What is Public Relations, Anyway?

Our number one audience in public relations has traditionally been reporters that reach our audiences – and many of them, ironically, don’t know how PR differs from what publicity agents, public affairs professionals, and political strategists/lobbyists do. The New York Times wrote a piece recently about how Facebook was using a public affairs group to discredit critics. In it, the reporter said that the group “specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations.” In my definition of PR, once you have used a political-type strategy to tell your story and thwart competitors, you are no longer in the realm of PR – you are probably on the outer age of public affairs as well.

Sure, I’ve had a few clients over the years who want us to discredit competitors, but we always steer the conversation toward strategies that take the high road – and our clients always agree with that approach. While it’s fairly normal for salespeople to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about competitors, in PR we generally operate on the same journalistic principles that reporters do. By that, I mean we tell the truth.

We may focus on the most positive aspects of the company’s story or perspective, but we don’t lie, and we don’t conduct smear campaigns. And when asked about downsides to our products or company, we generally concede a few areas in which we are not number one. In what world did Facebook think these communications tactics aligned with their overall corporate PR strategy? And, why is it hard for reporters to acknowledge that this is not the way most communications professionals operate?

What is B2B or corporate PR?

PR is a way of communicating about your company to key audiences like customers and investors. We do this by using a variety of tactics to reach those audiences, most typically using a PESO model (paid, earned, social/shared and owned).

For paid opportunities, we develop killer content that addresses a major trend or explains a complicated technology, and we promote it via paid social media or other pay-for-play channels to the right audiences. We might sponsor a webinar on a similar theme with a trade publication, or invest in a paid speaking opportunity at a conference for instance.

Earned media encompasses the more traditional definition of PR. It involves convincing unbiased media to tell your story for you. This is no easy feat. It usually involves trying multiple story ideas before you get a reporter to bite on an angle you’ve suggested. Or pitching those same reporters on your company’s news and convincing them that it is newsworthy (the first ever, the biggest sale, the most exciting business transformation, etc.).

And, earned media has an inherent risk. When you purchase an ad or sponsor content on social media, you control the message. But with earned media, you leave the story in the hands of the reporter, who might convey a very different story than you wanted to tell.

Social, or shared, media is an egalitarian channel where you post your commentary and news and attempt to engage with your audiences directly. This requires you to be compelling and worth following. It involves following the right people and actively engaging with others who have influence with the audience you want to reach. Social media is also now the de facto channel for customers to voice their discontent and to be certain of getting a response. This means that smart PR people and customer service groups are making sure they pay attention to the very public feedback to be had on social channels.

Owned media refers to the content and channels like websites, newsletters, and blogs that your company owns. PR people help develop that content, and they split responsibility with marketing to get that content in front of the right audiences to reach company goals. The idea of owned channels opens up a whole new world in PR where you do not need to rely on a middleman like the media to tell your story for you. But, as enticing as that is to PR people, we still need the validation that comes from a respected publication covering your news or including your company in a trend story.

B2B vs. B2C Public Relations

B2B PR differs from consumer PR in many ways. Consumer PR has more of what they call activations – this might refer to a stunt or a full campaign to roll out a product for instance. This might include something like running a contest to have people vying for a chance to win your product and then revealing the winner on a morning show. It involves giving away a lot of free product in hopes people will talk about it.

PR vs. Publicity

I confess I do not know any publicists. However, from what I see and hear, publicists are tasked with getting as much attention for their client as possible, regardless of what kind of attention that is. They are creating a brand image for an individual and, usually, that revolves around that person being or wanting to be famous. Often publicists seem to be aiming for quantity of attention over quality. Even PR people who focus on getting attention for a single senior executive at a company are always striving for credibility to meet business goals versus just fame for an individual.

I remember when Minnie Driver first came to the attention of the public for her work as an actor. Her publicist had her everywhere all at once, and it was simply overwhelming. She was at every event, on every magazine cover, and not only that, there was no photo op she missed. Her publicist must have pushed her in front of every camera in town. Her perspective was always the first out there when something went down in Hollywood. We knew what she was having for breakfast and who she was on the town with – all before we really knew who she was.

The publicist was probably seen as doing a bang-up job – but the public quickly grew fatigued with the nonstop references to Minnie Driver. Her star faded quickly, and I think it was simply because we were already tired of hearing about her before her second movie had even come out.

That probably seems tame in today’s era of Instagram stars and celebrities who document their entire lives for the public, but at the time, it showed me why I never wanted to do publicity as a job. How boring to promote a person seeking fame versus promoting an idea that could change the world (can you say the Internet?), or a product that could solve real problems, save money, save the environment, etc.

PR vs. Public Affairs

Public affairs is different still. This communications approach typically involves a core audience of government officials and regulators along with the non-governmental organizations that influence them. If your company makes a product, your public affairs team wants to make sure that regulators and rule makers understand your product so that it is treated fairly. This might involve hosting industry days where regulators, legislators, and rule-making bodies learn the ins and outs of your product and your company’s perspective on rules and regulations that make sense for consumers, voters, the economy, etc. It’s not about selling products. Public affairs is about ensuring that the regulatory and legislative environments are favorable for you to sell your product. My limited knowledge of public affairs tells me those practitioners were equally stunned by the approach taken by Facebook’s partner.

Where Do These Disciplines Intersect?

Of course, there is crossover between these communications approaches. A good public affairs strategy relies on a good brand identity and executives with a strong public image and reputation that come from corporate PR. Corporate and product PR do use the occasional stunt like those pulled off by publicists, but only in so far as they help meet the goals of the overall program. I have to imagine that publicists are even using some of the more subtle and long-tail attempts at persuasion that corporate PR people refined.