Taylor Bennett Foundation trainer Chris Cooke provides an introduction to what exactly Public Relations is all about.
INTRODUCTION
People who work in Public Relations – or PR for short – help companies manage their relationships with the public. The clue is in the name really. But what does that mean exactly? Well, read on and I’ll try to explain.

By ‘public’, really we mean everyone, or, to be more precise, anyone a company has to deal with in order to successfully trade. We generally organise such people into groups, such as shareholders, employees, consumers, government, the media and the local community. Collectively we refer to these people as ‘stakeholders’. PR people manage a company’s relationships with many of these stakeholder groups. And most PR people specialise in managing relationships with one group in particular.

To be successful a company needs the support of its stakeholders. It needs investors to want to invest, the best employees to want to work for it, consumers to want to buy, government to provide any licences that may be required by law, the media to make people aware of its work in a positive way, and the local community to be happy with the fact the company is operating in their neighbourhood. To ensure all this happens, a company needs to have good relationships with each stakeholder group, and that is where public relations comes in. How a company manages its relationships with stakeholders can be the difference between success and failure, however good a product or service might be. 

That depends on which relationships are being managed, but a lot of PR comes down to good communication – so much so, some people refer to the PR profession as ‘communications’ or ‘corporate comms’. How you communicate will depend on the stakeholder – sometimes a stakeholder group is small and a company will have direct contact with everybody in it, other groups are larger and harder to define – and often when a company is communicating with the media, they are doing so because they know the media is in turn communicating with another stakeholder group.

Pretty much every company in the world needs to manage its relationships with stakeholders, therefore PR people can be found in pretty much every other industry, whether that be finance or media or retail or fashion or tech or pharmaceuticals or FMCGs or professional services or music or the public sector. Even PR companies need to do their own PR! And some individuals – celebrities mainly – also need people to handle PR on their behalf. For this reason a PR professional can work in pretty much any sector, though many focus in on one or two in particular. As you’d expect, the corporate culture for a PR person working in the finance sector is pretty different to the culture for the PR practitioner working in the music business, but the basic tasks they undertake and skills they use are the same.

Most medium size to big companies have in-house PR departments (bigger companies will often have a number of PR departments, each focusing on one stakeholder group), and as a PR professional you might work in one of these units. However, most big firms also hire the services of PR agencies, and so many PR people work for one of these businesses, handling the PR for a number of different companies at the same time. So the first question you might ask any PR person is: do you work in-house or in an agency?

Good question. I said earlier that some people refer to PR as ‘corporate communications’, and that is true. In many ways ‘public relations’ and ‘corporate communications’ are two ways of saying the same thing – ie everyone who works in PR is a corporate communicator, and everyone who works in corporate comms is a PR practitioner. Or think of it this way: every PR person is helping corporations manage both their communications and their relationships with the public. That said, some parts of the PR industry are more likely to say they “work in PR” (especially that part of the PR industry that handles media relations, which is the biggest part), while others are more likely to say they “work in corporate communications” (especially those who manage relationships with investors, employees or government).

You might also come across other terms used by PR people to describe what they do. Some terms are used specifically by PR people who communicate with one or another of the stakeholder groups (‘internal communications’ for employees, ‘public affairs’ or ‘lobbying’ for government, ‘investor relations’ for investors, ‘financial PR’ for those media contacts that specifically influence the investment community). You might also come across the term ‘publicist’, though that’s generally only used in certain kinds of media relations. Some PR people, normally in more senior roles, might say they manage a company’s ‘corporate reputation’. Others, again usually in more senior roles, might say they specialise in Corporate Social Responsibility, Crisis Communications or Change Management, we’ll explain what all that means if you come on the programme! And, of course, there is the infamous term ‘spindoctor’, which most PR people see as derogatory, though some – usually in political communications – perversely like to use it!


Another good question. PR professionals are not the only people who help companies manage their relationships and communicate with their stakeholders. People who work in marketing and advertising (and, for that matter, sales and customer relations) also may have a communications role. However, they almost all exclusively communicate with customers. For this reason, PR people tend to not get involved in communicating directly to consumers, instead focusing on all the other stakeholder groups (though, in the social media age, some PR people are now talking directly to customers, and in some smaller companies PR and marketing communications may be handled by the same department).

A lot of people get confused about the difference between PR, marketing and advertising, so don’t worry if you do too. It doesn’t help that you will meet people who say they work in ‘consumer PR’, when I just told you PR people don’t deal directly with customers. Consumer PR people talk to journalists, but specifically journalists who are in turn talking to and influencing consumers (as opposed to, say investors or politicians). One common way to distinguish between PR, marketing and advertising is to think about each sector’s relationship with media. Advertising people buy space in other people’s media, marketing people create their own media, PR people talk to journalists at other media and convince them to write about their clients.


Well, you need to be good at communicating, obviously. This means you should be a good writer and, if possible, a good public speaker and be good on the phone. PR people are generally passionate about current affairs, politics and business in general – how important this is will vary from role to role, but if you are a ‘news junkie’ you will definitely have a head start. People skills are also very important, and a lot of PR roles require creativity (“how do you make boring but dependable product X interesting to journalist Y?”). If you want to go all the way to the top you’ll need to understand how big companies work, and be able to think ‘strategically’. And if you are in an agency, you will probably be involved in pitching for new work as well, so a little bit of the salesmen is important too.

This depends a lot on what kind of company and/or sector you work in, and which stakeholders you are talking to. But most PR roles are creative, challenging and offer a lot of variety – what you do on any one day depends, to an extent, on what your stakeholders are doing. A role in PR can combine elements of a media, political and business management job, so in any one week you might be entertaining journalists at a glitzy product launch, briefing a minister as part of a government review, and helping a Chief Executive prepare a speech to his shareholders. 
 
 
 
 
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