The use of the media to influence the perceptions of vast audiences has long been used by governments and corporations.
This is called public relations (PR), where the media is used as a gatekeeper for releasing a story to the wider public.
However, over the past 20 years or so in the age of the internet and social media, the average business or individual now has access to PR without needing a connection in the media or a big budget to pay a PR company to gain exposure.
This blog explores the use of public relations as a part of a marketing strategy.
What are Public Relations?
Public relations (PR) is the manages the release and spread of publicity from a firm or individual to the public to influence their opinions, attitudes or behaviours. PR aims to build and maintain relationships with stakeholders and those who influence the target audience, to enhance the public reputation.
Public relations professionals are storytellers and image shapers who create a positive narrative for their clients by working closely with journalists and other media. This allows them to manage and generate positive publicity for their clients to enhance their reputations.
Public relations are controlled internally as a strategy, but publicity is controlled and distributed externally.
“(Public Relations) helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between an organisation and its publics; involves the management of problems and issues; helps management keep abreast of and effectively utilise change.” (Harlow, 1976)
PR has been a profession since the dawn of the 20th century, but the roots of the idea of widely influencing public opinion and action can be found and during the movement to abolish slavery in England 100 years before that.
Because of these beginnings, one of the underlying assumptions of PR is that it should be socially responsible and go beyond organisational goals to play a constructive role in society.
Depending on the situation, PR will have a particular tone — whether it is showing empathy and understanding, storytelling and creativity, or more persuasive messaging. Messages are tailored to the relevant target audience/s.
PR applies to all organisations from small businesses to corporations to governments or activists. They could be from the private, public or third sector. The third sector is an umbrella term for voluntary and community organisations such as social enterprises.
Some of the tools used for PR are:
- Owned media (e.g. website)
- Earned media (e.g. newspapers)
- Shared media (e.g. social networks)
- Sponsorships and fundraising
- Moving images (video)
- Print (e.g. newsletters)
- Events (e.g. conferences)
- Public Speaking
Public Relations is a critical link to manage communications between a firm or person and its publics. ‘Publics’ is any group of people or stakeholders who have a common interest in a particular subject.
Some of those publics are:
- Employees (and potential)
- Suppliers (and potential)
- Distributors (and potential)
- Political audiences, decision-makers and other opinion formers
- Media and other commentators
- Social media influencers
Objectives of Public Relations
Public relations can be used to protect, enhance or build reputations.
The “management of communications between an organisation and its publics.” (Grunig, 2013)
The goal is for firms or individuals to establish, build, nurture and maintain trusted relationships with their target audience.
Communication tactics are planned and executed to influence peoples’ attitudes and behaviours, ultimately to maintain or foster a positive opinion of the firm or person.
Much like marketing, PR has several individual activities and can have distinct goals. The intended audience could be prospective customers, investors, partners, employees, or just the general public.
Some of the objectives of PR are:
- Increase brand awareness: inform the public of the policies, procedures and interests of a firm, promote an idea, or recognise accomplishments.
- Crisis communication: managing a company’s reputation when negative news is public, formulate a response and ease the damage.
- Internal communications: communicating within the company itself, employee relations.
- Government relations & lobbying: public affairs is engaging and interacting with the government to influence public policy.
- Media relations: building and maintaining close relationships with the news media.
- Social Media/Community Marketing: leveraging social media marketing to distribute messages to desired target audiences.
Public relations strategy
PR is a strategic communication process, and a strategy often begins with an idea to create a story that would be of interest to the general public and will leave a positive impression for the company or individual.
A second way could be to follow up with a comment on the latest news or a current event connected to the firm/person or the industry they are in.
“Public Relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics” (Grunig & Hunt, 1984)
A PR message might be prompted by a piece of news, but a PR strategy is deliberate and should begin with an analysis of the organisation to pinpoint strengths or opportunities to guide the positioning of the strategy and messaging.
A PR strategy should be actively managed and grounded in research, to gain an understanding of the environment that shapes decision-making. Messages that are consistent with organisational values and goals, but also consistent with public values and goals is key.
The interests and concerns of the company’s stakeholders should be acknowledged in the strategy — listening to their concerns to build a mutually beneficial relationship. To avoid having contradictory or confusing messages, there must be consistency in the overall message and theme.
Several distinct but complementary messages are created to target different audiences. For example, a charity event. One message would be crafted towards the general public, and one message crafted towards corporate sponsors.
There’s the same goal of a successful event that raises lots of money, but there are different value propositions for somebody paying to attend the event and enjoy a night for a good cause, to a corporation wanting to increase their brand awareness.
“The overall planning, execution and evaluation of an organisation’s communication with both external and internal publics — groups that affect the ability of an organisation to meet its goals.” (Grunig, 2013)
There are several activities and tools that businesses can use for PR. There used to be a reliance on media companies and PR firms to use media such as TV and magazines to reach a certain target audience. The internet has created several opportunities for businesses to do their own PR.
Firms or individuals can produce and share content via social media to respond to a circumstance or to enhance brand awareness with their target audience.
Some of the individual PR activities that businesses can use include:
- Writing and distributing press releases
- Managing internal communications
- Arranging interviews for company spokespeople
- Holding press conferences and media interviews
- Writing and sharing story pitches directly to journalists
- Hosting or sponsoring events
- Personal networking
- Writing blogs and newsletters
- Social media promotions
Is public relations marketing?
Public relations have become a component of marketing over the past 20 years or so since social media started being used for press releases.
The fragmentation of mass media has dissolved a lot of the barriers public relations had for small businesses and PR has shifted into more interpersonal channels of communication.
PR can be used for market positioning and branding, aligning it with marketing goals.
The fundamental idea behind PR is for businesses to gain exposure to their target audiences using topics of public interest, this coverage received for free. Referred to as ‘earned media’, this is what makes public relations different from advertising.
However, social media can blur those lines — a boosted post for example where a normal social media post becomes a paid ad.
Think of PR as the generation an article featuring a client, rather than having a paid ad next to the article. This positive story enhances reputation as it is more credible coming from a third party.
Some of the main differences between advertising and public relations are:
- Paid vs Earned
- Builds exposure vs builds trust
- Visual vs language
- Creative control vs Media control
- The audience is sceptical vs media gives third party validation