Public Relations

Three businesspeople stand in the middle of the desert, their briefcases at their feet. Each businessperson is shouting into a megaphone in different directions.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain public relations

Public Relations: Getting Attention to Polish Your Image

Public relations (PR) is the process of maintaining a favorable image and building beneficial relationships between an organization and the public communities, groups, and people it serves. Unlike advertising, which tries to create favorable impressions through paid messages, public relations does not pay for attention and publicity. Instead, PR strives to earn a favorable image by drawing attention to newsworthy and attention-worthy activities of the organization and its customers. For this reason, PR is often referred to as “free advertising.”

In fact, PR is not a costless form of promotion. It requires salaries to be paid to people who oversee and execute PR strategy. It also involves expenses associated with events, sponsorships and other PR-related activities.

The Purpose of Public Relations

Like advertising, public relations seeks to promote organizations, products, services, and brands. But PR activities also play an important role in identifying and building relationships with influential individuals and groups responsible for shaping market perceptions in the industry or product category where an organization operates. Public relations efforts strive to do the following:

  • Build and maintain a positive image
  • Inform target audiences about positive associations with a product, service, brand, or organization
  • Maintain good relationships with influencers—the people who strongly influence the opinions of target audiences
  • Generate goodwill among consumers, the media, and other target audiences by raising the organization’s profile
  • Stimulate demand for a product, service, idea, or organization
  • Head off critical or unfavorable media coverage

When to Use Public Relations

Public relations offers an excellent toolset for generating attention whenever there is something newsworthy that marketers would like to share with customers, prospective customers, the local community, or other audiences. PR professionals maintain relationships with reporters and writers who routinely cover news about the company, product category, and industry, so they can alert media organizations when news happens. At times, PR actually creates activities that are newsworthy, such as establishing a scholarship program or hosting a science fair for local schools. PR is involved in publishing general information about an organization, such as an annual report, a newsletter, an article, a white paper providing deeper information about a topic of interest, or an informational press kit for the media. PR is also responsible for identifying and building relationships with influencers who help shape opinions in the marketplace about a company and its products. When an organization finds itself facing a public emergency or crisis of some sort, PR professionals play an important role strategizing and managing communications with various stakeholder groups, to help the organization respond in effective, appropriate ways and to minimize damage to its public image.

To illustrate, PR techniques can help marketers turn the following types of events into opportunities for media attention, community relationship building, and improving the organization’s public image:

  • Your organization develops an innovative technology or approach that is different and better than anything else available.
  • One of your products wins a “best in category” prize awarded by a trade group.
  • You enter into a partnership with another organization to collaborate on providing broader and more complete services to a target market segment.
  • You sponsor and help organize a 10K race to benefit a local charity.
  • You merge with another company.
  • You conduct research to better understand attitudes and behaviors among a target segment, and it yields insights your customers would find interesting and beneficial.
  • A customer shares impressive and well-documented results about the cost savings they have realized from using your products or services.
  • Your organization is hiring a new CEO or other significant executive appointment.
  • A quality-assurance problem leads your company to issue a recall for one of your products.

It is wise to develop a PR strategy around strengthening relationships with any group that is important in shaping or maintaining a positive public image for your organization: reporters and media organizations; industry and professional associations; bloggers; market or industry analysts; governmental regulatory bodies; customers and especially leaders of customer groups, and so forth. It is also wise to maintain regular, periodic communications with these groups to keep them informed about your organization and its activities. This helps build a foundation of familiarity and trust, so these relationships are established and resilient through the ups and downs of day-to-day business.

The following video, about Tyson Foods’ “Meals That Matter” program, shows how one company cooked up an idea that is equal parts public relations and corporate social responsibility (CSR). The video covers the Tyson disaster-relief team delivering food to the residents of Moore, Oklahoma, shortly after tornados struck the area on May 20, 2013. The company received favorable publicity following the inauguration of the program in 2012. (You can read one of the articles here: “Tyson Foods Unveils Disaster Relief Mobile Feeding Unit.”)

Standard Public Relations Techniques

Public relations encompasses a variety of marketing tactics that all share a common focus: managing public perceptions. The most common PR tools are listed in the following table and discussed below.

Public Relations Technique Role and Description Examples
Media Relations Generate positive news coverage about the organization, its products, services, people, and activities Press release, press kit, and interview leading to a news article about a new product launch; press conference
Influencer/Analyst Relations Maintain strong, beneficial relationships with individuals who are thought leaders for a market or segment Product review published by a renowned blogger; company profile by an industry analyst; celebrity endorsement
Publications and Thought Leadership Provide information about the organization, showcase its expertise and competitive advantages Organization’s annual report; newsletters; white papers focused on research and development; video case study about a successful customer
Events Engage with a community to present information and an interactive “live” experience with a product, service, organization or brand User conference; presentation of a keynote address; day-of-community-service event
Sponsorships Raise the profile of an organization by affiliating it with specific causes or activities Co-sponsoring an industry conference; sponsoring a sports team; sponsoring a race to benefit a charity
Award Programs Generate recognition for excellence within the organization and/or among customers Winning an industry “product of the year” award; nominating customer for an outstanding achievement award
Crisis Management Manage perceptions and contain concerns in the face of an emergency situation Oversee customer communication during a service outage or a product recall; execute action plan associated with an environmental disaster

Media relations is the first thing that comes to mind when many people think of PR: public announcements about company news, talking to reporters, and articles about new developments at a company. But media relations is the tip of the iceberg. For many industries and product categories, there are influential bloggers and analysts writing about products and the industry. PR plays an important role in identifying and building relationships with these individuals. Offering periodic “company update” briefings, newsletters, or email updates helps keep these individuals informed about your organization, so you are top of mind.

The people responsible for PR are also involved in developing and distributing general information about an organization. This information may be in the form of an annual report, a “state of the company” briefing call, video pieces about the company or its customers, and other publications that convey the company’s identity, vision, and goals. “Thought leadership” publications assert the company’s expertise and position of leading thought, practice, or innovation in the field. These publications should always be mindful of the same messaging employed for other marketing activities to ensure that everything seems consistent and well aligned.

While some consider event marketing a marketing communication method of its own, others categorize it with public relations as we have done here. Events, such as industry conferences or user group meetings, offer opportunities to present the company’s value proposition, products, and services to current and prospective customers. Themed events, such as a community service day or a healthy lifestyle day, raise awareness about causes or issues with with the organization wants to be affiliated in the minds of its employees, customers, and other stakeholder groups. A well-designed and well-produced event also offers opportunities for an organization to provide memorable interaction and experiences with target audiences. An executive leader can offer a visionary speech to generate excitement about a company and the value it provides—now or in the future. Events can help cement brand loyalty by not only informing customers but also forging emotional connections and goodwill.

Sponsorships go hand-in-hand with events, as organizations affiliate themselves with events and organizations by signing on to co-sponsor something available to the community. Sponsorships cover the gamut: charitable events, athletes, sports teams, stadiums, trade shows and conferences, contests, scholarships, lectures, concerts, and so forth. Marketers should select sponsorships carefully to make sure that they are affiliating with activities and causes that are well managed and strategically aligned with the public image they are trying to cultivate.

One person handing an award to another.

Innovation Award, sponsored by IBM and the United Nations Development Program, being given to given to Kenya’s Information and Communication Technology Authority

Award programs are another common PR tool. Organizations can participate in established award programs managed by trade groups and media, or they can create award programs that target their customer community. Awards provide opportunities for public recognition of great work by employees and customers. They can also help organizations identify great targets for case studies and public announcements to draw attention to how customers are benefitting from an organization’s products and services.

Crisis management is an important PR toolset to have on hand whenever it may be needed. Few companies choose this as a promotional technique if other options are available. But when crises emerge, as inevitably they do, PR provides structure and discipline to help company leaders navigate the crisis with communications and actions that address the needs of all stakeholders. Messaging, communication, listening, and relationship building all come to the fore. When handled effectively, these incidents may help an organization emerge from the crisis stronger and more resilient than it was before. This is the power of good PR.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Public Relations

Because PR activity is earned rather than paid, it tends to carry more credibility and weight. For example, when a news story profiles a customer’s successful experience with a company and its products, people tend to view this type of article as less biased (and therefore more credible) than a paid advertisement. The news story comes from an objective reporter who feels the story is worth telling. Meanwhile an advertisement on a similar topic would be viewed with skepticism because it is a paid placement from a biased source: the ad sponsor.

Advantages of Public Relations[1]

  1. The opportunity to amplify key messages and milestones. When PR activities are well-aligned with other marketing activities, organizations can use PR to amplify the things they are trying to communicate via other channels. A press release about a new product, for example, can be timed to support a marketing launch of the product and conference where the product is unveiled for the first time.
  2. Believable. Because publicity is seen to be more objective, people tend to give it more weight and find it more credible. Paid advertisements, on the other hand, are seen with a certain amount of skepticism, since people that companies can make almost any kind of product claim they want.
  3. Employee pride. Organizing and/or sponsoring charitable activities or community events can help with employee morale and pride (both of which get a boost from any related publicity, too). It can also be an opportunity for teamwork and collaboration.
  4. Engaging people who visit your Web site. PR activities can generate interesting content that can be featured on your organization’s Web site. Such information can be a means of engaging visitors to the site, and it can generate interest and traffic long after the PR event or moment has passed. Industry influencers may visit the site, too, to get updates on product developments, growth plans, or personnel news, etc.

Disadvantages of Public Relations[2]

  1. Cost. Although publicity is usually less expensive to organize than advertising, it isn’t “free.” A public relations firm may need to be hired to develop campaigns, write press releases, and speak to journalists. Even if you have in-house expertise for this work, developing publicity materials can take employees away from their primary responsibilities and drain off needed resources.
  2. Lack of control. There’s no guarantee that a reporter or industry influencer will give your company or product a favorable review—it’s the price you pay for “unbiased” coverage. You also don’t have any control over the accuracy or thoroughness of the coverage.  There’s always a risk that the journalist will get some facts wrong or fail to include important details.
  3. Missing the mark. Even if you do everything right—you pull off a worthy event and it gets written up by a local newspaper, say—your public relations effort can fall short and fail to reach enough or the right part of your target audience. It doesn’t do any good if the reporter’s write-up is very short or it appears in a section of the paper that no one reads. This is another consequence of not being able to fully control the authorship, content, and placement of PR.

PR and Integrated Marketing Communication

Public relations activities can provide significantly greater benefits to organizations when they happen in conjunction with a broader IMC effort, rather than on their own. Because PR focuses heavily on communication with key stakeholder groups, it stands to reason that other marketing communication tools should be used in conjunction with public relations. For example:

  • Press releases can be distributed to media contacts, customers, and other stakeholder groups via email marketing campaigns that might also include additional information or offers—such as an invitation to a webinar to learn more about the subject of the press release.
  • Press releases are posted to the Web site to update content and provide a greater body of information for Web site visitors
  • Event presentations and other activities should align with an organization’s broader marketing strategy, goals, and messaging. Everything should be part of the same, consistent approach and theme—e.g., the topics of speeches, information available in trade show booths, interactions with event participants via email and social media, etc.
  • Sponsorship activities often provide an opportunity to advertise at the event, as well. Naturally it is important for there to be good alignment between these advertising opportunities, company messaging, and the audience for the sponsored activity.
  • A thought-leadership piece, such as an article or a white paper authored by a company leader, can be published on the Web site and incorporated into an email marketing campaign that targets selected audiences

Smart marketers consider PR tools in concert with other marketing activity to determine how to make the greatest impact with their efforts. Because PR activities often involve working with many other people inside and outside the organization, they usually need a long lead time in order to come together in the desired time frame. Event planning happens months (and sometimes years) in advance of the actual event itself. Press releases and public announcements can be mapped out over several months to give marketers and other stakeholders plenty of time to prepare and execute effectively. PR is undoubtedly a powerful toolset to amplify other marketing efforts.