What do you think of when you hear PR?
Starting a new company is a great way of hearing quickly from lots of people what they think you actually do for a living. Within the first six months of starting my business, Rockallwight PR, it became clear that when it comes to definitions and understanding of what Public Relations (PR) actually is, you might as well be playing the child’s party game, ‘pin the tail on the donkey.’ A handful of people get it, but I have spoken to those who think PR is all about operating like Max Clifford, the disgraced and late tabloid publicist, or that it’s just about press releases. Some people also confuse PR with marketing.
A debate and a look back
There are good reasons for all of the above. One of them being that there is an ongoing debate about the exact definition of PR in the industry. Another is that public relations, suffered a bit of a bad press back in the 20th century. An aspect of PR is, after all, always going to be about persuading people to do something or think something and in some cases this is to make money. And there’s no doubt, PR is lucrative. In 2016 the UK PR and Communications industry was valued at £12.9 bn! In the self-aware, ironic and post-modernist late 20 Century, PR was looked down on by some, as a rather manipulative practice and was seen as being closely aligned to propaganda.
Hack Vs Flack
In the late 1930s, we saw the emergence of the label ‘flack’ in the US for a publicity agent. This name took on negative connotations throughout the 20th century and by the time I was working as a BBC journalist in the 1990s, ‘flack’ was a pretty derogatory term. It was used in newsrooms to describe a somewhat ‘fluffy’, often female, PR agent, operating with a low moral bar when it came to ethics and fair play.
A flack was also seen by many members of the press as being ‘way below’, anyone who was a ‘hack’ – a slang word for a journalist. When I first pronounced an interest in working in PR to my colleagues at the BBC, there was a sharp intake of breath and then many protestations, including the assertion that I would be certainly “ going across to the dark side”, if I did that.
A great place to be
Despite all of that, I am here to tell you that PR is a great industry to work in and now has high standards of professionalism, ethics and a rich body of academic research sitting behind it. Many PR professionals are now members of highly regarded, professional bodies, such as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). These organisations exist to advocate for the industry, ensure that PR is a strong profession and to promote best practice by training their members. To be a member you must adhere to a rigorous code of conduct.
A persuasive industry?
PR is not all about big business making money out of people by persuading them to do or think things. There are many different PR specialisms, including an area that just focuses on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This is where powerful businesses use PR to demonstrate how they give back to communities. It’s a virtuous circle, where businesses actively engage in CSR activity because they know it enhances their brand identity.
There’s also the third sector, where charities and NGOs use PR to do an enormous amount of good. This kind of PR can touch the lives of anyone from a premature baby, who’s just survived a heart operation to an older adult suffering from loneliness.
The point is that PR can do good and its reach extends far beyond the realms of big business. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has PR and Communications support! In fact, the lady who does that, looked after the Queen before him.
So, what is PR and what can it do for your business?Public Relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. Tweet This!
It is the discipline which looks after reputation. The aim is to earn understanding and support. It’s also about influencing opinion and behaviour. It’s the effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between you and your public. It’s about how you engage with the networked world that exists outside of your company and the way you make people feel when you interact with them.
Storytelling about your brand
PR is also about the story that you tell about your brand. It’s about the narrative that people then pass on through their networks. If you have a compelling story that is easy to share, you will benefit greatly from the power of recommendation in our increasingly networked world.
If you want to start using PR to build your business, have a think about the conversations that are going on in your marketplace right now and how you are involved in them. If you can find out where significant conversations are happening in your market, on and offline, take part in them and lead some of them, you will be well on your way to dialing up your presence in your industry. This will also help to create valuable opportunities for you to build relationships.
And finally, another thing that PR can do is enable you and your business to take the lead. In PR, we call this ‘thought leadership.’ You may have seen successful business leaders do this. Richard Branson is an easy example. His Linkedin and Twitter profiles direct you to blogs about a variety of things that he feels are important about leadership. Your thoughts don’t have to be about leadership but if you can take the lead by starting to talk on and offline about cutting-edge thinking in your specialist space, then you are on the way to becoming a thought leader. Over time this can translate into you simply being seen as a leader in your marketplace.
A great forum for thought leadership is TED. So, if you haven’t already, go online and watch a few TED talks about absolutely anything. TED crystallises the very essence of thought leadership. It’s people, providing a unique perspective and often offering things that haven’t been said before. They are leading on thinking in their specialist areas.
Claire Cunningham is founder of Rockallwight PR, a public relations agency focused on supporting innovative SMEs as they grow.
With a background in PR and Journalism, Claire brings a unique perspective to the business. She is a former BBC Journalist and has worked internationally for the UK Government in senior communications roles. This included helping promising tech businesses to access global opportunities.
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