Most people who’ve heard of or seen the term ‘PR’ or ‘Public Relations’, often in the news, have an understanding of what they think it is.

But, for various reasons, what they understand is usually either wrong or, at best, only a partial picture.

What they typically have in mind is two things:

  1. The Press Release – typically an announcement of news for use as news by media, sometimes issued ahead of time under an embargo for publication after that day and time.
  2. The ‘PR person’ – someone like Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It or Siobhan Sharpe from Twenty Twelve and W1A. Someone who uses press releases and other PR tools to create a false narrative about their client – often referred to as ‘spin’ – to their stakeholders via the media.

Reality

Thankfully, the reality of best practice public relations is more complex and largely different.

The definition of Public Relations used by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR): is this (with my emphasis in red): “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.

Reputation

As the definition says, reputation is at the heart of PR.

As the CIPR goes on to say: “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.”

If you think about how you engage with companies and other organisations yourself, you can see the truth in that.

If you need something fixed and you don’t have an existing supplier, what do you do? You’ll look for someone or a company with a good reputation in that – perhaps by asking friends or family or reading reviews of those you find online.

Actions and reputation

As the CIPR’s definition goes on to say, there’s a clear link between what you, or your brand or organisation, do and say and the reputation you gain as result.

So the notion that you can do what you like but PR will get you a good reputation regardless is false – actions have reputational consequences.

And sometimes no amount of PR can fix it. Tony Langham, CEO of Lansons, put it this way in his session at the CIPR National Conference 2019: “You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into.

Aims of PR

Referring back to the CIPR definition again, PR has “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.

Notice in that, PR is about a two-way communication with key audiences (those who can affect your perception), trying to gain their support by influencing what they think and do.

Note also, PR is “planned and sustained”, so a one-off or annual press release to the local paper is unlikely to achieve those goals of a positive relationship based on mutual understanding.

The value of PR

So what is the value of doing PR? One final time, I’ll refer back to what the CIPR says: “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.

In a world where competition has suddenly become tougher than for at least a decade, can you afford not to use PR to effectively manage your reputation into an asset and source of competitive advantage?