Doctor SpinPublic RelationsCorporate CommsPublic Relations Explained for C-level Executives

Public Relations Explained for C-level Executives

PR is by nature a double-edged sword.

C-level executives must understand that PR by nature is a double-edged sword.

Disregarding the differences between PR and marketing is a lost opportunity at best.

The key to success is to appreciate the brand’s core message and to hold the PR function accountable at all times.

Many business leaders struggle with public relations. Free publicity, word-of-mouth, an excellent reputation, no insider threats—all of that sounds enticing, but for most, PR can feel like a coin-toss.

We define public relations might giving you some idea, but it doesn’t explain the strategic approach.

How To Define Public Relations

PR (public relations) = the strategic and tactical use of communication to develop and maintain relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

Please note:

Stakeholders — with various interests in the organisation.

Influencers — gatekeepers with important audiences.

Publics — groups with key communicative behaviours.

Learn more about public relations.

One of the first things I tell leaders is that while we could use PR to move perceptions, the best strategy is to amplify your strengths. To illustrate this, I use Treacy and Wiersema’s value disciplines.

Each direction in the model comes with operational and cultural choices that separate your trajectory from the other approaches.

The gist of the model is that maximising value comes at a cost; the successful brand must choose between striving for product leadership, operational excellence, or customer intimacy.

If you’re doing PR in all directions, you’re falling on your sword.

Apple is an excellent example of product leadership and communication; their PR activities aren’t geared towards being a cheap alternative or discussing their roadmap with their biggest fans. Apple’s PR is all about product leadership—and little else.

Any PR strategy should be subservient to what your business is all about.

I’m sure there are tons of creative PR ideas for Apple in the direction of “best total cost” and “best total solution”, but Apple’s executives must be relentless in shooting such initiatives down. Because even if such ideas produced results on the campaign level, they would detract from the brand’s total value strategy.

So, how do you manage the overall direction of your brand’s PR activities?

The most common failure in C-level management is to mistake PR for marketing. The purpose of marketing is to drive sales, while the goal of PR is to manage relationships.

“What gets measured gets done,” and this is sometimes unfortunate.

Many C-level executives are tasking their PR functions to focus on marketing KPIs, and as a result, many organisations are leaving strategic communication to chance. This is also why a relatively small subset of businesses, those who are getting their PR strategy just right, can soar high above their competition in the marketplace.

In a world where information is abundant, each brand only gets one cognitive claim. Not two, or three, or four.

Red Bull, for instance, have chosen to focus on action sports that send people flying through the air. Since they want that specific spot and relationship with their community, they don’t focus any of their communication activities on anything else.

The key to managing PR is understanding the importance of communication to build and maintain relationships.

Not even your best customers are to be seen as quantifiable, deal-seeking, and distractible wallets with legs. They don’t like to be seen or talked to this way; no one does.

As a C-level executive, you should push your PR function to focus not on specific KPIs (like sales, churn, or acquisition) but towards one (because that’s all you get) core message.

To maximise the perceived value of your business, we must focus all communication efforts on dominating that one particular spot in the human mind.

Here in the West, for example, online retailer Amazon is so giant that they could be a great many things to a great many people, but they have wisely chosen to push for just one thing, “We are the everything store.”

One example of core messaging would be Rolex. They used to have one of the most engaging fan pages on Facebook, where they focused solely on what their brand community loved—their grand heritage and craftsmanship.

But lately, they’re instead focusing on sponsoring athletes, collaborating with filmmakers, and showcasing new watch models.

Today, their engagement levels are nowhere near what they used to be. Rolex is trying to talk about what market research suggests a younger audience with money to spend would like to see and hear.

To see the world through the lens of PR is to see the world differently.

At the same time, marketers tend to see opportunities for increasing sales everywhere, which in itself is a good thing, PR sees the various stakeholders your business is depending upon. 1This is where most C-level executives get surprised; I’m typically asked for help with influencers, journalists, and social followers, but many executives are often surprised when I suggest … Continue reading

From a PR perspective, your business is surrounded not just by customers and journalists but by various stakeholders.

Stakeholders in PR
Typical PR stakeholders and their needs.

We must constantly manage stakeholder perceptions to ensure that your organisation can focus on its business objectives.

This is also where digital marketing professionals tend to suggest activities that might be too narrow for maximising the overall value creation of your business. They’re often sharply focused on increasing conversion through each step of a marketing funnel and not at all concerned about the behaviours of smaller subsets like investors, influencers, journalists, and antagonists—whose overall influence on conversion often surpass that of online majority behaviours.

Summary for C-level Executives

Clarify your brand’s value direction and demand that the PR function is 100% onboard with it. Otherwise, replace your PR function immediately.

Ensure that all PR activities revolve around a simple and inspiring core message. Push your PR function to communicate this core message in new and creative ways to all key publics over and over again.

Don’t mistake PR for marketing and measure messaging instead of sales. When discussing goal-setting and strategies with PR professionals, discuss the perspective of different stakeholders instead of target audiences.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

1 This is where most C-level executives get surprised; I’m typically asked for help with influencers, journalists, and social followers, but many executives are often surprised when I suggest practical PR activities geared towards policy-makers, legislators, employees, investors, and society as a whole.


Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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