Public Relations imagePublic relations is about building and preserving the image of a business, organization, or well known person. (1) Referred to as the art of managing communication with the public, it is also about promotion, or improving the visibility of a business.

While it can be synonymous with marketing, it is often used to refer to interaction with news media, endorsements, and items of public interest. As opposed to advertising, it often refers to public speeches, responses to emergencies, and media events. Today it is often expanded to include the realm of social media, a subject new enough not to have found a permanent home in either marketing or public relations.

The primary goal of public relations should be to establish rapport on a broad scale. This isn’t always with customers. It could be voters, investors, shareholders, or employees. Being a broad term, firms or individuals working in the industry often refer to themselves with the name of a targeted group or organization followed by “relations.” Examples include media relations, labor relations, financial public relations, and so on.

The nature of the word “public” in the phrase is mailable, and can often be stretched to accommodate virtually any group or individual that can have an opinion about the client. (2)

Often, the job of a public relations individual or firm is to submit press releases. Despite this, there are some sources who now claim the press release is on its way out as a useful PR tool. (3) Often, a PR professional is the individual who the public most strongly identifies with a brand. In the mind of the public, the PR representative “is” the brand.

PR Jobs and Salaries

By 2018, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics expects there to be 341,300 specialists in the field.

Work in the PR field pays well, but it is also a very competitive sector of the market. (4) As of 2008, there were nearly 300,000 specialists in the industry. While these specialists tend to congregate in the cities, it is becoming more common for them to move into rural areas, where they have fewer competitors and are closer to their clients.

The field is expected to explode in popularity over the next ten years, growing by 24 percent. By 2018, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics expects there to be 341,300 specialists in the field. Since PR offers a competitive advantage, businesses will need to continually improve their PR to stay competitive, which should put specialists in high demand. Those with multilingual skills will be especially prized as the economy becomes more global.

The growing importance of social media is also expected to have an influence on the demand for public relations, which may become more important than advertising and traditional marketing within the next decade.

Competition is high for entry level specialists, and this shows no sign of changing. Graduates with a multidisciplinary degree will show the most promise, with at least one degree in either journalism, or, of course, public relations. First hand experience or internships will continue to be an especially important factor.

In 2008, the average PR specialist made $51,280 a year. The goal of most in the industry, however, is to go high profile. This is why the top 10% earn significantly more, over $97,910.

Basic PR Strategies

Most people are well aware of some of the basics of PR strategy. The basic process is about segmenting the population based on demographic data, creating lobby groups to influence government and public opinion, introducing a unique spin on a current event that benefits the client, and pointing out the flaws of competitors (1). Since lobbying is a strategy best left for entire industries or monopolies, we will focus on the other three strategies.

Demographics and Market Segmentation

Effective market segmentation should be approached in a scientific manner.

Successful PR begins with good demographic research. This is all about segmenting the market into different categories. While the public is not strictly divided into groups that all think alike, certain categories tend to think similarly, and public relations is more effective if communication with each one of these groups is addressed separately, at least in part.

Some of the variables that might be used to categorize people include income, sex, nationality, race, education, religion, age, and family size. (5) There are many other variables that can be used, but these are common because the information is already well documented and easily obtained. It is a mistake to think that these are the only variables that should be used, however. A PR specialist can choose any variable they want if they feel it is relevant. (6)

Effective market segmentation should be approached in a scientific manner. There is an art to it, but engaging in extensive testing and research is preferable. Ideally, aggregate data should be retrieved from surveys, government institutions, case studies, and so forth.

Relevant behaviors should be recorded, and the data should then be analyzed to see if there are any patterns. Older segments of the population, for example, might respond better to reserved statements, while younger segments might respond better to bold, controversial statements.

The key here is to test each segment of the population with test audiences or surveys, if possible. This isn’t an option in every circumstance, but over time it helps to build a “template” of the behaviors you can expect from each segment of the market.

One challenge of public relations is to successfully cater to each demographic individually without appearing hypocritical.

Responding to Current Events

This is one of the reasons why transparency has become a popular buzzword recently. These techniques are well known because they are infamous…

The primary difference between public relations and advertising, if there is one, is that public relations focuses on more “social” subject matter. It is less about a company’s products, and more about the activities of that company, and events in the industry as a whole. For this reason, it is easy to see how current events and public relations are closely intertwined.

Much of this is related to the concept of “spin.” Again, many of the techniques used to spin current events in an organization’s favor are already well known. These include “cherry picking” the facts to present things in the best possible light, implying things without stating them outright, making a positive announcement in order to counteract a negative one, or using a “non-denial denial,” which is when a carefully selected statement is chosen to dismiss a statement without actually denying its truth. (7)

There are several problems with these approaches, however. The public has become quite familiar with “spin doctoring,” and isn’t easily swayed by these techniques. This is one of the reasons why transparency has become a popular buzzword recently. These techniques are well known because they are infamous, and associated with the kind of dishonesty that the public attributes to politicians.

A more fundamental problem with these approaches is that they are primarily reactive in nature, rather than proactive. The focus is more on protecting an image than on building one. A well managed public personality is less susceptible to negative attention, and less likely to rely on these techniques.

Negative Public Relations

…if it highlights the strengths of your brand, it is worth the effort…[if approached in a] fun, lighthearted way…

Relatively self-explanatory, negative public relations is about using the same tactics discussed above, but to harm the image of a competitor, rather than to improve the image of the organization. There is quite a bit of debate over whether or not negative PR is beneficial to the brand doing the “attacking.” (8) Some studies indicate that, at least in politics, negative campaigning can actually demobilize the audience. (9)

Despite this, there are certainly cases in which negative campaigning has worked for a company. For example, in 2006, the “Get a Mac” campaign, which hounded on the PC, improved Apple’s share of the market by 42 percent, a campaign that also won them the Grand Effie award.

Many experts seem to agree that the effectiveness of negative PR is directly related to what it says about your brand. While some discourage ever going negative, others say that, if it highlights the strengths of your brand, it is worth the effort. They also recommend only doing so in a fun, lighthearted way, rather than a demeaning and vindictive manner.

When used inappropriately, negative campaigning can actually hurt your own brand’s reputation. Customers might start picturing thrown stones and glass houses.

What Clients Expect from a Public Relations Agency

A PR firm should be able to come up with ideas that a business can’t come up with on its own.

During 2009, the economic climate was not as stable as it has become today. In response to concerns about the future of the PR industry, PR Week released a list of focus areas that firms should focus on in order to be most desirable to clients. (16) The list works just as well for businesses who aren’t sure exactly what they should be looking for from a PR agency.

  • Credibility. One of the first things a business should be looking for from a PR firm is accreditation and certification with relevant organizations. A firm can’t be judged on its fee structure alone. If they have made significant achievements, it shouldn’t be hard for them to receive recognition for them.
  • Compatibility. A business and its PR firm should be on the same page. If they don’t have the same goals, understand one another, or speak the same language (literally or figuratively), it will be difficult to have a successful working relationship.
  • Cost Effectiveness. Fees are not as important as the return on your investment. The more evidence a PR firm can use to justify the expense, the better. Look for the best value, not the lowest cost.
  • Innovation. A PR firm should be able to come up with ideas that a business can’t come up with on its own. The ideas should not only be creative, but relevant to the brand in question.
  • Recognition. An established track record is crucial. The quality of the work, rather than the number of clients, is key. Look for word of mouth recommendations.
  • Personalities. The firm’s performance itself isn’t everything. The people on the team, and their past accomplishments, are also important. Even if the firm has produced some of the best quality work available, this doesn’t mean anything if they hired somebody off the street to handle your specific project. The firm should also consist of more than one “star player,” since they could easily leave and join a new firm.
  • Contacts. A good PR firm will have working relationships with influential organizations, since endorsements from third parties are crucial to good PR.
  • Things to Avoid. Agencies should talk about what they can do for you, and why it will work, not what they have accomplished before. It should not follow a template strategy. An agency that is straightforward about its strengths, rather than claiming to provide everything, is also preferable. They should have no problem spending time with you to form a plan.

Top PR Firms

“Marketing is more about the conversation now.”

Some of the most successful PR firms in recent history are Edelman, APCO Worldwide, and Waggener Edstrom, all of which earned over a hundred million in PR fees during 2010. (14) They also successfully increased their fee structure from 2009, which is a strong indication that they are in high demand. So what is it that these PR firms have that others don’t?

Edelman is widely considered to be the most successful global PR firm at the moment. (15) According to Advertising Age, this is because of a focus on conversation. Richard Edelman, the president and CEO of the PR powerhouse, says that “Marketing is more about the conversation now.” In other words, it is all about building a two-way communication channel so that you’re listening as much as you’re talking.

A major part of this is creating “true to life” work. The popularity of viral videos on the internet, perhaps reflected by the increasing popularity of reality television, is an indication of the direction that PR may be heading. Because of the fact that media has become relatively inexpensive, all major brands are encouraged to start acting at least somewhat like media companies. They are encouraged to produce their own content, build relationships with influential organizations, and create an online persona.


Social media and the internet aren’t just connecting customers with themselves and your brand, they are also connecting the world. (12) This impacts virtually every aspect of society, but PR just might be one of the most directly impacted.

A global business has a much wider variety of types of customers and organizations to contend with, and we live in an age when even a small business can be global. This means there are more demographics to sift through, and thus the process becomes more complex. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the PR industry is steadily growing. Here are some behaviors that help the transition along.

Stay Educated. Cultural norms shift from location to location, and it is vital that public relations adjust to account for this fact. Basic research starts with a visit to the World Bank and the CIA World Fact Book, two resources that make for a good jumping off point.

we live in an age when even a small business can be global

Stay Open. Your eyes and your mind need to be open in order to adjust to new cultures or demographics. There are subtle ques you will never find in any scholarly text. Try to understand these new audiences on an intuitive level.

Focus on the Positives. The most common response to culture shock is derision. Look for the positives, or you will never relate to your new customers or business partners.

Stay Flexible. With a multitude of audiences, your business needs to be more fluid than ever before. Patience, flexibility, and even a sense of humor are some of the factors that will help you rebrand yourself in each new situation.

Etiquette. Learn business customs, follow expected norms, remember what time zone they’re in, and try to learn the language.

You Won’t Get Everything Right. Be prepared to fail in many ways, and be ready to cope with and learn from those failures. No amount of preparation will assure perfect international public relations.

Public Relations in the Digital Age

Social media is inherently different from traditional media…The conversation is happening regardless of whether you take part in it.

The Financial Times has boiled down the opinions of many industry experts in order to identify the five things that good public relations should achieve in the modern age. (10)

  • It must seek endorsements from impartial organizations.
  • Communications should develop trust not only with customers but with key players in the industry.
  • It should influence opinions, increase exposure, and enhance image.
  • Brand loyalty should be established.
  • It should result in action on behalf of those receiving the communications.

Achieving these goals should always be the first thing in mind. Some of the basic public relations strategies discussed in the previous section are beginning to grow obsolete, because they may not necessarily be the most efficient path for attaining these goals. The emergence of social media as a widespread tool, used heavily by all demographics, can not be ignored as part of a sensible PR strategy.

Unfortunately, many of the top PR firms seem to be doing just that. (13) At least in 2009, over half of PRWeek’s top PR firms didn’t even run a blog on their website, and 20 percent of them had less than 30 links pointed toward their websites. A tool called WebsiteGrader measures the marketing capabilities of a website, and it found that the average score was below 50 on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the best.

It’s not hard to understand why many PR firms are struggling. Social media is inherently different from traditional media. It is a two way communication. Like it or not, the Internet has made it far easier for the public to get their own ideas out in the public light. The conversation is happening regardless of whether you take part in it. If you join in the conversation in a productive, trustworthy way, you can expect the public to do a lot of the work for you.

Getting Started

Here are some steps recommended by experts in the industry (11):

  1. Start a Blog.
  2. Blog about events in the industry, not just your own company. Your business’s “opinion” on industry events helps form your public image.
  3. Read customer comments on your blog and industry related forums and communities. Respond when appropriate, and use the information to get an idea of what your customers are looking for.
  4. Stay in tune with what videos become “viral” on the internet, and try to understand why. (More on this later.)
  5. Set up a podcast or a similar multimedia outlet.
  6. Share your content, and make it easy for your customers to share it. Share content from non-competitors in your industry to become a part of the community.
  7. Encourage users to create their own content.
  8. Use social media to release information as well as traditional press releases.
  9. Be as transparent as your business model allows you to be, including things like “behind the scenes” information or video.
  10. Pay a community manager to be your “social” public relations persona.

Blurring the Lines Between PR and Marketing

The emergence of social media has made it more difficult to distinguish PR from marketing, a distinction that was once easier to make. Both have always been about image, but advertising was advertising and the press was the press. Social media is neither.

The focus was on encouraging audience participation.

During 2009, Edelman used innovative techniques to help market brands using the overlap between public relations and social media (17). The focus was on encouraging audience participation. They got over a million customers to pledge not to buy plastic water battles, and to protect the environment by buying Brita water filters. They created a viral video called The Science of Sexy to promote a new Wonderbra product. They used Facebook to encourage people to choose a new flavor for Ben and Jerry’s. These campaigns all proved very effective, and achieved staggering growth during a down economy.

PR firm Ketchem has done similar work. (18) Their invitation for customers to “Crash the Superbowl” with their own advertisements earned them the Campaign of the Decade award from the Holmes Report. They also helped update Barbie’s image by creating a runway show at the Mercedes-Benz fashion show.

Ogilvy’s recent PR work has taken the same approach, but with a business’s own employees. (19) Participants from a call center, during an American Express training seminar, were asked to create their own films about ways to improve quality control, customer communication, and so on. This led to an open dialogue which improved employee morale and helped lead to new solutions.

The Importance of Women

Women are also much more likely to share information on… sales, deals, and new products.

Many industry experts are starting to realize the important role that women will play in the future of PR, both as a part of the public and in the industry. This is largely due to their tendency to use social media. When it comes to Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, women use the sites more often than men. (20) The only popular exception is LinkedIn, although women still make up a significant portion of the users.

Women are also much more likely to share information on virtually any topic besides sports. This includes information about sales, deals, and new products. (21)

Some might claim that this is because women are more prone to gossip. It would be a mistake, based on a reckless stereotype, to take these studies as an indication that PR should focus entirely on women.

The fact is, if a firm had to choose between communicating with one of the two genders, they would probably have the most success with women.

Furthermore, women are more likely to believe in the ability of social networks to facilitate change, and more likely to support causes. (22) This has two important implications. Since women are more likely to believe in the power of social networks, many of them might actually be more effective at using them for public relations. It also means that they are an important target in any PR campaign that is about social change.

About Viral Content

the public won’t share something if it doesn’t fulfill a social need

With this new emphasis on social media, effective PR firms need to understand why somebody is willing to share material. The public won’t share a site or a piece of multimedia if it doesn’t suit there purposes. It has to say something about them, serve some social function, resonate with strongly held beliefs, and elicit informative reactions from the people it is shared with. (23) In short, the public won’t share something if it doesn’t fulfill a social need.

For example, somebody won’t share information about a good deal just because it offers good value. They will only share it if their knowledge of the good deal makes them appear savy, chic, in the know, or cool. They aren’t “just clicking a button.” It doesn’t matter how easy it is to share the material. If it has social repercussions, they won’t do it unless they are fairly sure those repercussions will be positive.

While there are numerous reasons a person might feel compelled to share something with their friends or colleagues, common factors can be identified. Here are seven of them. (24)

  • Humor. As the saying goes, laughter is contagious. This is probably the most common reason people share content.
  • Inspiration. If content causes somebody to feel motivated about something, or to get a “warm and fuzzy” feeling, users are also more likely to share it.
  • Cuteness. Something that sets off people’s paternal and maternal instincts won’t go ignored.
  • Creativity. People won’t share a video if they have already seen a hundred videos just like it (or even just one).
  • Shock. A video that elicits a sense of righteous indignation or disgust, ironically enough, tends to get shared.
  • Surprise. If somebody gets caught off guard, it’s not uncommon for them to want to do the same to all of their friends.
  • Nostalgia. Old media that reminds people of the “good old days” also tends to get shared, possibly because it helps people reunite.

These factors should help you realize something important about how viral content relates to public relations. Most importantly, just because content is viral, that doesn’t mean it is good for your public image. Crafting media that paints a business or organization in a positive light, while also going viral, is not an easy thing to pull off. One recent example of a campaign that did will it off really well is the Old Spice Man campaign.

Old Spice combined humor, cuteness, creativity, shock and surprise to showcase how it’s products can turn you or the man in your life, into a real man aka the Old Spice Man. Now we all know that it isn’t even vaguely true but the humor of it was so fantastic that we, the public, just went along with videos created by “Mustafa Isaiah” aka the Old Spice Man. Using dialogue such as “We’re not saying this body wash will make your man smell into a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it.” The beauty of the campaign was that it was one of the first large scale viral campaigns by a relatively old company to utilize multiple facets of social media in co-ordination with advertising and public outreach.

Should You Outsource Public Relations?

The answer to this question will depend on your situation. Some argue that hiring a PR firm is like hiring somebody else to propose for you. (25) Others argue that outsourcing is a better allocation of resources, because a PR firm has intimate knowledge of how to communicate effectively with the public. (26)

Most business professionals… simply do not have an intimate understanding of how to relate with the public.

Both arguments have merit. There is an argument to say that nobody has more passion about your business and what it can do than you and your business partners. By the same token, you might not have all the right contacts, or understand how the public might react.

If you don’t outsource, it is at least ideal to hire an in-house PR specialist. As long as they are willing to have an open dialogue with you, and will do everything in their power to understand your business, this is usually a good move. Most business professionals, except for those employed in media companies themselves, simply do not have an intimate understanding of how to relate with the public.

For example, a business owner might be intimately familiar with all of the merits of their business, but they might not be aware of the fact that bragging about these merits on their blog is not the most effective PR strategy.

As discussed above, PR professionals understand how to get endorsements, develop trust, enhance your image and visibility, influence opinion, motivate public action, and establish brand loyalty. If learning these skills would distract you from higher ROI activities, outsourcing is the ideal solution.

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