What is public relations?
I often find public relations confused with marketing and advertising, which is totally expected given today’s digital marketing and communications world – where all practices under the communications umbrella are constantly evolving. But for the sake this specific post, I’d like to dive deeper and shed light on the nuanced difference between a public relations firm and a marketing or advertising agency. My hope is to educate and inform potential clients of either. And, as always, my opinion is rooted in my experience on the front lines of both practices now over the course of my career.
Traditionally the definition of public relations (PR) has been, according to Google and wikipedia.com, “the professional maintenance of a favorable public image by a company or other organization or a famous person.” The definition has been recently modernized by the PRSSA to, “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” They break down that definition to include:
- Anticipating, analyzing and interpreting public opinion, attitudes and issues that might impact, for good or ill, the operations and plans of the organization.
- Counseling management at all levels in the organization with regard to policy decisions, courses of action and communication, taking into account their public ramifications and the organization’s social or citizenship responsibilities.
- Researching, conducting and evaluating, on a continuing basis, programs of action and communication to achieve the informed public understanding necessary to the success of an organization’s aims. These may include marketing; financial; fund raising; employee, community or government relations; and other programs.
- Planning and implementing the organization’s efforts to influence or change public policy. Setting objectives, planning, budgeting, recruiting and training staff, developing facilities — in short, managing the resources needed to perform all of the above.
The new definition mentions marketing as a tactic (fourth bullet) if it encompasses improving a company’s public image and the company or organization’s relationship with customers, the public at large and/or stakeholders. That would imply that the marketing would have a specific PR-focused message.
If you are shopping for a PR firm, it’s critical to understand the subtle yet extremely important nuance here.
If you do, it will help you to make the most of your relationship with the winning firm as your expectations will be correctly aligned with the firm’s strengths.
In the digital space, you should hire a PR firm to:
- manage media and influencer outreach (a good firm has established connections and can easily tap into their network to earn media coverage for your brand).
- crisis communication on social channels
- digital distribution of a press release on wires and digital media kit creation
- ongoing reputation management
- press conferences and media events
- inbound link building from said media outlets and influencers (but consult w/ an SEO agency first to be sure they are targeting the correct keywords).
And while there are a litany of services provided by any given marketing firm, ad agency or PR firm here are the services PR firms are often mistakenly hired to perform:
- targeted digital advertising
- search engine optimization (SEO)
- search engine marketing (SEM)
- content marketing strategy development and execution
- social marketing and advertising
- website design and development
So, should your PR firm update your social channels or should your ad agency?
The answer is: it depends. For example, if you have a PR crisis on your hands, your PR firm should have reign to directly update your social channels until the crisis blows over. And, it is my opinion and recommended best practice, that PR-focused messaging be woven into any good content strategy. What about your website content? Should your PR firm write your new copy? Absolutely not. Copywriting and digital content optimization are both specialties typically not held by the staff of a traditional PR firm. However, they should contribute messaging on key pages meant for the media, public relations or stakeholders. And, always, I recommend the PR and digital agencies you hire work together not separately.
At the end of the day, public relations is a tactic just as advertising is a tactic. And today both fall generally under the umbrella of a content marketing strategy. You should hire a public relations firm to change or enhance the public’s perception of your existing and established business. You should hire a traditional advertising agency to accelerate sales, leads and impressions. However, the execution by either is completely different. While one includes calculated media outreach and publicity, the later includes direct, deliberate and paid placement of a more aggressive message.
So, where does that leave digital marketing communications and advertising? Smack dab in the middle. Hence, every traditional ad agency and PR firm now “offering” digital marketing and content strategy. In a, “Oh, well, hey! We do that, too” sense they are weaving digital into their traditional offerings.
How can you find the best agency for your needs?
Define your needs, clearly. The best first step is to create a content marketing strategy. You can hire an agency like ours to craft one, or create one yourself. If you do embark on that journey solo the Elements of Content Strategy, an excellent book on the topic by A List Apart. Once you have your content marketing strategy in place you can seek out a PR firm to fulfill directives within the strategic plan. But the last thing you should do is rely on your PR firm to conduct digital marketing and advertising.
Cement is a full service digital marketing and advertising partner. This means we also offer basic public relations services including: community outreach, media relations and influencer outreach. In fact, we have led many PR and media outreach efforts to great success here in Columbus, Ohio and also local markets outside of Ohio. See our PR case studies here.