"PR," he would say, "is the best form of free advertising there is."1. it’s a comment I still hear all the time.
I mention it for two reasons:
2. He was wrong: PR is definitely not advertising—and it sure isn't free.
What he meant though is obvious. The costs of creating a press release, of delivering it to a list of reporters and editors, and of having someone available to answer questions if the release is picked up are minimal. And for that little amount, lo and behold, you get a nice few column inches of space in a publication—space you paid not a single cent for. (And of course, today, let's not forget all of us who create press releases that are picked up only on our own web sites.)
But creating press releases is the least significant element of what PR is all about.
PR, strategically, is the process of controlling the public perception of your company and the people who work for and run your company. It is a concerted, continual effort to maintain positive, self-sustaining relationships with the people who influence the marketplace. Who drive public opinion.
As a statement of purpose, that's a long way from "free advertising."
Press release pickup is the easy part. And the least credible. Your target audience understand that you created the release, you planted the release, you pitched to the editor to publish the piece . . . they recognize that it is in fact fundamentally promotional.
Where the real PR should be
The real job of PR is get the industry influencers—the analysts, and the trade and mainstream press—to watch you on their own, consider what impact you have on the industry and report on you. That puts three burdens on you:
1. You have to cultivate relationships with these groups.
2. You have to make sure that what you do is worth covering.
3. You have to make sure that what you do is going to generate positive instead of negative press.
Oh, look. I've just listed the key components of strategic public relations. And, not surprisingly, there's not a word about press releases and backgrounders and corporate overviews.
Achieving those goals is what you pay a PR agency six-figure monthly retainers for. Not for backgrounders and press releases and corporate overviews. Any good copywriter can write a press release in an hour.
What to expect from a good PR firm
A truly strategic public relations firm focuses on those three goals: on controlling your image in the public eye. And that's what they should be talking about when they pitch you. Not to suggest this is the only criterion, but I'm extremely suspicious of firms that come in with a portfolio of press cuttings and articles in the local dailies Personally I would look for firms that focus on developing you as a company to watch.
As in all things, setting the goal helps you determine the objectives to reach it. A goal of press pickup—at its most enticing and flattering, a feature story in the Daily Nation is wrong-minded.
That's a core truth for most companies—when you're competing for mainstream press with Michael Joseph and James Mwangi. . . well you know who's going to get the ink.
Rather, a goal of positioning you with the press and analyst community as a company to pay attention to, and of working with you to ensure that what they find when they do pay attention is positive and valuable, is where the strategic road should take you.
Tactically, this involves press and analyst presentations, industry event participation, strong positive image for key players, and more.
That's a whole different ballgame. And worth its weight in retainer.