Public relations professionals get a bit of a bad rap sometimes. We are often accused of being nothing but spin-doctors — people whose job it is to make bad situations look good or, worse, simply trick the general public in to believing things. To be sure, damage control is a large, very visible part of PR for many practitioners and it can be a dirty business (see Vick, Michael; BP oil refineries; Toyota recalls, etc.).

The fact is though, every business, from the largest corporation to the smallest garage start-up, practices PR. More to the point, every effort by one person to communicate with one or more other people is, at its core, public relations. As humans we are naturally inclined towards it. Some of us have simply chosen to study the process and make a profession of it.

This misguided gentleman is trying to craft a message, but hasn’t figured out his audience yet.

The actual practice of public relations is often only as simple or as complicated as you make it. It is easy, for instance, to overcomplicate things from the outset. The most common mistake made by business owners or novice PR practitioners is to start at the end (the deliverables) or the middle (the message) of the equation. It is not hard, from this perspective, to get overwhelmed by the shear number of media possibilities (fliers, direct mail, social media, email, etc.) in front of you, or hung up on exactly what it is you want to say. Fortunately, one small change of perspective can simplify everything:

It’s the audience, stupid

The root of any communication effort is the audience, or public, and it is here that any effort must start. By taking a little time and following four simple steps to identify your target audience, crafting a message and determining a medium and, ultimately, a deliverable will become a much simpler process.

First, identify the entire global audience that you can reach. This, in theory, could be as broad as the entire continental U.S., but for most businesses will likely just be the entire local community or neighborhood area. Once you see how large a number it is, the need for further refining should become obvious.

Second, segment that large population in to manageable groups. Segments, for instance, could be based on gender, age group, geographic location, education level, income level, marital status, and so on. How you segment will be determined mostly by your goal. Take the time to consider your choices here carefully. Getting your criteria set correctly will make the next step much easier, and the final step a breeze.

Third, profile each of those segments. In most cases there is overlap in the segments (married women, age 30 to 35, who graduated college, for example). Identify these overlaps and create profile groups like the one I just used as an example.

Fourth, rank each group based on those profiles. This is just as simple as it sounds. If the aforementioned women, age 30 to 35, who graduated college are the people you want to reach the most then rank them first, followed by the next most important profile group, and so on until you have a clear hierarchy.

This gentleman started at the beginning and got done much faster. Now that his plan is already in motion, he can take a few moments to, well, you know…

Now you can worry about the rest

At this point you should have a very good idea of who your target audience is and how many of them there are. Armed with that information, the rest of your tasks become manageable. Now that you know to whom you are talking, for instance, you know how to talk to them — your message. That, in turn, should guide you in making your decision on how to convey that message — the medium for your deliverable.

Successful public relations, in short, is not about the message or the deliverable. It is about the public — the audience. A PR professional is simply someone who knows that if you start here, at the beginning, the rest is just a natural progression, and one that is much more likely to end in success.