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Public Relations

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.

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 TechniqueRole and DescriptionExamples
Media RelationsGenerate positive news coverage about the organization, its products, services, people, and activitiesPress release, press kit, and interview leading to a news article about a new product launch; press conference
Influencer/Analyst RelationsMaintain strong, beneficial relationships with individuals who are thought leaders for a market or segmentProduct review published by a renowned blogger; company profile by an industry analyst; celebrity endorsement
Publications and Thought LeadershipProvide information about the organization, showcase its expertise and competitive advantagesOrganization’s annual report; newsletters; white papers focused on research and development; video case study about a successful customer
EventsEngage with a community to present information and an interactive “live” experience with a product, service, organization or brandUser conference; presentation of a keynote address; day-of-community-service event
SponsorshipsRaise the profile of an organization by affiliating it with specific causes or activitiesCo-sponsoring an industry conference; sponsoring a sports team; sponsoring a race to benefit a charity
Award ProgramsGenerate recognition for excellence within the organization and/or among customersWinning an industry “product of the year” award; nominating customer for an outstanding achievement award
Crisis ManagementManage perceptions and contain concerns in the face of an emergency situationOversee 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.