Public Relations

Public relations is a set of activities within marketing and corporate communications. The aim is to generate positive media coverage and perception of your brand and your company. In this guide we’ll cover the six key activities that typically make up public relations. We’ll also cover a basic process on how to activate and evaluate public relations.

Public Relations

How this guide raises your game

  1. Learn the role of public relations and the six key activities which can support your marketing plan.
  2. Read our guide to the key tools and channels that support public relations activities.
  3. Define the basic process for public relations activities and hot evaluate the impact on perceptions and sales.

Public relations covers any activity which influences how the public perceives your brand or company.

This perception normally comes through media channels. These are channels with journalists or influencers who will report on or talk about your brand or company. 

These media channels can be traditional media such as TV, radio, newspapers or magazines.

But these days the scope of public relations also extends to online channels and social media.

Public relations can support your marketing plan at all areas of the brand choice funnel. But as we’ll cover, its most common use is to drive awareness and consideration.

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Introduction to public relations

Public relations forms part of your overall communication plans within the marketing plan. While it can deliver against similar objectives to advertising and media, it delivers these objectives in a quite different way. 

With advertising and media, you have a very controlled, planned and predictable experience. You control what your target audience sees, hears or reads. You control the message and when and where they see it.

With public relations, you do not have anywhere near the same level of control. 

Note taking

With public relations, you still create messages, but you don’t usually directly pay for media for that message to appear. You work with journalists and influencers so that they pick up the content and feature or use it in their channels.

In some instances, there can be an element of payment, such as in advertorials (education themed sponsored content) or sponsorships, but public relations is much more concerned with relationships than with direct transactional payments.

The advantages of public relations

The upside of public relations when it works well is that impartial third parties outside your company pass on your message. This impartiality can make the message seems more credible.

Because the message hasn’t come directly from you, it is seen to be more independent and believable.

After all, consumers realise that in your advertising you will always try to give the best image of your brand. But when a trusted independent party talks about your brand or message, this can be more meaningful to the consumer. 

Also, when a journalist or influencer features your content, you get access to their target audience with your message. This access may be free. Or paid for through a sponsored content type arrangement. But even when paid for, it can often work out as a more cost effective way to generate reach than direct media. This sponsored or endorsed content is more likely to be read or watched than advertising. 

The disadvantages of public relations

However, there is a flip side to this independent endorsement and free / sponsored access to audiences. With public relations, the editorial judgement over the content belongs to the journalist or influencer. Which means they can alter, change or edit the content to fit their objective and not yours. 

This is one of the biggest challenges of public relations. Compared to advertising and media, you have much less control of the end outcome. There are many fewer guarantees in the world of public relations.

If your public relations content or story is not interesting, it can be ignored. Or even worse, it might get a negative reaction from journalists or influencers. It could have a negative impact on the perception of your brand. 

The scope of public relations

So, with that in mind, let’s first start by defining the scope of public relations. We will cover six key activities – media relations, product publicity, corporate communications, lobbying, advisory and sponsorship. 

Media relations

The role of media relations is to manage your brand and company’s image and reputation with media outlets and journalists. But online opinion leaders and influencers can also come into the scope of media relations. 

From a marketing point of view, it is often used as a way to increase awareness of your brand or company. You influence the journalist or influencer to mention your brand in a relevant article.

It can also be used to reinforce your positioning statement. You provide the journalist or influencer with relevant news or content. And they use that content to help associate your brand with a particular brand equity statement.

For example, where you want to position your brand as an expert in your category. So you share expert content with journalists and influencers. This method of media relations creates a perception of your brand as the ‘go to’ source for information and content. 

Identify journalists and influencers

A big part of media relations is the ability to identify and prioritise the key journalists and influencers in your category. When you know who they are and how influential they are, you choose how to build a trusted relationship with them over time.

You may already know who the key journalist or influencers in your category are. But if not, then you should carry out some secondary research online.

Which websites or publications come first when you search on terms related to your category? The great thing about Google Search Rankings is they give you some direction on the popularity of the content. The algorithm puts the most useful and popular content towards the top of the list. 

Newspaper on fire

You can do the same search check in key social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Which pages feature near the top of the list for relevant topics? Who has the most likes or followers?

What about if you look at online forums or discussion threads? Where do most of the comments come from? Who is cited by others as being an expert or authority on the topic? It’s important to keep an eye on relevant discussions online. These can help you track who has the most influence.

Make a contact list

As part of media relations, you should make a key contact list for all relevant journalists and influencers. If you use a public relations agency, they will do this for you. But it should be relatively easy to do yourself. 

However, you may find this list is longer than you need. So you need to prioritise the connects. You should also to apply a ‘quality’ score to each of the contacts based on their level of influence and openness to work with you. This scoring will give you a ranking and grouping for each of the contacts.

This approach essentially follows a similar process to segmentation and targeting. Except that this time your target audience are the influencers and not consumers. 

Influencer quality score to prioritise

So how do you come up with this quality score? There’s no single best way to do this but here are some ways it is commonly done. 

At the simplest level you can score people higher based on how many people they reach

If it’s a TV or radio based influencer for example, how many people watch their shows? If it’s a print based influencer, how many people read the publication? And if the journalist or influencer posts online, what are the digital data statistics that sit behind the website or social media platform? 

But the quality score should also reflect the style of the influencer. And how well their style fits with your brand identity.

Do they have influence over the type of target audience you want to attract for example? What do they think about your brand or company and what it does?

How are they to deal with? Are they open-minded and easy to work with? Or do they want too much control over the content? Also, who else do they work with? Do they work with any of your competitors? You want to make sure there is no conflict of interest.

Group influencers into segments

What you’ll ideally end up with is three different groups.

The first group is your #1 focus for media relations. This will usually be a small number of influencers who have the most reach. And the best fit with your brand. Then, your #2 group might have a slightly bigger list of influencers who have some impact but less than your #1 group. And finally, you will have a #3 group which is “everyone else”.

For each of these groups, you would have a different contact and content strategy for your public relations. Your contact strategy is how, when and how often you decide to contact them. Whereas your content strategy is the content, story and materials that you share with them. 

Priority group #1 influencers

This is the group of influencers you want to focus on. You want to build the strongest relationships with this group. This is the group you would go to with exclusive, new or unique content.

For example, you would send them a news story before you send it out to a wider mailing list. You would invite them to have exclusive interviews. Or invite them behind the scenes when a new project is underway.

For this group, it’s important to maintain regular contact. Work with them as a partner to help you build your external reputation. Ask them what their needs are, and support them with news, content and materials.  

Priority group #2 influencers

Your #2 group will probably be larger in terms of the number of people it covers. Their combined reach and influence will be such that you need to give them some attention.

But your engagement with them will be less regular and less deep. So, you might for example send them samples of a new product rather than inviting them behind the scenes. Or you might give them a general invite to a product launch rather than a VIP invite. 

Priority group #3 influencers

Your final #3 group, you would want to monitor and have a low level of engagement. You can supply them with general content. But your frequency and depth of contact will be much less than your priority groups. This group might only receive general press releases or content that is available to all. 

Of course with the changing nature of media and public perception, an influencer’s ‘quality’ can change over time.

So you should regularly review your list to see if any influencer in group #2 or #3 show potential to become a #1 influencer for you. And vice versa, if a #1 influencer has lost impact or has a negative influence on your brand, you can start to ease them back down into a lower group. 

Product publicity

The next area where public relations can support your marketing plan is publicity. It’s a more specific area of the content plan you have as part of your media relations. 

Often, this is linked to marketing innovation when you bring new products or services to market.

Because there is a “news” element to new products or services, you can use public relations to accelerate and amplify the coverage that this launch generates with publicity. 

Boy shouting into microphone

This could be something as simple as press release or first access to samples of the new product.

Or it could be more involved like interviews with the team behind the launch.

It could even be a launch event where you invite journalists and influencers to celebrate the launch. We’ll come on to more detail on events shortly.

However, publicity is not only limited to new products and innovation. It can also be used when you want to reposition or change the image of a brand or product. Maybe an existing product has been upgraded with new features? Or a new design? While this will be less ‘newsworthy’ than an entirely new product launch, you will still likely find influencers who willing to work with you on these updates.

Maybe it’s a review of the new features or design? Or an interview with the project lead about why the change took place? There are many product related magazines and online sites which create content that can help build your product’s public profile.  

Corporate communications

The next area where public relations can support your marketing plan is the area of corporate communications.

In some businesses, the brand and the company are the same. But it’s also common that a company will own multiple brands. Or, that a company will carry out work that goes beyond the brands they sell. 

For example, look at the pharmaceutical and medical nutrition industries. It is common for those types of business to employ scientists and research and development teams. These teams will work on projects that work at a broader level than just brands. Research into broader trends around health benefits or nutritional claims for example.

These type of projects can create newsworthy public relations coverage for your company. While they may not directly support the brand, they can have a positive ‘halo’ effect on the brand image. The company, as the owner of the brand increases its credibility. Its future messages become more trusted. 

Another example would be companies who work with charities or with community projects. Again, these activities may not directly impact the brand. But, they work to build up trust and credibility in the brand owner.

Manage negative perceptions

Of course, corporate communications can also work to negate or reduce the impact of any negative perceptions around a brand or company.

It can monitor news stories about employees or practices that may carry a negative impact. Corporate communications often works as a risk or crisis control process to protect the image of the company. 

What if your brand develops a quality issue and has to do recall for example? Maybe a celebrity starts bad-mouthing your brand in favour of a competitor? What if you throw a new product launch event and it flops?

man wiping away a tear to show customer experience pain point

These types of PR story can have a negative effect on the perception of your brand or company. So the role of corporate communications is to build up the credibility and trust of the company behind the brands.

Lobbying

Another common activity in public relations is lobbying. The outcome of this work is less directly public facing. It has more to do with influencing policies, process and perceptions. In these cases, you would want to look at the organisations or associations who make decisions and influence how companies and brands operate in your category. 

At a government level, this could be local, regional, national or international. Government legislation can be wide reaching. It can cover anything from quality standards to health and safety to employee rights to taxation and competitive practices.

Often trade and industry associations will try to influence government decision-makers to reduce restrictive measures. They aim to make it easier for their members to operate. These bodies can also often establish codes of practice and training standards.

So within individual companies, public relations lobbying is used to track and influence these types of areas in a way that benefits the brand and company.

Advisory

Public relations can also often be used to advise on broader socio-cultural trends, issues and perceptions. It can be used to build up interest in a category if it’s not one that is high on the public radar.

This often happens in more specialised areas like scientific research or new technology breakthroughs. Public relation teams will look for early adopters to advise on how to amplify positive changes. Or how to negate negative changes with the public. These advisory boards need to be set-up and managed. This work normally falls to the public relations team.

Inputs to this advice will include press coverage monitoring. But it can also cover specific qualitative and quantitative research to show public opinion. 

You’ll often see this sort of “market research as public opinion” when companies want to change perception of a product or a particular category issue. 

This area of a public relations also covers monitoring and managing specific influence or target groups.

Perhaps there is a group of influencers who activity disagree with your brand or company positioning? Public relations advisory can help to build more open relationships. They can share information so that the chances of negative coverage are reduced. 

Sponsorship

The final area of public relations is sponsorship.

This is where the company or brand pays money to a third-party organisation for an endorsement. Or to be associated with that organisation.

It’s often done with non-profit organisations like charities or community organisations. Commercial businesses pay for an association with that organisation. 

Michael Schumacher racing suit hanging in a display cabinet

Or they might work with sports teams or public events, where their name, logo and often content can be showcased in return for payment. Think about brands who sponsor sports teams strips for example. 

This payment is usually fixed to a specific time period. While it is very common as a tool, it’s also one of the hardest areas of public relations to quantify. It can be difficult to measure the impact on the business. Often the reasons behind the sponsorship may go beyond purely commercial coverage. They can be because the leadership or staff in the business feel particularly strongly about a cause or association. 

Public relations tools and channels

Now that we’ve established the six key functional areas of public relations, let’s move on to look at the tools and channels you can use. There is a wide choice of tactics you can use in this area. 

News

The most common channel when people think about public relations is where a brand or company features in news coverage. This could be driven by something as simple as a press release sent to journalists or influencers.

But in most cases, journalist or influencer will rarely just reprint a press release. They will refine it with their own message. And if they find it particularly interesting and newsworthy, they will contact you directly for a more personalised slant on the story. 

News items do operate on a cycle. It is important to understand what is “newsworthy” in your category.

As you build your #1 influencers, you should ask them for insights into what topics or types of story attract the most interest. Bear in mind that news coverage will often be short and headline focussed. This is especially true in broadcast media like TV and radio.

The journalist will be looking for a ‘hook’ or soundbite that will capture the attention of the public. This is unlikely to be the full contents of your press release. You should focus on the headline and soundbite to maximise the chances of coverage by the journalist. 

You can even sign up to services like Help a Reporter Out. Here journalists looking for sources on a story will post requests. You can pitch your angle and credentials to be the source to comment on their story. 

Speeches / Podcasts / Video

Beyond ‘news’ content, you can also use more general interest content such as interviews and speeches, podcasts and video content. This content differs from advertising in that is is usually around a topic rather than a brand specifically. Though if you can make the brand part of the story, this will have a double impact.

For a great example, look at the video here on how the US company Blendtec creates content for their food blender by using everyday objects and asking “Will it Blend?”

In most cases, the more creative and unique and unusual you can be, the more coverage you will get. It helps if you have a good understanding of the target audience. What would motivate and interest them?

You should look at any content proposals and think about why your audience would care about the content. What’s in it for them? Is it educational or entertaining?

If you can make this type of content educational or entertaining, you also increase the chances that the audience will share the content. This will extend the reach even further. 

You should also consider the social proof with this type of content. The term was first coined by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence. It states that people are often hesitant to be the first to try something new. There’s an inherent risk with being first.

But if they can see others using a product, their perception of the risk will be less. They will be more likely to choose the product. 

This is why so many companies and brands ask for reviews online. When you produce public relations content, interviews or endorsements from existing satisfied consumers can be a strong way to improve the perception of your business. 

Written materials and white papers

The most straightforward form of public relations materials are written materials and white papers.

These are text-based articles, research papers and thought leaders that can be shared with journalists and influencers. These tend to work better when there is validated research behind the content. In particular, if the content makes a new claim or statement. It can also help if the work or paper is published in an accredited title. This can also help with credibility and coverage. 

Interactive and online materials

Experts in public relations would also tell you that materials that are interactive and / or online come with additional benefits beyond video or written content.

The fact that the recipient can actively engage in a two way experience rather than a one way experience captures peoples’ attention more. 

Think for example of online attitudinal surveys which show your results at the end compared to others who have taken the same survey. This is more of an interactive experience than watching a video.

Think about having a live social media broadcast or Q&A where a representative of the brand or company can take questions directly from the audience. 

Events

Events are another very common public relations tool. They work because people tend to value and remember experiences over objects. And so when they give up the time to attend an event, they will generally feel more positive about the engagement with the brand or company. 

Events usually fall into one of three areas.

A celebratory event recognises a milestone or achievement. As we’ve previously covered, the launch of new products or services are often supported by events. 

Speaker addressing a large crowd. To demonstrate that engaging the business helps you to be a better marketer.

But it could also be anniversaries or mark historical dates. Or that the company or brand has reached a certain target or completed a particular project. 

An educational event is often used with more professionally oriented audiences. Company or guest speakers will talk about a specialist subject. The company or brand benefits by association as the host of the event. These types of events are very common in medical, legal and academic circles for example.

The final type of event is a networking event. In this type of event, the aim is to help build connections between the company and the attendees, but also between the attendees themselves. It’s a much more socially driven process. The objective is built around the experience and the value of the connections more than the content itself. 

Event planning usually requires specialist support and skills. There is often a high level of logistical planning involved. Finding the venue, sending out invites, managing guests, managing the event itself and ensuring follow-up can be a time-consuming process. 

Public Service activities

As we previously covered in the role of public relations, you can often use charity or community type activities to boost your companies reputation. Maybe your employees work directly with a charity on a specific project? Or you provide materials or funds to support a particular cause. 

This can be a strong way to build up trust and credibility in your brand and company. Its purpose is more altruistic than commercial. Though in most cases, there is likely to be a halo commercial benefit to the activity. 

Bigger businesses will often define what they do when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility. They recognise that they have an impact on people’s lives. And on broader socio-cultural factors like the environment or gender and race relations. Initiatives to show responsibility in these areas generally fall under the scope of public relations.  

The public relations process

The process to undertake positive public relations is similar to the advertising development process. Objectives are set up front, a range of activities of options are identified and then refined and validated. And then the results are evaluated. 

However, the types of questions which sit under each stage can be different when it comes to public relations.

Broadly the questions will fall into either the impact on perception and the commercial impact.

Let’s look at each of those in turn. 

Public relations process

Public relations impact on perceptions

The need for public relations activity normally starts at the brand level within the marketing plan. Something like the SWOT analysis might cover an opportunity or threat that public relations could tackle, that advertising or media could not. 

Often the brand objective will be related to the stage of the brand choice funnel.

Most public relations activity would typically play at the start of the brand choice funnel around trust, awareness or consideration. This is due to the fact that the level of branding that sits in public relations is less specific than in advertising or media. 

So for example, the credibility of a piece of research or a benefit might be difficult to establish through advertising as it’s not seen as impartial.

But public relations could help improve a perception by using third parties to support or endorse the research or benefit.

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

Set SMART objectives

It’s important that you make clear up front the change in attitude or behaviour you expect the public relations activity to achieve. You should set SMART objectives for this so that it is specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-specific. 

For example, broad objectives like “we want more people to like our brand” are too vague. You need to spend time and make your objectives more specific. What if you rewrote that objective to read “By the end of the year, we want 20% of the public to believe that endorse that our new research project X makes us more of an expert in the category than competitors A and B.”?

You can see how being more SMART with your objective here will bring much more clarity and direction to your public relations activity. 

You also need to consider what’s actually feasible and realistic in terms of the objective. A sharp change or reversal in an entrenched attitude or behaviour may take more time or be unrealistic. It could even be that your objective is to get people to have a more neutral rather than negative perception. 

As we covered above, there are broad range of public relations tools and channels. You need to balance off the risk and reward for each.

Channels which have a proven track record will give you more confidence that they will deliver. But they will also likely be more expensive to work with. Newer channels may be more of a risk. But you will usually be able to negotiate a better deal with them. 

Measure changes in perception

And finally from a perception point of view, you need to establish how you will capture the changes in either attitudes or behaviours. Do you carry our quantitative research  directly with the target audience? Do you ask them for feedback at the event or online for example?

If you can’t track and measure the impact, you’ll never know how effective your spend and effort has been. You won’t know whether to do it again or try something different. 

Public relations impact on commercials

Which brings us on to the second set of questions. These are around measuring the commercial impact of public relations. In these types of questions, you are thinking much more quantifiably. 

How many consumers need to change their behaviour at the point of purchase based on this activity to justify the spend?

You may be able to work back up the brand choice funnel. For example, how will an increase in awareness lead to more people reaching the trial stage?

But at the end of the day, any money you spend on public relations needs to eventually tie back into a business objective. 

D2C coins

Often public relations measures will relate to media coverage. So, if a press release is picked up by a news company and they publish details of it, the size of their audience exposed to the message is often set as a measure.

This advertising or media equivalent coverage is a helpful measure. But you should take it in content of not just the quantity of people who see the message, but also the quality of the impact. Has it actually changed attitudes or behaviours?

One of the other challenges is also that public relations activity rarely operates on its own. It is frequently used in conjunction with advertising and media campaigns. So you often need to look at timings of when both activities were running, when one or the other was running and when neither was running to work out the impact of the activity.

It should also be noted that public relations focus tends to be more long-term shift than short-term impact so you need to set your time deadlines appropriately. 

Public relations in your marketing plan

Public relations can offer great rewards as part of your communications planning. But this channel is also less predictable and more risky than traditional advertising and media. Because it is often a ‘real-time’ channel, it can be difficult to control. If something goes wrong, there can also be a detrimental impact on how your brand is perceived.

This ‘high risk, high reward’ tends to lead most businesses to employ public relations agencies or hire a public relations manager. Much of public relations work depends on building strong relationships with journalists and influencers.

However, these relationships are very dependent on the individuals involved. So, they can be difficult to maintain. This is why there is so often an element of unpredictability to public relations activity.

How much you choose to use public relations as a channel depends on the nature of the industry you operate in. It also depends on the ‘newsworthiness’ of your story.

Industries like fashion and travel use a lot of public relations because they generate stories that have wide news appeal. For other industries, say financial services or aged care, it can be more difficult to generate interest through public relations activity. 

A final word on public relations

Public relations should be part of your overall marketing communication plan. As an overall channel, it brings benefits you cannot get from advertising and media. But it rarely works on its own, and there’s also one very specific price of advice we’d like to close on. 

If we had to narrow it down successful public relations to one piece of advice we’ve heard and seen work the best in these channels, it would be this. 

Be authentic. Be honest

Honest

Journalists and social media followers love catching a company out making misleading statements. Or pushing messages that are irrelevant or out of touch.

Watch the news and it seems like every week, some company or celebrity is putting their public relations foot in it. Check out this collation of examples if you want to read more on how NOT to do public relations.

You really would never want to be on this list. 

Three-brains and marketing communications

We have worked on many marketing communications projects and that include public relations.  We have good experience linking public relations activity back into the marketing and communications plan. And, we know how to connect public relations into driving your brand identity and growing your sales. 

If you want to know more about how we can support your public relations and marketing communications to grow your business  through our coaching and consulting services, click the button below to send us a message.

To achieve clear and consistent marketing communications, the first step is to pull together a clear brief for everyone involved in creating your activity.

That includes key elements of your target audience understanding and brand identity as well as stating your business and project goals. 

Download our blank template with accompanying notes to get your started on the process of creating a great marketing communications brief. 

Download it here or from our resources section. 

Powerpoint and Keynote versions of this document available on request. 

Marketing Communication brief - blank template
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