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Public Relations: What to Know

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Public relations(PR) is an often misunderstood profession. To those who don’t like it, its filled with sleaze merchants peddling lies. To those who do, it’s a vital part of doing business. The quote I heard most as a student was by Bill Gates, “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR!” There is a certain validation that one of the most successful businessmen the world values PR.

While Mr. Gates quote may make us think twice about the value of PR (hopefully for the better), it doesn’t give much information about it or why he feels this way. As I said at the top, PR is an often misunderstood profession. The question is what should you know about PR and why would be valuable to your business? That’s a question worth exploring.

PR is a business function

PR was “invented” by Edward Bernays, widely known as the “father of PR”….yeah, I’m not really going to give a history lesson. That would a completely different post and most likely only found interesting by history buffs.

As the headline to this section says PR is a business function. In that respect, it’s no different than accounting, sales, and customer service. It has a specific purpose: to help you build a relationship with your customers.

There are many ways that this can be achieved. You can use traditional media, social media, or articles on your website. Of course, it’s not easy. If it was, everybody would be a PR master. Like all relationships, it takes time and effort. Also like a relationship with a friend, the goodwill from PR can be undone with one comment or action. Luckily if this happens, guess what? PR is there to help you out. More on this later.

Return on Investment

I used to work at a Fortune 100 company that loved data. We couldn’t do anything without consulting the data. We live in a world where data is important. It helps us understand how we are doing and where we might improve. You’re investing money into PR and you should know if you are getting a return on investment (ROI).

Measuring PR has been a hot topic in the industry over the last decade. Measurement has often been rather ambiguous. Twenty years ago, your PR person would come to you and tell you that they got an article about your business in the paper. Prior to what you might think, this isn’t the easiest accomplishment but there is a certain way this was measured (still measured by some PR people). If the newspaper had a circulation of 50,000 subscribers, you would be told that the article made 50,000 impressions. Impressive right? Maybe not so much.

If you’re anything like me you’re saying, “Hold on, just because 50,000 people get the paper doesn’t mean that 50,000 people read the article.” You would be right, and you can see what I can only describe as my rant on the topic here. This metric you were given doesn’t tell you anything more than 50,000 people had an opportunity to read the story. It’s no guarantee that they did. It sounds great but it doesn’t really tell you anything. It’s what I would refer to as a vanity metric.

Luckily PR is getting smarter about using data. It is now able to measure much more than it previously could. For example, I can see how many people read this post. I can tell you whether they came to me from a Google search, a Facebook ad, or via Twitter. I can also tell you how many were converted to a business lead. Like you, I want a sale. In your case maybe it’s to buy a product or give a donation. For me, it’s new PR business.

A Variety of Skill Sets

PR people have a wide skill set dealing with many different disciplines. There are PR people who focus on public affairs, social media, media relations, investor relations, and reputation management. That’s a short list of what PR does but add in search engine optimization, data analysis, content creation and placement and it’s not an easy job. Like many professionals, those same people also focus on more than one discipline within PR. I focus on content management, media relations, and social media. Another person may focus on media relations, reputation management, and crisis PR.

Speaking of which, are you still wondering how PR can help you in a crisis? I know. I gave it away already. Crisis PR people are experts in dealing with communication when things go wrong and it’s a really stressful job. It can be an oil rig breaking down or a norovirus outbreak at a restaurant. Bad PR is a killer on businesses. It’s easy to point out bad PR when it happens like BP or Chipotle. It’s hard to point out good PR when it’s done well. Good PR will be invisible.

Final thoughts

I had an instructor in college who said that over 80% of what we see in the newspaper was placed by a PR person. I used to make a game of going through the paper and finding those articles. She wasn’t far off. As a PR person, I see how much PR impacts us on an everyday basis. In this day age, PR is something that all organizations, whether Fortune 500 or a non-profit should be using at some level.

Shane Carpenter
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