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Public Relations Explained for C‑level Executives

PR is by nature a double-edged sword.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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 hold the PR function accountable.

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

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

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The Public Relations Definition

Someone once tried to count the num­ber of actu­al defin­i­tions of pub­lic rela­tions, but they allegedly gave up after find­ing over 500+ dif­fer­ent ver­sions. 1Morris, T., & Goldsworthy, S. (2008). From PR to pro­pa­ganda. 97 – 111. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​0​7​/​978 – 0‑230 – 59485-2_7

Amongst so many defin­i­tions of Public Relations, here’s the defin­i­tion that I find to be most useful:

Public Relations Definition

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

Please note:

Stakeholders in PR = incentiv­ised rep­res­ent­at­ives with vari­ous interests in the organisation.

Influencers in PR = inde­pend­ent gate­keep­ers with audi­ences of import­ance to the organisation.

Publics in PR = situ­ation­al groups with sim­il­ar com­mu­nic­at­ive beha­viours affect­ing the organisation.

Learn more: Public Relations Definition

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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. 

You fall on your sword if you’re doing PR in all directions.

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.

Each brand only gets one cog­nit­ive claim in an abund­ant world of inform­a­tion. Not two, or three, or four. 

Red Bull, for instance, has 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 com­mu­nic­a­tion activ­it­ies on any­thing else.

The key to man­aging PR is under­stand­ing communication’s import­ance in build­ing and main­tain­ing 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 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 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, focus­ing solely on what their brand com­munity loved — their grand her­it­age and craftsmanship. 

But lately, they’re 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 dis­cuss­ing 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 see oppor­tun­it­ies for increas­ing sales every­where, which is good. PR sees the vari­ous stake­hold­ers your busi­ness depends upon. 2This is where most C‑level exec­ut­ives get sur­prised; I’m typ­ic­ally asked for help with influ­en­cers, journ­al­ists, and social fol­low­ers. However, many exec­ut­ives are often sur­prised when I sug­gest … Continue read­ing

From a PR per­spect­ive, your busi­ness is sur­roun­ded by cus­tom­ers, journ­al­ists, and vari­ous stakeholders. 

Stakeholders in PR
Typical PR stake­hold­ers and their needs.

We must con­stantly man­age stake­hold­er per­cep­tions to ensure 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 sur­passes 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. Otherwise, replace your PR func­tion immediately.

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

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. 

Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

1 Morris, T., & Goldsworthy, S. (2008). From PR to pro­pa­ganda. 97 – 111. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​0​7​/​978 – 0‑230 – 59485-2_7
2 This is where most C‑level exec­ut­ives get sur­prised; I’m typ­ic­ally asked for help with influ­en­cers, journ­al­ists, and social fol­low­ers. However, many exec­ut­ives are often sur­prised when I sug­gest prac­tic­al PR activ­it­ies for policy-makers, legis­lat­ors, employ­ees, investors, and society.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has


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