Can PR drive sales? Like many PR people, I’ve resisted a claim that PR can drive sales and marketing, and for good reason. Although I’ve seen new product articles create sold-out shelves and glowing reviews that drive web traffic and even purchase, it’s always tricky when clients need demand generation from a pure PR campaign.

Many of us on the agency side would rather under promise and over deliver. And then there’s the measurement dilemma. It’s easier to evaluate the impact of a brand PR program on reputation or sheer visibility than it is to tie it to sales.

The truth is that, overall, earned media and social visibility aren’t reliable demand generators. They do make sales happen but not consistently. Most often, it’s strategic public relations combined with other elements of the marketing mix that makes the magic happen. Tim Dyson of Next Fifteen explains it well; it’s mostly “PR + other things” that do the trick.

The “traditional” relationship between marketers and consumers has been upended due to digital media and the huge amount of information it affords shoppers. Enter public relations. In an ideal world, earned, owned, and paid media work together with other forms of marketing outreach to engage prospects and convert them to customers. But there are key ways that a well-designed PR campaign can bridge the sales-marketing divide and earn its weight in the overall marketing equation.

Five Ways PR Can Drive Sales

1. Earning Credibility

Trust and credibility are more important in part because they’ve grown so scarce. Over the past decade, Americans have lost confidence in everything from faith-based institutions to government. And in today’s cynical environment, trust is earned through third-party media placements and brand evangelists.

According to Nielsen’s 2015 Trust in Advertising report, consumers name earned and owned media as the most trusted formats. Next to “recommendations from people I know,” named by 83% of respondents, most shoppers say they trust editorial content (named by 66%) or consumer opinions posted online (also 66%) over other forms of media. Data like this naturally makes earned media and social sharing that result from a strategic PR campaign a valuable sales and marketing tool, a way that PR can drive sales.

2. Communicating Expertise

It’s not enough to be visible; marketers today must differentiate. One way a good PR program does that is by communicating expertise on the part of a brand or company. Thought leadership events do this directly to customers and through media and content. For our B2B clients we arrange expert panels that join a client executive with other influencers in their industry to explore a key topic or examine trends. It’s not a sales event per se, but inviting customers and prospects as well as journalists who cover the category is a powerful formula and another way PR can drive sales. The panels tend to attract earned media coverage, but more importantly, they create “free” original content based on the discussion that differentiates the client brand and positions them with (non-competitive) experts and innovators in their space.

3. Educating Prospective Customers

High-value services like business software are complicated, and the buying cycle moves slowly. About 81% of buyers do online research before shopping, and paid media accounts for only a portion of typical research results.

Traditional paid advertising can’t offer the depth required to educate a business prospect or explain key differentiators in a compelling and credible way. This is where PR can drive sales with earned media features and reviews that condition the market and point prospective buyers toward the right content. Then, with help from content marketing, that earned or owned content can eventually move prospects down the funnel and close the sale.

4. Promoting Brand Purpose.

Tired of hearing about the purchasing clout and influence of millennials? Well, the Gen Y surge has only just begun. And one thing that engages this emerging generation is strong brand values. PR-driven campaigns for brands like Tom’s, with its long-running philanthropic product donation program, is a good example. Another brand that has embraced a social purpose successfully is Unilever’s Dove, whose Campaign for Real Beauty is created around the promotion of diversity and self-esteem. These programs are all the more powerful because Millennials are wary of “traditional” advertising claims. A strong social marketing program can promote the kind of fierce brand loyalty―driven by earned media―that attracts and keeps younger customers.

5. Creating Brand Advocates

Brand influence starts with community. Consumers use review sites, community forums, and the views of friends and colleagues as part of their product research. A PR campaign targeting social media helps to build dialogue with your customers and create ambassadors for your brand. And, as most PR and media professionals know, stories lead to more stories. One social campaign that proves this is Honest Tea’s work across several social platforms under the #refreshinglyhonest theme designed to engage Millennial moms through low-key stories told by social influencers.

Is it a coincidence that Honest Tea sales are up 20%? I don’t think so.