Understanding the Basics of Public Relations

Getting the Word Out

As an entrepreneur, you’ve invested your money, time and expertise in developing a way to deliver products and services that people can use. How do you let the world know? Further, how do you compete with the big organizations that have significantly greater resources for promotion and advertising? And how do you do it within your budget?

If you say that you can’t, then you are missing out on a tremendous opportunity called Public Relations (PR). Opportunity? Yes, the opportunity to tell your story to your audiences and, in many cases, the most it will cost you is your time. 

The Enigma of Public Relations

Ask ten people to define PR and most likely you will get that many different definitions. Venture to say that it may be one of the most misunderstood disciplines in the field of communications. In fact, it seems to make more sense to start explaining what PR is by telling you what it isn’t.

What PR Isn’t

PR is not advertising. In fact they are pretty much on opposite ends of the spectrum. Here’s the difference: An advertising message is a paid endorsement with a specific and controlled message. It’s harder to establish credibility with an advertisement because the public knows the advertiser has paid for the space.

Public Relations efforts get editorial coverage when the media determines that the messages are newsworthy. The editorial earned with PR carries with it a degree of credibility and can be more persuasive than an ad. But, unlike an ad there are no guarantees on when, if and how your message will be conveyed to your audiences.

PR is not publicity. Publicity and public relations are not interchangeable terms. Publicity is only one phase of a total public relations effort. Publicity is the actual coverage you receive from a PR campaign – the news stories, interviews, etc. Publicity is the distribution of information to gain public awareness and it is just one tactic in the PR arsenal.

PR is not a quick fix. Public Relations is not something that just happens. And it really shouldn’t be part of a last minute effort when all else has failed. Contrary to what you might get from the nightly news, it’s not all about spin-doctors, celebrities or front-page headlines. PR is a valuable tool for creating awareness, establishing credibility, building relationships and even, in many cases, boosting sales. None of these things happens overnight. They take time and effort, well-directed effort, and a well thought out plan of action. PR is ongoing.

You can’t expect to do a “little PR” and get great results. One press release does not constitute a public relations program. The impact of public relations builds over time, with repetition of key messages in a variety of contexts.

What It Is

Rather than give you a list of the many “textbook” definitions of PR, this post will speak to its purpose and the elements that confirm its overall goals.

So do you think that PR is relating to the public? Communicating with the public? You’re right. But there’s a lot more to it. It is disciplined communications. That means that it follows certain guidelines and rules and uses specialized tools to create and maintain relationships with your target audiences. These relationships are of equal benefit to each audience and can often mean the difference between the success and the failure of an organization.

Why is Public Relations Important?

Face it, in order to succeed with your business you need to focus on attracting customers who will buy your product or service. PR is one way of attracting them. Remember, PR is about relationships – creating them, building them and maintaining them. You deal with customers, suppliers, competitors, and media daily. That interaction forms their perception of you and your company.

The reality is that almost any organization that has a stake in its public image needs a solid public relations program. Well-planned, effective communications are becoming even more necessary to companies in today’s changing world.

Every organization depends on people – their attitudes, understanding, and motivation can be often make or break an organization, a program or an idea. PR is part of the overall marketing picture and can be very effective when used well. It can shape images, sway opinions and even change behaviors.  A good campaign will educate, inform and persuade those audiences significant to your success. When done right, PR works!

Everyone has a Story – What’s Yours?

Public relations tells a “story” – your story – to the public.  Not a fairy tale, once upon a time story, but the real story. Whether it’s a personal story, a company story or an organization’s story, a credible PR program helps shape that story and the organization and the way it performs.

Think about your story.

  • What do you want to tell people?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What makes you – or your business, or product or service – different?
  • How does that benefit your customers?
  • How is it of interest to them?

Maybe you’ve never even thought about your story let alone put it in a message that goes to a variety of different audiences. If that’s the case, don’t panic. Start by writing down your thoughts. When you have developed a fairly good list, stop and read what you have written. You’ll start to notice a pattern that will make it easier to create your story, your message and a base from which to create your PR program.

Chart Your Course

Okay, you have your story, you’re fairly confident in what you want to say, so now what’s the plan? How do you take your message and get it to the people most important to your business? You need a plan – a map that will help you reach your destination.

First you need to do some research to help evaluate public attitudes and opinions. Take the temperature of your community. Find out:

  • What do people already know about your company?
  • What do they think of your product or services?
  • What do they know about your competition?
  • What is the public’s perception of your company?

This is extremely important information. Ever hear the phrase “Perception is reality?” Believe it.

Using that information you get from this research will help you create an effective communications programs.  Here are few more things to make sure you address when you start to form the outline for your PR plan:

  • What makes you different and how does that give you an advantage?
  • Who are you talking to? Who are your customers and how do they impact your business?
  • What about your story is important to each of your audiences?
  • What do you really want them to hear?
  • Does you message really define your company in the best way?
  • Will it help you achieve your goals?
  • Will people understand it?
  • How will you get the word out?

Tools of the Trade

Now that you have your message defined you need to communicate it. There are many tools available to help create a well-planned, effective public relations program. Press releases are the most common tool for communicating with the press. Advanced tools like press kits, press conferences, special events, speeches, trade shows and the web are all part of a PR professional’s tool kit:

  • Using the Web as PR Tool – Understand the importance of including a press room on your website; how you can reach bloggers and other industry partners issuing e-newsletter; what you can do to increase a story’s visibility on search engines; and how you can use webcasts and podcasts to tell you story.
  •   Holding a Press ConferenceWhen there’s a timely, high profile story to tell, holding a press conference can help you get your message out to the masses.
  •   Using Special Events to Effectively Make an ImpactWhen your company is holding an event – a fundraiser, educational forum, anniversary party, grand opening, etc. – this is an opportunity to get your name in the news.
  •   Using Press Kits to Package Your MessageA press kit is an opportunity to educate the media about your organization and press them tools they can use to cover your news.
  •   Using Public Speaking to Establish Yourself as an ExpertThe more you speak about a topic in public, the more you will be viewed as an expert source by journalists.
  •   Taking Advantage of Trade Shows – Trade shows are an excellent way to expose your product to customers and other potential industry partners. Equally important, trade shows offer you a valuable opportunity to showcase your products and services to the press.

Each tool has a specific purpose. Not all of them will be used every time. For every PR program, campaign, new product launch, or company event, it will be important for you to decide which tools will work best in that specific case.

Targeting the Media

Where does your target audience go to get the information they need to make business decisions, purchase decisions or to just be informed? Is it the business section of your local paper? Is it a trade magazine that covers your industry? Is it a local radio or television broadcast? The answers will help you define the appropriate media for you to target with your PR efforts.

The media you select will vary depending on the nature of your story. Is it a human-interest story that would appeal more to the local media? Or is it an exciting new product launch that would interest industry trade magazines?  For example, if you run an auto parts business and you have just launched a retail website, you certainly want to make sure your news gets to automotive magazines – both trade and consumer – because these are publications your customers read.

Once you define the right sources, you can create a list of media outlets and contacts at each outlet that specifically cover the news related to your business, your industry or the specific story you want to pitch.

Building Relationships with the Media

We’ve looked at how you might determine what media outlets will help you reach your target.  But, how do you build a relationship with the journalist who will cover your news? There are some basic dos and don’ts in dealing with the press.


  • Know what is newsworthy
  • Know who you are contacting
  • Know what you are going to say
  • Be persistent


  • Give them fluff
  • Call a reporter on deadline
  • Make assumptions
  • Let opportunities slip away

Crisis Communications

Perhaps one of the greatest communications challenges in the realm of public relations is effectively handling a crisis. What do you do when your manufacturing facility is destroyed in a natural disaster, a key employee dies or your security systems are breached? The short answer is that you have let your employees and customers know what has happened and what needs to happen next.

There’s a lot you can do in a crisis to assuage concerns and maintain confidence in your company. It’s simply a matter of having a plan developed in advance.

In Summary

A well-planned, well-managed, targeted public relations program can help your business grow. But, you need to start by gaining an understanding of what PR is all about.  Taking the time to understand that PR is about planned communications and building solid relationships with your publics, de-mystifies the public relations process. Knowing what tools are available to communicate your message to the right audience is critical to the success of your program. So is your ability to build strong relationships with target media.  PR takes time, but when it works, its priceless!

IMPress Action Checklist

Below is a list of the steps that will help you as you approach public relations for your company. Check off each step as you complete it to keep track of your progress.

  1. Make sure you know what public relations is and what it isn’t before you decide to create your own program.
  2. Define realistic expectations for what PR can do for you. Be prepared to spend the time needed to make your program effective.
  3. Create your story and your messaging. This is what you want your public to know about you and your company.
  4. Get familiar with the tools that you can use to communicate with your audiences.
  5. Know your media – what they cover, who to contact, respect their deadlines and their time.
  6. Establish a relationship with them and nurture it by giving them “news.” Gain their trust and respect by knowing and following their guidelines.

Written by

In 1999, Lisa Rae created her first online small business eCommerce website. She successfully achieved a client base of over 15,000 active customers by implementing customer creation and retention projects. Her execution of online advertising campaigns, as well as print media campaigns that lead to annual revenue of over a million dollars annually. After six years of leadership, Lisa Rae sold the company and began offering marketing consultant and website services on short and long term contracts for businesses of various sizes. She meets her clients’ objectives through customized marketing plans using a wide range of marketing tools including WordPress website creation, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Social Media Marketing, print collateral, email marketing, and more.