Blog by Polaris managing director Ben Pinnington pictured above at UK pavilion at Marintec maritime trade fair Shanghai
During the research for my forthcoming book on PR in the maritime industry I have found myself thinking and talking more and more about what pr and comms actually is in today’s business world. What is the reality for CEOs, marketing teams and PR consultants how does it work in practice?
I feel there is immense and unhelpful confusion about what is expected of PR, particularly in small businesses, as PR is often seen as marketing without understanding that PR is not sales and is not in the purest sense marketing. As the late Sam Black one of the pioneers of PR in Britain set out in his celebrated 1993 work ‘The Essentials of PR’ PR is integral to the management of any organisation. It is not merely an add-on to marketing and I would urge CEOs and bosses to see it as such. It is vital for any PR campaign to work that it has the support and understanding of the owner or CEO of the business otherwise it will never be a priority to anyone else.
So stripping right back what is PR, what are you investing in? The Chartered Institute of Public Relations definition of Public Relations says:
Every organisation, no matter how large or small, ultimately depends on its reputation for survival and success.
Customers, suppliers, employees, investors, journalists and regulators can have a powerful impact. They all have an opinion about the organisations they come into contact with – whether good or bad, right or wrong. These perceptions will drive their decisions about whether they want to work with, shop with and support these organisations.
In today’s competitive market, reputation can be a company’s biggest asset – the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd and gives you a competitive edge. Effective PR can help manage reputation by communicating and building good relationships with all organisation stakeholders.
The CIPR’s definition of Public Relations:
“Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.
Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”
Knowing how to make PR work
Our experience is that businesses that succeed with PR thrust communications to their core and the CEO’s embrace it – think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Richard Branson they are all passionate about getting their message out and being the front person leading it. They are clear why they are engaging PR, they want profile, awareness, understanding they want to influence and they want to build trust. The trust point is critical because what PR is not is spin – ie distorting the truth by overstating your case or covering things up. You cannot build credibility with your audiences, particularly sceptical journalists, by puffing yourself up or being dishonest. Good PR is rooted in truth and informed credibility – that is how you build trust.
In addition businesses that succeed with PR know how they are going to manage and measure the campaign – from the outset. They understand publicity and media relations is a big part of it but they also recognise that it covers the ethos of the business, see, what the company stands for and believes in as well as its corporate and visual identity.
Challenging vague expectations
The reality is in the business world that often companies grab at PR without really understanding it. PR firms bursting with energy and good intentions snap the deal up and go out and make noise. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not. When it fails it is usually because a lack of clear measurable objectives. Companies expect PR to wave a magic wand and create sales without understanding first and foremost PR is about managing your reputation, influencing attitudes and creating the right climate for your sales team. In the B2B world you cannot expect to start a PR campaign and the phone to ring off the hook with clients desperate to work with you – it requires clear strategic thought, time and intelligent harvesting to generate new business. To prevent a conflict of purpose between bosses and the PR consultancy we advise writing a strategy mapping out objectives, outcomes and measurements.
From experience there needs to be a clear understanding that PR cannot work in a vacuum and has to be measured against where the campaign starts from – what is the current profile of the business, how is it perceived, how it wants to be known, what is the tone of voice and ethos of the company, what does it do PR wise and how does it need to improve.
PR’s role in sales and marketing
If you expect PR to create new business the onus is on the company to proactively cultivate the profile PR creates via channels such as networking, targeted newsletters, webinars/trade fairs and direct sales. The best PR campaigns deliver results when senior management properly coordinates the sales and marketing effort so both teams are aware what the other is attempting to achieve. They get to know the PR consultant well understanding what PR can and cannot do and if they really get it aligned to the new business operations it can create leads and sales – for example by organising a mini PR campaign around exhibiting at a trade fair. PR can also increase the value of your company and price points and help you sell your business attracting more potential buyers. But to achieve this takes time, may be two or three years, PR is slow burn and in the case of publicity needs to be targeted at the right media, read by your target audiences with the right messaging.
I have tried very hard to address these fundamental issues in the book as I think they are the pain points that cause most confusion and problems in PR campaigns. Get this strategy right though and that is when PR can deliver spectacular results.
Returning to Sam Blacks’s seminal PR book (one of 18 he wrote on PR!) he references Dr Walter Lindemann who began a more scientific approach to measuring PR. He distinguished between outputs, outgrowths and outcomes and I feel is helpful to bosses committing to a pr campaign ensuring they understand the process of what it can do.
Outputs: When media cuttings folders or social media reports are produced it is a measurement of output only and does not capture the results of the campaign.
Outgrowths: What takes place after a PR campaign has been in place for some time. When people start to understand and remember your messaging.
Outcomes: When people change their attitudes or behaviour because of the PR activities.
Measuring is not simple
Bosses should be aware that there is no simple answer to measuring outgrowths and outcomes but surveying attitudes at the start and then through the campaign is one clear way. But in reality this does not always happen so adopt common sense – are you being shortlisted or winning awards, are you generating more proactive leads, are people knocking on your door offering opportunities such as joining committees or speaking slots, is your PR firm opening doors for you, are people mentioning your PR to you. You should feel the difference if PR is working.
He also lists some of the deadly sins of pr and it is worth recounting as they ring as true today as they did in 1993:
Functional myopia: Failure to appreciate the full scope of the important contribution public relations can make to good management
Faucet philosophy: We will turn on public relations when we need it.
Good news delusion: we believe in full and complete public information so long as it is positive and reflects favourably upon us.
The one-shot communication tick: Why do you accuse us of not communicating? It was mentioned in our last annual report.
The shadow delusion. The low profile philosophy. This aberration is based on the belief that an organisation can make itself invisible when it chooses.
(This is based on a chapter in the Power of Public Relations by Joseph F Awad)
TIP – The difference between PR and advertising
We’re often asked if we pay for our media coverage. It is important to understand the difference between PR and advertising. They are similar in that they try and influence behaviour and attitudes. However PR carries more weight than advertising because it is not paid for. PR in the form of publicity has to go through a third party, a journalist, before being published on news pages for free. It is therefore independent and as a result credible and has a higher acceptance of message with readers. Publicity also tends to be more in depth messaging with a long term aim to influence attitudes where advertising is more sales driven and short term. PR is also not controlled which advertising is.The lack of control can expose an organisation to hostile coverage if the reporter or title has a political bias or an axe to grind. In this case the PR has to be alert to which media are a potential banana skin. And critically where the PR can really make a difference directly engage the media outlet to correct any inaccuracies and ensure balanced reporting. This does not need to be confrontational or nasty – rather robust and in a spirit of understanding and constructive cooperation. Reporters usually respect it when a PR communicates with them and helps them get their facts right.
But it is always more powerful when someone else says you are good rather than you on an advert however slick and well designed.
- Every organisation, no matter how large or small, ultimately depends on its reputation for survival and success.
- PR works when the CEO or founder believes in it and thrusts it to the centre of the business.
- PR requires clear objectives and methods of measuring from the outset. Measuring is not simple.
- PR can create sales and opportunities but cannot work in a vacuum. Businesses have to proactively harvest the profile PR creates.
- PR can help position your company for sale and increase its value and interest among investors. But PR is a slow burn process.
- The outcomes of PR cannot be measured in outputs like media coverage. Outcomes are measured in whether PR influences and changes attitudes and behaviour.
- PR is different to advertising. It is independent and not paid for and carries greater credibility.