What is Public Relations? A Comprehensive PR Guide

Holly Hunt
Holly Hunt  |  September 21, 2018

“I wanna be in public relations when I grow up!” – says no one, ever.

Okay, that was a joke. I’m sure some kids do say that.

But I think you’d be hard pressed to find a high school student who can explain what exactly public relations is. Heck, even if you asked random adults on the street what a public relations professional does, I’d put money on only one out of every five being able to give a correct answer.

Let's try to bring that average up.

We will unpack that language in a little bit. But really, it is too bad PR isn't more well-known. It's an exciting, challenging industry that touches everyone’s lives, whether they realize it or not.

So let’s get to the heart of it:

What is PR?

Is it marketing? Is it advertising? Is it worth the investment? Should you make it your career?

I’m happy to tell you that, after reading this article, not only will you be able to answer (weird) strangers who accost you on the street about PR, but you’ll also be prepared to decide whether or not a PR agency is right for your business, whether or not a PR major is right for your college degree, and why PR is integral for businesses of all sizes.

If one of these topics sound more interesting to you than the other, please feel free now to skip around the article:

If you’re still with me, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Public relations definition

PR is not selling advertisements, it’s not creating commercial jingles and it’s not handing out flyers on the street.

You've read the above definition, but before we go on, I want you to also know the definition the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – the go-to source of knowledge for all things PR – came up with. FYI, PRSA had to conduct a full year of research and crowdsource a few thousand definition suggestions before settling on this:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Basically, public relations is taking a company, organization or person and analyzing it for its most positive attributes. Public relations is then using those positive attributes to tell a narrative that will advance the agenda of the company, organization or person.

A PR professional does this through the “mutually beneficial relationships” PRSA mentioned in their definition. PR professionals want to tell the public, especially current and potential customers, about the brand. So they reach out to the people that have the public’s ear: reporters.

Reporters are searching for a story their readers will be interested in, and often they are operating on a deadline.

Thus a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship is born.

In the end, reporters get help doing their job, and PR professionals get the company, organization, or person coverage – coverage that results in more brand awareness and a better brand reputation.

Better reputation and awareness results in, you guessed it – sales! And sales, as we all know, equals success.

Public relations vs advertising

Now you might be thinking to yourself, public relations sounds a lot like advertising. After all, PR professionals are showcasing a brand in the hope that more people will pay attention to it.

That is true, but the means to the ends are very different. Check out this cool graphic for a quick representation of those differences. We'll go into them in detail.

pr-vs-advertising

Advertisers purchase media. They are guaranteed a placement and have complete control over the contents.

Public relations professionals, meanwhile, earn media. They have to convince reporters it is a story worth telling, and the media provides a third-party validation of the contents. No payment is involved.

There’s an old adage that says “advertising is what you pay for, public relations is what you pray for.”

Advertising is expensive, visual and often needs to be repetitive in order for a consumer to be influenced. Think about how likely you are to be swayed by a single magazine spread you saw while in the waiting room. That one instance likely won’t convince you to buy a product. But if you begin seeing Facebook ads and TV commercials and posters on your train to work, then you might consider changing your buying habits. You as the consumer are aware advertisers are trying to shove their product on you.

Public relations is often written and told through a trusted third-party. Automatically, it has more credibility than an advertisement. If it is great public relations, the story told is interesting, relatable, and memorable – to the point that consumers will remember it the next time they encounter your brand.

Public relations is also more serious, thoughtful and sincere, so it is more likely to stick than the sweet-nothings advertisements whisper in your ears.

Public relations vs marketing

I dabbled in PR at my last job, so I’m used to the blank stares and vacant nods that come at family gatherings when I say, “I work in public relations.”

“So you’re in marketing?” was the typical response.

Technically, I worked in the corporate marketing department, and I was involved in marketing projects and strategy. Marketing and public relations, while not the same, do have the same goal: bringing in sales and helping the company succeed.

Marketing is promoting or selling specific products or services. Public relations, as we already know, is about maintaining a positive reputation for a brand as a whole.

Marketing is controlled content that is served to consumers in a variety of mediums to get across a message. Advertising, which we just discussed, is a form of marketing. Additionally, marketing includes product development, market research, identifying your target audience, promoting the offering, strategic sales support, and post-purchase customer service.

PR and marketing cannot exist without the other. Marketing focuses on the products, while PR focuses on garnering love for the brand. If no one likes the brand, it’s going to be very difficult to sell products. Conversely, if the products are crap, the public is not going to view the brand favorably.

So, next time your wine-drunk aunt asks “So you’re in marketing?” You can say with confidence:

Kind of.

Public relations enhances the success of marketing, and vice versa.

Public relations tools

Now that we understand the broad purpose of PR, let’s dive into the gears that make the machine come alive.

Press releases: This is the strongest weapon in the PR arsenal. If a press release is sent out, there’s something newsworthy happening at the company. There are many types of press releases, such as press releases for events. There is also a loose format most press releases follow that make them simultaneously interesting, fulfilling and digestible. For first time PR professionals, I suggest checking out this article on how to write a press release to get all the basics down.

Press releases are sent en masse to all reporters that might be interested in covering the news. There are plenty of press release distribution software options that make this a breeze. Sometimes the press release is enough for reporters to commit to a story, other times the PR professional has to pick up the phone and do some convincing.

Pitches: Pitches are less formal than a press release, yet they often involve more work. These need to be extremely short, snappy and straight-to-the-point. Reporters are busy people with intense deadlines, so they aren’t interested in small talk about how awesome the company is. Of course the PR person thinks the company is awesome – drinking the Kool-Aid is their job.

If the pitch tells the reporter why their readers will care about the story, why it’s the perfect fit for their publication, and provides just enough detail to pique the reporter’s interest, it will be successful. Pitches have to be personalized for each reporter and often involve multiple phone call and email attempts.

Special events: PR professionals will do anything to draw in reporters, including creating a unique event and event promotion strategy. If the public gets involved, all the better! One example of this could be hosting an event at the company’s outdoor plaza celebrating their anniversary with treats and games everyone could participate in. If it’s big enough, you can expect reporters hungry for a story to make an appearance, too. For PR pros who work with events, I recommend checking out this article on how to create a press release for events.

Research: Conducting market research on the business or the business’ messaging will result in a better understanding of the public’s current view on the brand. It will reveal what is going well and what can be improved.

PR professionals can also suggest the company conduct research about its industry that no one else has done yet. Both people in the trade and the general public will find new information interesting. This is one way to create news and establish respect for the brand.

Networking: Relationships are everything in the PR business. Attending personal, company and industry events is integral for a PR professional’s success.

Updating the web: Writing and blogging both for internal and external sources is another function of PR. Showcasing case studies on the company’s website is one way to reach the public directly. Submitting to blogs, op-eds, and competitions is another way to get the word out.

Strategy: Creating a PR plan is an important objective at the beginning of each year. PR professionals not only have to be ready to shout good news from any mountain top (even self-made ones), but they also have to be prepared to face any potential crisis. Creating a crisis communication strategy in advance will make sure the company isn’t caught with their pants down in the face of negativity.

Social media: Social media is a relatively new way for PR professionals to tell a brand’s story directly to the public. This can take the form of sharing news and updates with followers on social channels, or responding to negative comments customers have left. Both help build the brand’s visibility and reputation.

History of PR

Public relations itself has been around since Ancient Greece philosophers wrote about the rhetoric public speakers should use in order to be persuasive. But public relations as the industry and profession we know today is relatively modern, coming to light at the same time mass communication was in the early 20th century.

There is some controversy over who the “father” of PR is. Some believe it to be Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, while others believe Ivy Lee, a New York reporter, kicked off the PR industry. Let’s take a look at what both men contributed to public relations.

Edward Bernays

As the nephew of the psychoanalyst Freud, Bernays thought of public relations as a science that uses psychoanalysis along with other sociological theories. He believed that the same strategy the government used in its political propaganda during World War II could be used by businesses. The main strategy being: influence the public opinion and behavior.

Of course, the war propaganda used a strong hand to guide the public, but Bernays believed businesses could use a more subtle touch with the same results. He is attributed to developing early theory of public relations and creating the art of the press release. His 1923 book Crystalizing Public Opinion was the first public relations guidebook of its kind.

Ivy Lee

While Bernays put a lot of thought into public relations, Lee acted upon it. Lee began his career as a journalist, but when John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his company Standard Oil hired Lee to help with their public image, Lee became the first public relations professional the world had seen.

The Rockefeller’s poor image was a result of their reaction to a series of strikes in their coal mines. Lee advised Rockefeller to visit the mines and engage with the miners – this resulted in a boost of his reputation in both the eyes of the miners and the public.

After that success, Lee was sought out by the Pennsylvania Railroad for damage mitigation after a huge rail crash. Lee invited the press to see the crash site for themselves, and he offered select details exclusively to those that attended. By developing this relationship and transparency with the press, the coverage about the Pennsylvania Railroad’s response to the crash was mostly positive.

Public relations examples:

Now that we know what public relations is, what it entails and the history behind it, let me show you some specific examples of what it looks like in action.

There are two kinds of public relations: the positive storytelling kind, and the negative damage-control kind. Let’s take a look at each and some real-life examples of public relations at its finest.

Storytelling PR:

As we’ve already touched on, PR is storytelling. It’s shedding light on the positive aspects of a brand, idea, or policy. That can include working for a political campaign and explaining a new policy to the public. It can also include telling the story of how a large corporation began an internship for at-risk youth or donated money to a mission-related cause.

One example of a proactive, positive spin is Volvo Trucks America’s campaign around its new model, Volvo VNL. The brand decided to garner attention by breaking a Guinness World Record. They unboxed one of the largest objects ever delivered – that’s right, the Volvo VNL, a huge 70-foot semi-truck. The enormous vehicle was casually placed in a colorful box in the middle of a suburban street, just waiting to be unwrapped.

To make the reveal even more exciting and fun, Volvo Truck recruited a 3-year-old to help unpack the truck. Toddler Joel Jovine, introduced as a truck enthusiast, opens one side of the box in a very cute video and then explores the inside of the truck. This shows off the new model’s different assets in a subtle way.

Fun fact: Joel was running around the truck so fast the cameraman had a hard time keeping up with him!

 

What the brand hoped to accomplish with this PR stunt was a memorable video that resonated with all ages and raised awareness of Volvo Trucks. It also showed Volvo Trucks as a creator of innovative products that isn’t afraid to have some giggly fun with its fans.

The video was viewed 25M times on YouTube in the fortnight after the launch. It’s the most watched Volvo Trucks North America video ever and number three on Ad Age’s July 25th Viral Video Chart, which tracks brand-driven viral videos.

So I think it’s safe to say the video was a success!

Negative, damage-mitigation PR:

Sometimes, not everything is hunky-dory. A bad egg is ousted from company leadership, or a product malfunctions after it’s released to the public. These are just a few of the many things that could go wrong and tarnish a brand’s reputation. A PR professional must be prepared to act quickly and efficiently to turn the story around.

For example, when the unthinkable happened on Southwest Airlines in April of 2018, Southwest was prepared with an emergency-response plan, including a PR response.

On Flight 1380 from New York to Dallas, an engine ruptured and shrapnel broke a window, causing a passenger to be pulled partly out of the airplane. The 43-year-old Ms. Roirdan died – the very first death on a Southwest plane.

Many of the passengers on Flight 1380 tweeted or tape recorded the incident on social media as it was happening, effectively leaking facts and opinions to the public. Rather than let the public make their own assumptions about the incident based on the social media flurry, Southwest took control of the narrative.

The CEO of the airlines immediately released an apology video. Southwest was also active on social media, updating the public with brief facts as soon as they learned them. They kept the human element front and center in their response, even when relaying more of the technical information.

For example, in one of the statements Southwest put out after the fact, the headline was “Southwest Airlines Confirms Accident; Our Hearts are With Those Affected.”

They not only expressed empathy, sadness and regret, but acted on it as well. A little less than half of the passengers on board that plane decided to stay in hotels for the night in Philadelphia, where the plane had made an emergency landing. Southwest slipped letters under each door to remind passengers that people were on site to offer them assistance. The next day, passengers received personal calls and emails offering counseling services and other resources. They also were compensated in cash for the traumatic ordeal.

Karie Lardon, Southwest’s director of emergency response, said in a Wall Street Journal article, “There’s no formula except compassion” in regards to tragic situations like this.

John McDonald, a former airline communications executive and founder of Caeli Communications, a crisis management firm, said in the same article, “Nothing kills a negative story faster than doing the right thing and making people feel treated with respect.”

So rather than let the story spiral out of control on social media, Southwest took control of the situation by immediately apologizing, being transparent about what happened, keeping everyone abreast of the facts and showing emotion in their response.

More PR examples:

Here are a few more examples and disciplines in PR that are worth mentioning.

Brand changes

Johnnie Walker, a brand that prides itself on being forward-thinking and standing for progress, is one great example of this. Their label is the Striding Man icon and the brand’s messaging is “Keep Walking.”

This year, in honor of Women’s History Month, Johnnie Walker introduced the Jane Walker edition – the first female iteration of the brand’s logo. They announced during the logo launch that for every Jane Walker bottle produced, Johnnie Walker would donate $1 to organizations supporting continuing women’s progress. They started a social media campaign with the hashtag #WalkWithJane. 

pr-examples

 

This was the perfect combination of spreading awareness of the Johnnie Walker mission (commitment to progress) while springboarding off of a timely event (Women’s History Month). Reporters love timely elements to stories!

Social media:

Social media is an element of PR that cannot be ignored. As we saw in the Southwest crisis-mitigation example, social media plays an important role in real-time responses to the public. But it also is an easy way to share and distribute press releases, build relationships with reporters and the public, leverage campaign hashtags, and spread brand awareness.

For example, when The Avengers broke the box office record (previously held by Star Wars) for the biggest opening weekend in history, Star Wars took to social media. Rather than stay quiet or even be salty about it, the Star Wars account wrote a congratulatory tweet effectively passing the baton (lightsaber) to Marvel Studios that sent both fandoms into a tizzy. It was a very classy move that was featured in publications like Esquire and resulted in wild engagement on Twitter.

Media interview training:

Media training is a must for those people that may be called upon to represent the brand in a media interview. In a company, this is at the very least the CEO and President, but also often includes the entire executive team.

Media training lets potential interviewees practice handling delicate and difficult questions in a safe space. They are set up in a room with a PR professional or a hired media trainer and they practice interviewing. It teaches them how to pivot from topic to topic effectively, how to politely decline to answer and, if it’s on video, how to keep a neutral, pleasant expression no matter what.

This training should be done annually with important stakeholders.

Beyond that, a PR professional should always go through interview prep directly before an interview. This involves running through potential questions with the interviewee, guiding them on what themes to focus on, offering insight on what to expect from the reporter (who the PR professional has talked to in order to set this up), and what questions to avoid answering.

Without the proper training, an interview could go wrong and damning quotes could be released to the public. This hurts the brand and sets off PR damage-mitigation that could have been avoided.

Public relations agencies:

If you came here because you’re thinking about hiring a PR agency, this is the section for you. Here we will discuss what PR firms do, why they are worthwhile, what to expect from the working relationship, and if they fit in your marketing budget.

A public relations agency is a group of PR professionals that are capable of handling all the different functions of PR that we’ve discussed above (press releases, social media, special events, etc.).

If you’re wondering if you should hire a public relations agency, you probably should. Great PR is vital to have a continually growing and successful company. Even if your business is doing extremely well so far, a little additional publicity never hurt anyone. It can only help grow brand recognition and respect.

An agency will help your company reach its audience in innovative ways you never thought of or could before. A good agency listens to the marketplace and knows what stories will work and which will be shot down.

When looking into agencies, it’s important to look for one that will be a good cultural fit. Will they understand your brand’s voice and be proud of the brand’s story?

If the cultural fit is most worrisome to you, consider hiring an in-house PR professional that comes to work with you every day and gets to know the brand and the people firsthand. He or she might also be more invested if they are personally tied to the company.

The relationship with a client and an agency (or in-house PR professional) should be proactive and engaging. Clients should provide suggestions on the message they want to send and where they’d like to be placed. Even with the best agency in the world, it’s going to be difficult to get on the New York Times’ front page, so keep expectations realistic but challenging.

Agencies, meanwhile, can offer insight on what reporters are looking for at the moment, what’s trending in the marketplace and how best to present what the company has to offer.

An agency can make the difference between praying for public relations and getting public relations.

Public relations jobs:

If you’re a senior in high school trying to figure out a college major, or a professional thinking about a career change, here is what you need to know about a public relations career.

Many schools do not offer a specific public relations track. I went to the University of Missouri, where current public relations strategists majored in anything from English, Journalism, Business Administration (Marketing-focused), or Communications. If you’re uncertain what the best track is for you, talk to your advisor.

public-relations-jobs
 

Before you make the commitment, know what you are signing up for. A career in public relations can have extreme highs and lows - being incredibly rewarding one day and horribly frustrating the next.

The day-to-day and job description for a PR professional can vary drastically.

News is the lifeblood of public relations. Without a timely, newsworthy spin on a story, reporters typically won’t give you the time of day. So PR professionals spend their days either creating news or following a story.

Creating news is often done when the company has something to announce: a new product or service, a donation to a charity, a new C-Suite hire, new industry research the company conducted, etc. Other ways this can be done include bylining articles for trade publications, writing case studies on your website, writing op-eds and posting on social media.

Following a story is when you see a story in the news that your company can react to – and so you respond. It could be a spin off the royal wedding, the stock market crash, the popularity of a new technology – anything is fair game.

Typically journalists will want interviews with subject matter experts from your company. Make sure you and the subject matter expert in question are prepared for that before you pitch. This goes back to the media training and interview prep we mentioned above. If you are responding to breaking news, the journalist will want the interview right away.

No matter whether you are creating or responding to news, your day will probably include making phone calls to reporters and persuading them to hear out your case. Then, if they don’t hang up on you or cut you off, you get your shot at persuading them to cover your case.

Disclaimer: PR is not for the thin-skinned. If you have a hard time shaking off rejection, maybe reconsider career paths.

I remember my first pitch ever was to a reporter at the Washington Post. Amazingly, she picked up the phone after two rings. I began launching into my pitch in a breathy, terrified way and she cut me short, asking, “Are you trying to pitch me right now?”

“Er, yes,” I said, blushing so intensely I was sure she could feel the heat waves from across the phone line.

“Email me, then,” the reporter snapped. “Thanks. Bye.” And she hung up.

I clutched the phone to my chest, hanging on to her words. Email me. She wanted me to email her! I held onto this sliver of hope as a way to ignore the rude dismissal.

I sent a follow-up email that same day. It went unanswered.

So, like I said, rejection is common. If it will keep you awake at night, I don’t recommend getting into the PR business.

Don’t let me scare you off, though. If you’re a tough-skinned baddie ready to take on the heaps of rejections, or thin-skinned but have your personal coping mechanisms (I fall into this category), this might just be the right career path for you!

Tough skin isn’t the only asset you need to succeed, though. Relationship building, as I’ve mentioned before, is of the utmost importance in this business. By being a trustworthy, quality source for reporters, they will turn to you when they are in need of a placement and need something, anything, to hit deadline. They will also offer advice and intel on what sort of topics are hot right now, so you can cater your pitching to those.

Again, PR is not for the faint of heart. But let me tell you, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your placement in the publication you wanted after all the sweat, blood and phone calls.

Wrapping up

There you have it folks - that’s your guide to all things public relations! Now you know all about what it is, the history, what it looks like, what a PR agency does and whether or not pursuing PR is right for you.

You know enough about the industry that if Jimmy Kimmel stopped you on the streets and asked you about it, you would make me proud!

Thanks for sticking with me. That’s all she wrote - for now. Stay tuned for more in-depth looks at specific aspects of PR, coming to the G2 Crowd Learning Hub soon.

Holly Hunt
Author

Holly Hunt

An avid reader and writer, Holly graduated from the University of Missouri with a dual major in Journalism and English. Prior to joining G2 Crowd, she lived in Madison, WI, ate a horrifying amount of cheese curds, and then found her way to Chicago for a content writing gig. In her free time, Holly is eating ice cream and planning her next trip.