What modern public relations is - and what it isn't!

When you work in PR you appreciate what an interesting, dynamic and complex business it is. Sadly clients and outsiders often have completely wrong assumptions about what PR people do. Here PROs put right nine common misconceptions and explain what PR is really about.

What people think PR is

1.   The dark arts

Alicia Solanki, deputy MD brand at PR firm Ketchum, says: “PR has earnt itself a rather unfortunate reputation as a master of the ‘dark arts,’ not helped by some of the spurious publicist figureheads that have been paraded in the media.

"It’s why words like ‘spin’ have been used liberally when it comes to describing PR and its practitioners. However, when wielded purposefully, PR can be a force for good. I’m of the view that PR has been exposed with the rise of social media and consumer activism, but this is no bad thing because it has given brands the permission to take on bigger issues and enact change on a scale governments can only dream of. With this (perceived) perception gap, PR seems to be going through some sort of reputation management of its own.” 

2.   All smoke and mirrors

Jessica Morgan, business owner of agency Carnsight Communications, says: “People still think there’s a lot more smoke and mirrors to PR, or that a good PRO can bluff their way through any tough issue, perhaps over a long, leisurely champagne lunch. 

"But if a client tries to sell something to me and I can see straight through it, there’s no way I’m taking that message out any further! I think we often surprise clients when we start asking them tough questions or try to get to the detail quickly – but that’s exactly what we have to do so we can understand the story inside out and are fully prepared when we’re asked difficult questions ourselves.”

3.   The same as advertising

Manisha Mehta, PR and outreach manager at Mojo Mortgages, says: “Many of my friends and family think that PR is advertising and that I place adverts in newspapers – I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said that to me. PR definitely isn’t that, and now it’s much more than writing a press release and sending it out to everyone far and wide.”

4.   An unmeasurable discipline

Jake Holyoak, head of outreach and PR at digital marketing agency Mediaworks, says: “Businesses seem to think PR can’t be reported on and set against KPI’s/ROI targets as some of the coverage is offline. With the rise in Digital PR campaigns, you can easily report on Online PR in terms of coverage views, social shares, UTM clicked links and many other metrics. PR has changed for the better, now as an industry, we must change the mindset of business owners.”

5.   A publicity machine

Laura Smith, PR client services director at agency Jaywing PR, says: “From my experience, people generally assume PR is either being someone’s publicity agent, trying to book them gigs and holding a press conference when they’ve been involved in a scandal, or making TV ads. In reality, (as you know), PR folk use a variety of tactics such as stunts, social media, events, reactive commentary, working with influencers and creating useful onsite content, to help our clients reach a variety of goals, including raising brand awareness and supporting SEO strategies. 

“I think this misunderstanding mainly stems from the fact PR has changed so much in even the last five years, let alone in the last decade, so the traditional stereotypes presented in TV and film are no longer a true representation of the industry – but we’re moving too quickly to expect many people to keep up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, as it allows us to remain experts in our field – although it does mean a good education period for some new clients is a necessity, but that’s just part of any job!”

6.   It stands for press release

Smith adds: “On a side note, the amount of people who ask me if “PR manager” means “press release manager”, is actually quite funny.”

7.      Just like Ab Fab

Louise Ahuja, director at agency Genesis PR, says: “In response to talking about my job, someone replied ‘oh so are you Edina from Ab Fab or Malcolm from The Thick of It?’…. an interesting take that PR is a world of spin inhabited by airheads or Machiavellian masterminds.

TV dramas seem full of these stereotypes which don’t do our profession any favours. The reality is often hard-working, smart peeps slogging away to ensure their company or clients reach the right audiences in a way that engages them and creates a connection. But guessing that makes boring TV?”

8.      It is all about partying

Louise Waters, independent PR consultant, says: “The most common misconception about PR is that it’s a glamorous, social job but that’s no longer the case. You still forge relationships with journalists, but that’s rarely done face to face as, thanks to newsroom cutbacks, they’re often far too busy to meet. Twitter is now a PR professional’s best friend as it’s now a lot easier to see what the journalist is looking for and to respond quickly.

9.      Anyone can do it

Waters says that the final misconception is that PR is a piece of cake: “Just because most people consume media doesn’t mean they know how to do PR!”

What PR really is  

Wide-ranging

Alex Singleton, director of communications and marketing at healthcare provider Circle Health and author of The PR Masterclass, says: “It’s easy to be precious about defining PR as something upmarket. But it’s such an important part of organisational life that I think we should be relaxed about its status. The truth is that PR spans a wide range of activities from publicity generation to stakeholder engagement, and we should celebrate the diversity of work that PR consultants do. There’s normally a heavy dosage of media relations, because even in our social media world, people turn to media outlets for news.”

Planned persuasion

Singleton adds: “PR is about planned persuasion – you have a case to make and you want to engage with others to persuade them of it, even if it’s just to retain a favourable view of an organisation. But it also involves listening and we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of organisations listening and adapting their course based on public opinion. PR helps companies take issues like environmental sustainability seriously and ultimately makes the world a better place.”

Data and social expert as well as creative

Sioban Congreve, head of PR at marketing and advertising agency Edit, says: “As digital PR continues to grow, PROs are also becoming social media managers, data analysts, copywriters and SEOs. We’re running surveys and delving into data to ensure we have the right angles; we’re creating onsite content and ensuring it’s optimised for SEO and we’re making social media recommendations as we go.

“Paid, earned and owned media are now all-important aspects which can be integrated into PR campaigns – and vice versa. It’s something the industry was slow to adopt, but I think we are getting there.”

Mojo Mortgages’ Manisha Mehta adds: “PR these days is about creating meaningful and strategic stories that can really affect the bottom line of a business, and that is very much part of my role at fintech Mojo Mortgages. Most days I am knee deep in data looking for trends and interesting patterns of consumer behaviour that I can then release to a select number of relevant journalists. A solid PR professional now has to be savvy in SEO and content and be able to bring all these elements together in a strategic way to provide real impact.”

As a journalist working in the PR realm, I like to think I have some understanding of what PR professionals do, and how hard you all work. I am constantly impressed by your dedication and immense wealth of expertise. So ignore all the naysayers, there are plenty of people out there who do appreciate everything you do (even if they don’t understand exactly how you do it).

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