Your Public Relations Strategy Questions Answered

Your Public Relations Strategy Questions Answered

Cristy Carlson   |     June 28, 2023

Public relations is essential for almost every organization, but with the field constantly evolving, where do you start? How do you develop a communications and public relations strategy that will achieve your objectives? This public relations guide will tell you everything you need to know.

Oh, and keep a look out for our "PR Sidebars.” Sidebars, as you may know, are those short little articles you’ll find attached to bigger stories. They often tie into the main story, helping provide more context or diving a bit deeper into a related topic. Same for our PR Sidebars. Follow the link to visit a PR Sidebar story and learn more about the topic!

What is public relations?

When you meet someone new and ask what they do, chances are you’ll understand their answer. A teacher. A doctor. A carpenter. A barista. But what if the answer is “I’m in public relations”? Do you picture a harried press secretary dodging reporters’ questions? Or a well-dressed person with a smartphone in one ear while fending off journalists trying to get in front of a client? Or is the profession a bit of a head-scratcher?

Public relations (PR) is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics,” as defined by The Public Relations Society of America. Or, in simpler terms, PR is how a company, organization, or individual communicates with people at large. 

PR is often used to describe an outcome, as well, as in “We got some great PR,” or positive publicity. There’s also “bad PR,” of course, which happens when a person or company does something wrong and either doesn’t make it right or poorly communicates about it. Word spreads, such as through news stories and social media, and their reputation is damaged.

PR SIDEBAR: Crisis management demands a quick response – but take a breath first

One of the tenets of good corporate crisis management is to respond quickly. If something has gone terribly wrong, from a major customer service failure to an even less public but still serious issue, it’s important to react in a timely manner. It’s how you avoid that “bad PR” we talked about above.

But because information moves so quickly, and companies operate – and respond – at a pace that doesn’t allow much time for critical thinking, that can be a problem. So there’s a benefit to taking a breath – even a short one – to apply some critical thought to how you’re about to handle a crisis and what you’re planning to communicate about it.  

What should you consider in that breath? Read the PR Sidebar and find out.

Now that we know what PR is, why does it matter?

The purpose of PR is to create a favorable impression of something to inspire people to take certain actions or, as we say at Falls & Co., to get people to listen, care and act. Ideally, your organization is doing good things for the benefit of others, and PR is the way you communicate it. 

You may develop a PR plan or engage in PR activities with the goal of getting people to buy one company’s products or services over another’s, visit this destination instead of that one, or stay at a certain hotel, vote yes or no on a ballot issue, etc. PR has broad applications. Advertising also can influence people, but in a different way. As a former Apple executive put it, “Advertising is saying you’re good. PR is getting someone else to say you’re good.”

For example, remember when people used to wait in line for days to get the latest iPhone? And media would do stories about those hundreds of people standing in lines. As TIME described it: “From time to time, great swaths of humanity are united by one common purpose—to fritter away what time they have left on Earth standing or sitting or sleeping in a line to get Apple’s latest iPhone…[F]rom Kentucky to Kansas, from Canada to Germany and across the globe humans are taking a stand…waiting in line for ungodly spans of time to be first to get a marginally better tiny computer…” 

That’s PR gold. Not only were consumers sharing how much they loved their phones through their actions and word of mouth, but the media were amplifying the message. No advertising required.  

PR SIDEBAR: Leveraging coverage from one media outlet to another

When your company gets great media coverage, your first impulse might be to send that story to another media outlet, alerting them to the news and, in a way, asking for similar coverage. It may seem intuitive, but it’s not the best way to go.

So how do you leverage good press when you get it? This PR Sidebar will walk you through it. 

What is public relations strategy?

When developing a communications and public relations strategy, many debate the difference between PR strategy and PR tactics. A strategy is the overarching plan for achieving your objectives, whereas tactics are the PR tools you will use to do it. 

Another way to think of it is the strategy is the “what” and the tactics are the “how.” And for the PR plan to truly be strategic, the “what” must be tied to the “why.”

For example, there are times when a client will hire a PR agency and say it wants to get an article on the front page of a large national newspaper, or to be interviewed on a national TV network morning show. That’s their what. They may suggest writing a press release, which is their how. But they skip right over the why. 

A smart PR agency will ask: “Why do you want a story in that paper?” or “Why do you want to be on that TV show?” At first blush, the answer may be because that paper or show has a huge readership or viewership and is very prestigious and…well, shouldn’t every business want to be in it? 

But when we dig a little deeper, we may discover that the company’s actual business objective is to increase awareness of product X with the goal of increasing sales, and that can be achieved much more efficiently through other means. 

In the case of a B2B product, it may be through a media placement in a niche trade journal focused on the target audience of purchasing managers in a particular industry. For a consumer product, it might make more sense to engage with select social media influencers whose followers are predisposed to want what you are offering versus a media outlet that reaches a large but overly broad audience. 

In short, bigger is not always better. More exposure doesn’t automatically mean more success. The old business adage that the essence of strategy is saying no applies to PR as well. It’s not just about what you do, but also what you don’t do. A key part of PR strategy is deciding where to spend your or your clients’ resources for the biggest return on investment.

PR SIDEBAR: How to get media coverage at a trade show or event

Trade shows are great for increasing brand awareness, collecting quality leads, generating new product buzz and enhancing social engagement. They’re also the perfect opportunity to obtain media coverage and build relationships with the press.  

How do you stand out from your competition and press coverage? Our PR Sidebar has got you covered. 

When do you need a PR strategy?

If you’re going to engage in PR, you need a PR strategy. Otherwise, you’re doing something just to do it, which is probably going to be a waste of time and money. 

Years ago, when podcasts were just starting, a corporate PR manager told her staff: “Our company should do a podcast.” The manager was savvy and forward-thinking and her impulse to capitalize on this latest technology was spot-on. The problem was that a podcast just didn’t make sense for that company. 

The staff and manager later joked that the suggestion was like if a manager had said, when the telephone was invented: “We should make some phone calls.” Possibly, but to whom, and why, and what would we say?

PR SIDEBAR: Tips to prepare for a media interview

First of all, congratulations! If you were approached for an interview – or a reporter has asked to talk to you after reading a press release or other coverage – it means you have something interesting and newsworthy to share. 

Media interviews can cause a lot of anxiety, though. How do you know you’ll say the right thing? Can you get your message across effectively in a conversation you might not control? 

Let our PR Sidebar tell you how you can control the conversation and, yes, say the right thing at the right time. 

Steps to building a PR strategy

At its broadest level, a PR strategy is a plan that outlines what you want to achieve, how you plan to achieve it and by when, and how you will measure success. It can be as high level or as detailed as you’d like, but below are some common elements and some questions to ask yourself as you’re developing it.

  • Objectives: What do you want to achieve?
  • Audiences: Who are you trying to influence or inform? Audiences may include existing and potential customers, investors, suppliers, employees, legislators, regulators or others. 
  • Messages: Your message architecture may include a few overarching key messages that apply to all audiences, and others that address the unique concerns of each specific audience. When developing key messages, think about what you want the audience to know, feel and do.
  • Tactics and tools: Tactics are the methods you use to communicate, and tools help you do it. For example, a common PR tactic is media relations, which involves reaching out to a journalist and asking them to write an article on a particular topic. Your PR tools in this instance might be a press release, pitch note, fact sheet, FAQ, video, infographic or other multimedia element that could pique the reporter’s interest and help them see why an article on that topic would be relevant to their readers or viewers.
  • Timeline: Consider breaking the timeline down into milestones to track progress and adjust your strategy as you go.
  • Measurement: Common PR KPIs include coverage (meaning the number of media placements and the outlets in which they appeared), reach (such as circulation, viewership or UVM),  share of voice, social engagement and sentiment. You may also decide to measure how prominently your brand is featured in a story and whether your key messages were included.

PR SIDEBAR: Set PR goals to better measure your program

You’ve probably heard that public relations measurement is too hard to capture – leaving PR programs susceptible to budget scrutiny. Pssst. Here’s a secret. This is just a myth. 

These days you can capture public relations return on investment by properly setting goals (e.g. increasing brand awareness with female millennials) and achieving measurable objectives (e.g. securing five placements in target online media outlets in two months) for your activities. 

Ready to measure your PR efforts? Our PR Sidebar will show you how.

Expand your PR efforts into other media channels

If you still consider PR the domain of print publications or their digital counterparts, it’s time to expand your horizon. Leveraging various media channels is crucial for maximizing your brand's visibility, reach, and engagement. 

Make sure your company, your agency, or, best of all, the two of you in collaboration, are considering what earned, owned, paid, and shared media can do for you and your PR efforts. The right strategy for each will amplify your brand's presence and deliver impactful results.

Earned media 
Often when people think of PR, they think of what’s known as “earned” media. Earned media is news coverage that comes from the efforts of public relations professionals who pitch reporters. This coverage used to be called “free” media, until the PR industry recognized that was a misnomer. Today’s media landscape is very competitive, and it actually takes a lot of time and effort to capture the attention of busy journalists, rise above the noise, and get clients in the news. Some media outlets receive thousands of pitches in a single week. When you land a placement in a major media outlet, while technically you didn’t pay for it the way you would an ad, it wasn’t free – you earned it.

Owned media 
An organization’s website and social media platforms are examples of owned media. Part of public relations involves using owned properties not only to describe or sell products or services, but also to provide useful information to customers. Populating your site with relevant and useful content can enable people to discover your organization through search engines and increase website traffic.

Paid media 
Paid media in the context of PR generally refers to sponsored content, which is a tactic used in content marketing. Advertorials could be considered a predecessor of sponsored content. Advertorial combines the words “advertisement” with “editorial” and essentially means a paid advertisement written in the format of a news article. Sponsored content is similar in the sense that the organization drafts an article and pays to have it appear in a media outlet alongside articles written by journalists. However, the content generally is clearly labeled “sponsored” so readers know the origin. And the best and most effective sponsored content does not resemble advertising or advertorials at all. Instead of being self-promotional, the tone of sponsored content is informative, and the purpose is to inform and engage with the audience.  

Shared media 
Shared media refers to the broader exposure that results when a piece of content, such as a blog, article, video, infographic, etc., is shared in social media. One example is when a video goes viral. Someone may post it to their own Facebook page or YouTube channel but as it gets shared, the number of viewers grows exponentially from just that person’s friends and family to hundreds or thousands or more.

PR SIDEBAR: How to work with an agency

What’s the secret to a great agency relationship? It may sound clich√© but treat your agency like a partner. If you can’t risk and learn together, you’re not going to leverage the full scope of what an agency can do for you. The agency won’t know enough to bring you breakthrough ideas, or they’ll be too nervous to share, if they fear getting their hands slapped for going outside the box. 

How do you treat your agency relationship like a two-way street? Our PR Sidebar will show you how.

Next steps

This PR guide is designed to give you an understanding of the fundamentals of PR, but there is no single off-the-shelf approach that works for everyone. Your public relations strategy should be driven by your objectives.

Interested in speaking with someone to learn more? Reach out to Falls & Co

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Cristy Carlson

Cristy Carlson is a senior vice president at Falls & Co. She spent more than a decade as a television journalist and, in her public relations career, has counseled Fortune 500 companies on both the agency and client sides. She also trains executives on how to handle high-stakes media interviews and crisis situations.