What is Public Relations, and Why It Matters in the Social Media Age

It’s been said that Public Relations has a “PR problem”; while the majority of people aren’t sure exactly what a PR does, almost all of them seem to have a negative impression of my profession. So when people ask about my career and I tell them I work in communications and marketing, their natural follow-up is usually “what does that mean?” Contrary to one popular misconception working in PR is not synonymous with the “Press Release”, which is just one tactic in the arsenal of a Public Relations professional. In fact working in PR has so many connotations that the PRSA led a rebranding effort in attempt to help redefine our work, or at least clarify what we do in the most transparent way.

Working at my desk with my tabletop robot

Most would call my work in Public Relations, although depending on who you ask, you might get a different answer; in grad school we called it Public Communications, which helps distinguish our responsibilities are not limited to working with the press. If only my colleagues knew that calling myself a PR rep was the best shorthand for all the work our profession does: everything from researching public opinion, to crafting marketing strategy and crisis communications plans, to writing press releases and blog posts, to media relations and publicity which our profession is best known for.

Our role as Public Relations professionals

According to the PRSA, public relations can be defined as:

Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Our job is to work with clients, who can be everyone from non-profit orgs to corporate clients and government agencies, to help protect and promote their organization with the public. By necessity that work begins with research: listening to the public to better understand who the stakeholders are and how they relate to the client, and using this information to create strategic communications which address the concerns and needs of the public and balancing them with the interests of the client. Often times that means we work together with the press, to communicate news about our clients and to answer reporter’s questions, so that the organization is portrayed accurately in the news; when these news stories are published in the news we call this earned media. As PR professionals we have an obligation to tell the truth to all people, because transparency is the best way to improve the reputation of our clients through open dialog with the public.

Ideally we’re not just responsible for representing our clients, but for integrating feedback from the public into the organization itself; successful PR campaigns create lasting relationships between stakeholders that lead to benefits for all- simply by telling the truth.

Relationship building with journalists, and in social media

You might think given PR’s use of earned media that public relations is defined by the news-making process of the past, in which news reporters worked with editors to determine what news will be published.  To be sure PR pros still spend a good deal of time pitching reporters and working with journalists on stories, but our work doesn’t begin and end with the press release/news event.  Good PR reps build relationships with reporters at key publications, keeping up with what reporters are writing and offering help with reporter’s own stories whenever applicable.  In the past this meant reading the news every day, meeting up informally or giving a reporter a call to find out what they’re working on, but more recently social media has emerged as a great way to build relationships with reporters.

Matthew Hurst at the Newseum in Washington, DC

As Twitter has emerged as a hub for breaking news, most reporters are active on the network, seeking sources for stories and tweeting links to their latest news articles.  Social media provides an ideal outlet to engage and interact with reporters, whether to comment about the latest industry news or providing an informal outlet to connect (reminding reporters you’re not a faceless PR rep but a real person).

From earned media to owned media, using blogs

Social networks also create another avenue for PR pros to interact more directly with the public, bypassing the two-step flow of information to get their message out directly and to answer questions from the community.  Marketers and customer service pros already understand the benefits of engaging with consumers through social media, building their brands with their customers and being able to respond quickly during a crisis.  The same is true for PR pros working with the public, but it’s also useful for building relationships in the industry, as B2B audiences is highly active on sites like Twitter and LinkedIn.  At least some people on social networks are likely bloggers, so social media creates a new avenue to introduce yourself and engage with this influential audience who can be anyone in your audience: consumers, reporters, community advocates, or industry pros.

Research presentation

In many ways blogs were the original form of social media, providing a publishing platform to bypass traditional media.  Most PRs are also responsible for updating the company’s blog, which can serve as a an outlet for company news, thought leadership writing, or for more creative storytelling that connects with the community.  Writing blogs creates a body of work in which the organization has input in how they are portrayed externally, sometimes called owned media, in a way that is transparent to all members of the public.  Blogs create an alternative distribution for news, so many PRs now treat their blog posts like a press release, complete with targeted pitches to members of the press who might want to report on the news.  Indeed blogs are a key tactic in most PRs toolkit, as blogs are increasingly key to the agenda setting process for news media, and also useful for improving your reputation with the public.

PR’s role: to promote and protect, in a measurable way

While most of what I’ve presented as PR deals with using media, PR goes far beyond what’s written to include engaging more directly with the public.  Many PRs specialize in event planning, organizing their organization’s involvement in speaking opportunities and industry conferences. Organizing marketing strategy with my desktop robot Some PRs take to the public directly, attending community events to put a face on their group and even organizing town halls to answer questions from the public.

No matter what the tactic used, it’s key that a PR uses research into their audience and set measurable goals to match their organization’s objectives; this will determine which tactics a PR plans in their efforts.  The most successful PR campaigns begin with solid research, and often use their measurements as feedback to make changes and improve results as needed.  In the end these same measurements will be used to evaluate the success (or failure) of the campaign to meet it’s expected outcome, and sometimes to set new goals.

Public Relations serves the purpose to promote the organization and to protect its interests; for a business this might be measured as an ROI, but different orgs may persue other goals.  In short, PR is a process of using strategic communications to build relationships that benefit both the client and the public, which means using the best means to reach their audience wherever they’re listening – in the news, through social media, and in real life.