Public Relations

Public relations is a process where you work with outside partners and influences to improve what people think about your brand and business. Done well, it creates positive media coverage and improvements in public opinion. 

In this guide we cover the pros and cons of the six most common public relations activities – media relations, product publicity, corporate communications, lobbying, advisory and sponsorship. Learn how the overall process works and how to activate, evaluate and get the most out of PR.

Public Relations

How this guide raises your game

  1. Learn the role of public relations and the six PR activities which can support your marketing plan.
  2. Read our guide to the key tools and channels that support public relations activities.
  3. Learn the PR planning process and how to evaluate PR’s impact on perceptions and sales.

Public relations covers any activity which influences how the public perceives your brand or company.

The most obvious place to track this public perception is through the media. You aim to influence journalists and influencers to talk or write more positively about your brand or company. 

Media channels can be both traditional media – TV, radio, newspapers or magazines, or digital, such as websites and and social media.

It works in conjunction with, but separate to advertising and media in your marketing plan.

PR messages are seen as more credible as they come from independent sources, rather than though paid channels like advertising and media.

Public Relations is most often used to drive awareness and consideration as part of the brand choice funnel. 

Inside a concept hall, lots of confetti flying in air, with audience reaching out their hands towards it

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Introduction to public relations

Public relations sits within the promotion / communication section of your marketing plan. 

It helps achieve similar objectives to advertising and media, but it works in quite a different way. 

Because you pay for advertising and media, you have a lot of control over the message. You control what customers see, hear and read because you pay for it. You control when and where they see it. 

Public Relations activities are different because you give away control over the message. You can influence what’s said, but someone else has the final say. 

A row of people sitting in the audience taking writing notes into their notebooks

With public relations, you still create communication messages. But there’s not the same direct payment for media to guarantee how that message appears. You share messages with journalists and influencers, and they choose how to use those messages on their channels. 

In some cases, there can some media payment, such as in advertorials (education themed sponsored content) or sponsorships. But in general,  public relations focuses more on partner relationships than with media payments.

The advantages of public relations

The advantage of public relations is that customers see the messages as more independent and impartial because they come from someone else, not you. It’s a form of social proof (as we cover in our our article on behavioural science). If someone else says you’re good, that’s more credible and believable than you saying you’re good. 

After all, customers know your advertising will always try to show your brand in the best possible light. But if a journalist or influencer who seems independent of your brand talks positively about your brand, that feels more genuine. It’s seen as an independent endorsement. 

Also, when a journalist or influencer uses your message, they share it with their audience. So, you get access to that audience, usually for much less than it would cost you to reach the same audience with media. It’s also less likely to be ignored than advertising, because it’ll usually be linked to content that’s more interesting to the audience.

The disadvantages of public relations

However, to get this independent endorsement and audience reach, you give up your control over how the message appears. With public relations, the final say goes to the journalist or influencer. There’s always a risk they alter, change or edit the message, which can mean it won’t come out the way you want it to.

This is one of the big challenges with PR. There’s just less control and certainty in public relations.

If your public relations message isn’t interesting, it won’t get picked up. Or even worse, PR can go wrong. You can get negative reactions from journalists and influencers, and they’ll talk about your brand in a bad way.

The scope of public relations

So, independent and impartial coverage of your brand that reaches audiences in a different way. But less control over how the messages appear, and the risk that something will go wrong. 

Bear those in mind as we work through the six activities that cover the scope of most public relations work. These are :- 

  • media relations
  • product publicity
  • corporate communications
  • lobbying
  • advisory
  • sponsorship. 

Media relations

Media relations is activity that helps you manage your brand and company’s image and reputation with media outlets, journalists, and online opinion leaders. 

In your marketing planning, it’s mainly used as a way to increase awareness of your brand or company. You influence the journalist or influencer to mention your brand in a relevant article. More mentions drives more awareness. 

You can also use media relations to help talk about your benefit, reason why and reason to believe from your positioning statement. For example, when you publish a research paper, or take a journalist to visit where you source ingredients or where the product is made. 

Man calmly reading a newspaper while it's on fire

Media relations is helpful when you want to position your brand as the expert in your category. You share expert content with journalists and influencers, because you know the category better than they do. It’s helpful because if you build that relationship, the media will come back to you to comment on future stories about the category. You become their ‘go to’ source for information and content.

Identify journalists and influencers

A key task in media relations is to identify and prioritise the key journalists and influencers for your category. Work out who they are and how much influence they have, and then build relationships with them.

If you don’t already know who the key journalists and influencers are, use secondary research to find them.

Which websites or publications come first when you search on category terms for example?

The great thing about Google Search Rankings is they give you clues about who’s most popular. The most useful and popular content always appears first.

Google hone page on a Samsung phone lores

Follow the same approach in social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Who’s at the top of the search list for relevant topics? Who’s got the most likes or followers?

Try looking at online forums and discussion threads. Where do most of comments come from? Who’s cited by others as being an expert or authority on the topic? Keep an eye on online discussions about your category. They can be a great source to track who has the most influence.

Make a contact list

As part of your media relations plan, make a key contact list of relevant journalists and influencers. If you use a public relations agency, ask them to set it up for you. Don’t just include contact details, but also a history of previous contact with that person. 

It may be a long list. You’ll need to prioritise. Think about applying a ‘quality’ score to each contact based on their level of influence and openness to work with you. This score will help you prioritise.

It’s similar to how you identify target audiences in the segmentation and targeting process. Except your target “audience” are journalists and influencers, not customers.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Influencer quality score to prioritise

How do you come up with this quality score? There’s no single best way, but here’s some ways we’ve seen it done. 

The simplest way is to score based on how many people they reach

If it’s a TV or radio based influencer for example, how many people watch their shows? If it’s a print based influencer, how many people read the publication? And if the journalist or influencer posts online, what are the digital data statistics that sit behind the website or social media platform?

But the quality score should also reflect the style of the influencer. And how well their style fits with your brand identity.

Do they have influence over the type of target audience you want to attract for example? What do they think about your brand or company and what it does?

What are they like to work with? Are they open-minded and flexible? Or do they want too much control over the content? Also, who else do they work with? Do they work with your competitors? You want to make sure there’s no conflict of interest.

Group influencers into segments

What you’ll ideally end up with is three different segments, based on their influence and working style.

You’ll have a small high priority group who are your biggest priority. They have the  most influence and are the best to work with.  

Then you’ll gave a larger medium priority group. They have some influence and you can work with them. 

Finally, you’ll have a large but low priority group. You have to have some relationship with them, but you won’t get so much back from working with them. 

An apple pie cut into six segments with one segment pulled out on a slice

For each of these groups, you plan a :-

  • contact strategy – how, when and how often you contact them.
  • content strategy – the content, story and materials you share with them.

High priority influencers

These are your most important influencers. Focus on building the strongest relationships with them. Work with these influencers when you have exclusive, new or unique content.

For example, you’d send them a news story before you send it out to lower priority influencers. You’d invite them to have exclusive interviews. Or invite them behind the scenes when you’re working on a new project.

For this group, it’s important to maintain regular contact. Work with them as a partner to build your image and reputation. Ask them what they need from you, and support them with news, content and materials. 

Medium priority influencers

This group will likely have more people in it. Their combined reach and influence means you need to give them some attention, just not as much as your high priority influencers..

Your contact with them will usually be less frequent, less personalised and less detailed. For example, you might send them samples of your new innovation rather than inviting them behind the scenes. Or you might give them a general rather than a VIP invite to a product launch event.

Low priority influencers

Your final group is basically everyone else who has some influence. Keep an eye on them and plan some sort of regular contact. Send them general content, such as press releases or non-exclusive materials and content. 

Of course, with the changing nature of media and public perception, an influencer’s ‘quality’ can change over time.

Review your list regularly review to look for changes in the level of influence or working style. Your high, medium and low priority influence list should evolve over time. 

Product publicity

The next area where public relations can support your marketing plan is publicity. This is usually connected to a specific piece of news, or an event. 

Often, this “news” comes from your marketing innovation. Publicity helps support the launch of new products and services. You drive awareness of the launch by getting journalists and influences to write and talk about it.  

This could be something as simple as a press release, or first access to samples of the new product.

Or it could be a more involved process, like setting up interviews with the team behind the launch, or running a launch event.

Boy with short hair shouting into microphone in a plain white room

However, publicity isn’t limited to marketing innovation.

You can also use it when you want to reposition or change the image of a brand or product. Maybe you’ve upgraded an existing product with new features and benefits? Or a new design? While this is less ‘newsworthy’ than a new product launch, you’ll still find interested influencers willing to share these updates.

You can ask them to review the new features or design, for example. Or set  up an interview with the project lead about the change. Look for print magazines and online sites who’d find this sort of content useful and relevant for their audience.

Corporate communications

The next area where public relations can support your marketing plan is corporate communications.

In some businesses, the brand and the company are the same. But it’s also common for companies to own multiple brands. And for companies to do things that go beyond the brands they sell. 

For example, look at the pharmaceutical and medical nutrition industries. Businesses in those categories employ scientists and research and development teams. These teams often work on projects that go beyond brands. Research into health benefits and nutritional claims for example.

These type of projects can make newsworthy public relations content for your company. While they may not directly support the brand, they can have a positive ‘halo’ effect on the brand image. The company, as the owner of the brand increases its credibility. Its future messages become more trusted. 

Another example would be companies who work with charities or with community projects. Again, these activities may not directly impact the brand. But, they work to build up trust and credibility in the brand owner.

Manage negative perceptions

Of course, corporate communications can also work to negate or reduce the impact of negative perceptions.

It can monitor and manage news stories about employees or practices that have a negative impact. Corporate communications often works as a risk or crisis control process to protect the image of the company. 

What if your brand develops a quality issue and has to do recall for example? Maybe a celebrity starts bad-mouthing your brand in favour of a competitor? What if you throw a new product launch event and it flops?

Close up image of a man in a suit wiping away a tear and looking sad

These types of PR story can have a negative effect on the perception of your brand or company. Corporate communications can help counteract this by building trust in the company behind the brands.

Lobbying

Another common public relations activity is lobbying.

This activity looks to influence outside organisations who make decisions about how the category operates. 

Most commonly, it’d be at a government level, which could be local, regional, national or international. Public relations through lobbying can push for more favourable decisions on public policies and processes.

Government legislation can be wide reaching. It can cover anything from quality standards to health and safety, from employee rights to taxation and competitive practices.

Wooden law gavel on a plain white background

Often trade and industry associations try to influence government decision-makers to reduce restrictive measures. They aim to make it easier for their members to operate. These associations often also define codes of practice and set training and qualification standards.

So within individual companies, you use public relations lobbying to track and influence these outside organisations and the decisions to benefit your brand and company.

Advisory

You can also use public relations to advise on broader socio-cultural trends, issues and perceptions. You pull in experts in the category to review and advise on your plans and actions. 

This often happens in specialised areas like scientific research or new technology. Public relation teams look for early adopters (see also our article on marketing life cycles) to advise on how to best bring more public attention to the message. Or how to reduce the impact of negative changes with the public. Public relations teams set up advisory boards to get inputs from key experts. 

They can look at press coverage for example. Or recommend qualitative and quantitative research to find out more about public opinion. You’ll often see this sort of “market research as public opinion” when companies want to change perception of a product or a particular category issue. 

This public relations activity also covers monitoring and managing specific influence or target groups.

Perhaps there’s a group of influencers who actively disagree with what your brand or company do? Public relations advisory work can help you build more open relationships with them. You can share information and listen to what they say so you better meet their needs. 

Sponsorship

The final area of public relations is sponsorship.

This is where the company or brand pays money to an outside organisation for an endorsement, partnership or association and agrees to work with them.

It’s often done with non-profit organisations like charities or community organisations. Commercial businesses pay to be linked with the cause that organisation promotes. 

Or they work with sports teams or public events, where their name, logo and often content is showcased in return for payment. Think about brands who sponsor sports teams strips or race cars for example. 

Michael Schumacher racing suit hanging in a display cabinet

Sponsorship payments usually last for a specific fixed length of time. While it a popular PR tool, it’s also one of the hardest areas of public relations to quantify.

It can be difficult to measure business impact from sponsorship. Often the reasons behind the sponsorship go beyond pure commercial ones. Often, it’s because the leadership or staff in the business feel particularly strongly about a cause or association, that may be linked to their brand purpose. 

Public relations tools and channels

Now we’ve established these six public relations activities, let’s look at the tools and channels that go with them.

These include :-

  • news
  • speeches / podcasts / video
  • written materials and white papers
  • interactive and online materials
  • events
  • public service activities

News

The most common channel people associate with public relations is news coverage. This could be driven by something as simple as a press release sent to journalists or influencers.

But in most cases, journalists and influencers rarely just reprint a press release. They’ll refine it and put it in their own words and style. If it’s particularly interesting and newsworthy, they’ll contact you directly for comments, more information or a more personalised slant on the story. 

News items operate on a cycle. It’s important to understand what’s “newsworthy” in your category.

As you work with your high priority influencers, ask them what topics or types of story attract the most interest. Bear in mind news coverage is short and headline focussed. This is especially true in broadcast media like TV and radio.

The journalist will be looking for a ‘hook’ or soundbite that’ll capture the public attention. This won’t be the full detail of your press release. Focus on the headline and soundbite to maximise journalist engagement. 

You can also sign up to services like Help a Reporter Out. Here journalists looking for sources on a story will post requests. You can pitch your angle and credentials to be the source to comment on their story. 

Speeches / Podcasts / Video

Beyond ‘news’ content, you can also use more general interest content such as interviews and speeches, podcasts and video content.

This content differs from advertising as it’s usually around a topic rather than a brand. The brand can be in the story, but it’s not always the lead part of the story. (though it works best if topic and brand work together). 

For a great example, look at this video from US company Blendtec. It creates video content by using its food blender on everyday objects like mobile phones.

The more creative, unique and unusual you are, the more coverage you’ll get. It helps to know the target audience well. What type of content motivates and interests them?

When your PR agency proposes content, ask why your audience would care about it. What’s in it for them? Is it educational or entertaining for example?

The better and more relevant the content, the more likely your audience will share it, and extend your message’s reach. 

There’s a strong social proof aspect to this type of content. The term comes from Robert Cialdini’s book Influence. Social proof states that most people don’t like to be the first to try something new. Going first is risky. But if they see others using a product, the risk seems less. (see more about social proof in our article on how to use behavioural science in marketing).

This is why so many companies and brands ask for reviews. When your public relations content includes interviews or endorsements from satisfied customers, it improves the perception of your brand and business. 

Written materials and white papers

The most straightforward form of public relations materials are written materials and white papers.

These are thought-leading text-based articles and research papers you share with journalists and influencers. These work better with validated research behind the content. In particular, if the content makes a new claim or statement. It can also help if the work or paper is published in an accredited title, which boosts credibility and coverage. 

Interactive and online materials

Public relations experts will also tell you that materials that are interactive and / or online have additional benefits beyond video or written content.

When your audience can actively engage in a two way experience rather than a passive one way experience, you grab more attention and have a bigger impact.  

Think for example of online attitudinal surveys which show your results at the end, and let you compare your answers with everyone else’s answers.  Or live social media broadcasts where you can do a Q&A to answer audience questions. 

Events

Events are another common public relations tool. They work because people tend to value and remember experiences over objects. And so when they give up the time to attend an event, they’ll generally feel more positive about the engagement with the brand or company. 

Events usually fall into one of three areas.

A celebratory event recognises a milestone or achievement. As we’ve previously covered, the launch of new products or services are often supported by events.

But it could also be anniversaries or mark historical dates. Or that the company or brand has reached a certain target or completed a particular project.  

Man on stage with a microphone talking to a large seated audience of what appear to be university students

An educational event is often used with more professionally oriented audiences. (often as part of a B2B CRM program).

Company or guest speakers talk about a specialist topic. The company or brand benefits by association as the host of the event. These types of events are very common in medical, legal and academic circles for example.

The final type of event is a networking event. In this type of event, the aim is to help build connections between the company and the attendees, but also between the attendees themselves. It’s a much more socially driven process. The objective is built around the experience and the value of the connections more than the content itself. 

Event planning usually requires specialist support and skills. It involves a high level of logistical planning. Finding the venue, sending out invites, managing guests, managing the event itself, and doing any follow-up work can take a lot of effort.

Public Service activities

As we said earlier, you can often use charity or community type activities to boost your companies reputation through public relations. Maybe your employees work directly with a charity on a specific project? Or you provide materials or funds to support a particular cause? 

This can be a strong way to build trust and credibility in your brand and company. Its purpose is more altruistic than commercial. Though in most cases, there’s also a halo commercial benefit to the activity. 

Bigger businesses often define what they do about Corporate Social Responsibility. They recognise they impact people’s lives. They impact broader socio-cultural factors like the environment or gender and race relations. Activities to show the company’s responsibility in these areas generally falls under the scope of public relations.  

The public relations process

The public relations process works in a similar way to the advertising development process.

You set objectives at the start, you identify a range of activities and options, which you then refine and validate. Then you do them, and measure the results afterwards. 

However, the types of questions which sit under each stage will be different for public relations.

Broadly the questions you’d ask at each stage cover either the impact on perception, or the impact on the commercials.

Most PR activities will have one or both of these impacts. Ideally, a positive impact in both areas.

Flow chart of the Public Relations process - steps are brand objectives - public relations objectives - brief agency or partner - activation proposal - activation - activity evaluation

Public relations impact on perceptions

The need for public relations activity normally starts within the marketing plan. Something like the SWOT analysis might cover an opportunity or threat that public relations could tackle better than advertising or media. 

Often the brand objective relates to different stages of the brand choice funnel.

Most public relations activity focusses on the start of the brand choice funnel. Public relations activity has less overt branding so the message is seen as more credible than in advertising or media led activity. 

So for example, the credibility of a piece of research or a benefit claim may not seem so credible in advertising, as it’s not seen as impartial.

But public relations could help improve a perception by using third parties to support or endorse the research or benefit. This builds trust, awareness, and consideration. 

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

Set SMART objectives

It’s important you make clear up front the change in attitude or behaviour you expect the public relations activity to deliver. Set SMART objectives so that it’s specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-specific.

For example, objectives like “we want more people to like our brand” are too vague. You need to be more specific. What if you rewrote that objective to read “By the end of the year, we want 20% of customers to believe our new research project X makes us more of an expert in the category than competitors A and B.”?

SMART objectives bring clarity and specificity to your public relations activity.

Be realistic. The biggest the change you want to drive, the longer it’ll take. Think about the reward of hitting the objective, and the risk of not hitting it. 

Measure changes in perception

And finally from a perception point of view, work out how how you’ll measure changes in attitudes and behaviours. Do you carry out quantitative research with the target audience for example? Do you ask them for feedback at the event or online for example?

If you can’t track and measure the impact, you’ll never know how effective your spend and effort has been. You won’t know whether to do it again, or try something different. 

Public relations impact on commercials

Which brings us to the second set of questions.

These involve measuring the commercial impact of public relations. In these types of questions, you’re thinking much more quantifiably. 

How many consumers need to change their behaviour at the point of purchase based on this public relations activity to justify the spend?

You may be able to work back up the brand choice funnel. For example, how will an increase in awareness lead to more people reaching the trial stage?

Glass jar knocked over on floor with coins spilled out onto the floor

Remember, any money you spend on public relations needs to eventually lead back to a business objective.

Often public relations measures relate to media coverage. So, if a press release gets published, the size of the publisher’s audience who see the message is often used as a measure.

This advertising or media equivalent coverage can be helpful. But remember, it’s not just the quantity of people who see the message, but also the quality of the impact. Try to work out if it’s actually changed attitudes or behaviours.

Another measurement challenges is that you rarely do public relations on its own. It’s frequently runs at the same time as advertising and media. You need to compare when both activities were running, when one or the other was running and when neither was running to work out the impact of each activity.

Note also that public relations tends to focus on more long-term changes than short-term impact, so set your time deadlines appropriately.

Public relations in your marketing plan

Public relations should be a core part of your communications planning. It has high potential and usually needs less spend, but it’s also less predictable and more risky than advertising and media. Because it’s often works in ‘real-time’, it can be difficult to control. If PR goes wrong, your brand or company reputation can suffer.

This ‘high risk, high reward’ nature of PR means most businesses use public relations agencies or hire a public relations manager. These experts focus on building strong relationships with journalists and influencers.

However, these relationships depend on the individuals involved. They can be difficult to maintain. This is why public relations activity can be difficult to predict.

How much you use public relations depends on the context of your business, and how ‘newsworthy’ your category is.

Industries like fashion and travel use a lot of public relations because they generate stories with high news appeal. Other industries, say financial services or aged care, find it harder to generate interest through public relations activity. 

Conclusion - public relations

Public relations should be part of your overall marketing communication plan. As a channel, it has benefits you don’t get from advertising and media.

But it rarely works on its own, and there’s also one very specific price of advice we’d like to close on. 

If we had to narrow down successful public relations to one piece of advice we’ve heard and seen work the best in these channels, it’d be this. 

Be authentic. Be honest

Journalists love catching companies out, when they make misleading statements, or do something wrong.

Photo taken inside a narrow alley where we see a man walking past at the end of the alley under an umbrella and behind him a building with signs that say "honest" and "centre"

Watch the news and it seems like every week, some company or celebrity is putting their public relations foot in it. Check out this collation of examples if you want to read more on how NOT to do public relations.

But if you’re authentic and honest about your public relations work, you build strong relationships with key influencers. You become more credible and believable in what you do. The public sees you as brand and a company they can trust.

Three-brains and marketing communications

We’ve worked on many marketing communications projects and that includes public relations.  We’ve good experience linking public relations activity back into marketing and communications plans. And, we know how to connect public relations into driving your brand identity and growing your sales. 

Contact us if you want to know more about how we can support your public relations activities to grow your business  through our coaching and consulting services.

To achieve clear and consistent marketing communications, the first step is to pull together a clear brief for everyone involved in creating your activity.

That includes key elements of your target audience understanding and brand identity as well as stating your business and project goals. 

Download our blank template with accompanying notes to get your started on the process of creating a great marketing communications brief. 

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Marketing Communication brief - blank template
Click to download the pdf

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