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Back to Basics: What is PR?

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public relations – noun

1. the actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc.

2. the art, technique, or profession of promoting such goodwill.

I am constantly amazed at how many people misunderstand the art of Public Relations. PR strategies and tactics are used to positively influence perception of everything from technology and oil spills to consumer brands, television shows, politicians and philanthropic causes.

PR has always been around in one form or another. From time immemorial, PR has been a successful strategy used by Emperors and Kings, Dictators and Evangelists and Savvy politicians.

So what is PR today? It is definitely different than it was over 100 years ago, when the term “Public Relations” was coined by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward L. Bernays.

There are three key things to remember:

1. PR is not marketing; PR is part of a marketing strategy

2. PR is not sales; PR generates third party validation of what is being sold

3. PR is not advertising; PR keeps desire and respect alive in people’s minds

Basic #1— PR is part of a marketing strategy:

Bernays changed the public’s perception of Ballet in 1881.

By launching the first-ever national PR campaign, Bernays and his team placed targeted feature stories in national media outlets, seeded preview stories in local media in advance of every show, and secured reviews of every performance.

Lesson: PR is a strategic tool and, when it is deployed correctly, public relations can build tremendous excitement, anticipation, and validation of an event or product.

Basic #2 — PR generates third party validation of what is being sold

Bernays recognized that people believe what they hear from an expert. When an authority endorses a cause, a product or an idea, people are automatically influenced either positively or negatively depending on their personal preferences.

Hired to promote bacon sales, Bernays surveyed physicians on their breakfast recommendations. When the results were reported, American physicians favored eating what he dubbed a hearty “American Breakfast” that included bacon and eggs. (are you surprised ?!) Bernays leveraged the data to influence an additional 5,000 physicians, who influenced their patients, who influenced their families. It sure worked, according to Wikipedia, Americans eat 17.9 lb (8.1 kg) per person per year (2007 numbers).

Lesson: PR seeds both positive and negative ideas. By introducing ideas and innovations to influencers long before the public gets wind of trends, controversies and products, public opinion can be swayed, people can be positively predisposed to an idea, and desire for a product can be ignited. Influencers help evangelize a message, a product, or idea to a targeted constituency.

Basic #3 — PR keeps desire and respect alive in people’s minds

PR campaigns can successfully motivate groups of people to take action. Bernays was engaged by Proctor and Gamble to revitalize the Ivory Soap brand, which was originally introduced in 1879. Bernays’ PR strategy was to convince the public that Ivory Soap was medically superior to any other product on the market and he used really creative and fun tactics to accomplish this including soap sculpting and floating contests.

Lesson: Use PR to keep audiences involved and engaged. Create opportunities for people to become emotionally invested in what you want to convey. Bernays created a sense of well-being with his Ivory Soap campaign and interjected a lot of fun into it with contests.

In sum: PR, when implemented in a thoughtful and strategic manner, can dramatically influence the perception of a company or product in the public eye. Use PR to deliver ideas and listen to what your constituents have to say keep conversations alive all day and all night.