Every professional and business person has heard of PR, but here’s a little secret: if you asked them all “what is PR?” many would be completely stumped, while most would provide some vague answer about communications and media relations.

That’s because most people don’t really know what PR people do. They know we have an important role in marketing and branding, but if pressed, they can’t quite put their finger on how we do what we do. If you’re a little bit confused about the wizardry that is PR too, read on, because we’ve got the inside scoop – and a definitive answer to the question “what is public relations?”

Want a deep dive into public relations strategy, tactics and free PR tools?

Then check out our awesome PR Playbook!


Public Relations Defined

In our last post How to Define Public Relations? Get the Lowdown here, we defined public relations as:

“The deliberate, planned and sustained effort to create and build positive relationships through value-adding communications, primarily between an organisation and its target customers, to increase new customer acquisition, customer retention rates, and profit margins.”

We explained that while most people think of PR as reactionary, it is actually much more effective when it is a carefully planned, deliberate, pre-emptive process. That’s very important to keep in mind when you are weighing the pros and cons of hiring a PR company.

All the work you put into PR before something goes wrong goes a long way increasing profitability and to weathering business’s inevitable storms!


The History of Public Relations

Many people think that public relations is a modern invention. The truth is, however, that the profession can trace its roots back to the very early 1900s in the United Kingdom.

Long before inappropriate Tweets were sinking careers, PR professionals were working their magic for artists, performers and business people.


What The Experts Say When Asked “What is PR?”

How could we explain what public relations is without including some awesome examples of what influential people throughout history think of PR?

Here are a collection of ten great quotes that help to capture what PR is all about:

  1. “Everything you do or say is public relations.” – Unknown
  2. “If a young man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is – that’s advertising. If the young man tells his date she’s intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, he’s saying the right things to the right person and that’s marketing. If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is – that’s PR.” – H. Simmons
  3. “Public-relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.” – Alan Harrington
  4. “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” – Warren Buffet
  5. “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about at all.” – Oscar Wilde
  6. “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” – Unknown
  7. “In a downturn, aggressive PR and communications strategy is” – Doug Leone, VC, Sequoia Capital – Silicon Alley Insider
  8. “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR!” – Bill Gates
  9. “Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad.” – Richard Branson
  10. “Historically, PR, Marketing and Advertising budgets are the first to be cut; however, that could be one of the first mistakes a business makes in an economic crisis.” – CBS Marketwatch


What PR Is… and Isn’t

Public relations is a very broad term that encompasses a huge variety of specific marketing related disciplines and specialities. It may include any or all of:

  • Reputation management
  • Influencer management
  • Event planning
  • Communications
  • Media relations
  • Public affairs
  • Community outreach
  • Sponsorship and partnerships
  • Speechwriting
  • Executive communications
  • Investor relations
  • Social media and content marketing
  • Crisis communications
  • Internal communications

And a whole lot more!

Public relations is not just one thing. You cannot go into the office in the morning “do public relations” and then move on to the next task. It’s a fluid collection of tasks, plans and strategies that are rolled out over time.

It may incorporate elements of marketing, advertising and media relations, but it’s so much more than anyone of those. Which probably explains why so many people ask what is public relations in the first place!

Most importantly, remember that PR is not advertising! In fact, there are several important differences between these two services:

 AdvertisingPublic Relations
CostAdvertising is always about paid advertisements.

Advertising is generally expensive but the cost can be reduced with highly targeted online campaigns (e.g. Google AdWords, Bing Ads, Facebook Ads and Promoted Posts).

PR focuses on getting your business free media coverage.

However, this free coverage has to be earned. This takes a lot of skill, time and patience. But on the whole, it works out to be far more economical.

ControlBecause you pay for advertising, you can basically say what you like as long as it doesn’t conflict with the advertising standards regulations for the location that the ads are published in. See the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau for example.

You can also specify when and where it will be seen in the media.

There is less control over PR messages. Essentially it involves pitching ideas to journalists and other influencers. The ideas may then choose to change the idea or not use it all.

However, as journalists are under increasing pressure to publish more stories in less time they are becoming ever more receptive to PR generated content, particularly from a trusted source (like us).

CredibilityEveryone knows that ads are designed to sell them something. People are naturally more guarded and sceptical about ads.

One of the big trends in online advertising is Adblocking. It’s likely that the majority of your target audience doesn’t want to see your ads:

  • Adblocker Plus, the most popular ad blocking app, has reached 300 million downloads worldwide. (HubSpot, 2016)
  • 64% of ad blocker users do so because they believe ads are annoying or intrusive. (HubSpot, 2016)
  • 41% of ad blocker users found out about ad blockers by word of mouth. (HubSpot, 2016)
A well-written press release or editorial piece doesn’t seem like advertising (because it’s not!) so people are usually more receptive.

Great PR provides journalists and influencers with timely and newsworthy information and stories.

An article written by a journalist about a business providing them with this kind of content should be written in an unbiased manner, and by default, it carries the journalist’s endorsement.

Because of this, your target audience should view the article with a lot more credibility than an advertisement. This is also because the article is not obviously trying to sell them something.

In this context, PR can be so powerful that it actually shapes public opinion.

A nose for a storyAdvertising is always about pushing your message to the media.Done correctly, a PR campaign will get editors and news publishers calling you for news and statements.
Length of coverageWith advertising, you are always limited by your budget. As long as you are paying for the ads to run, they run. As soon as you stop, they stop.

Without combining advertising with other strategically complementary forms of marketing communications it’s an extremely expensive and generally unsustainable way to grow a business.

PR stories are generally pitched to lots of journalists and other influencers. Because of this, when the story is newsworthy and timely its generally published numerous times in many different unique and interesting ways. Additionally, the coverage can be staggered so that the length of coverage increases.

Perhaps the greatest advantage here is that when the story is published online, it generally remains published forever.

So the length of coverage can be infinite while also contributing positively to a business’s website through SEO.

How Does Public Relations Help Businesses?

The next big question in the PR arena is how all of these hard to pin down skills and specialities help businesses, and whether it’s a good idea for your business. That’s a tough question to answer, and it depends on where you are in the evolution of your company, and what your overall marketing strategy looks like.

On the one hand, you simply cannot get a more comprehensive marketing, reputation and brand management discipline than this anywhere else. On the other, professional PR services typically aren’t cheap (although they are cost-effective), and they might not be the right solution for a brand-new start-up with a tiny budget.

If you do have the room in your budget to hire a PR firm, then there are several reasons why it’s a great idea. These include:

  • Create and implement organic marketing and advertising plans that bypass traditional outbound strategies, and put your brand front and centre. When you think of any household name, it was a PR company that put them there!
  • PR companies focus very tightly on your target market. So rather than spending your marketing budget throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, you can maximise every dollar.
  • Find friends and partners in high places. Public relations specialists already know the editors of the trade magazines you want to reach, and they’re already invited to the big industry parties you want to attend. It may not be the most obvious answer to what is public relations, but very often, the most effective part of your PR strategy is the warm introduction you get.
  • Finally, when you work with a PR professional, you work on building a community. A tribe of fans and followers that are a big part of your publicity machine.

The magic of public relations is that it is cumulative. Your strategy will be designed to grow and solidify over time. Done right, eventually, your target market will seek out your marketing message, rather than you having to chase them down with it, and that saves time and money in the long term.


Our Success Stories

Any good public relations company will have a long list of happy clients ready and willing to back up their claims, and we’re no different.

We work across multiple industries, solving problems for our clients, many of whom were asking what is public relations before we got started too. We’ve helped brands like foodora to manage the public roll-out of their Suppertime re-brand and acquisition, then boost app engagement and sales, and we’ve worked minor marketing miracles for clients like Freedom Foods and Travelodge Hotels.

Each client had different needs, goals and challenges, and we’re proud to say that we got awesome results, every time.


Is PR Right for You?

More important than answering the question of “what is public relations?” is to answer the question of whether it’s right for you. We’d love to help you do just that if you’re ready to talk. If you’re not quite sure, that’s fine too. We’d recommend that you visit our website anyway, and read posts like our list of 13 Free PR Tools that you can use to get started.

Public relations is not a one-hit wonder. It’s not about one video that’s viral today and gone tomorrow. Although quick-wins are generally possible, to get the best results week after week, month after month, year after year, PR should be a sustained, long-term campaign to create or change public perception. It’s the art and science of creating a positive public image, and when it is done right, it will make customers want to buy from you. Talk about a captive audience!

Follow us on social media, or subscribe to our newsletter (it’s free!), read our PR Playbook, and when you’ve decided that PR might work for you, get in touch. We’re friendly, and we’re happy to answer all your other questions, and we’ll work out a tailored solution for you too.

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