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Public relations (PR) is the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and the public. The goal of PR is to influence public opinion. As long as people have walked the earth, they have tried to convince others to see things their way PR is the formalization of that human need, acting on behalf of a company, government agency, nonprofit organization, or famous person, and using all manner of media.
In far too many cases, PR is the only thing that an organization’s leaders know about marketing. Although this attitude demonstrates an incomplete view of marketing as a whole, it underscores the importance of PR and the support it gets from people outside marketing. One of the most famous remarks that speaks to the importance of PR was allegedly uttered by Bill Gates, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in U.S. history: “If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations.”
In this chapter we will discuss the importance of PR to the overall marketing mix, covering a bit of the evolution of the practice into what we now know as modern PR. We will also cover PR agencies and how to work with them, the importance of working with influencers, and how the effect of PR can be measured, ending with one of the most dramatic examples of PR impact in modern PR history. We save the mechanics of the press release until next chapter, in order to emphasize the importance of PR strategy and influence.
The Evolution of Modern Public Relations
The evolution of public relations is a fascinating one. PR developed as a marketing practice long before other components of the marketing mix. Formalized PR efforts date back to the seventeenth century Catholic Church. The leaders of the French Revolution subsidized editors and sent agents throughout the country to advocate their cause. The legend of Davy Crocket stemmed from the work of his press agent and was created to win votes away from the incumbent president Andrew Jackson.
The dawn of modern public relations stemmed not from politics, but from industry. The so-called “battle of the currents” between Westinghouse, who advocated alternating current power, and Thomas A. Edison’s General Electric, who advocated direct current transmission, is one of the earliest examples of how public relations was first conducted in the United States by powerful economic interests. Using former newspapermen as their publicists, the companies fought each other tooth and nail for media attention, political influence, and marketing advantage. We all know who won that battle, though Edison would have several victories himself over the years. Trade associations also caught the public relations fever in the late 1800s. The Association of American Railroads claims it was the first organization to use the term public relations in its 1897 Year Book of Railway Literature.
Public Relations Agencies
Suppose you issue a press release and no one cares? What if not a single editor or reporter expresses any interest in it, and not a single story regarding the news you are announcing appears anywhere in the media? Other than the occasional Google search hit, you won’t be getting much awareness for your effort. Working with a PR agency is essential if you want your news to have maximum impact.
The nation’s first public relations agency, The Publicity Bureau, was founded in Boston in 1900 by George V. S. Michaelis, Herbert Small, and Thomas O. Marvin. In 1906 the bureau came into prominence when it was hired by the nation’s railroads to oppose adverse regulatory legislation that was then in Congress.
PR agencies can contribute to a successful marketing mix in a number of ways. Agencies are made up of people who understand how news gets made. In fact, some agencies employ former reporters and editors who really know their stuff, having been in the shoes of a reporter who continually faces deadlines.
How exactly can an agency assist you in your marketing efforts? The first thing an agency can do for you is to advise you on how to craft news. What is the hook or interesting angle? Is there enough substance to your news to generate a compelling story? Is it something that would catch the eye of reporters or their editors? When you sign with an agency, you reap the benefits of their years of experience. These individuals know how to package the news to maximize its chances of getting picked up.
In addition to crafting the press release, agencies will also help you build a list of potential outlets for your news. Agencies maintain databases of reporters and editors, and they track their comings and goings as well as their areas of interest. Because they know the preferences or tendencies of many editors and reporters, they can help position or package your news for maximum effect.
An agency will then “pitch” your news to the press. Even if you have interesting news and a killer angle and have sent it to all the right people, it may still not make it into into print or over the airwaves. Why not? There are several possibilities. Perhaps there is more interesting news on the reporter’s “beat.” Perhaps the reporter never heard of your company before and therefore is not certain whether you are a credible source. Or, perhaps the reporter is extremely busy – which most reporters are – and doesn’t have time to take a chance on your press release. This is where a PR agency can be so valuable. A good agency will have a relationship with the publication, editor, or reporter that you can leverage to get your news considered. PR agencies and the press have a symbiotic relationship: The agencies provide newsworthy stories, and the media?] provide the publicity. Although there may be a certain amount of contempt for PR “flacks,” reporters understand that agencies are valuable news sources. Further, once an agency provides a reporter with a good news story, the reporter will likely trust the agency in the future. As a marketer you are benefitting from this relationship. In fact, it’s part of what you’re paying for.
Another important benefit of working with an agency is that they look out for your interests by monitoring what the media are planning to cover. For example, agencies examine editorial calendars – annual plans for feature stories published by magazines – to find potential fits for your company or product. They also monitor the news and social channels related to your business to identify trends, keep track of influencers, and find opportunities for your spokespeople to comment on articles, blogs and posts. We envision PR agencies as business development for news. You are paying them to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to broadcast your message.
How to Pick a PR Agency
Given how important an agency is to getting your news into the media, picking the right one is extremely important . Here are things that we look for. You can get answers to these questions by asking the vendor directly and checking with a few of their clients. A angency that is a fit should:
- Do they have experience in your industry?
- Have they worked with companies like yours – similar size or structure?
- Is your company a good fit for them? A big agency is, generally, not a good fit for small businesses as their focus is on the large clients.
- Have they consistently delivered results for a number of clients?
- Will work the way you want to work? Some marketers like to do the strategy and want agency to just pitch; others want agency to both figure out strategy and pitch.
- Are they comfortable with schedule/pace of your company? Some companies are good at planning ahead while others are always having “fire drills.”
- Is the agency good at the things that are your priorities – traditional press, industry analysts, financial analysts, working with bloggers, tracking social media?
- Do you like them? Don’t underestimate the importance of working with people who you get along with and are comfortable with.
- Who will you be working with on a day-to-day basis? Be wary of the firms who send in the senior people for the sales meetings then hand you off to junior person to work with you from then on.
Managing the flow of information between an organization and the public involves more than drafting a press release and sending it to the media. Your asserting that your news is important does is no guarantee the media will see it in the same way. You must substantiate your claim, a process that requires third-party validation. Influencers are third parties outside of the news media that help you promote and substantiate your cause. The most common types are industry and financial analysts, newsletter publishers, bloggers, celebrities and customers themselves.
Reporters frequently seek out analysts for their expert opinions on a market trend or a new product release. To craft a successful marketing campaign, it is critical that you establish and maintain good relations with analysts in your product market.
As the title suggests, industry analysts typically follow certain industries. Analysts are particularly common in high technology and consumer electronics. They are paid to follow your industry and to offer advice to both vendors and prospective customers. Industry analysts also provide opinions and commentary to the media, both as part of their job and to burnish their credentials. Some analysts also measure market size and rank vendors. The Gartner Magic Quadrant is probably the most influential vendor rating report in the high-tech industry. Customers often consult these reports when they are making purchases. Gartner illuminates a given technology market by segmenting the various players into four sections, or quadrants:
- Leaders: Well-established firms that are generally achieving their objectives
- Visionaries: Companies that understand market trends but do not effectively adjust to them
- Niche Players: Businesses that are successful within a small market segment
- Challengers: Organizations that are currently successful but do not appear to grasp market trends (contrast with Visionaries)
Developing and sustaining viable relationships with industry analysts is essential, but it is not sufficient. Rather, it is vital that you influence these individuals to share your (positive) image of your company and/or product. Most marketers probably understand that to convince analysts to rank your company highly in their reports, you need to faithfully complete the required submissions for these reports. What many marketers don’t realize, however, is that you also need to influence the criteria in your communications with and messages around the analysts. (Analysts read the articles and bloggers too.)
Analysts also have a good handle on what customers are asking for. Therefore, they can be of great assistance in positioning your product or company, crafting messages, and performing other key marketing activities.
Another field in which analysts are highly prominent is the financial industry. As you probably suspect, publicly held companies try to influence financial analysts – the researchers who work for banks and provide insights into company stock prices and futures. Most public companies have a specialist team called Investor Relations that specifically deals with financial analysts. Perhaps this team’s most critical function is to review the quarterly earnings press releases and then up teleconferences with financial analysts to discuss the results. It is important to keep this team apprised of what PR is doing to ensure that your company generates consistent messages and optimizes communications opportunities.
In addition to industry and financial analysts, there can be any number of influential people in your industry. Specialty newsletter publishers are a good example. As their title suggests, these professionals write; however, are not like beat reporters. They quite often influence opinions regarding companies and products, and they are sought out by other media for their expert insights. Their entire publication can focus on a single industry. Newsletter topics run the gamut – from stock picking to search engines, from the weather to wine – and there will almost certainly be a few related to your product, company or cause.
With the explosive proliferation of the Internet, bloggers have also risen to prominence. In fact, some newsletter writers have moved to blogging as their medium. In addition, there are many other bloggers you need to become familiar with. Moms who test baby food can have a huge following. The same applies to “geeks” who spend weeks exploring every nook and cranny of a new computer model or disassembling every new Apple iPhone model. You name it. These are people whose opinions are sought out by others. Therefore, as with industry and financial analysts, you need to influence them. In his book The Tipping Point, author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell labeled these people “mavens.” Mavens are intense gatherers of information and impressions who are often the first ones to detect new or nascent trends. Make certain you don’t forget about mavens when you send out news. Include them in the process.
Influencers can also be famous people – athletes and actors – whom the public trusts.. Clothing and accessory manufacturers send huge amounts of free goods to these individuals in the hope that they will wear them in public — and get photographed filmed doing so). Professional athletes get paid millions to wear sneakers for a reason. In addition, there are professional pundits, style mavens, and countless other influencers. As a marketer, you need to use your imagination here. The basic rule: You should consider anyone who might influence your customers as part of your PR strategy.
Finally, your customers can be influencers. Your marketing and PR team should cultivate relationships with customers who are willing to speak with the press. Moreover, PR should help “sell” your customers on the idea that speaking with analysts or directly to the press is a benefit to their companies and their careers. Making customers into “stars” can make them happy and be an asset to your marketing mix. Working with customers who blog or actively use social media can deliver great results.
Placed Articles, Point of View (POV) Pieces, and Speaking Engagements
Many publications, especially trade and special interest magazines, accept article submissions, bylined by subject matter experts or other people with specific knowledge on a topic. This is another great way to attract media attention, and it will give you the opportunity to shape the entire article, not just a press release and your spokesperson’s commentary. Some publications also seek out editorials or POV pieces when they are looking for an influential person’s take on an issue, industry, or trend.
PR agencies can help with this process. They will work with you to create an abstract of your idea and pitch it to the press. In addition, if the spokesperson or company executive has limited writing prowess, the agency may also be able to ghostwrite your company’s publications. Good PR agencies will also come up with story ideas – or “angles” – to get your name in print.
PR agencies can also enhance your marketing campaign by helping to place speakers from your company at industry trade shows and conferences. Getting a spokesperson to present at an influential industry event is a great way to influence hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people at the same time. In some cases, the media will cover the event or seek an interview with the spokesperson afterward. Good PR firms routinely scrutinize trade show calendars for “calls for papers” or “calls for abstracts,” and they can actively pitch executives or subject matter experts to event organizers. As with placed articles, agencies can draft an abstract and bio for the speaker to optimize his or her chances of being selected.
Crisis communications is a sub-specialty of public relations. As the name suggests, it is designed to protect the reputation of an organization that is confronted with a public challenge such as an industrial accident, a criminal allegation, a government investigation, a lawsuit, or any number of other scenarios involving the legal, ethical, or financial standing of the entity. Crisis communication is sometimes referred to as “damage control.” Famous examples of crisis communications are the seven deaths in 1982 from tampered Tylenol and the 1989 environmental disaster caused by the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill, and the 2006 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
When events like these happen, the media firestorm can quickly overwhelm the ability of the entity to effectively respond to the demands of the crisis. Companies facing such a threat will often bring in experienced crisis communications specialists to help prepare and guide them through the process.
Although every crisis will be different, organizations should have a crisis communications plan in place in case an incident occurs. The best practices for managing a crisis include designating a team and spokespeople, developing positions and answers to challenging questions, and being proactive with communications.
Measuring Influence – Share of Voice
Share of voice (SoV) is a term used both in public relations and advertising. SoV refers to the exposure of your company or product (your share) compared to that of your competitors. Back in the print-only world, people sometimes talked about “column inches” of coverage. In PR, SoV is measured by the number of stories written or aired about your company or product. These stories can appear in all types of media including newspapers, trade publications, television, radio and, increasingly, blogs and other online media. Regardless of the particular media, your objective is to ensure that your voice stands out among all the other voices promoting similar products or ideas.
An important element within SoV is sentiment, or tone. You need to be concerned with not just how much is being written or broadcast about your company, but what reporters are writing or saying. Some marketing wit years ago termed this “tonnage versus tone-age.” Exxon no doubt led in SoV (tonnage) among oil companies in March and April of 1989, but that was because its tanker the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef and dumped more than 250,000 barrels of crude into Prince William Sound in Alaska – one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history.
Sentiment is usually measured using a simple scale with three ratings: positive, neutral, and negative. Some measurements also include strongly positive and strongly negative, as below. These ratings can be somewhat subjective, but area useful indicator of the overall attitude toward your organization. Figure 2 below is an example SoV chart with sentiment from my time at Symantec. Note that while our competitor EMC received more total coverage than we did during the period, almost have of it was unfavorable, shown in red.
Most PR agencies offer share of voice measurement services to their clients. In fact, we would recommend making this service a prerequisite for any agency you hire. SoC charts with sentiment are a valuable tool for discussion among the PR team, as well as a convincing metric to use when you are justifying the PR budget. In the event your agency does not offer SoV measurement, or if you want a second opinion, there are a number of media-monitoring companies that provide self-service and human-assisted measurement, including BurellesLuce, Cision, and Vocus, to name a few.
One of giants in the history of PR in the United States is Edward Bernays (1881–1995). Many experts credit him with almost single-handedly creating the craft we now know as public relations.
In addition to pioneering the field of PR, Bernays was also a polarizing character. Although he helped define, legitimize, and grow the public relations trade, his critics consider many of the methods he employed and the products and causes he promoted to be morally questionable. Below we recount one of his most famous PR campaigns because it was brazen, original, and highly effective. We will leave it to you to judge its morality.
The case involved work that Bernays performed for the American Tobacco Company. As told in Larry Tye’s The Father of Spin, Bernays would stop at nothing to make his client successful.
The American Tobacco Company had achieved outstanding success by positioning its major cigarette brand — Lucky Strike — the smoke of choice of U.S. troops in WWI During the 1920s the company’s president, George Washington Hill, became obsessed with breaking open another market — female consumers. At that time, smoking by women was still considered taboo, although some cracks in this tradition were beginning to show. To exploit these small openings in changing social mores — and, not coincidentally, to increase his company’s profits — Hill hired Bernays to create a PR campaign to make smoking by women socially acceptable. He informed Bernays, “If I can crack that market, it will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”
Hill’s strategy was to capitalize on the slimness trend that was coming into vogue, specifically by associating cigarette smoking with a slim waistline. Picking up on this theme, Bernays launched a campaign of enlisting experts to reinforce slimness. He included actors, athletes, society women – even male dancers who preferred svelte dance partners. Bernays also enlisted the former chief of the British Association of Medical Officers of Health to warn women of the dangers of sweets and to convince them that the right way to finish a meal was with fruit, coffee, and a cigarette.
Bernays did not stop there. He urged hotels to add cigarettes to their dessert lists. Bernays even distributed sample dessert menus, prepared by an editor at House and Garden, that included Lucky Strike cigarettes. His efforts were so pervasive and successful that he received complaints from candy makers and sugar manufacturers, among others. But, that was just the first act. While women began to smoke in greater numbers in private, Hill wanted them to feel comfortable smoking in public, estimating that would double his market.
Bernays called in psychologist Dr. A. A. Brill, a disciple of Bernays’s famous uncle, Dr. Sigmund Freud. Brill maintained that as women had become “emancipated,” many had suppressed their feminine desires and increasingly sought equality with men. It was Brill’s characterization of cigarettes as “torches of freedom” that sparked Bernays’s imagination.
Bernays arranged a parade – a march, really – of 30 debutantes in New York City. He carefully orchestrated this parade on Easter Sunday, down Fifth Avenue. No detail was left to chance. Women would “join” the parade as it passed by prominent churches in New York, including St. Thomas Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. American Tobacco, of course, supplied the cigarettes. Marchers would ask other women for a light in a show of sisterhood as they joined the parade. Bernays hired his own photographer to document the parade and provide pictures to the press.
Bernays’s parade proved spectacularly successful. During the following days, women took to the streets, “torches of freedom” in hand, in Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco. The flames of controversy were ignited, with editorials and articles arguing pro and con for weeks. As Bernays summed up in his memoirs, “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by a network of media.”
- The Father of Spin, Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations, Larry Tye, Crown, 1998
 “’Mini-Me’ History: Public Relations from the Dawn of Civilization,” Don Bates, Institute for Public Relations, http://old.instituteforpr.org/research_single/mini_me_history/
 “’Mini-Me’ History: Public Relations from the Dawn of Civilization,” Don Bates, Institute for Public Relations, http://old.instituteforpr.org/research_single/mini_me_history/
 After the “energetic” movie publicist George Flack, and nothing to do with shrapnel or criticism.
 The Father of Spin, Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations, Larry Tye, Crown, 1998, p.viii
 Edward L. Bernays, Biography