What Is Public Relations?

If you’ve come to this post wondering how to write a press release, you’re going to have to wait for it. While that’s usually one of the first questions I hear about public relations, you will see—I hope—that there is a bit more to PR than publicity. Plenty of people answer what is public relations with something that defines it as a communication discipline: As how you or your brand have a conversation with customers, tell your story, etc.

The fast-talking publicist or press agent from the movies, or the self-styled political spin doctors are easily accessible and tend to dominate the popular image of what public relations is. They’re the most visible and, let’s face it, those folks like being visible. This perception truly bothers some of my sisters and brothers in the field, who perhaps are missing the irony of public relations professionals complaining about what the public should think.

Still, it’s to be expected. That part of the job tends to be the most prominent thing we do, despite all the behind-the-scenes strategy and planning that precedes it. But in truth, answering “what is public relations” would require a deep dive into a number of disciplines. As far as publicity goes, with fewer news outlets at every level—and those remaining media staffed by fewer and fewer reporters and editors—modern public relations requires a much bigger toolbox.

So … What Is Public Relations Exactly?

Public relations is building and maintaining relationships with the people and groups (those different “publics”) who influence your success. That can include customers, naturally, but also internal audiences like employees and agents or franchisees, outside groups with a special interest in your policies or processes, the communities where you operate, and journalists, reviewers or analysts who follow your industry.

Communication is an important part of any relationship, but it never will be the only part. That’s exactly why public relations is more a management discipline than a communications profession. Communication is not shouting all of your virtues at whoever will listen. Nobody likes the guy at the party who only talks about himself, anyway. Always remember that your brand relationships have one important thing in common with your personal relationships:

It’s not about what you say. It’s about what you do.

Public relations is listening.
Public relations is understanding your audience.
Public relations is doing.
Public relations is demonstrating what you do.

What Is Public Relations? Start with Community Engagement

One of the reasons you see so much cause marketing in advertising is because it works. People like to spend their money with brands and companies who share the same values, beliefs and passions that they do. That’s not to say that you have to agree with every single opinion every one of your customers holds. It also doesn’t require that your residential HVAC company sponsor an Olympic team to demonstrate your patriotism.

But there are common values that most of your current and potential customers likely share and showing a commitment to those values can go a long way to earning their trust. Things like the quality of life in the community you share. You also may demonstrate a commitment to public or specialized education in your town. Supporting park systems or the arts are reliably noncontroversial and can align your company with a broad audience. Likewise, celebrating the history of your community or the contributions of neighborhood organizations is always popular.

The actual areas of engagement you settle on for your company or brand will depend on a number of different factors. These include the specific needs in the communities where you want to foster relationships, the personal interests of your owners and leadership, and the investments in time, money and other resources you’re willing to commit. These are important considerations because relationships are not built on a multitude of drive-by interactions but rather on a sustained dialog with the people in the community.

Telling Your Story

You knew we’d come back to this, right? Because all the good works and engagement that your brand invests in don’t serve a business objective if nobody knows about it. Companies, after all, don’t go to heaven. You will want to reach out to newsrooms, trade journals, bloggers, social influencers and special interest groups to tell them all about what your company does that aligns with their interests. But first, you will want to put it in the context of the bigger story—your brand narrative—about an organization that does more than just sell a product or service that people want. It cares about the same things and the same causes and is an active part of their communities.

But more on that later. First, create a story to tell. That’s what public relations is.