What Exactly is Public Relations?

There is so much hype around the PR industry. In some cases, PR is viewed as only for the uber-trendy (think Whitney’s job on MTV’s “The City”) and in other cases, PR is viewed as the machine behind national publicity stunts or major brand media attention. The reality, however, is that public relations is a day-to-day job that must be performed for businesses large and small to not only generate brand awareness, but maintain a positive public image. It’s the mouthpiece of a business that tells the public what’s happening, whether it’s a new product launch, a major company milestone, a new hire, a special event, a service expansion, etc. We find more and more in new business meetings that very few people truly understand PR and the value it provides to businesses in the long term. The disconnect between the reality of PR and the hype is especially apparent when we’re asked about commission-based fees or totally unrealistic goals (like being on Oprah… tomorrow).Below we will define what public relations is, what it’s not and who can benefit from implementing a public relations campaign.What PR is:1. Exposure. Call it brand awareness, call it name recognition, call it publicity. It’s all the same thing. PR is exposure. Public relations creates exposure of a brand, product, service or business. The exposure comes in many different forms: articles in magazines, blogs online, product reviews, TV segments on the evening news, mentions on radio broadcasts, tweets on Twitter, branding in a newsletter, flyers posted at the local coffee shop, workshops, speaking engagements, awards and recognition, and the list goes on. What’s important to note is that the type of exposure is not a one-size-fits-all approach. PR campaigns should be customized and developed around an organization’s specific goals and budget. The beauty of PR is that it’s adaptable, customizable, creative and always changing to keep up with the latest buzz or to create the latest trends and it’s all done through various mediums of exposure.2. Credible. How often do we read an ad or watch a commercial and think, can X product really do that? Probably pretty often. On the other hand, how often do we read an article written by a reporter and ask that same question? Probably not nearly as often. That’s because we look to members of the media to be credible, trusted sources who present unbiased findings through their editorials. If a reporter writes about the effectiveness of a product, it’s because he or she has done the research, talked to people who have used the product, talked to company spokespersons, and oftentimes, even tried the product themselves to offer the public a fair and accurate report. This is the same for news about an organization or service. The media do their homework to ensure whatever the story is, it’s true and accurate. Most publications uphold a high level of integrity when it comes to journalism. There are, unfortunately, some publications that do not separate ad dollars and accurate journalism, but those publications are far and few between and your PR team will know which publications to avoid contacting for that reason. Bottom line, when an unbiased, third party is able to appreciate your company, product or service, the public will be far more likely to value it as well.3. Cost-Effective. Advertisements on popular TV, online or print media outlets can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few million. And that’s for just one advertisement and you better hope that’s the one TV station, Web site or magazine that your prospects are reading. On the flip side, PR campaigns can cost a few hundred to several thousand dollars each month, but that can translate to dozens or even hundreds of media mentions in various outlets and across all mediums, including print, online and broadcast. When you’re weighing the biggest bang for your buck, PR will always prove to be more cost-effective in generating exposure.What PR is not:
1. Exclusive. You don’t have to be a major fashion designer or international tech company to reap the benefits of PR. Companies of all sizes across all industries can benefit from a customized PR campaign to generate exposure and credibility.2. Advertising. To advertise, you create an ad and pay quite generously for guaranteed placement in a media outlet. To do PR, you pay a professional or team of professionals to talk to reporters and editors about your news and have them write stories about you on your behalf in a way that benefits their readers. With advertising, you will likely pay an ad agency to design and place the ad, while also paying the media outlet to publish, post or air the ad. With public relations, you pay a PR agency or professional to talk to their media contacts on a regular basis to create editorial placements. Beyond paying the PR professional for their time, relationships and expertise, there is no further money exchanged.3. Guaranteed. Because public relations is not paid advertising, there is no guarantee that a story will air or an article will publish. The fluid nature of the PR industry means that new stories are always breaking, new trends are coming out, and new products and services are continuously being launched. If a TV camera crew is booked to cover your event and a breaking news story hits before they reach your event, the breaking news will always take precedence. It’s just the nature of the business. However, it is also the job/challenge or your PR representative(s) to work with their contacts, make the story timely, find the newsworthy hook and get the media to cover your story at every chance possible.4. Sales. Too often we’re asked, “how much can I expect my bottom line to grow with PR?” The more fitting question is, “what media coverage can I expect with my given budget?” PR firms and professionals are in the business because they’re good at they do. They know how to secure editorial features, they know how to work with the media and they know what makes a story newsworthy. PR pros can secure editorial placements, drive new traffic to your Web site and create an abundance of exposure, but at the end of the day, your product or service has to be good enough and priced competitively enough that people will actually buy or use it. PR professionals sell the story; it’s up to you and your sales team to sell the actual product or service.That being said, you should expect your PR team to be able to tell you how much media coverage you can expect with a given budget, based on their experience. Again, PR is not guaranteed, both those who have been doing PR long enough will be able to tell you what’s realistic, and what’s not given your business, budget and the newsworthiness of your story.Who should use PR?Any business, large or small, across all industries can benefit from PR. If you’re a smaller business, look to PR consultants or boutique agencies, as their fees will be far more cost-effective. Your end goal in hiring or outsourcing PR professionals is to hire someone who has the time, the media relationships and the expertise to do the job. It’s a full-time job that takes vast experience and industry knowledge, plus exceptional communication skills and long-standing relationships with reporters.The client and the PR firm have to be equally committed to the campaign, regardless of who is responsible for the execution of it. PR is a long-term investment that, over time, will absolutely increase the bottom line. But if you are not willing to put the time, expense and effort into a strategic, effective PR campaign, then wait until you are willing. Otherwise, you won’t be happy with the results, regardless of how effective the campaign might be.My hope is that this brief article provides some insight into what PR is and what it is not. My biggest suggestion to all prospects is this: talk to several different PR firms/professionals before you make a decision to launch a PR campaign. This will not only give you a better measure of which firms/professionals are the best fit for your organization, it will also be an educational experience for you to hear how each firm/professional approaches PR and what they recommend for your specific business. Request proposals from at least three firms/professionals and meet with each one individually. Make your decision based on their knowledge, experience, relationships and your overall sense of comfort and confidence that the PR firm or professional can get the job done. Don’t hesitate to ask for references and work samples and make sure you understand exactly what you’ll be paying for and how that will be communicated to you on an ongoing basis. My last suggestion is to meet face-to-face on a quarterly basis to review and update the PR strategy, look at the results to date, and evaluate how the campaign is impacting your bottom line. You should experience an increase in your revenues over time if you and your PR agent stick to the plan and work together toward the same goal of increasing exposure.