What Is Public Relations?

The role of public relations is crucial to building and maintaining a good reputation for a company, yet there’s often confusion surrounding what exactly it does. What is public relations? If you ask 100 random people this question, you’ll likely get 100 different answers.

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” I think this definition is too academic for many companies that are struggling to figure out how to “do” PR.

Even though most businesses know that PR is important, there’s a lot of confusion about what it entails. That’s why it’s important to differentiate PR from other marketing techniques. Crucially, the relationships that PR strives to build through its communication methods are two-way streets.

What PR Does

In the PESO marketing model, four pillars — paid, earned, shared and owned media — work hand in hand. Public relations focuses on earned media, which is the purest form of media and the hardest to attain because you can’t pay for it — you have to earn it. That’s why it’s also the most powerful marketing tool. To earn placements in the media, a company must offer something of value. Journalists and publications want to provide value to their readers. Therefore, good PR outreach starts with the question, “Why is this important for people to know?”

PR activities are centered on reputation building, positioning and helping a company establish itself as a trusted authority in its industry. To accomplish this, it’s crucial for companies to build credibility through organic coverage from top-tier, respected journalists. Once a company builds up its name, that makes it a lot easier for it to get its news and announcements covered by journalists. PR also helps a business respond to crisis situations — so the company can maintain the good reputation it has worked so hard to build.

Many people mistakenly think of PR as being reactive — springing into action only when a company has news to announce or in response to a crisis. While those are important aspects, PR is also very proactive. What sets excellent PR people apart from good PR people? The former are proactive and always try to see how they can make their brands part of the broader conversation about timely news topics by actually monitoring what people are talking about on the web and riding the news agenda. 

Commentary is a great way for company leaders to gain visibility. Executives quoted in industry-related articles are often seen as thought leaders. This requires establishing strong connections with reporters and becoming a resource they can rely on to help them craft more informative and accurate articles. Providing commentary does not mean talking about a company’s products or services. It means providing important industry context to a journalist about an event or situation — such as how new legislation might affect an industry — or offering insights to enrich a reporter’s educational article.

One of the best ways PR works proactively to establish a good reputation and credibility is through guest posts and articles in relevant publications that demonstrate the knowledge of the team behind the brand. These establish a company’s team members as authorities in their industry and create brand recognition ahead of any outreach about company news or announcements. Good PR creates a virtuous cycle in which having credibility as an industry authority helps a company gain more visibility in the press, and increased visibility in the press leads to greater credibility as an industry authority.

When there is news to share, PR handles outreach to the media through press releases or by arranging speaking engagements for the company’s spokesperson. These speaking opportunities can include interviews with key journalists and presentations at industry events, as well as guest appearances on podcasts.

What PR Doesn’t Do

First and foremost, PR is not about traffic or sales in the short term. Over the long term, it can lead to that through brand building. Having a great product or service will only get you so far if no one has ever heard of you.

While public relations tends to fall within companies’ marketing verticals, it is distinctly different from marketing in that the point is not to drum up leads. It’s not like advertising, where you pay Y and get X number of clicks. Guest posts meant for reputation building ideally should not promote a company’s technology, and a company’s name should not be mentioned anywhere except in the byline and the author’s biography.

PR also does not slam the competition. Many companies mistakenly think that highlighting their own unique selling points means bad-mouthing other companies within their industry. However, if you’re spending your time bashing the competition, you’re not spending your time promoting what you do better than them.

Finally, PR doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mislead — either the client or the public — to get attention. Because PR is all about building up a good reputation and establishing credibility, one instance of misleading can mar the image a company has worked hard to craft.

There Are No Quick Fixes

Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Public relations is a long game. It takes time to establish a good reputation and to become known as an authority in an industry. PR focuses on building up your company and your team in the media. If you have a good PR team, you’ll see them getting quoted or mentioned on a regular basis in the press, or you’ll hear them speaking at events or on podcasts. 

When PR is bad, you’ll notice it. When it flops, it can flop spectacularly and get a company into the news for the wrong reasons. Good PR doesn’t draw attention to itself. In fact, when it’s good, you often don’t even notice it — you only see the positive buzz it generates for the company.