Public Relations Tutorial

Of the four promotional mix options available to marketers public relations (PR) is probably the least understood and, consequently, often receives the least amount of attention. Many marketers see public relations as only handling rudimentary communication activities, such as issuing press releases and responding to questions from the news media.

But in reality, in a time when customers are inundated with thousands of promotional messages everyday, public relations offers powerful methods for cutting through the clutter.

In this part our highly detailed Principles of Marketing Tutorials we see how public relations is growing in importance as a marketing tool and is now a critical component in helping marketers reach their objectives. We will see that PR uses a variety of methods to enhance the relationship between organizations and its target audience. And we will show that when handled correctly PR can allow a marketer’s message to rise above other promotional methods.

Public relations involves the cultivation of favorable relations for organizations and products with its key publics through the use of a variety of communications channels and tools. Traditionally, this meant public relations professionals would work with members of the news media to build a favorable image by publicizing the organization or product through stories in print and broadcast media. But today the role of public relations is much broader and includes:

  • building awareness and a favorable image for a company or client within stories and articles found in relevant media outlets
  • closely monitoring numerous media channels for public comment about a company and its products
  • managing crises that threaten company or product image
  • building goodwill among an organization’s target market through community, philanthropic and special programs and events

In this tutorial most of our focus is on how public relations supports marketing by building product and company image (sometimes referred to as publicity). Yet, it should be noted that there are other stakeholders companies reached via the public relations function, such as employees and non-target market groups. Favorable media coverage about a company or product often reaches these audiences as well and may offer potential benefit to the marketer.

Finally, in most large companies, investor relations (IR) or financial public relations is a specialty in itself guided by specific disclosure regulations. However, coverage of this type of PR will not be provided here.

While public relations holds many advantages for marketers, there are also concerns when using this promotional technique. First, while public relations uses many of the same channels as advertising, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and Internet, it differs significantly from advertising in that marketers do not have direct control over whether a message is delivered and where it is placed for delivery. For instance, a marketer may spend many hours talking with a magazine writer, who is preparing an industry story, only to find that their company is never mentioned in the article.

Second, while other promotional messages are carefully crafted and distributed as written through a pre-determined placement in a media vehicle, public relations generally conveys information to a member of the news media (e.g., reporter) who then recrafts the information as part of a news story or feature. Thus, the final message may not be precisely what the marketer planned.

Third, while a PR campaign has the potential to yield a high return on promotional expense, it also has the potential to produce the opposite if the news media feels there is little value in running a story pitched (i.e., suggested via communication with the news outlet) by the marketer.

Fourth, with PR there is always a chance that a well devised news event or release will get “bumped” from planned media coverage because of a more critical breaking news story, such as wars, severe weather or serious crime.

Finally, in some areas of the world the impact of traditional news outlets is fading forcing public relations professionals to scramble to find new ways to reach their target markets.

Public relations offers several advantages not found with other promotional options. First, PR is often considered a highly credible form of promotion. One of PR’s key points of power rests with helping to establish credibility for a product, company or person (e.g., CEO) in the minds of targeted customer groups by capitalizing on the influence of a third-party -- the media. Audiences view many media outlets as independent-party sources that are unbiased in their coverage, meaning that the decision to include the name of the company and the views expressed about the company is not based on payment (i.e., advertisement) but on the media outlet’s judgment of what is important. For example, a positive story about a new product in the business section of a local newspaper may have greater impact on readers than a full-page advertisement for the product since readers perceive the news media as presenting an impartial perspective of the product.

Second, a well-structured PR campaign can result in the target market being exposed to more detailed information than they receive with other forms of promotion. That is, media sources often provide more space and time for explanation of a product.

Third, depending on the media outlet, a story mentioning a company may be picked up by a large number of additional media, thus, spreading a single story to many locations.

Finally, in many cases public relations objectives can be achieved at very low cost when compared to other promotional efforts. This is not to suggest public relations is not costly, it may be, especially when a marketer hires PR professionals to handle the work. But when compared to the direct cost of other promotions, in particular advertising, the return on promotional expense can be quite high.

Like other aspects of marketing promotion, public relations is used to address several broad objectives including:

  • Building Product Awareness – When introducing a new product or relaunching an existing product, marketers can use a PR element that generates consumer attention and awareness through media placements and special events.
  • Creating Interest – Whether a PR placement is a short product article or is included with other products in “round up” article, stories in the media can help entice a targeted audience to try the product. For example, around the holiday season, a special holiday food may be promoted with PR through promotional releases sent to the food media or through special events that sample the product.
  • Providing Information – PR can be used to provide customers with more in depth information about products and services. Through articles, collateral materials, newsletters and websites, PR delivers information to customers that can help them gain understanding of the product.
  • Stimulating Demand – A positive article in a newspaper, on a TV news show or mentioned on the Internet, often results in a discernable increase in product sales.
  • Reinforcing the Brand – In many companies the public relations function is also involved with brand reinforcement by maintaining positive relationships with key audiences, and thereby aiding in building a strong image. Today it is ever more important for companies and brands to build a good image. A strong image helps the company build its business and it can help the company in times of crises as well.