (the same principles apply to broadcast and online media, but for the sake of simplicity I will use print as my example medium), you will find it contains two main types of content.

The advertisements are easy to spot. They are usually concise, their words are enthused and punctuated with exclamation marks, they contain appealing pictures or graphics, adorned with colourful logos and catchy messages, and include contact details, web addresses and compelling calls to action. You also probably won't have to look far to find the identical ad placed in similar newspapers or magazines.

An advert needs to be eye-catching because it only has a few seconds to grab your attention. It knows you haven't bought the paper because you're interested in ads, but it has done its research and it understands a little bit about you as a typical reader of this particular paper. So it has cunningly planted itself in your line of vision as it thinks you have a good chance of being interested in the product or service it has on display. This has been an expensive little exercise, requiring a project management team on retainer to come up with the concept for promoting the product, service or organisation, creatives to make it look good, and planners to negotiate with the publishers of your newspaper to secure that space on the page. Then there are the actual costs of that space in your magazine, which could easily go into the tens of thousands of pounds.

But on the plus side, once you've paid through the teeth for your patch of page, you have pretty much full control over what you put there (as long as you don't break the law). This includes the freedom to gush about your product's many benefits, showcase only the best results achieved by previous customers and avoid any mention of that time your product backfired, killing a puppy or causing a client to have to shut their whole business for a day. All that's required is that you stick to some sensible guidelines (such as no swearing and no blatant lying) that cannot be reversed by the size-two-font disclaimer.

As a reader, you are probably naturally a little sceptical of the claims made in advertisements. You're unlikely to spend much time reading them (unless an outstanding advertising agency has managed to create something truly appealing, entertaining or informative) and will probably only be influenced by them in a superficial way. You bought the paper to read the articles, and that's where PR comes into play.

You might think that the articles are written by diligent journalists who get to work in the morning, pour themselves a cup of coffee and then decide what they will write about that day. Once the appropriate subject has been selected, they start researching, using Google and the Encyclopaedia Britannica to gather information, find people to interview and get to work. Not to knock the journalistic profession, but this is not how it happens most of the time. Granted, there are still articles that come about in this way, but the vast majority will be influenced by the public relations profession. 

If it's a piece, for example, about the government's plans to increase income tax, then that information would most likely have been conveyed to the journalist by a government minister or chancellor who had been prepped by a skilled PR team, in a press conference, with an accompanying press release, organised and written by that PR team. The slant the journalist takes on the story, though, is up to her and her editor, and so is out of the government's control (at least in theory if it's a democracy). For example, a newspaper that supports the current administration might focus its headlines on the benefits to the public of higher taxes (such as a larger budget for spending on the NHS), while a rival paper that supports the shadow cabinet would instead highlight the negative impact the loss of funds would have on hardworking individuals.

Perhaps in one of these articles, the journalist will include a comment by the founder of an accountancy firm specialising in personal tax. She would explain how an increase in income tax would affect a typical family of four on a practical level.

This woman might only be quoted in a single sentence in the article, but you will almost certainly read it, you will probably believe it (because you trust the integrity of your favourite paper), and you will likely remember it.

When you read this, you might (whether consciously or subconsciously) think something along the lines of "she must know her stuff, or why would this paper, that I buy because I trust, interview her?" and you are likely to associate that person and her business with authority or expertise on the subject. While that might be true, expertise alone would probably not have got her to the front page (it does happen, but not consistently). This has come about thanks to the hard work of a good PR team. They would have carefully planned it to look like the happy coincidence you have just witnessed (or even better, to make it look like the journalist selected our spokeswoman from a long list of experts because she is the best). How did they do it?

That started with meticulous planning way back when her organisation decided to engage in PR activity. The PR team (that could be an appointed agency, an in-house department or a single person within the organisation who has an understanding of how the media works) would have sat down with the managers to decide what they wanted to be known for, who would be their spokesperson, what messages they wanted to convey via the media, and how much risk they were prepared to take.

Thereafter, the PR function would have got straight to work, looking out for events that would get the media talking about these issues (in our example, the chancellor's announcement of an increase in income tax would have presented a prime opportunity), and contacting journalists to offer comment from their spokesperson, coming up with stories that get those messages across, so that by the time you read that single quote in the article about tax, you are blissfully unaware of this carefully planned coincidence.

The message conveyed by our expert will be more subtle than that conveyed in advertising. It has to be. If our spokesperson had read a promotional script, the journalist would simply not have used it (they have the right to use whatever they like - so remember there are no guarantees that just because you have been interviewed, your comments will be used in the article). So she needed to build trust and confidence by talking like an authority on the subject - this is known as building thought leadership and is generally one of an organisation's key PR goals, particularly if it is operating in a highly competitive environment.

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About this blog

The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog was founded by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, who runs video production and corporate animation agency TopLine Film and digital PR and SEO agency  TopLine Comms. The B2B PR Blog takes contributions from sensible industry folk with something interesting to say.


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