The Bigger Picture On Public Relations

Marketing guy Seth Godin published a post yesterday entitled “The difference between PR and publicity.” In it he says:

“Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion. Sometimes publicity is helpful, and good publicity is always good for your ego.

But it’s not PR.”

While I disagree with his assertion that “Most PR firms do publicity, not PR,” I wholeheartedly agree with the central premise of his post.

Public relations is bigger than publicity.

Unfortunately, many other people, including people making communications decisions on behalf of organizations, don’t recognize this fact. They see companies in newspapers, read stories about bad pitches or hear someone ranting about spin and assume that’s all there is to the function.

I’ve written on this topic before, but this topic is worth revisiting in a little more detail.

Most people outside the PR/communications business think public relations consists of a few things

  • News releases
  • Pitching (if they’re bad, then sometimes spamming) journalists

Wrong.

Public relations does cover these two activities (minus the spam), but it is so much more.

Godin defined it as “…the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.”

That’s a better definition than many, but it’s still narrow.

Back in October 2008, the folks on the Inside PR podcast – Terry FallisDavid Jones, and Julie Rusciolelli – broke public relations down into five categories:

  1. Media relations
  2. Government relations
  3. Stakeholder relations
  4. Investor relations
  5. Internal/employee communications

Within the last week alone I’ve worked on three of these five areas (our company doesn’t operate in the other two). I would also add two more categories:

Most people don’t see beyond the first category of communications, because much of it happens behind the scenes.

Speak to anyone who works at a good public relations agency (or fills a broad role in a corporation). They’ll tell you an immense amount of planning, preparation and foundation-setting goes on within any good communications function, and behind any good communications plan.

Anyone who says public relations is all pitches and publicity doesn’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

  • Corporate Communications and Public Relations encompass so much more than just generating publicity on behalf of clients. That’s certainly what we teach in our program here at Centennial College. However, the number of our grads who join local PR agencies and spend the majority of their working life trying to attract the attention of the media with special events, give aways, stunts, etc. is considerable. And, as a recent judge for IABC Ovation Awards and CPRS ACE Awards, I know the majority of our submissions (many of which will be winners)only featured media relations. And, many communicators still measure the worth of their PR programs on how many column inches they obtained in the print media.

  • It goes back to the issues people have with PR in the first place: if it isn’t measurable, clients don’t want to do it and, yes, often the only measurable indicator of PR is how much column space the client achieves.

    We have to educate our clients/companies on the “organic” components of PR-the things you can’t measure that DO, in fact, improve the company’s relationship with its stakeholders.

  • That’s an interesting point, Christine. That leads me to a couple of questions:
    1. Is that because some of the other kinds of communications (stakeholder, internal, social media etc) require more experience/judgement or is there another reason?
    2. Is this a problem or just a part of the learning curve for new practitioners?

  • Not sure I’m as qualified as others (who are in the trenches day-to-day) to answer these questions. However, mounting an intensive employee engagement campaign, for example, likely involves more research and the results are much more difficult to measure than, say, a narrow campaign to get people to floss more frequently. Whether it’s part of the learning curve depends, I guess, on what sector you decide to work in.

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  • Sometimes prospects come to us because they feel like they need to “get some of that PR stuff” but they have no real understanding of what PR is or what goals they’re hoping to achieve by engaging with our agency (one that focuses exclusively on media and analyst relations for B2B technology companies.) The breakdowns above go part of the way for demystifying what PR is and the various components therein, but you can of course break each of these down even further. We wrote a brief series on our blog a while back that attempted to describe some of the components of an integrated PR program, such as this piece on media monitoring
    : http://inmedialog.com/index.php/archives/components-of-an-integrated-pr-program-media-monitoring/

    You’ve also raised another good point, Dave, about the invisibility of some of our work, again a topic we’ve touched on at our blog: http://inmedialog.com/index.php/archives/the-other-90-of-the-pr-effort-iceberg/

    Our industry needs to better educate the marketplace as to what PR means and what it can do. I think that in large part, success relies on a clear understanding of how your particular agency practices PR, what’s included and excluded (i.e. what other parts of the PR/marketing function need to be handled by other resources) and then managing expectations as to what your client can hope to achieve by enacting a PR program.

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  • The PR professionals that master pitching CLIENTS on a story rather than the MEDIA on a story are most impressive to me, and, frankly, most successful.

    We, publicity hounds or PR flaks, experience the push back from (unenlightened) clients much more so than the media. 99% of CEOs want ‘ink’ (unscientific study, by the way) and they don’t care how you do it (i.e. “I’m in Austin next week and i have two hours free, can you ‘arrange’ an interview?” Sure, here’s what we’ll need to do…). It’s up to us to manage the expectations and educate the execs on the story we need to tell. It will be very uncomfortable for them and out of their comfort zone, but in doing so, we’re all better for it. (and hopefully the CEO will be featured in the article, which ultimately is what makes her happy, despite Seth’s assertions)

  • I don’t think that Godin’s premise was to say that ‘most PR firms do publicity, not PR’. I think what he is saying is ‘firms that only do publicity don’t do PR’.

    The truth is that many companies passing themselves off as PR firms really only do publicity (I’d even hazard to suggest, sadly, that this applies to the majority). Similarly, there are still clients out there who are only interested in publicity – whether that’s the solution they truly need or not.

    The real meat of what Godin says is right here…
    “PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.”

    Seeing how he used the word “people” at the end of that I couldn’t help but think of David Mullen’s ‘The “P” in PR should stand for people’ http://bit.ly/w141 which adds another layer to the ‘what is PR?’ question.

    I think you need to consider both of those layers before even embarking down one of the 5 channels (which are all bang on) that you delineated.

  • Dave, my PR teachers would love you. The worst is when someone comes into PR thinking it’s just special event planning. You provided solid text book definitions of the variety of PR fields out there.

    Also liked Rich’s point. (Though, can we stop using that word flaks please? It’s outdated as racism.) As Rich mentioned, PR people do themselves a favor by learning to sell not just journalists, but their own peers and superiors.

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  • I would add a reference (in spanish) between de difference of advertising -like sex- and public relations -like love- 🙂

    http://blog.francescgrau.com/la-publicidad-es-al-sexo-como-las-relaciones-publicas-al-amor

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  • I’m very late to this conversation. I’ve been a corp comm’s exec and consultant for about 17 years. Two points I want to hit quickly are:
    1. Corp Comm’s is taking harder hits today than I’ve seen only rarely in the past. And a lot of those hits are coming from business people who seem to know little about their own areas of specialty, let along other disciplines like PR. Seems like most understanding of PR in business today is really the inheritance of long-standing mis-understandings of the field – passed down generationally. A truly scary thought, though very real IMHO.
    2. Christie writes above that, “…if it isn’t measurable, clients don’t want to do it and, yes, often the only measurable indicator of PR is how much column space the client achieves.” Not to sound trite, but I understand where you’re coming from on this. However, there are SO many ways to measure the impact of PR success or failure these days, mere column inches can (and should) be easily addressed and expanded on in conversation with a client. How about things like behavioral changes among key audiences (externally &/or internally)? Traffic volume and click-through rates online? Voting patterns (Obama’s still fairly recent election as President is a tangible example, though admittedly a variety of communications tools were used…many of which are “owned” by PR.) Etc. I don’t want this to become a rant, so I’ll sign off now. Just a thought or two I wanted to share, assuming anyone is still listening! Btw, Dave, great blog you have. I’ve only recently discovered it.
    Cheers,
    Michael Draznin

  • Great thread, it was a brilliant read.
     
     
     
     
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