Public relations: Can you define exactly what it is and isn’t? One experienced PR practitioner lifts the lid and explains why it’s still important in the comms mix.
by Marcus Chrysostomou
One of the things I am often asked is: What is PR?
Another is: why do I need it?
When having this conversation, everyone seems to have their own answer and opinion. Sometimes to the detriment of PR. Often their opinion is that they do not need PR because they are already spending money on marketing, or it is not needed and a waste of money. This clearly can be a problem for those working in PR and it is often said the PR industry is not very good at its own PR.
Programmes like Ad Fab or BBCs Twenty Twelve, with the clueless Siobhan Sharpe, haven’t helped. Neither does the hangover from the days of spin which spawned In the Thick Of It. Having worked in the Downing Street Press Office, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to get stories about policy out when, for example, the Downing Street cat has gone missing. However, there are times when spinning does take place – which the media will ironically lap up. Don’t get me wrong, I am not bashing the media here, I am just reflecting on firsthand experience.
In fact, I have also been accused of spinning, for example, when I did not allow a BBC journalist to film me setting a room up for the first recorded ‘on the record’ press briefing with Alistair Campbell. I was both amused and bemused by this as I was simply getting the room ready for the meeting. Anyway, so what is PR?
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations definition is: Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.
Quite often, many feel that PR is only needed when things go wrong and clearly it is about managing reputation. But it is more than that, and as the world is ever changing, especially with the advent of social media and other digital communication tools, it is also about storytelling.
It is also not just about sending a press release to the media. It is about public speaking, events, newsletters, awards, relationship building and much more. It is also about utilising influencers, writing blogs and content for social media and other online platforms.
From a business point of view – there is clearly fierce competition to win customers and retain currant ones. Businesses need to stand out from the crowd. To do this a public image needs to be built and maintained. And this is where a PR specialist helps. Their role is to help maintain and build the reputation of the business while presenting their products, services and the overall operation in the best light possible. A positive public image helps create a strong relationship with the customers, which in turn increases the sales.
Marketers are starting to realise the power of PR as reputation is more important than ever before. There is so much noise out there, that it is difficult to be seen over other businesses.
Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook really understand how to use PR to help them shoot down the competition. How many people wait in anticipation for the next Apple launch? If you look at their website, they send very few press releases out. They clearly have a sound communications strategy – which include well publicised launch events.
Of course, not everyone can be an Apple or Google, but you can be the best of your sector or industry at getting the message out using PR. I also though need to add one more thing to the mix – customer service.
As people now have ready access to businesses through social media, good customer service is good PR. Get it wrong and you can have a media crisis. Just look at what happened with the now famous United Airlines and American Airlines incidents where the videos went viral. Even taking 24 hours to respond to a tweet can also cause negative PR, as many in this world of fast moving media, expect a quick response.
So, in my opinion, you cannot ignore the power of PR. Investing in PR will bring you results and is an important part of the marketing mix. You have to be patient, as the results do not happen always over night.
But after working for over 20 years in the industry both in the public and private sector, including Downing Street, I have seen how effective PR can be if you invest and get it right.
image via The National Archives UK