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 an organization and its target audience. And we will show how, when handled correctly, PR can allow a marketer’s message to stand out compared to other promotional methods.
What is Public Relations?
Public relations involves activities that are intended to cultivate positive relations with key organizations and groups through the use of a variety of communications channels and tools. Traditionally, this meant a company’s public relations team would work with members of the news media to publicize the organization and/or its products in an attempt to gain favorable stories in print and broadcast media. However, today the role of public relations is much broader and includes:
- Communicating with targeted customers by offering useful and timely information about an organization and its products.
- Closely monitoring numerous media channels for public comment about an organization and its products.
- Building goodwill among an organization’s customers, business partners, local community, and others by conducting special programs and events.
- Managing crises that threaten the image of an organization or its products.
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 an organization reaches 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, it is worth noting that in most large organizations there are other aspects to public relations which are not necessarily marketing related. Specifically, investor relations (IR) or financial public relations focus on financial issues facing organizations. These areas are guided by specific legal disclosure regulations. However, coverage of this type of PR will not be provided here.
Advantages of Public Relations
Public relations offers several advantages not found with other promotional options. These advantages include:
Considered a Credible Form of Promotion – A key part of a PR promotion is to obtain mentions of an organization in independent media outlets (e.g., television, online) as the target market generally views the mention as being more credible since it is not based on payment (i.e., advertisement) but on the media outlet’s judgment of what is newsworthy.
Can Offer More Detail – A well-structured public relations campaign can provide the target market with more detailed information than they receive with other forms of marketing promotion (e.g., details on a special event).
Information May Spread Quickly – A story mentioning an organization may be quickly picked up by a large number of additional media outlets (e.g., spread rapidly by bloggers and social media).
May Be Lower Cost Than Other Methods – When compared to the direct cost of other promotions, in particular advertising, the return on promotional expense for well-executed PR can be quite high.
Disadvantages of Public Relations
While public relations holds many advantages for marketers, there are also concerns when using this promotional technique. These disadvantages include:
Lack of Control Over Message Release – While public relations often uses the same print, digital and broadcast media outlets as advertising, it differs significantly from advertising in that marketers do not have direct control over whether a message is delivered.
Lack of Control Over Message Content – When public relations conveys information to a member of the media (e.g., reporter), the message may be “re-crafted” to fit within media’s content (e.g., news story) with the final message not being precisely what the marketer planned.
May Be Higher Cost Than Other Methods – While a PR campaign has the potential to yield a high return on promotional expense, it also can have the opposite effect (e.g., few attend a presentation by a company-paid spokesperson).
Message May Not Appear at All – When dealing with the media, there is always a chance a PR content item (e.g., TV interview with the company president) will get “bumped” from planned media coverage because of a more critical breaking news story (e.g., earthquake).
Special Skills May be Needed to Do PR Effectively – Marketers, accustomed to handling many of their own promotional tasks, may find that public relations requires a different skill set than other types of promotion (e.g., skills in dealing with the media), thus requiring the marketer to spend on a PR professional.
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Objectives of Public Relations
Like other aspects of marketing promotion, public relations is used to address several broad objectives including:
Building Awareness – When introducing a new product or re-launching an existing product, marketers can use a PR element to generate customer attention and awareness, particularly through media placements, social media announcements, and special events.
Creating Interest – Any positive attention PR can generate among media outlets, whether it results in an in-depth story or just a brief mention, can help entice interest within a target audience. For example, around the holiday season, a new festive holiday food may receive PR support with promotional releases sent to the food media, or through a free sampling event that may attract local television coverage.
Providing Information – PR can be used to provide customers with detailed information about products and services. Through organization-produced materials, such as online video tutorials, customer newsletters, social media postings, and other useful material, PR delivers information to customers that can help them gain understanding of the product or organization.
Stimulating Demand – While not as effective as sales promotion for moving customers to make a purchase, PR can still be a useful technique for building demand. For instance, a positive story about a product in a major media outlet can lead to a discernible increase in product sales.
Reinforcing the Brand – In many organizations, the public relations function is also involved with brand reinforcement by maintaining positive relationships with targeted audiences and thereby aiding in building a strong image. Today it is crucial for organizations and brands to build a favorable image. A strong image helps the marketer grow its business and may also help protect the organization in times of crises.
The Benefits of the PR Professional
While some marketers may prefer to handle their own PR tasks, many others will seek the assistance of outside PR professionals rather than attempt to handle these activities themselves. Skilled PR professionals offer many advantages for marketers with their two most important being:
Understand the Importance of Media Content
A critical tool for PR is the development of media relations. Public relations professionals are trained to unearth good information about a company and its products, which can then be presented to the media in the form of a content idea (e.g., suggest an article featuring the company, suggest on-air interview with a company representative). Just like selling products, selling a content idea requires those “pitching” the idea to present it in terms that will benefit the media outlet. PR professionals are skilled at presenting content ideas in ways that capture the interest of members of the media.
Know the Media
Knowledge of the media’s market may place PR professionals in a better position to match content ideas with the type of information sought by specific media members. Their skill at targeting the right media may prove to be a more efficient use of promotional resources than would occur if a marketer, who has little understanding of media needs, attempted to handle this on their own. This skill is especially valuable for organizations looking to do PR beyond their home market. Unlike advertising, where a standardized message can often work across different countries and cultures, the message presented through PR must often be adjusted for individual countries and, in some cases, subcultures within countries. For this reason, many organizations find that undertaking PR in the global market is better left to experienced professionals, who possess greater knowledge of a particular foreign market.
Key Public Relations Tools
Marketers have at their disposal several tools for carrying out public relations. The key tools available for PR include:
- Media Relations
- Media Tours
- Media Tours
- Newsletters and Informational Email
- Special Events
- Speaking Engagements
- Employee Communications
- Community Relations and Philanthropy
Before choosing among the various tools, marketers should begin by identifying their targeted audiences (e.g., target markets) and key messages they wish to send. These should align with the messages and audiences identified for the product being promoted or corporate goals for non-specific product promotions, such as corporate image promotions. The key messages are used in the development of public relations materials and supporting programs described below. The purpose of key messages is to provide a consistent point of view over time and across numerous PR methods that reinforce product positioning (i.e., customer’s perceptions) and reach the desired target audience.
Each of the PR tools listed above is discussed in detail in our Types of Public Relations Tools Tutorial.
Additional PR Activities
In addition to serving as means for helping to achieve marketing objectives, public relations professionals may undertake additional activities, aimed at maintaining a positive image for an organization. These activities include:
Monitoring public comment about a company and its products is becoming increasingly necessary, especially with the explosion of digital media outlets. Today monitoring not only includes watching what is written and reported in traditional print and broadcast media, it requires attention be paid to discussions occurring through social media, news websites, discussion forums, blogs, podcasts, and other public messaging areas. Marketers must be prepared to respond quickly to erroneous information and negative opinions about products as it can spin out of control very quickly through the new technology channels. Failure to correct misinformation can be devastating to a product or company’s reputation. It should be noted that specialized monitoring services can be contracted to help companies keep track of “buzz” about the company and its products.
Marketers need to be prepared to respond quickly to negative information about their organization. When a problem with a product arises, whether real or substantiated only by rumor, a marketer’s investment in a product can be in serious jeopardy. Today, with the prevalence of digital media, negative information can spread rapidly. Using monitoring tools marketers can track the issues and respond in a timely fashion. Additionally, to manage response effectively, many companies, led by their public relations staff, have a crisis management plan in place that outlines steps to take and the company spokespeople authorized to speak on behalf of the company should an event occur.
Trends in Public Relations
Until recently most public relations activity involved person-to-person contact between PR professionals and members of the media, such as journalists and television news reporters. However, several trends are developing that alter the tasks performed by PR people. In most cases, these changes are the result of evolving digital media technologies, which are quickly gaining widespread acceptance. The important trends in public relations include:
1. Social Media
By far the most significant trend to affect public relations in the last 25 years is the impact played by social media. While those responsible for such areas as distribution and personal selling may use social media in a general way, such as sending out announcements, there are other areas of marketing where social media has significantly transformed how things are done. And maybe the most impacted area is public relations.
In a matter of just a few years, social networks have created opportunities for monitoring and communicating that are quickly raising these methods to the top of the list of PR tools. In fact, many journalists and other media members find social media to be a more convenient way to acquire information, particularly if they want to monitor happenings in a specific industry. By following relevant social media postings, members of the media have information delivered to them, rather than having to spend time searching for it. Consequently, marketers have little option but to move more of their PR function in this direction.
While social media offers tremendous PR advantages across many outlets, it also poses significant threats. As was noted, one of the most pressing issues is that social media forces PR professionals to respond rapidly to negative or misleading information. In effect, social media is turning PR into a 24-hour, 7 days-a-week job, particularly for global companies.
Also, the time required to monitor and respond to the growing number of social media outlets is forcing some companies to place less emphasis on traditional public relations tasks, such as the creation of press kit materials. However, since social media continues to evolve as a PR tool, it is unclear if shifting workload to social media will carry the same return on investment as what is offered with traditional PR tools.
2. Changing Skill Sets
As we have discussed, public relations is becoming much more involved in creating content and strategies for the social media platforms of their own organizations or for clients. This has led to PR careers for not only those possessing traditional PR skills, such as strengths in communications, graphic design and journalism, but also those with certain high-tech (see Search Engine Optimization discussion) skills and marketing research expertise. This is evident in the need for people who can interpret the information provided by online social media listening tools that PR professionals are using to monitor what is going on in the social media world (see Market Monitoring discussion).
Additionally, PR is quickly moving to video-driven content as its main form of communicating with media outlets. This will also present public relations employment opportunities both in front of the camera (e.g., content presenters) and behind the camera (e.g., video editors).
3. Search Engine Optimization
A crucial task of publicity is convincing media outlets to mention the name of a product, company, or person. For several years, internet marketers have recognized the importance of getting their company information listed in what has become an influential media outlet – search engines. Using methods dubbed search engine optimization (SEO), marketers employ specific techniques in an effort to attain higher rankings to relevant search queries.
For instance, an online clothing retailer may attempt to be one of the first websites listed when someone enters the search phrase “men’s suits.” If the retailer’s website meets the search engine’s criteria for ranking, then the website could appear at the top of the search results page, without cost to the retailer.
While, at first glance, SEO may not seem like a responsibility of public relations, it would appear to contain the main characteristics for making it so, namely getting a third-party media outlet (i.e., search engine) to mention the company (i.e., search rankings) at no direct cost the company (i.e., no payment for ranking). And, just as PR people can use methods to affect coverage within traditional media, optimizing a website can work to influence results in search engines by using techniques (e.g., keywords) that allow a website to fit within ever-changing search engine ranking criteria. In this way, SEO does what PR professionals do by obtaining good placement in third-party media outlets.