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What is Public Relations? Building Trust and Shaping Perceptions

An article published in Forbes raises a very valid point – the public relations industry does a terrible job of public relations. As the author explained, if you are a cop or a construction worker, everyone has a good idea of what you do, but if you say you’re in PR, you often have to explain: “No, we don’t buy ads, and no, we don’t demand journalists write stories for our clients”. So, what exactly is public relations and what do we do?


According to the Oxford Dictionary, public relations, or PR as it’s often referred to, is defined as "the professional maintenance of a favourable public image by a company or other organization or a famous person."


In a nutshell, we’re storytellers. We create narratives to build trust and enhance and maintain reputations through a variety of channels to shape the perception of target stakeholders. PR forms an integral part of an organisation’s overarching communication strategy. We find positive messages to convey positive stories and when the news isn’t so good, we craft transparent and honest responses in a way that mitigates the damage.


At its core, PR is about managing relationships, influencing perceptions, and fostering a positive reputation among a wide range of diverse stakeholders. PR is effectively communicating with the public and building a bridge of understanding and trust. It involves strategic planning, tactical execution, and continuous evaluation to ensure that an entity's objectives align with the expectations and interests of its target audience.


PR strategies are wide-ranging and dependent on the objective. Media outreach, crisis management, event planning, content creation, stakeholder engagement, and public affairs are all activities which can be tailored and employed to suit specific needs and objectives. The end goal is to create an open and transparent dialogue with the public to enhance reputation.


The channels we use to communicate are also diverse but unlike advertisers, we focus on communicating with our audiences via earned or unpaid methods. Why? Because having a third party write or talk about you is generally more credible than paying for it. But this also means you need to earn the right to have someone talk about you, which is the art and power of PR.


Here’s an example. An organisation is setting up a new service which they want people to sign up and use. In this scenario, the organisation's primary commercial objective is to generate revenue by getting people to register for their new service. While advertising can be an effective tactic to achieve this objective, it’s important to consider the cost of advertising versus the potential benefits PR offers. While running ads might generate immediate results, because PR communicates the value proposition it can facilitate alignment between the organisation's "why" and the audience's "why", which creates deeper connections and fosters long-term engagement. But it’s a gamble [there’s an old saying - in advertising we pay, in PR we pray] and at a basic level, requires finding the ‘new’ in news – the ‘so what’ about the new service; answering the ‘why I, or my audience should care, and why I should care NOW’ question.


PR goes beyond simply maintaining a favourable public image; it involves strategic planning, tactical execution, and continuous adaptation to the ever-changing media landscape. As PR professionals, we shape how organisations and individuals are perceived by the public - you could call us the architects of perception.

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