Public Relations

by Debbie Leven

In a nutshell

1. What is PR?

PR is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

  • Achieving press and media coverage is certainly part of it, but it also includes communicating with staff, suppliers, local interest groups, other business people, investors, donors and membership/governing/representative bodies.
  • It is about good publicity, in its broadest sense.
  • PR also includes crisis planning, so that when a crisis occurs the damage can be limited; if the company handles matters well, goodwill may be earned.
  • PR needs to fit into the wider context of the organisation’s marketing activity.
  • PS is essentially concerned with managing reputation – the impression held of an organisation.


2. The difference between PR and marketing

Marketing covers a broader remit than PR, because it looks at the different elements involved in identifying and satisfying needs. One of those elements is promotion and PR is just one of a number of ways of promoting an organisation, an individual, products, services and so on. Other methods of promotion include direct sales, advertising, direct mail and sales promotion.

  • Marketing tends to focus on the customer and making sales, where PR usually has a wider remit than just the customer and focuses on perception and building and protecting reputation.
  • Advertising and PR are different elements of the marketing mix and they fulfil different roles: in advertising, you define and control the message and you know that, providing you pay the agreed amount for the space/air time, the advert will appear as you have defined it.
  • Advertorial is similar to advertising, as it is paid for. It is designed to look, however, like PR and includes editorial and sometimes a photo.


3. What activities does PR cover?

Usually, PR is associated with press and media relations – the activity of building and managing relations with the press and media, but it may also include communicating with staff and stakeholders. PR activities include

  • Creating ideas and devising and implementing plans to generate press and media attention
  • Handling unexpected calls from journalists
  • Updating elements of the website or drafting copy for it
  • Producing or overseeing the production of brochures, leaflets, annual reviews and display stands
  • Organising events
  • Crisis management
  • Sponsorship, the details of which may be handled by a niche agency
  • Online activities, including online publications, blogging, e-newsletters and press releases with hyperlinks
  • Communicating with political representatives and others in government – lobbying.


4. The value of PR

While generating press and media coverage may be important, it is not the objective in itself. The main aim is to build confidence and trust among actual and potential stakeholders, including investors, and among customers. With this in mind, ways in which PR offers value to the organisation include

  • Educating
  • Influencing
  • Building trust
  • Informing
  • Stimulating demand
  • Repairing reputation
  • Building reputation
  • Stimulating debate or interest
  • Creating new business partnerships
  • Motivating employees
  • Establishing a brand
  • Building goodwill.


5. Evaluating PR

When evaluating PR, some organisations compare the press and media coverage achieved with the equivalent cost to the organisation of achieving that coverage through advertising. However, there several ways in which to evaluate PR, aside from Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE):

  • Survey of key groups
  • Website monitoring
  • Attendance at events
  • Tracking where sales leads come from
  • Key message penetration
  • Circulation – figures available for the number of copies sold of a publication
  • Readership – it is estimated that up to three people will read a single publication, so the readership figure is calculated by taking the circulation figure and multiplying it by 2.5 to 3.


6. The role of PR in the organisation

Ideally, any PR activity should be linked to PR objectives that have been defined and based on the organisation’s mission, vision and corporate level objectives. In fact, the PR department is often in an ideal position to contribute to the corporate vision, mission and objectives.

  • Marketing is concerned with identifying and satisfying customers needs profitably. PR seeks to address the relationship with customers and with other audiences, such as local community groups, pressure groups, staff, suppliers, local MPs, press and media (an audience in its own right as well as a conduit to others), and other organisations in the same sector.
  • As the ‘ears’ and ‘eyes’ of the organisation, the PR department is in touch with what is happening within the organisation as well as having an understanding of how the various key audiences perceive the organisation.
  • The PR department should also assist the HR department in communicating effectively with employees.


7. Planning PR

In general, the starting point for an organisation is to establish the perceptions of key audiences and then compare these to ideal perceptions.

  • Any focus on PR would look to create a perception, build on or enhance a current perception, or change a perception.
  • Current perceptions may be gauged through surveys, interviews and media coverage to date.
  • Initial PR objectives are revised to ensure that they are SMART.
  • Carrying out research on a regular basis provides a useful yardstick to measure changes in perception and highlight shifting attitudes.
  • The results of evaluation should help to shape future PR activity and this should really be an ongoing process.


8. The PR department

In some organisations, the PR function will be handled either by a specific department or by personnel within another department (such as marketing). Other organisations manage their PR by outsourcing either part or all of it, depending on their needs.

  • In some organisations, there may be a separate press office, focusing solely on proactive and reactive press and media relations.
  • On a day-to-day basis, staff will monitor coverage, as well as the news in general, to identify opportunities, highlight where reporting is inaccurate and needs to be responded to, and monitor the topics and areas of interest on which journalists are focusing.
  • Issues monitoring is an important part of PR activity.
  • The advent of the internet has opened up many more opportunities for PR, placing increasing demands on PR departments and specialists.
  • The department will typically use a range of suppliers including photographers, a cuttings agency, designers, researchers, a media database, media trainers and other specialists.


9. PR and journalists

A PR professional will target key press and media when issuing information. Depending on the story, they may also issue their news release to news agencies. The PR department or adviser will secure positive press and media coverage in a number of ways:

  • By issuing press releases announcing news
  • Providing comment on the back of news issued by other organisations (interview, quote, letters to editor)
  • Securing feature opportunities – to tie in with news issued
  • Securing special interest feature opportunities
  • Focusing on news that is interesting because it is unusual, new, dramatic, challenging and so on
  • Providing journalists with information, statistics, case studies and so on that are particularly relevant to their interest area and what they are working on (this may be proactive or reactive – keeping a journalist updated or responding to a request for information from the journalist).


10. PR tools

A number of tools may be used by the PR department or your PR adviser, including

  • The press release, which is written in a particular style and format to spark interest from journalists
  • The press pack – a collection of documents designed to give further background briefing for journalists
  • The press briefing – a telephone conversation or face-to-face meeting, to give journalists the opportunity to get an in-depth understanding of a subject or issue
  • The press conference
  • Photography – a picture paints a thousand words
  • The photo call, often concerning events involving celebrities/well-known personalities
  • Telephone/email ‘pitch’
  • Case studies help to demonstrate personal experience and add human interest
  • Press notice – a short and concise document used to announce something to the press and media
  • Letters to editor
  • Interview
  • Statement
  • Articles.


11. Supporting the PR function

Positive PR is good for the organisation as a whole as well as for individual departments. It’s important to communicate regularly with the PR department to keep in touch with what they are working on and let them know what is happening in your own department. They will be particularly interested in

  • What is new
  • Changes in the department
  • Customer stories/experiences
  • Staff stories/experiences
  • Anything unusual – customer requests, problems solved for customers and so on
  • Significant dates/events/anniversaries
  • Strange coincidences
  • Links with charities/the local community.


12. If you are contacted by a journalist

Reasons why you may be contacted include press releases from your organisation or a competitor, because of a rumour, or because a crisis has come to light. Whatever the reason for the contact, you should refer back to the PR department.

  • Be polite – take down all the relevant contact details and pass the information on to PR, but don’t make comments on the situation yourself.
  • In some companies it can be a disciplinary offence to talk to the press without authorisation from PR.
  • Remember that handling journalists requires a certain amount of training and experience, so if it’s appropriate for you to do an interview, PR will want to help you prepare first.


13. PR and my team

Your team needs to know about the important role of PR within the organisation – building and protecting profile. Staff also need to be aware of the issues, concerns and activities that will be of interest to the PR department or the PR adviser.

  • Bad publicity/no publicity does not mean that the PR department has not been liaising with journalists.
  • In a crisis, the role of PR is to provide accurate and timely information and, where and if appropriate, acknowledge responsibility.
  • Seek advice from the PR department about advising your team and handling any questions.
  • It is also advisable to keep in constant contact with the PR department regarding any updated information as well as to highlight any questions or concerns your own team has.


14. The PR role in crisis management

The earlier the PR department is made aware of a potential incident, the better prepared the team can be to manage attention from the press and media and key audiences, including staff. PR staff will play a role in helping to manage the incident, including

  • Advising on the strategic approach to take
  • Identifying the key audiences to be communicated with
  • Drafting support materials – statements, questions and answers, and briefing documents.


15. Hired help

Organisations seek the help of PR consultants, agencies or freelancers, for a number of reasons:

  • Organisations which do not have a full-time PR function may find using a freelance consultant or PR agency a useful way to pursue PR objectives
  • Consultants, agencies and freelancers, can provide useful extra resources for particular campaigns or activities – ensuring that regular day-to-day activities are not disrupted
  • The organisation may need to access to specialist skills and sector expertise
  • It may make more financial sense for some organisations to use a flexible PR resource than employ new staff and incur the additional costs this entails.