What exactly is public relations?

07 October 2019


Sarah Rice

Director Sarah Rice takes a look at the core principles you need to know before starting on the PR journey.

Public relations is weird. So, while I’m usually asked what it is, I’m never that surprised people don’t know.

After all, the results and effects of it are around you every day, but any evidence of how they have been created tend to be invisible. At best, people have a hazy idea that it’s something in the marketing mix. At worst, it’s seen as “smoke and mirrors” or “spin” – a Machiavellian twisting of truths by an underhand persuader.

Undoubtedly, the PR industry, as in any industry, does have a range of operational ethics, behaviours and product. And anyone who’s ever worked in PR will have watched both W1A and The Thick of It with the same understanding and appreciation.

But, as a business leader, the most helpful way of viewing it is as a development tool to support growth. It can help in a myriad of ways, so it’s good to know the core principles before entering into any PR programme.

A PR strategy only works if you have clear business goals

The very best way to approach a PR programme is to understand what your goals are. Broad brush ideas such as “raising awareness” or “getting in The Times” are ineffective, while “being known as the best place to work in the UK” or “growing our base of cyber security clients” is bang on. Without this direct link to a business aim PR will ultimately fail.

Stories and message, message and story

Once you have your “due north” in terms of strategy and audience you’re all set to start thinking about what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Working out the message of your PR campaign is going to help you drive deeper into the market and your stories will be the vessel they travel in. It’s up to the PR to shape both the message and story in line with your goals.

PR is the bridge between you, the media and other influencers

PRs are passionate about creating relationships, developing networks and understanding how you fit into them for maximum benefit. Traditional media is the most recognisable part of this process and remains the silver bullet in a PR’s arsenal. But the discipline and principles work across almost every other communication platform you operate in. Great PR should extend reach strategically and develop your reputation in a targeted way, using word of mouth and third-party endorsement. This is seen as ‘earned’ and is the true power of PR – the element that distinguishes it from general marketing and advertising, both of which the audience knows you have paid for.

Thought Leadership – a secret weapon with a terrible name

There are plenty of PRs – and non-PRs – who flinch at the phrase “Thought Leadership”, but it’s a thing. The ROI is often much higher because it can produce deeper and more significant leads and relationships than short, sharp bursts on social or an article in the 24-hour news cycle. The key aspect of TL is that it also returns greater knowledge about the business because it focuses on the thought leaders within it, meaning they are directly involved in the shaping of and engagement in the output. Evidence is key, here, to backing up what it is you say you know and turns leadership thinking into white papers, research, public talks, opinion pieces and appearances on podcasts and webinars to name a few.

Measurement – you have to work it out together

PR has sometimes struggled to measure results. There can be many variables involved in communication that the journey from programme start-to-end can be affected by multiple events that change the course of its trajectory – and ultimate impact. This is why it’s essential to be viscerally faithful to a “strategy first” approach that you both agree. As a leader there’s no time to monitor every piece of media coverage or care about how many likes a Facebook post received so the reporting and results need to speak to original strategic aims. The Barcelona Principles are the closest the industry has come to defining the efficiency and efficacy of PR and we recommend these are followed closely.

If you’d like to talk more in the meantime, do get in touch for a chat.

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