How Public Relations Works


Public relations professionals place articles in newspapers.
Public relations professionals place articles in newspapers.
©iStockPhoto/Vladimir Jovanovic

In today's media-saturated culture, effective PR is a crucial part of any public undertaking. Image and public opinion mean everything, especially in the increasingly influential realm of social media. The individual or group who wins the media race will win the ultimate goal: the trust of the people.

Public relations, better known as PR, is the art and science of making people, governments and organizations look good. PR professionals work behind the scenes -- sending press releases, courting journalists, researching public opinion -- to position their clients as positive role models, ethical businessmen, concerned public officials, or at the very least, not criminals.

It can be difficult to tell public relations apart from advertising. Advertisers strive to sell a product or service, and public relations focuses on shaping an image. PR and marketing are even more related. Marketing uses research and targeted communications to achieve a desired action while public relations professionals strive to gain unpaid publicity from newspaper articles or TV news segments.

In this article, we'll start by defining exactly what public relations is, followed by what PR professionals do and the different areas in which they work.

What is Public Relations?

Public relations professionals manage image for a company or individual such as scheduling publicity tours.
Public relations professionals manage image for a company or individual such as scheduling publicity tours.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A basic definition of public relations is to shape and maintain the image of a company, organization or individual in the eyes of the client's various "publics." What is a "public" exactly? A public, in PR terms, is anyone who ever has or ever will form an opinion about the client.

Depending on the nature of the client's work, these publics could include clients, potential clients, voters, members of the local community, members of the media, students, parents of students, online fans groups, foreign citizens -- the list is endless.

Public relations success requires a deep understanding of the interests and concerns of each the client's many publics. The public relations professional must know how to effectively address those concerns using the most powerful tool of the PR trade: publicity [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics].

Entrepreneur.com defines public relations purely in terms of publicity work, describing PR as "Using the news or business press to carry positive stories about your company or your products; cultivating a good relationship with local press representatives" [source: Entrepreneur.com].

In many cases, the chief duty of the public relations professional is to draft press releases, which are sent to targeted members of the media. But to limit the scope of the public relations definition to publicity alone would be to underestimate the growing influence and reach of PR.

For example, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes is scheduled to speak at the Public Relations Society of America's annual conference about "public diplomacy," a branch of government public relations. Public diplomacy is shaping the image of a nation (in this case, the United States) in the eyes of both traditional allies and enemy states.

Today's public relations professional does much more than sit behind a desk faxing out press releases. More than ever, he's the public face of the client. It's the PR professional who organizes community outreach and volunteer programs. It's the PR representative who cultivates relationships with potential investors. And it's the PR executive who goes on the cable TV news program to answer the tough questions.

Read on to learn more about what PR professionals do.

What do Public Relations Professionals Do?

Organizations send press releases to gain reporters' attention.
Organizations send press releases to gain reporters' attention.
Image courtesy of the Kentucky State Nature Commission

Public relations professionals work to obtain free publicity for their client. Traditionally, that's done by sending press releases to journalists containing the information needed to write a positive story about the client. Newspapers, radio and TV stations (especially local ones) are always looking for fresh story ideas, particularly those with a "human interest" angle.

A PR professional crafts press releases resembling a compelling news story, making it clear why his client's product, service or personal history is important. The goal is to fulfill the journalist's requirement for news while enhancing the client's image in the public eye.

PR professionals spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with journalists and other members of the mass media. This is done by researching which journalists write about the client's industry or personal interests. A PR professional might contact the journalist to find out more about the types of stories he's looking for and how he likes to receive story pitches. A journalist is much more likely to read a press release that's fresh, timely, from a recognizable source and targeted specifically to his interests.

Another job of public relations is to create a press kit, or media kit. A journalist might request a press kit as a follow-up to a press release. The press kit contains everything the journalist needs to understand who the client is and what the client does. That could include:

  • Executive profiles
  • Quick facts about an organization, such as its company history
  • Photographs
  • Detailed product descriptions; even samples
  • Recent press releases
  • Business card of PR representative

People who work in PR are regarded as experts in media relations. They're often asked to train employees on how to effectively communicate with the media, particularly during print or TV interviews. Here's some of the interview advice dispensed by media trainers:

  • Be prepared with a few simple, key messages.
  • Think like a reporter; prepare answers for questions that are likely to arise.
  • Use the "blocking and bridging" technique to steer answers in the right direction. For example, use the phrases: "Now that's an interesting question…" followed by "what's important to remember is…" or "the real issue today is…".
  • Never lie to a reporter or say "no comment." Better to say you're "carefully reviewing" all the facts.
  • For TV interviews, look comfortable and feel conversational, but never mistake an interview for a conversation.

The PR department is responsible for organizing and holding press conferences when appropriate. Not all news merits a press conference. There must be more to the conference than just the reading of a press release. Journalists will only attend a press conference if it promises to announce a truly unique, timely event, complete with exciting visuals, experts and important officials in attendance.

Press conferences allow PR professionals to reach all potential media outlets at once --print, broadcast and Web. If you successfully attract a crowd of reporters, you can capitalize on the natural competitiveness of journalists, who will try to "out-scoop" each other on a truly exciting story.

Some PR professionals are turning to Web press conferences to save money and to increase the odds that busy journalists will attend. Web press conferences use Web conferencing software to stream a video presentation online in real time.

Public relations professionals also manage crises. "All publicity is good publicity," claims the old PR adage. But one piece of really bad press can tarnish the well-honed image of a business, college or politician for good. According to a 2007 survey by Harris Interactive, 15 percent of consumers would never again purchase a recalled brand. PR experts create a crisis management plan to respond quickly and proactively when a potentially damaging story is breaking.

Handling Public Relations Crises

Crisis management plans require a designated spokesman.
Crisis management plans require a designated spokesman.
©iStockPhoto/Chris Schmidt

There are many kinds of potential PR crises. For businesses, governments and organizations, they can be broken down into four basic categories:

  1. Natural disasters
  2. Technical problems
  3. Human error
  4. Executive wrongdoing/legal problems

A good crisis management plan requires honest self-assessment from an organization. Where are the gaps potential problems could sneak through? Who are the executives that have a habit of saying the wrong thing to the wrong people? What are the business practices that could be considered unethical or even illegal? What are the essential services that would be knocked offline by a natural disaster?

Sometimes it's necessary to bring in an outside PR consultant to analyze an organization for potential crises. These people would have an easier time identifying questionable businesses practices without being labeled as a whistle-blower. They also know how to redirect media attention to diffuse a potential disaster or at least lessen the damage.

It's also essential that an organization have an official spokesman (and back-up spokesmen) to be the voice and face of the organization in times of crisis. This can be the CEO, an organization's president or a PR staff member who specializes in crisis communications. This person also should be a skilled apologizer. A heartfelt public apology can go a long way to healing a bruised reputation, but a stiff, legalese-filled "statement" might just make things worse.

Now let's look at a few of the different areas and industries in which PR professionals work.

Public Relations and the Press

Public relations professionals can persuade a reporter to conduct an interview.
Public relations professionals can persuade a reporter to conduct an interview.
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

Public relations can't function without the press. PR professionals spend most of their day maintaining existing relationships and cultivating new ones with journalists and other members of the mass media. Journalists are bombarded with press releases -- the Los Angeles Times receives hundreds a week. Reporters are most likely to pay attention to those from a trusted source.

For a PR person to win that trust, he issues press releases targeted to the journalist's "beat," or expertise. Press releases should read like actual stories, not just bullet points extolling the client's virtues. There has to be something truly newsworthy about the release or it will be ignored.

Technically, journalists don't need press releases and PR contacts to do their jobs, but it can make the task of filling a daily newspaper or nightly news broadcast much easier. A well-written press release with a real news hook can translate directly into a story, saving a journalist valuable time tracking down sources and assembling facts.

In a perfect PR world, clients never make mistakes and the press never asks for information that isn't on the official statement. But when the media comes calling, PR departments and publicists are the first line of defense.

It's a hard fact of life for the PR professional. You crave media attention when the news is good and flee from the spotlight when things go bad. As we discussed earlier, a good PR department will have a plan in place and a skilled spokesman on hand to make sure that the press hears something other than the classic "No comment."

If a client feels a newspaper is misrepresenting the facts, the PR professional does have some weapons in his arsenal. One option is to write an Op-Ed piece telling the client's side of the story and submit it to the newspaper for publication.

If the newspaper won't accept the editorial, another option is something called an advertorial. Advertorials are paid advertisements that look and read like a regular Op-Ed piece in a newspaper. Different newspapers have different policies about what kind of information can appear in a paid ad, but many will simply print an advertorial with a special banner that's says "advertisement." Ethical or not, studies have shown that readers still have a hard time distinguishing between advertorials and regular editorials.

Now let's explore how technological advances are changing public relations.

Technology and Public Relations

Online media rooms help reporters gain information for potential stories.
Online media rooms help reporters gain information for potential stories.
Andreas Pollok/Stone/Getty Images

Sending press releases has become much easier with e-mail. With a few simple mouse clicks, a public relations specialist can send tens or thousands of press releases to a targeted group of journalists.

This practice, however, has given rise to press release spam, meaning that journalists are more likely to press the delete key before even opening the message. There are some companies who advertise spam-free press release services. These companies claim to have access to reporters and editors at top publications. The company will write and distribute a press release for a fee.

Another advance in PR technology is the Web itself. By building a well-designed Web site, a company, individual or organization can share information that polishes its image and furthers its agenda.

Web sites are also an excellent way to get the right information to journalists. Most large organizations and businesses include a media room on their official Web site. This area of the site is used to publish all press releases, company history, executive bios, high-resolution digital photos and even downloadable, digital press kits. Rather than seeking out media attention through mass-e-mailed press releases, a good Web site will draw in journalists by itself.

One of the biggest PR challenges posed by technology is the explosion of social media, sometimes called Web 2.0. Social media includes social networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace, and user-generated content communities like YouTube.

But the effect of Web 2.0 is much wider and deeper than a few Web sites. There now exists an entire generation of young people who have grown up online. This Net Generation doesn't know life without a cell phone and an e-mail account. They're used to searching for all their information online and are distrustful of "official" opinions or anything that smells of advertising.

This generation is unreachable by press releases. Their opinion-makers are bloggers and peers, not paid critics. Sure, it's possible to e-mail traditional press releases to bloggers, but such transparently promotional messages are likely to ignored.

Brian Solis is a PR consultant and avid blogger who offers advice for PR firms eager to tap into social media. Solis emphasizes that social media represents more of a sociological change than a technical one. This generation prizes honesty, engagement and transparency over anything else. For a company to get its message to an online community, it must join that community. And not as a spectator, but as a passionate participant; a real fan.

Solis recommends that companies invest more in community managers, people in charge of tracking and managing a client's image online. These community managers scour company message boards, read industry blogs and most importantly, communicate with the public. Their responses should reflect the opinions of real people.

This might explain the surge of executive blogs on many official company Web sites. Consumers like to know there are real people behind these businesses, people who have strong opinions about hot issues and who are engaging with their public. This idea of an active, two-way dialogue between corporation and consumer is key to managing an image with social media.

There's a danger, however, in coming across as an out-of-touch corporate shill trying to play the social media game. Some companies have engaged in a practice called Astroturfing, or creating fake grassroots media. An example of Astroturf would be posting a video on YouTube that appears to have been made by two geeks in Iowa, but was really produced by a room of Madison Avenue suits.

Yet another danger of the online era is the ability of a negative news story to spin out of control in a matter of hours, rather than days. Blogs pick up bad press and instantly amplify it to the world. Amateur journalists armed with camera phones can break an embarrassing story and have it on the national news by six o'clock. It's becoming harder and harder for a small PR staff to combat these well-armed masses of opinion-makers.

On the next page, you'll find out about career opportunities in public relations.

Careers in Public Relations

Public relations professionals often organize press conferences to announce special events.
Public relations professionals often organize press conferences to announce special events.
Frasier Harrison/Getty Images

Public relations professionals are natural and effective communicators -- skilled writers, journalists, public speakers and cold callers who are media-savvy and well-versed in pop culture and current events [source: The Princeton Review].

There are a variety of careers in public relations because the nature of the work is so diverse. That said, the broad scope of public relations jobs can be narrowed down into three general categories:

  • Publicity
  • Communications
  • Training

Publicity

The bread-and-butter of public relations is generating publicity. Publicity is a free and favorable mention of your client in a magazine, a positive review of your client's product in a newspaper column, or a recommended link to your client's Web site on a popular blog.

All careers in public relations include a certain amount of publicity work, but the real heavy lifting belongs to publicists. Publicists spend their days writing press releases to targeted journalists and publications. They handle all press inquiries regarding their clients and they prepare detailed press packets to hand out at interviews, press conferences and trade shows [source: The Princeton Review].

Communications

Communications overlaps considerably with publicity since one of the goals of effective communications is to garner publicity. But PR communications is also about managing the client's image as a whole, combining skills in media relations, marketing and even psychology.

Crisis communications specialists are PR professionals brought in to help a client through a particularly bad news day. A crisis could be an accusation of corporate crime, a fire or flood at a manufacturing plant, or something as deeply tragic as a school shooting. Crisis communications specialists often serve as the official spokesperson at all press conferences during a crisis and as the point person for media inquiries.

Press secretaries and campaign managers are masters of political PR communications. A well-trained press secretary will always remain on message, reiterating key points to portray his candidate or office-holder as competent and concerned with the issues. Press secretaries and campaign managers must stay cool under sharp questioning from the media and know how to divert attention to positive news.

Marketing communications is another important public relations job. Also called product communications, this branch of PR works close with the client's marketing department to help launch new products or reposition existing ones [source: Answers.com]. Product communications professionals help come up with wording for advertising campaigns, product packaging and special promotional events [source: All About Public Relations].

Large corporations often hire financial public relations experts to handle all communications pertaining to the financial well-being of the company, including annual earnings reports, stockholder newsletters and new investor outreach [source: Answers.com].

An emerging career in public relations is that of community relations and community manager. A community relations professional is constantly looking for ways to get his client's name attached to positive events in the local community. This PR specialist might encourage the client to sponsor arts and cultural events, give money to a children's organization or send out volunteers to clean up city parks.

A community manager, on the other hand, works mostly on the Internet, managing the image of the client with its online consumers. The community manager is active on company message boards, related industry blogs and online social networks, patching holes in consumer confidence and looking out for potential PR crises.

Training

Media trainers are PR professionals who put their media relations knowledge to work coaching corporate executives, spokespeople and politicians on the best techniques for handling the press.

Check out the next page to find out about the professional association for public relations.

Public Relations Society of America

Public relations professionals handle publicity for red-carpet events.
Public relations professionals handle publicity for red-carpet events.
Charley Galley/ AFI /Getty Images

Approximately one out of every five public relations professionals in the United States belongs to the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the largest public relations organization in the world [source: Northern Kentucky University]. The association's stated objective, with over 28,000 professional and student members in 116 national chapters, is "to unify, strengthen and advance the profession of public relations" [source: PRSA].

To become a PRSA member, you have to devote at least half your professional time to the practice or teaching of public relations. Full membership costs $225 a year and associate memberships (for those with two years of PR experience or less) costs $155 a year. PR college students can join the Public Relations Students Society of America with chapters at over 280 US universities.

PRSA membership offers many benefits, including networking, professional development, career services, conferences, official publications and mentoring [source: PRSA].

As a member, you have access to the Membership Directory, a searchable online list of all other PRSA members. You'll also have the option of joining local chapters, professional interest sections, or signing up with national Affinity Groups like the New Professionals [source: PRSA].

Members and non-members can sign up for dozens of professional development seminars each year. A few are live and on-site, but most are either teleseminars or Web seminars. Recordings of teleseminars and Web seminars can be accessed after the live event for 15 days. And with special "on-demand" seminars, members can download courses anytime they want.

The PRSA also holds an annual, multi-day international conference with hundreds of professional development courses, famous keynote speakers and endless opportunities to network with fellow PR practitioners.

At the PRSA Job Center, job seekers can search listings and post resumes, while employers can search resumes and post listings.

The PRSA also offers professional accreditation to qualified members through the successful passing of a Readiness Review and Comprehensive Exam. Those who pass the exam then hold the official title of Accredited in Public Relations (APR).

The PRSA publishes two member magazines, Public Relations Tactics and The Strategist, portions of which are available for free on the PRSA Web site.

For more information about public relations and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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