Public relations: an essential marketing tool in all economic conditions

by James Essinger

James EssingerAt a time when many organisations are having to impose rigorous justifications on every penny of marketing expenditure, one particular marketing technique is acquiring an even greater importance than usual.

This technique is public relations.

Public relations, or PR, is a term many people in business use without being entirely clear what it means. PR is known to be a potentially extremely powerful promotional tool, but relatively few people understand what it is, how to go about using it, and least of all how to get value for money from it. In fact, though, there is no need whatsoever for PR to be a mystery. Here, I provide answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about it.

What exactly is PR?

PR involves communicating a message to one or more of the different ‘publics’ – that is target audiences – which an organisation wishes to influence in a positive way. These audiences will typically consist of the organisation’s existing or potential customers and shareholders. It may also be in the organisation’s interests to communicate a message to other different publics which may range from government regulators to all types of other officials, consultants and other advisers, or any other decision-makers who it is in the organisation’s interests to influence positively.

What’s the difference between PR and advertising?

The big difference is that PR seeks exposure for a message in the ‘editorial’ sections of the media – whether these are the news or features pages of a newspaper, journal or magazine, or their counterparts in a radio or TV programme. Advertising, on the other hand, appears in a clearly separate ‘advertising’ section. An equally big difference is that PR coverage is usually free of charge, while advertising is always paid for.

This leads on to a most intriguing question: what is more effective, PR or advertising?

The answer is that both techniques can be extremely effective and ideally a marketing campaign should use them in harmony. Advertising is particularly well-suited to promoting what are known in the marketing industry as ‘fast-moving consumer goods’ (FMCG) – things such as washing powder, soft drinks, foods and so on, where the organisations selling these things need to reach millions of people at a time.

But one big problem with advertising is that ultimately it doesn’t have much credibility. Everybody who is exposed to the advert will be perfectly aware that the ad has been paid for; basically no matter how good the advert, it remains a piece of paid-for propaganda. The slots where ads appear on TV or radio, or the pages where ads appear in newspapers or magazines are very rigidly separated from the other material that has been put together by the journalists and the editors.

It is this journalistic material which is the subject of the PR consultant’s energies. Coverage gained here is much more beneficial than advertising coverage because it is accorded such a huge level of credibility. It’s like the difference between a new product or service being advertised during the commercial break in News at Ten, and that same product or service being spoken of favourably during the actual programme by the newscaster.

Admittedly, not many products or services make it to News at Ten, but there are more than 10,000 print and broadcast media in the UK and they are all hungry for newsworthy and interesting material. The PR consultant’s skill is to create material about his or her client which will promote the client effectively without being so self-promotional that the journalist or editor will be turned off.

Basically the PR consultant is a kind of marriage broker between the media and the client. Furthermore, and this is a particularly important point during times when marketing budgets are under considerable pressure, public relations is a much more cost-effective marketing technique than advertising. Indeed, the most professional PR consultants shy away from ‘advertorial’ deals where a piece of editorial material is published on a paid-for basis.

The only costs involved with winning PR coverage are the PR consultant’s fees. A good consultancy will quote reasonable fees, give excellent value for money in terms of activity undertaken and will report back in detail to the client every month so the client knows exactly what has been done. In a nutshell, a good PR firm will become an integral and indispensable part of your marketing activities.

When PR services are delivered with sincerity, thoughtfulness and energy by a PR consultancy that really knows what it is doing and has extensive experience in the profession, the results really can exceed clients’ wildest expectations.

Leonardo Feet
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