The basics of public relations

Jul 28, 2016

The basics of public relations

Jul 28, 2016

What is public relations?

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

That’s a little too vague for us. Plus, the word “publics” is weird.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition: “The activity or job of providing information about a particular person or organization to the public so that people will regard that person or organization in a favorable way.”

That’s a little too narrow for us. “Providing information” is too task-focused, like saying a surgeon’s job is to cut and stitch skin. It also doesn’t convey the strategy that goes into crafting communications, which is primarily where the value comes from in the first place.

There are many more definitions out there, none of which are very helpful for someone looking for a quick and dirty understanding. Here’s our very practical definition, which also reflects the way most people in the marketing industry actually use it: “strategic communication between a brand and its audience, traditionally through the news media.”

Ah, that’s just right.

We reference the news media here only as a practical matter because most professionals and organizations differentiate between PR and activities like social media, content marketing, internal communications, etc. Because of this, “public relations” and “media relations” are often used interchangeably. Suffice it to say that if someone offers PR services, they are almost certainly referring to services that aim to get publicity for you and your business.

So, what specifically do PR people do?

Well, let’s get this out of the way – it’s not just creating press releases.

There used to be a time when that was all that PR firms did. They announced stuff. That time is long gone.

In modern times, public relations professionals craft the strategy behind a company’s messaging – what it should say, what it shouldn’t say, and how to say it. Often, this means creating, planning and running events and initiatives for the purpose of getting media attention. And, of course, they are experts at reaching out to the media and securing news coverage.

In order to find publications and reporters interested in their clients’ stories, public relations professionals are also diligent consumers of news. They need to understand what outlets and individuals cover which type of stories in order to make the most appropriate pitch. And this work never really ends, because new publications are popping up all the time, and reporters are constantly changing the subjects they focus on.

Once a member of the media is interested, the PR professional will coordinate an interview, coach the interviewee on how to effectively communicate their message, and supply to the reporter any additional background information. Sometimes, it takes a PR team several months to make a single story happen, going through several rounds of interviews, research, follow-up questions, photography, and other aspects of the reporting process.

Well, at least, that’s what all the good ones do. We’ll be honest – some agencies just wait for their clients to give them stuff, and then they send out mass emails or blindly distribute them across newswires. We have plenty of former reporters at our agency who used to get some awful pitches that were completely irrelevant to what they covered, which ultimately meant that some client’s time and money was wasted.

Why would my business need all that?

Because not all business professionals are also professional communicators.

Many corporations are filled with brilliant people who understand finance, or manufacturing, or the law, but they aren’t experts in how to effectively answer awkward questions from the media, or how to carefully craft a statement that comes off as authentic, transparent and trustworthy.

Most people think this means using techniques that obscure the truth. Honestly, it’s usually the exact opposite – businesses want to explain themselves clearly but they aren’t able to do so, creating misunderstandings and inaccurate perceptions. Good PR doesn’t obscure or complicate, but instead opens channels of communication and clarifies.

In terms of proactive media relations, earning third-party support is crucial to earning trust among your audience. It’s easy to say you’re an authority in your space, but it’s not as powerful if you don’t have someone trustworthy ready to vouch for you. The reality is that when a customer or potential partner hears about you, they’ll probably Google you, and if they don’t find a few articles from publications they recognize, you’ve lost credibility.

Alright, sold. So when should I expect to get in The New York Times or be on Good Morning America?

This has to be one of the most common questions every PR firm gets. And it’s completely understandable – if you’re paying professionals, you should expect the best.

However, it’s a little like asking your personal trainer when you’ll be a swimsuit model, or asking your basketball coach when you’ll be in the NBA. The question can’t truthfully be answered without first analyzing where you are, and where you want to go.

In other words, a smart PR approach looks at the story behind your company, the work it’s doing, and how that all fits into larger public conversations and trends. A solid strategy looks at who your intended audience is, and what those people read and watch. This strategy also focuses on specific business goals that can be supported through media coverage.

At the end of that process, you may find that getting coverage in The New York Times isn’t as worthwhile as getting consistent quotes and features in a magazine that specifically targets your audience. You may also find that while you love GMA, hardly any members of your target audience do, meaning that there are probably other outlets that you should be focusing on.

All that being said, if your goal is to get in a major mainstream newspaper or a popular news broadcast, it’s totally possible, but not without a good story. Just like getting in the NBA, you need something that makes you stand out from tens of thousands of competitors in order to secure only a few opportunities. And, just like a good coach, a good PR team will work with you to craft a story worthy of the most elite news outlets.

So how would I even know whether all this is even working?

Well, that’s why it’s critical to have goals at the outset of an effort. So many businesses want to just get coverage without clearly defining what their goals are, so there’s no way to even approximate whether it’s successful. It’s more of an emotional exercise – getting press feels good – rather than a strategic one that actually ties back to business.

We evaluate public relations on a number of levels. The easiest is on a case-by-case basis. Did this particular story or interview get our message across clearly and accurately? Did all our best quotes make it in that segment? Did you secure coverage in your key publications that your audience reads?

There are some measurable metrics related to your public relations campaigns, like headline impressions, social conversations, pageviews, distribution, etc. These metrics can give you a rough sense of how broadly your message was spread. Often, you’ll find that you reached far more people through public relations, for far less money, than you would have through advertising. Some firms calculate advertising equivalencies to point this out even more explicitly, showing how much it would have cost to advertise in that same outlet at that same time.

Ultimately, ongoing sustained efforts should raise your organization’s’ profile and awareness, but how this is reflected will be unique to your business. It might be as obvious as someone reaches out because they saw you in an article. Or, it could be the case you share the article directly with potential customers or partners to get them more interested in your business. It’s also the case that in the Internet Age, articles live for years, if not indefinitely, and that by accumulating good press you’re increasing the chances of someone learning about your business years from now.

Great. Any other resources you’d recommend where we can learn more about this?

Everywhere! When you’re reading, watching or listening to the news, pay attention to the organizations that are profiled, quoted or consulted, and evaluate what impression their media presence leaves you with. Pay special attention to crisis situations. When a major organization has a negative event, how they respond and how the public interprets and reacts to their response is a great way to learn about what works and doesn’t work.

Still have questions? Contact us at

This article was written by Mary Cosmides and Lee Procida. It is part of our B On The Basics series, in which we explain marketing fundamentals using Braithwaite best practices. Read more in this series.

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