How do you market something that everybody needs but nobody really knows what it is? Public Relations is one of those fields: everybody knows it’s a crucial part of a corporate strategy, but few people can properly explain what PR is. It seems ironic, but it makes sense when you accept that PR isn’t meant to call attention to itself, it’s meant to act as a bridge between an organization and the media, facilitating and shaping the flow of information to accentuate the unique and positive attributes of the organization.

Don’t make the mistake of hiring an agency when what you really need is PR, or assigning PR duties to a marketing team. Marketing is not PR. Think of marketing as direct-to-consumer and PR as focusing on partnerships. The target audience of marketing is the broad base of potential customers – you want to cast a wide net and use your messaging to catch the attention of as many leads as possible – while PR is about business relationships. A good PR specialist knows exactly who they’re talking to and is always working to strengthen that one-on-one relationship.

It is therefore absolutely critical that marketing and PR are aligned, but be careful not to blur the lines between them. While marketing speaks to a broad collective, PR speaks to individuals. One is commodified and mass marketed, the other is crafted and personal.

The Functions of PR

A quick Google search will turn up plenty of DTC ad agencies disguised as PR firms. You can usually identify these by their generic, glossy look that has more in common with TV commercials than with traditional public relations. Many market themselves as full-service marketing, advertising and PR firms, but the result is a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach which does nothing to emphasize the uniqueness of your brand. It’s impersonal – the antithesis of what PR should be.

Every company has a unique voice. PR can help to find that voice and use it to bridge the gap between insider expertise and the media. The right PR specialist will be an expert in your field and have established relationships with industry publications as well as the broader media landscape. They have the knowledge to identify and develop the unique niche and perspective of you and your team and the skills and experience to communicate that perspective to the media.

Media Relations

PR is about relationships. It’s not enough to push press releases through newswire services and hope for the best; even if one gets picked up, the publisher goes through dozens if not hundreds per day and is likely to forget about yours by the time you release another. What people do remember is people. A PR specialist’s job isn’t over when something gets published, they go above and beyond to cultivate positive relations with influential members of the media. The goal is that the next time the media wants to talk to the experts, your organization is at the top of the list.

Company and Executive Profiling

At the end of the day, an organization’s competitive advantage comes down to the expertise of its people. PR specialists identify those unique areas of differentiation and create profiles for both the company as a whole and for its executives. These profiles are then used to position you as the go-to authority in your field. Again, the goal is to get the media to come to you because they know that you not only have the answers, but that you’re also a pleasure to talk to and work with.

Reputation Management

An organization’s reputation is of utmost concern to its PR team. Because they speak directly to influential members of the media, PR specialists are uniquely suited to manage that reputation. A key role of PR is to guide which traits and attributes will be commonly associated with the organization –  including practical qualities like ‘user-friendly’ and more ephemeral ones like ‘fun and exciting’ – and to reduce the perception of negative attributes.

PR is Personal

It’s important to draw a line between what is and isn’t PR. Advertising, marketing, customer communications: that’s not PR. Your expertise and solutions getting covered organically by the media: that’s PR. Marketing is about paying for brand placement. PR is about offering something valuable that no one else can offer so that the media wants to talk about you. The practices that work well in the former don’t cleanly translate to the latter.

The role of PR is to act as the personal relationship that unites the company with publishers, journalists, stakeholders and influencers. Ad campaigns don’t do this – the media can smell hard sells and hashtags from a mile away. Good marketers know how to talk to consumers, but PR is about developing real relationships with people in media and publishing. A PR specialist knows the industry but also knows how the media thinks, what they’re interested in, and how to speak their language.

PR ultimately conveys the central messaging that distinguishes the company from its competitors and communicates the company’s values, but more importantly it positions the people at the company as smart, talented people that you want to have on your side. That’s the unique skill of a PR specialist – don’t take it for granted.