What is PR?

27 February 2022 | 6 min read | News
Portrait photo of Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

A few weeks ago, I took a call from a company who said they were looking to hire a PR agency. The first question I asked is, Why do you need PR and what do you want to get from it? The prospect on the other end of the line was flummoxed, they couldn’t answer the question.

This is not an isolated case. We have taken a dozen or more such calls in the last year and each time the reaction was the same. Unquestionably the company needs to build their brand and better engage its target market, but advertising can do that for them and generate almost immediate returns on their budget.

Why do they believe they need PR, and what is PR in the first place?

PR, or public relations, is all about sales. PR people don’t like to admit to this and will try and dress up what they do as something sexier and more touchy-feely – anything other than what it actually is. Perhaps this is where the ambiguity comes from. But the type of selling that PR does compared to its advertising and marketing bedfellows is very different.

PR happens when your target audience wants to read and hear what you have to say.

Advertising is where you proclaim to the world how great you are and remind prospects why they should buy from – or engage with – your business. You can say just about whatever the hell you like because you’re paying for the privilege to do so.

PR, however, is when your target audience wants to read and hear what you have to say. They value your ideas and opinions, and their friends, colleagues or business associates do too. They tell each other how great you are without you having to interfere in some way (such as a strategically placed advert).

Of course, there is more to it than that. PR enables businesses and their key people to communicate their messages to the right people, in the right way and crucially at the right time:

  • If disaster strikes the organisation, PR is called in to provide clarity to stakeholders and mend reputations, if need be.
  • When profits soar, investment comes flowing in and a raft of new jobs are created, PR orchestrates the way in which the media is informed.
  • And when it comes to key societal and environmental issues that are close to the organisation’s heart and its people, PR provides business leaders with a voice.

PR vs. advertising: Can they co-exist?

I spent the first 10 years of my career selling advertising for local and national newspapers and I firmly believe that PR should never replace advertising and vice versa. Rather, they complement one another.

Advertising can deliver outcomes (new business enquiries, requests for information, sales conversions) almost immediately, whereas PR’s impact is more sustained over a prolonged period of time. It will deliver the same tangibles as its oppositive number; however, they tend to be of a type that have a greater benefit to the business in three prime ways:

  1. Impacton your market. You may have upwards of 10, 100 or 1,000 competitors, and PR makes it easier for your business to stand out and reach the customers you need.
  2. Influence on customer buying decisions. Your prospective customers have a choice of who they do business with, and PR shapes their perception of – and positions – you as a go-to.
  3. Incomethe bottom line. When it is your voice that is consistently heard above the increasingly audible noise and it is your business who customers regard as holding the key to help them overcome the challenges they face, the financial benefit to the business then becomes a simple formality.

Both PR and advertising depend on repetition and consistency for success. Running a single advert may generate some response, but multiple adverts over several weeks or months will drive a far greater ROI.

Advertising can deliver immediate outcomes – PR’s impact is more sustained over a prolonged period of time.

Similarly with PR, to positively influence people’s perception of your organisation and ensure that you remain top of mind when they need what you can offer takes time. So, you need to maintain stakeholder engagement and retain a presence in the public domain.

PR encompasses everything from securing media quotes and interviews, guest appearances on influential podcasts, and speaker opportunities at key events, to thought leadership and creative content, digital marketing, and email marketing. Its job is to get the people of most importance to your business talking about you in a positive way.

Is PR expensive?

Yes, when it isn’t done right. When you buy a new car, you know its value depreciates the second it leaves the showroom, and you will never see a financial return on your investment. But if you need to install a new IT system or replace all the lighting in your office with energy saving alternatives, the opposite is true. You recognise that the investment you make now will deliver cost benefits in time. PR works in the same way.  

During the first few months, progress may seem slow, but this is the most critical time in your PR campaign. This is the drip-feed period whereby your message is getting ‘out there’ and is starting to be heard.

Until now, the media and many of your prospects may only be seeing and hearing your name for the first time and they are not going to jump into bed with you right away. You need to earn their trust through the constant drip-drip of stories and content.

As traction gathers pace, so too does awareness of who you are and what you do. Your audience is gaining trust in you as a business and what you have to offer. This in turn reduces the sense of risk by transitioning from their current service or product provider in favour of you.

If you would like to discuss your potential PR requirements, Clearly can provide you with a PR Review service that includes an initial fact-finding call, research, workshop, and recommendations. Click here for details.