What is PR?
Public relations (PR) is the art of using the media to improve an organisation or individual’s relationship with a specific audience. Aims and tactics can vary: a typical PR goal could be to draw attention to a particular product or service, or to deflect attention away from a negative story.
So why is PR important? It’s an interesting question, and one that presupposes that PR is important. We live in an age where it can be fiendishly difficult to publicise the things that you want noticed, and equally hard (per the Streisand effect) to keep things under wraps. Many also argue, half-persuasively, that good products and services speak for themselves. They may well do – but at its best, PR makes sure that they actually get heard.
Nonetheless, its reputation as one of the ‘dark arts’ ensures that the profession is enveloped by an air of mystique. People don’t know what it is or how it works, and if you tell them, they’re liable to assume that you’re someone’s PA. This causes obvious problems when it comes to measuring success – and conveying that success to sceptical clients.
So here’s what it actually involves.
Managing, and improving a company’s public perception
Sometimes it’s about making sure that a company with no real public profile is known to its target audience. This can involve contributing bylined pieces to industry or national media, training a business’ employees to act as spokespeople and then putting them forward for interviews, or supplying comment via a tool such as ResponseSource. By placing them front-and-centre in this media, awareness of the organisation or individual is increased.
If a business is front and centre in its target media, it’s undoubtedly in a better position than a relatively anonymous competitor. The choice between Company A – which has contributed comment to the FT, The Guardian, and Inc., supplied articles to Entrepreneur and Forbes, and appeared in The Sunday Times’ Tech Track 100 – and Company B, which provides much the same services with no comparable profile, is fairly obvious.
Beyond awareness, PR provides businesses with credibility: a known quantity is usually a safer bet than an unknown quantity. By using the expertise of employees to provide thought leadership to relevant media, the business’ standing is immediately improved. An organisation that has won multiple awards is usually in a better position to attract VC funding. A company’s sales pitch is immediately improved when the recipient already knows of the company.
On a slightly unrelated note, PR is increasingly intertwined with SEO. When a company contributes pieces to a publication, it will usually receive a followed link – boosting their position on Google’s search engine results page. Even if the company doesn’t get a link, all other things being equal, SEO experts claim that brand mentions can make all the difference in the top five positions.
This is a valuable and somewhat underdiscussed PR outcome: in 2017, search engines are how many, if not most, customers find businesses. If an organisation hits the coveted #1 spot, it may well end up being their #1 choice – not through superior products or services, but by the sheer convenient virtue of occupying that space.
Maintaining your agency’s reputation
Needless to say, it’s also about protecting your agency’s own reputation. If your own public image is shady, unscrupulous, or untrustworthy, then clients aren’t likely to work with you – cobbler’s children, and all that. The collapse of Bell Pottinger provides a recent and instructive example of this principle in action.
The above goals are admirable, of course, but quantifying them isn’t always easy. The Barcelona Principles – outlined here – suggest a way forward in terms of goal-setting, but they’re by no means unanimously adopted or applied. To many, PR success remains a fundamentally ungraspable thing.
This poses a problem for PR agencies, because give a marketer a chance and they will measure the number of corn kernels in a bowel movement (as we’re also a marketing agency, we can attest to this from experience). When they report to the CMO, they need concrete results, and media relations teams often struggle to provide them.
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We can likely agree on the importance of coverage: that, the more positive accumulated articles, interviews, and contributed blogs a company has in their target media, the better. But when it comes to metrics – especially those set early on – it’s easy for things to get out of hand. At heart, PR’s value lies in its ability to focus attention on the client. The best way to do this is to provide a sustained campaign of interesting commentary.
One of our clients recently, upon pitching for business with a major bank, was asked: “How the fuck did a company as young as yours get so much press coverage – especially in publications like the FT?” That’s the best feedback a PR can receive: that, through their actions, they’ve managed to make small companies appear bigger than they are – that the people who matter have sat up and noticed them. Why is PR important? It makes sure that interesting people with interesting ideas get the platform they deserve.
This naturally doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a protracted, frustrating process for every business: one with peaks, troughs, and seemingly-endless waiting. Figuring out how to communicate a client’s value to journalists, whether they work for the trade press or national media, takes time and sustained effort.
It’s always worth it, though – because when you can shine the media’s spotlight on your clients, you can help their businesses grow and improve over the short and long-term. For all the talk about dark arts, spin doctoring, and manipulation, we’re ultimately just builders by a different name.
Is your business in need of some good PR? Get in touch with our media relations gurus today.