Understanding Public Relations

If ‘public relations’ summons visions of an oil executive waving his arms at a media scrum and protesting hopelessly that his company’s burst pipeline wasn’t responsible for destroying the lives of thousands, you’re not alone. This dirty side of public relations is so closely associated with the term that we wonder why on earth we would need any sort of PR when we conduct our business or manage our personal public profile in only the most delicate and well-considered manner. PR is the dark art of spin, mistruths and the massaging of facts to achieve outcomes that we honestly do not deserve. In reality however, Public Relations is not any of these things. It simply defines the way in which we manage our messaging to the world. It is not only something to be used by growing small businesses or government departments; it is something we use all the time in 

our personal lives, from the images and updates we post on our private Facebook pages to the things we allow our friends to write about us on their family blogs. It is not a corporate bag of tricks designed to con people into buying things from our employer; it is a principal set of skills which allow us to be represented to the world properly, whether we are a business or a person. One thing that should be made clear to all marketers, would-be celebs, entrepreneurs and small business owners right from the start is that using a Public Relations company to handle your PR is expensive – several thousand pounds per month at least for a fully outsourced program. The cost is prohibitive to those of us who have little or no budget, and somewhat ironically we are the sort of people that would (and should) benefit from using PR the most. What this series will do is provide 

a detailed set of fundamental PR skills which will enable you to get into your first-choice college, get the right job, grow your modelling career, get your art exhibited at the right gallery, have the newspapers come to your boutique shoe shop launch, generate local support for your committee member application, or generate a buzz about your amazing new invention. This guide will provide you with ways to save a fortune on needless advertising costs and marketing mistakes, and contribute to making your business or personal journey a successful one.

Understanding what we want  to achieve Our first introductory heading here should perhaps have read, “Understanding what we want to achieve and why we all share the same goal.” It is important to understand that Public Relations serves the needs 

of both private individuals and businesses in exactly the same way. It enables us to increase the value of the work we are doing, regardless of the type of project we are working on or our final objective. A marketing manager within a successful business may understand the value of using a well-defined PR program because it has the potential to create a larger market and a greater buzz about her company. Yet this is no different to a semi-pro photographer who has managed to get his work exhibited at a small local gallery and now needs writers, other photographers and the general public to rock up and see his work. These two people share a common goal, which is to get their message across. This is exactly what public relations skills enable us to do, and it can add unimaginable value to your business or personal endeavours.

Understanding how PR can help us achieve our goals Public Relations, whether applied to our project by an expensive outsourced agency or by our own freshly squeezed PR skills, does ONE thing and one thing only; it AMPLIFIES our message. The message, or rather our messages, are the things we want people to know about us or our business. Because we are all awesome in our own mental projection of ourselves, we each have many messages we would like to get across to others. If we are a company, we have hundreds of sophisticated products (or solutions, as we have taken to calling them) which do many, many amazing things; if we are a rising celebrity, senator or councillor, we 

have presided over many members’ clubs and done lots and lots of selflessly epic charity work with animals which probably have wheels instead of back legs. In fact, there are many things that are unique and wonderful about us, and whilst the public should know about these fascinating things over time, they cannot absorb everything at once as we will overload them with information. So we need to look at the most important messages; those messages which convey all the exciting little things about our product or our profile that contribute to our brand being trustworthy, or the defining characteristic of our election campaign that will demonstrate to voters why they should vote for us. These are our key messages. The defining of effective key messages is essential to everything we do in PR. This point could not be hammered home with enough power if we were to nail it to a rocket and is small and growing, or our public profile is attracting some interest but we are not a local celebrity yet. We can empower all of these things by creating a great key message (or messages), and then amplifying them through the PR skills we learn.

What would a PR company do if I could afford to use one? Good question. Your PR partner does not buy advertising, and nor do they manage your events. The sole purpose of your public relations consultant is to support your own messaging, so regardless of whether you are seeking to use an agency or you want to go “guerrilla” and do the whole public relations thing yourself on no budget, getting your key messages right at the very beginning is very important. The PR firm employs a team of consultants, media liaison and support staff, and yet their primary goal is the same as your own

“Business is about objectives, advantages and vision. If you are not able to outline exactly your position on each of these, then customers will not embrace your leadership.”

launch it at the Sun. Without creating messaging which is clear, consistent, easy to understand, interesting and true, then even a Public Relations guru with countless years of experience cannot help us – and seeking to engage such a person would simply waste our precious money. We also do not need them. Not, at least, while we’re at a stage where our entrepreneurial idea is just sprouting seedlings, or our business would be were you to go it alone – amplifying your messages. Where your PR partner ultimately proves to be valuable is in media relations. The good ones will maintain strong (and personally friendly) relationships with many of the media organisations you are looking to use to promote yourself; crucially, this would typically include all of the daily newspapers in your city, perhaps some lower level connections at national TV companies, and a whole truckload of lifestyle and business magazine editors. The relationship between a PR firm and its media partners is symbiotic; the magazines help to publicise stories and features on the PR company’s clients, and in return, the publication gets free and unlimited access to written and photographic content for use in the magazine. If you were to use a good PR firm and you wanted to be featured in a certain magazine, not only would they stand a good chance of getting you in there, but you would probably be having dinner with the editor the following week at a private function, at which you could present yourself and your product, and of course begin to build a personal relationship with the editor. This is the fast-track advantage of outsourcing your PR, and it’s the primary reason why you will be charged an arm and a leg for the service. Note also that most PR firms work on 6 or 12-month retainer contracts, so for someone who’s developed a cool new product on a shoestring, the cost of Pr’ing it professionally for a year is relatively astronomical compared to the few hundred bucks you’ve spend cobbling together your prototype.

Can I really do it myself? The simple answer is that you may not have a choice, and so you’ve taken a great step in committing some time to developing your own personal public relations skills. On a more DNA-centric level, this will probably change the way you think about company marketing or personal image-building entirely. Imagine you have been working 

as a chef in a small Italian restaurant in your home city for seven years. You wake up one day and decide you need a change of pace and a risky new approach to grabbing life by the balls and making something of yourself; you can’t make pollo carbonara forever. So you move from Europe to a modern Asian city and decide that you want to put your cooking skills to good use making decent money by offering a 5-star catering-at-home service. There is a strong appetite for fine Italian cuisine and foreign chefs of distinction in your new city, but so far nobody knows who you are. If you had money to burn, this is where your PR partner would step in and launch you. However, since we’re new in town and fairly broke, we’re going to “guerrilla” it. In putting together some sort of PR plan to help us, we need to develop at least a little situational awareness about the market we are operating in – not just for companies, but for would-be celebrities too. Our chef example here is a great case study, as he is both a business and a would-be celebrity. One approach would be to have a nice photo portfolio made, to write your own two-paragraph biography and start sending it to magazines (a press release). This will fail for a number of reasons. Firstly, you are not known to your market, so you have little media magnetism or star power; secondly, you are not known to the media, and so you do not have the personal relationship necessary to even call on a favour. Now imagine that instead of sending your bio and photos to 

magazines and newspapers, you send them to some mid-range hotels which you notice are advertising heavily in the very magazines you would love to be featured in. You offer to provide a free one-hour cooking demonstration in the hotel’s restaurant as part of one of these hotel’s weekly Sunday brunch offerings; a display in which you will unveil specially crafted rustic dishes in honour of your late grandmother, who created gastronomic treats from locally sourced Mediterranean ingredients, and now you wish you introduce this incredibly authentic Italian cooking style to your new city. The hotel loves this because you’re working for free; they will assume you’re famous in Europe, and because they now have something to feature in their next (typically boring) Sunday Buffet press release. The magazines are interested in running it because the hotel buys advertising every month and this will keep them from going elsewhere. And you’re happy, because after sending a couple for emails and spending an hour cooking your favourite dishes in front of a small audience, you’ve walked out of the hotel with everyone taking your picture and uploading the images to Facebook – not to mention your free editorial in a luxury lifestyle magazine next month. You will probably be asked for business cards too, at which point you can introduce your 5-star home dining concept, so you’re pretty much up and running. Total cost?  Zero.

Written by: David Swinfen

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