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Public Relations Explained for C-level Executives

PR is by nature a double-edged sword.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

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.

I Love PR – Mug in Snow – Doctor Spin – The PR Blog 2
I love PR. And coffee.

How To Define Public Relations

Someone once tried to count the number of actual definitions of public relations, but they allegedly gave up after finding over 2,000+ different versions.

Amongst so many definitions of public relations, here’s the definition that I find to be most useful.

Public Relations (PR) = the strategical 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.

Here are a few additional definitions:

“Public relations is an organizational function and a set of processes for managing communication between an organization and its publics.”
International Association of Business Communicators

“Public relations is the strategic practice of influencing attitudes and behavior through communication, which seeks to create and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics.”
Public Relations Society of America

“Public relations is the management of communication between an organization and its publics, through the use of technology, social media, and other forms of communication to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.”
The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management

“Public relations is the management function which evaluates public attitudes, identifies the policies and procedures of an organization with the public interest, and plans and executes a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.”
Institute for Public Relations

“Public relations is the process of creating, building, and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders in order to achieve organizational goals and objectives.”
Chartered Institute of Public Relations

“Public relations is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action, which will serve both the organization and the public interest.”
IPR Commission on PR Education

Read also: How To Define 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.

Each brand only gets one cognitive claim in a world where information is abundant. 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, where they focused 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 tend to see opportunities for increasing sales everywhere, which is a good thing, PR sees the various stakeholders your business depends 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 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 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 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.

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, alias 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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