Public Relations Is More Than Getting Ink

"In most cases, telling the editor you want coverage because you're an advertiser is the quickest way to guarantee that you will not be covered."

By David P. Kowal

Public relations practitioners have done a much better job for their clients than they have for themselves.

Most people know that public relations firms write press releases and try to get their clients exposure in various media. Some even know that public relations firms hold lots of parties that they like to call "special events." But there is a general lack of understanding about what public relations is and how it can help a company, and promote a product or even an industry.

According to Public Relations News, "Public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an individual or an organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance."

That’s a pretty stuffy definition that fails to communicate the role of public relations clearly, but it makes the point of linking public relations with corporate strategy.

One reason the definition is ambiguous is that the field itself is broad. It includes public affairs, community relations, investor relations, internal communications and crisis communications, to name a few areas of specialization.

If an association wants to affect public opinion about environmental regulations, it needs a firm with public affairs experience. A large firm might hire a community relations manager to coordinate its corporate giving program. A publicly held company's investor relations director communicates with analysts and shareholders. Internal communications specialists coordinate programs to keep employees informed and to ensure that they are working to achieve corporate goals. Crisis communications includes planning for a crisis, as well as executing the plan. As these areas of specialization show, the "public" in public relations can be the entire country or it can be a narrowly defined market segment.

RACE Relations

Regardless of the area of specialization, public relations includes four functions, which are touched upon in the definition -- research, planning, implementation and evaluation. Research provides a framework for developing a strategic plan with carefully defined goals. Once the plan is developed, it is implemented and then the results are evaluated. Public relations practitioners like acronyms and call this process RACE, for research, action, communication and evaluation. It should really be research, planning, communication and evaluation, but RPCE is a pretty boring acronym.

Most of a public relations practitioner's time is usually focused on implementing public relations tactics, but if the plan is not sound, the company's or client's goals are unlikely to be achieved, no matter how well the plan is executed.

Media relations is the public relations function most people think of when they hear the term "public relations." Among other things, media relations practitioners develop media lists, write press releases, submit them for publication and follow up with editors. Press releases should be used only when a firm has something newsworthy to report. Many firms think their local newspaper will profile them because they're celebrating their fifth anniversary in business (yawn!) or because they're an advertiser. In most cases, telling the editor you want coverage because you're an advertiser is the quickest way to guarantee that you will not be covered.

Press releases have long since lost their appeal to most editors and the largest, most influential media ignore them. The Wall Street Journal, for example, is seeking exclusivity in its news coverage. Send a press release to an editor or reporter there and he or she will recognize that it is also being sent to hundreds of other media, so it will be ignored. Public relations professionals are likely to spend more time developing personal pitches to key reporters, positioning clients as experts on key topics, ghostwriting articles and finding an appropriate tie-in with the news of the day.

Media relations also includes media training -- consulting with clients and teaching them how to respond to media inquiries and interviews. The most important advice a media trainer can provide is to tell a client to be honest and to be prepared. Write down a few talking points and try to focus the interview on those points.

Public relations firms also work with clients to develop bylined articles, like this one. Bylined articles can be especially effective for professional service firms, such as law firms and accounting firms, because they provide tangible evidence of a firm's expertise in a given area. Once published, bylined articles can be reprinted and used effectively as marketing collateral.

These are a few ways that a public relations firm can get exposure for your firm. But if you're using your public relations firm only for publicity, you're not using the firm to your best advantage.

David P. Kowal is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.