BLOG: What is public relations and how to make it work – excerpt from Making Waves

By Polaris MD Ben Pinnington


  • 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 is more than a tactical communications tool used purely to communicate information or add gloss – it is integral to the strategic development process.
  • 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 attract investors. But PR is a slow burn process.
  • The benefits of PR cannot be measured in outputs like media coverage. Impact is measured in whether PR influences and changes attitudes and behaviour. 
  • PR is different to advertising. It is independent and not paid for. Coverage is not controlled or guaranteed but carries a high acceptance of message. 

During the research for my forthcoming book ‘Making Waves: PR strategies to transform your maritime business’ 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 practise? 

I feel there can be considerable confusion about what is expected of PR as it 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 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 or organisation otherwise it is unlikely to be a priority to anyone else. As an example of the importance of comms look at how the Prime Minister’s right hand adviser is often a PR specialist think Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Ingham or Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. 

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. Businesses that maximise PR are clear why they are engaging PR, they want profile, awareness and understanding, they want to influence and they want to build trust all with clearly defined stakeholders. The trust point is critical because what PR is not is spin – ie distorting the truth by overstating your case. You cannot build credibility with your stakeholders, particularly sceptical journalists, by puffing yourself up. Good PR is rooted in truth – that is how you build reputation.

PR is essential to company strategy – not communication ‘gloss’

More widely organisations that get PR right make the PR manager part of the senior leadership team and grasp the strategic value of communications. It is the job of a PR professional to proactively build relations with a company’s stakeholders that really count. They do this by explaining the CEO and the company’s vision and also by listening and providing feedback to senior management on the mood of stakeholders so they can shape strategy accordingly. As Anne Gregory points out in her book ‘Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns’ – “organisations that are not in touch with the public mood find themselves in difficulties whereas those that are in touch can have a significant advantage.” Gregory states PR is more than a tactical communications tool used purely to communicate information or add gloss – it is integral to the strategic development process.

For example, in the maritime industry the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are being used widely by leading maritime organisations to shape their strategies. It is important to be in touch with developments like this as we shall discuss later. It is by reporting this kind of trend where a PR adviser can help guide a company as to the direction of the industry. Another example could be a PR adviser providing counsel on a management decision that could affect the reputation of a ship owner by switching flag state because it is cheaper here the PR adviser can caution that the flag state does not have a strong track record of supporting seafarer welfare. That decision could backfire because it conflicts with the company’s values and increases the risk to seafarers. Furthermore, the PR team can keep a close eye on the behemoth that social media has become and feedback on ‘hot’ issues emerging that could affect the company. Social media is now an incredible ‘listening’ tool as well as a promotional one.

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, what the company stands for and believes in, as well as its corporate and visual identity. 

Challenging vague expectations 

The reality in the business world is that often companies will grab at PR without really understanding it. PR firms bursting with energy and good intentions snap the deal up because they want the income and go out and make noise without agreeing clear objectives. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not.  When it fails it is usually because there is no communications plan with SMART objectives and clear methods of evaluation. 

In the commercial world businesses can also see PR as mainly another way to drive sales and expect it to create leads without understanding first and foremost PR is about managing your reputation, influencing attitudes and creating the right climate for your sales team. It is here we have learned that the PR consultant must take the time to explain what PR is rather than run headlong into a campaign. If the client expects the PR to generate leads this requires clear strategic thought, time and intelligent harvesting to generate new business. 

From experience there needs to be a clear understanding that PR cannot work in a vacuum or silo and it has to be measured against where the campaign starts from – what is the current profile of the business, how is it perceived, how does it want to be known, what is the ethos of the company, how does it need to improve. 

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 including building a good reputation by influencing attitudes and behaviours of your stakeholders, generating sales and opportunities from outside your existing circle of contacts, building the profile and credibility of your senior team, attracting talented people and suppliers, gaining support from key stakeholders in difficult times, winning awards,  increasing your price points, increasing the value of your business for sale, protecting your reputation at a time of crisis, encouraging people to believe in your advertising. You will feel the difference if PR is working but to achieve positive impacts takes time, PR is a slow burn process and in the case of publicity and social media needs to be targeted at the right media/social media, read by your target audiences with the right messaging over a sustained period.

In terms of measuring a PR campaign I feel this is critical and have examined some of the latest thinking on this in the evaluation chapter. There is a huge focus now in the PR industry to set clear objectives and then measure the PR campaign against them. This is a new paradigm shifting away from the old ways of focusing on outputs and tactics like generating publicity. This approach can just result in what measurement body AMEC refers to as  ‘SOS’ style PR ‘sending stuff out’ (or more colourfully sh*t) with scattergun press releases being greeted with the sound of a thousand delete buttons. The key is now to provide laser focus to PR campaigns objectives understanding PR is takes time and methods of evaluation are not simple.  

Returning to Sam Black’s seminal PR book (one of 18 he wrote on PR!) he references some of the deadly sins of pr and it is worth recounting as they still ring very true.

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. PR is ‘earned’ whereas advertising is ‘paid for’. PR, in the form of publicity, has to go through a third party, a journalist, before being published on news pages as editorial for free.  PRs work to convince reporters to write about their clients through the strength of the news release or pitch. It is therefore generally independent, credible and has a high 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 hostile. And critically where the PR can really make a difference directly engage the media outlet to correct any inaccuracy 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. 

Grid source Media Cast. 


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