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Public Relations

Why read this? : Public relations (PR) focusses on improving the way customers perceive your brand and business. You work with external partners to create positive media coverage and land key messages. Customers have a better opinion about you when it’s done well. 

We review the 6 most common PR activities in this guide. Learn how media relations, product publicity, corporate communications, lobbying, advisory and sponsorship helps you connect with customers. Read this for ideas on how to best use public relations to grow your business. 

Public Relations

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Learn the role of public relations and how it fits into your marketing plan.
  2. Read about the 6 key activities which drive public relations, and where and when to use them.
  3. Learn the public relations planning process and how to evaluate PR’s impact.

Public relations focusses on activities which influences how the public perceives your brand or business.

The activities often focus on appearing in and influencing the media. You work with journalists and influencers and aim to get them to talk or write positively about you. 

This can be in traditional media channels – TV, radio, newspapers or magazines for example. Or  in newer digital, such as on websites and and social media.

It works alongside advertising and media in your overall marketing plan. It’s usually aimed at driving awareness and consideration. 

Public relations based messages are seen as more credible than paid media placements. They’re seen as coming from independent sources, who have less bias.

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 control the message. You control what customers experience, and when and where they experience it. You know what you’re getting because that’s what you pay for. 

Public relations activities are different. You rely on independent sources picking up on what you’ve done. They decide what to say or do with the messages you’ve given them. They may decide to do nothing. 

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

It’s an important distinction. You don’t control the message. You can only influence it. Someone else has the final say. 

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 media payments.

The advantages of public relations

The advantage of public relations is that customers see the messages as more independent and impartial. They come from someone else, not you. It’s a form of social proof (see our behavioural science article for more on this). 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 tries to show your brand in the best light. But if an independent journalist or influencer talks positively about your brand, it feels more genuine. Less biased. 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 to reach the same audience with media. It’s also less likely to be ignored, because it’ll link to relevant and interesting content.

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. That means it may not 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 message isn’t interesting, it won’t get picked up. Or even worse, it can go wrong. You can get negative reactions from journalists and influencers. And they talk about your brand in a bad way.

Public relations activities

So now you’ve got some idea why you do (or don’t) do public relations, let’s look at what’s involved. Public relations is an overarching term which usually covers these 6 activities :-

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

Media relations

Media relations is about managing your image and reputation with media platforms,  journalists and other content providers. It’s about building relationships with these influencers.

In marketing planning, it’s mainly used to raise awareness. You influence the relevant person to highlight your brand’s message. More mentions means more awareness. 

You can also use media relations to highlight the benefit, reason why and reason to believe from your positioning. For example, when you publish a research paper. Or you 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 works well when you’re the expert in your category. You share your expertise with journalists and influencers. They don’t know the category as well as you do. So they come back to you when they need to find things out. You build a relationship with them. You become their ‘go to’ source for information and content.

Working with journalist and influencers

Knowing how to work with these influencers is a whole skill and process in its own right. 

First, you need to work out how to find them. That usually involves some secondary research. 

Then, you need to work out how much influence they have. Some will have more than others. 

There’s a number of ways you can do this. For example, you can look at where they rank in search. The more influence they have, the higher they’ll appear. You can also look at their social media following. And you can look at comments about them in online forums and discussion threads. 

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

Finally, you also need to work out well you’ll be able to work with them. Some influencers are very open to working with partners, while others can be demanding and difficult.

These steps help you build up a contact list and prioritise each influencer. You spend the most time and effort on those who have the most influence and are easiest to work with.

But you also can’t ignore those with less influence or who are more challenging to work with. People change over time and these might be important future influencers. You need to have a plan to keep these lower priority influencers happy too.

(see our article on how to get the most value out of influencers for more on this topic).

Product publicity

The next area where public relations can support your marketing plan is publicity. You use public relations to draw attention to a piece of news, or an event. 

Often, this “news” comes from your marketing innovation. You use publicity to help launch new products and services. It drives awareness by getting journalists and influencers to write and talk about it.  

 It covers different types of activity. A basic press release for example. Free samples in return for highlighting the launch.

It can be more involved, like setting up interviews with the launch team, or running a launch event.

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

You can also use publicity when you want to upgrade or reposition your brand. Adding new features and benefits, for example. Changing the  design. These may to be as ‘newsworthy’ as a new launch. But you’ll still find interested influencers willing to talk about these changes.

They could publish a review of the changes for example. Or you could offer them an interview opportunity. There’s many print magazines and online sites who share this type of publicity related content with their audiences. 

Corporate communications

Next up for public relations activity is corporate communications.

This usually relates to the company behind the brand. In some cases, the company and brand image sit close together. But in many cases, companies own a portfolio of brands. So they run the company level public relations at a distance from each brand’s public relations. The company is seen as more than the brand. 

For example, look at the pharmaceutical and medical nutrition industries, which employ scientists and R&D teams. These teams often work on projects which go beyond brands. Research into health benefits and claims for example.

These type of projects often make newsworthy public relations content. That then has a positive ‘halo’ effect on the brand. It benefits from the increased credibility of the company behind the brand. People trust the brand more because it comes from a company who do good things. 

The same thinking applies to companies who work with charities and community projects. Again, these may not directly impact the brand. But, they help build trust and credibility in the brand owner. And the brand benefits by association. 

Manage negative perceptions

Corporate communications also comes in when you need to negate or reduce the impact of negative perceptions.

That can happen if something the business does goes poorly. A customer gets hurt or injured. You have a quality issue and need to do a recall. An external influencer criticises you. An event you run doesn’t go well. 

Here, the public relations team monitor and manage the story. Their aim is to manage the risk to the company’s image and downplay any crisis.

It’s about protecting the positive image of the company. 

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

Lobbying

Another common public relations activity is lobbying.

This is about influencing outside organisations who make decisions about how the category operates. 

Often, it’s about government influence. That could be at a local, regional, national or international level. The aim of this type of lobbying is to push for more favourable decisions on public policies and processes.

The impact of government policy is wide reaching. For example, it can cover quality standards, health and safety, employee rights, taxation and competitive practices. Those all impact your business’s ability to operate. 

Wooden law gavel on a plain white background

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

The PR teams of individual companies work with these associations to support their lobbying activities. Their aim is to influence decisions in ways which benefit their company.

Advisory

You can also use public relations to set up advisory panels. These are category experts from outside the business who you ask to review and advise on your plans. 

They can share their insights about trends happening in the market for example. If they’re early adopters, they can give feedback on how to get others to follow their example. They can point out flaws or challenges in your message which you may not have thought of. 

It’s usually down to the public relations team to set these panels up and manage them. That includes any market research work done on behalf of the advisory panel. It also includes managing the on-going relationship with each influencer. And most importantly, it involves sharing the advice the panel give, so that what it does is transparent and credible. 

Sponsorship

The final area of public relations is sponsorship.

This is where the company or brand pays for an endorsement, partnership or association with an outside organisation. There’s usually an on-going relationship. 

It’s often done with non-profit organisations like charities or community organisations. Businesses pay to be linked with a good cause.

It also happens with sports, the arts and public events. Companies pay for their name, logo and content to feature in those activities. There’s not many sports teams or race cars for example who don’t feature sponsor logos.

Michael Schumacher racing suit hanging in a display cabinet

Sponsorship is usually over a fixed length of time. It’s a popular approach. But it’s also a hard area to quantify what value it adds to brands who do it. Often the rationale for doing it goes beyond financial drivers. In many cases, it’s because the leaders of the business feel strongly about the cause or association. It’s often connected to their brand purpose. 

Public relations tools and channels

Each of these different public relations activities will use a mix of different tools and channels to achieve their objectives :-

  • 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.

They’ll review the newsworthiness of the message and decide whether to report or comment on it. They may come back to you with questions. Or to ask for a more personalised slant on the story. 

It’s important to understand what makes something newsworthy in your category. Your most important influencers can often advise you on this. You can ask them which topics or types of story are most interesting. Bear in mind news coverage is usually short and headline focussed. That’s especially true in broadcast media like TV and radio.

News channels look for a ‘hook’ or soundbite to capture the public’s attention. This won’t be the full detail of your press release. You need to make these clear and interesting if you want to grab the influencer’s attention.

You can also join services like Help a Reporter Out. Journalists post requests looking for sources on a story. You pitch your angle to be their source to comment on the story. 

Speeches / Podcasts / Video

Public relations also often uses more general interest content. For example, interviews and speeches, podcasts and video content.

This differs from advertising as it’s usually around a topic rather than a brand. The brand can be in the story, but something else usually takes the lead. 

For example, there’s the content US company Blendtec puts out. It shares video content showing its food blender being used on everyday objects like mobile phones.

Influencers like this type of creative, unique and unusual content. They’ll write about it and share it with their followers. To do it well, you need to have a good grasp of your target audience. You need to know what type of content motivates and interests them.

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 our behavioural science article for more on social proof).

This is why so many brands ask for reviews. Positive comments from unbiased customers help other customers feel more confident about buying your brand.

Written materials and white papers

Another tool public relations teams often use is written materials and white papers.

These are usually relevant brochures, articles and research papers you share with journalists and influencers. They add credibility to your message, and are useful reference documents for the recipient. 

It’s a very common approach in innovation. For example, when you make a new claim or add a new feature or benefit. It helps build credibility if the work or research has beeb published in an accredited title.

Interactive and online materials

You can also create materials that are interactive and / or online public relations materials. These add extra benefits beyond your standard written and video content.

Put simply, active two way experiences are more engaging and have more impact than passive one way experiences.

For example, you can run attitudinal surveys which show how the respondent’s results compare with everyone else at the end. Or live social media broadcasts where the audience can ask questions. 

Events

Events are another common public relations tool. People generally value and remember experiences over objects. If someone takes the time to attend your event, it generally makes them feel more positive about your brand. 

There’s 3 main types of event in PR. 

A celebratory event recognises a milestone or achievement. As we said earlier, that’s often when new products or services come out. Launch events are very common.

But it could also be an anniversary. Or to mark a historical date. Or that the brand’s reached a target or completed a specific 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 more socially driven. The objective is about the experience and the connections more than the content. 

Event planning is a specialist skill. There’s a lot of logistical planning. Finding the venue. Sending out invites. Managing guests. Running the event. Doing the follow-ups. There’s a lot of hard work involved to make an event run smoothly.

Public Service activities

Companies often work with charity and community groups to boost their reputation with public relations. That could be employees working directly with the charity. Or providing materials and funds to support the cause. 

These types of activities build trust and credibility for your brand and company. The 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 follows a similar logic to the advertising development process.

You start with your objectives. Then you brief an agency. They make a proposal. You refine and validate their ideas. Then you go do them. And you finish by measuring the results and learning how to do better next time. 

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

Those questions will either be to do with the impact on perception, or on the commercials.

That’s because your PR objectives usually relate to one or both of these 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 comes from your marketing plan. You do a SWOT analysis for example. And it suggests an opportunity or threat which PR could tackle better than advertising could. 

It’s also usually related to a specific stage of the brand choice funnel.

Most PR activity focusses on the start of the funnel. It usually has less overt branding so the message is seen as more credible than advertising activity. 

So for example, you’d use public relations activities to highlight a new piece of research or benefit claim. If you used advertising to do this, it could come across as biased.

Public relations work is usually seen as less biased. It improves perceptions by using third parties to support or endorse the research or benefit. That helps build trust, awareness, and consideration. 

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

Set SMART objectives

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

For example, objectives like “we want more people to like our brand” are too vague. A SMARTer objective would be more like “by December, we want 20% of customers to believe research project X makes us more of a category expert than competitor A”.

SMART objectives makes things clear for everyone. They make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction. You know what you want, and you’ll know when you’ve achieved it.

Measure changes in perception

Your perception objective should also cover how you’ll measure changes in attitudes and behaviours. You probably need to do some quantitative research. Asking the target audience for feedback after the activity’s done, for example. 

You need to know how effective the PR work has been. That helps you decide whether to do more of if in the future, or try something else.

Public relations impact on commercials

PR also needs to have an impact on your commercials. Here, you’re thinking more about your profit and loss and what PR does for it. 

It starts with how many customers changed their attitude or behaviour because of the PR activity.

You look at how this changes at each stage of the brand choice funnel. 

And you work those changes through to see the impact PR has had on your sales.

You want the resulting increase in profits to be more than the activity cost. 

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

The other way to measure the commercial impact is to compare it what you would have spend in media to get the same audience reach. 

This media equivalent coverage is helpful. But remember, it’s not just the quantity of people who see the message, but also the quality of the impact. You still need to work out if it’s changed attitudes or behaviours. If lots of people see the PR work, but do nothing, it hasn’t done its job.

PR measurement can be hard because you rarely do PR on its own. It runs alongside your advertising and media. You need good analytical skills to strip out the specific impact the PR work had. That includes how it drives both short-term sales and longer-term perceptions. 

Conclusion - Public relations

Public relations is a part of your communication plan. For relatively low spends (compared to media) you can reach many people with credible and relevant messages. 

However, you rely on outside parties to deliver those messages for you. There’s always the risk they don’t deliver your message. Or they deliver it in a way which doesn’t help you hit your objectives. 

Most businesses bring in expert help for public relations. They use a PR agency or hire a PR manager. These experts know how to build strong relationships with journalists and influencers.

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

How much you use PR often depends on the context of your business. And how ‘newsworthy’ your category is. Industries like fashion and travel use a lot of public relations. Their stories have high news appeal. Other industries, say financial services or aged care, find it harder and do less PR work.

The key to PR success is to remember it’s about credibility. You want PR to help build you trust. To help you build your reparation. That means being authentic. Being honest.

Journalists love catching companies out, when they make misleading statements, or do something wrong. Check out this collation of examples of how not to do it. 

So use public relations to be authentic. To be honest. Build your relationships with key influencers.

This makes you more credible in what you do. And that means the public sees you as brand and a company they can trust. Good things come to companies and brands who do good things. 

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"

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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