Public relations has been defined as the interaction of a business with its customer base, and or with prospective customers. This interaction can take various forms, which may include events such as trade shows, marketing promotions, customer relations initiatives and other such efforts in which the business and the public interacts. Many larger companies have an investor relations department for specialized interactions. (Are your shoulders wide enough to carry a company's reputation? For more information, read The Marketing Director's Pitch.)

Public Relations: The New Marketing?
Public relations is also a catch-all term that means the dissemination of newsworthy information to the media – niche magazines and trade journals, newspapers, radio, television and the internet – to get publicity. To maximize the sales potential of any business, large or small, a public relations program should be part of the master marketing plan. (Marketing is a vital component of a large sustainable business. To find out more, check out The Lucrative World Of Third-Party Marketing.)

No matter what a company sells – goods, services or both – a smart public and media relations program can have big returns and it may not necessarily require a big budget. Generally - but not always - public relations may be less expensive than advertising, and is best used as a complement to the marketing efforts of a business.

Advertising expenses typically include a creative fee for copywriting, art and or photography, model fees, along with additional costs which accumulate even before the costs of buying media – print, broadcast (television, radio, etc.), internet, billboard or other. by contrast, a public relations program (while perhaps less costly) can create a major impact among both established and potential customers for the goods and or services of a company. the result of effective public relations can be increased sales, a competitive edge over business rivals and eventually, improved profitability.

But there's another aspect of public relations that can be just as important. When things go bad for a company such as the necessity for a product recall, a major product liability law suit, a bankruptcy or some other potentially damaging situation, an effective public relations initiative can minimize or even eliminate the negative fallout. In these cases, public relations is often called "crisis management."

Reflecting the importance of public relations as a marketing tool on a par with traditional advertising is the recent trend of major advertising agencies buying global public relations firms or establishing full-service public relations divisions within their agencies.

What Effective Public Relations Can AccomplishThe following are some of the positive outcomes of a successful public relations department:

  • Attract attention to a company and raise its visibility in a competitive market niche
  • Generate interest in and enthusiasm for a company's goods and or services
  • Create "buzz" when a company introduces new products or services - when people begin to talk about the business, word of mouth can serve as the ideal form of advertising.
  • Enhance the credibility of a company and polish its image.
  • Defuse a crisis if and when it occurs, minimizing its potential damage.

Public Relations and PublicityNewsworthy public relations events or occurrences may get publicity for a business. But the media must be informed of the event or occurrence. This is usually done by sending a news release or press release (the terms are interchangeable) to the media in which the information is intended to appear.

Newsworthy events may include:

  • The introduction of a new product or service
  • An executive's promotion or retirement
  • The opening or closing of a manufacturing plant or retail outlet
  • The acquisition or sale of subsidiaries or new firms
  • Company-sponsorship – entirely or partially – of a charity event or fund raiser
  • Funding college or university scholarships
  • Demonstrations of new, complex products (for example, phones with new applications)
  • Free services for seniors, children, veterans or any special group of people, to build traffic and introduce potential customers to a business
  • Contests related to a specific business
  • Special events tied to a specific business (for example, a book store may host a public reading by a celebrated author with a new book)

Whatever the business, there may be some way for it to attract media attention to the company through an innovative public relations effort. (For tips on how to create a successful business, read 9 Tips For Growing A Successful Business.)

What Won't Get PublicitySales events are not public relations initiatives, and are not likely to get media exposure.

No matter how the sales events are promoted – clearance sales, fire sales, bankruptcy sales, lost-our-lease sales, etc., are best publicized through advertising because editors will not, in most cases, regard these as news stories.

Writing the Press Release and Contacting the MediaThe news release describing the planned public relations event may be written in-house by a regular employee of a business, or a public relations consultant or agency may be hired to provide that service.

If the news release is to be written by an outside public relations consultant or agency, competitive price bids may be solicited from several sources. There are several advantages to hiring an outside consultant or agency to handle the news release.

  • The release will be written by a professional writer and will contain all the relevant facts, presented succinctly, with no misspellings, and will be grammatically correct – reflecting well on the business and engaging the attention and interest of the recipient.
  • The professional public relations consultants and agency account executives will also usually have contacts in the media and will know where to send the release.

Once the release is written, determine in advance where it should be sent. Telephone the media outlets targeted and get the name, e-mail address and phone number of the editor to whom the story will be sent. A business related story – an executive promotion, the introduction of a new product, the opening of a new store, or any similar business related occurrence - should be sent to the business editor.

A story unrelated to business, such as sponsorship of charity event or a contest, should be sent to the city editor or feature editor. There are editors with similar functions at all media including internet sites. Releases should be sent, via the United States Postal Service and or via e-mail as a backup, in accordance with the criteria mentioned above.

Crisis ManagementSometimes things go wrong for a firm. Serious problems such as a product recall, a product liability law suit, strikes, government shutdowns or bankruptcies may damage the image of the company affected.

Public relations experts who handle problems such as these – they're also called crisis managers – advise as follows:

  • Address the media and public as soon as possible. Do not stonewall the facts. The longer disclosure is delayed, the more damage is done to the company's image.
  • The company spokesperson must deal with the media and public with complete candor. The media will eventually reveal any distortions or omissions of truth – that's their job.
  • Conceal none of the facts. The media will eventually uncover anything concealed - that's also their job.
  • Retain competent legal counsel if necessary.

ConclusionCompanies that understand the principles of public relations, and employ them regularly, may enjoy a competitive advantage over rivals which are not public relations savvy. Among the beneficial results of strategic public relations are increased sales, increased customer traffic, a continual "buzz" or talk about a company which is frequently mentioned positively in the media, and a brightly shining image in the eyes of their customers and potential customers.

There are many additional aspects, complexities and subtleties of public relations. This article is meant only as an introduction to the art and craft of public relations and much useful additional material is widely available.(For further reading, check out Small Business: It's All About Relationships.)