How Public Relations Works

Public relations professionals manage image for a company or individual such as scheduling publicity tours.

 

What is Public Relations?

A basic definition of public relations is to shape and maintain the image of a company, organization or individual in the eyes of the client’s various “publics.” What is a “public” exactly? A public, in PR terms, is anyone who ever has or ever will form an opinion about the client.

Depending on the nature of the client’s work, these publics could include clients, potential clients, voters, members of the local community, members of the media, students, parents of students, online fans groups, foreign citizens — the list is endless.

Public relations success requires a deep understanding of the interests and concerns of each the client’s many publics. The public relations professional must know how to effectively address those concerns using the most powerful tool of the PR trade: publicity [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

Entrepreneur.com defines public relations purely in terms of publicity work, describing PR as “Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives” [source: Entrepreneur.com].

In many cases, the chief duty of the public relations professional is to draft press releases, which are sent to targeted members of the media. But to limit the scope of the public relations definition to publicity alone would be to underestimate the growing influence and reach of PR.

For example, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes is scheduled to speak at the Public Relations Society of America’s annual conference about “public diplomacy,” a branch of government public relations. Public diplomacy is shaping the image of a nation (in this case, the United States) in the eyes of both traditional allies and enemy states.

Today’s public relations professional does much more than sit behind a desk faxing out press releases. More than ever, he’s the public face of the client. It’s the PR professional who organizes community outreach and volunteer programs. It’s the PR representative who cultivates relationships with potential investors. And it’s the PR executive who goes on the cable TV news program to answer the tough questions.

Read on to learn more about what PR professionals do.

What Does A Public Relations Agency Do?

We don’t buy ads.

We don’t write stories for reporters

We don’t put up billboards.

We don’t come up with catchy phrases to make people buy more products they probably don’t need.

So what do public relations agencies do?

PR agencies, as opposed to advertising agencies, promote companies or individuals via editorial coverage.  This is known as “earned” or “free” media — stories appearing on websites, newspapers, magazines and TV programs — as compared to “paid media” or advertisements.

PR agencies and advertising agencies share the same goals:  promoting clients and making them seem as successful, honest, important, exciting or relevant as possible.  But the paths to creating awareness are vastly different.  Most people understand advertising is paid for by the client and should be viewed with skepticism.  Articles or TV appearances in respected publications have the advantage of third-party validation and are generally viewed more favorably.

The Public Relations Society of America defines the management of public relations as:

  • “Anticipating, analyzing and interpreting public opinion, attitudes and issues that might impact, for good or ill, the operations and plans of the organization.
  • Counseling management at all levels in the organization with regard to policy decisions, courses of action and communication, taking into account their public ramifications and the organization’s social or citizenship responsibilities.
  • Researching, conducting and evaluating, on a continuing basis, programs of action and communication to achieve the informed public understanding necessary to the success of an organization’s aims. These may include marketing; financial; fund raising; employee, community or government relations; and other programs.
  • Planning and implementing the organization’s efforts to influence or change public policy. Setting objectives, planning, budgeting, recruiting and training staff, developing facilities — in short, managing the resources needed to perform all of the above.”

That’s a good overview of the general functions of a public relations agency.  The tactics include some or all of the following:

  • Write and distribute press releases
  • Speech writing
  • Write pitches (less formal than press releases) about a firm and send them directly to journalists
  • Create and execute special events designed for public outreach and media relations
  • Conduct market research on the firm or the firm’s messaging
  • Expansion of business contacts via personal networking or attendance and sponsoring at events
  • Copy writing and blogging for the web (internal or external sites)
  • Crisis public relations strategies
  • Social media promotions and responses to negative opinions online

Firms and individuals should hire a public relations agency when they want to protect, enhance or build their reputations through the media.  A good agency or PR practitioner can analyze the organization, find the positive messages and translate those messages into positive media stories.  When the news is bad, an agency can formulate the best response and mitigate the damage.

I love PR (public relations)I love PR (public relations) (Photo credit: Jerry Silfwer)

“A good agency is a strategic partner who helps clients successfully talk to and with their audiences,” says Bob Gold of Bob Gold & Associates of Redondo Beach, CA CA -1.32%. “An agency is a good listener to the marketplace and knows what conversation starters will work, but also what just might catch fire. How well can your agency push back on ideas without offending? And are they an innovative partner, or a bunch of “yes men and women?”

Gold advises clients to look for the best cultural fit. “Can your agency find and “ get” your voice?  And do they lead the conversation, like a good dinner partner or are they too busy gathering clips?”

Effective publicists have great relationships with many different journalists in many different industries.  Many PR pros are former journalists, so they know the best ways to pitch a story and to reach editors and reporters.  Since they are not employees of the firm that hires them, they can give an honest, outsider view of the firm and the potential for what story ideas will work.

The relationship between client and agency should not be passive.  Clients should inform the agency what messages they would like to promote and make suggestions on where they would like to appear.  Very few stories make the front page of the New York Times, but with a media atmosphere that includes blogs, websites, TV shows, magazines and other media that evolves every day, a good PR agency will help clients increase their visibility via increased recognition on as many respected editorial platforms as possible.  Long term, public relations can be an investment in the brand and the visibility of a firm or individual that results in increased recognition and reputation.