Public relations can do wonders for your business. When done well, it can be a cost-effective way to raise your business’s profile, improve your reputation and get your message to a large audience. However, as with anything else in life, there are challenges.
This post covers some of the advantages and disadvantages of public relations and explains how it can supercharge your marketing mix.
Let’s start with a definition.
What is public relations?
In a nutshell, public relations is about reputation. It’s the art of acting in a way that makes people think more highly of you. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations describes PR as ‘the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.
Public Relations is […] the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.’
As one of the most prestigious PR bodies in the UK, the CIPR’s definition carries weight. This post explains why the CIPR is a big deal: The CIPR: Everything You Need to Know.
PR is not advertising
So, PR is about building and maintaining a good reputation. But it’s not the same as advertising, as a lot of people think. Yes, they’re both forms of marketing, but they work in very different ways. Advertising is when you pay for coverage, like paying to get an ad on TV or in a newspaper. Public relations is ‘earned’ coverage: that is material written about you or your business that you haven’t paid for.
Let’s look at three key advantages of public relations.
Advantages of public relations #1: people trust it
A lot of brands think that glossy magazine ads and prime time ad slots are the best way to sell their products. But this isn’t necessarily so. Research by Statista.com in 2021 found that only half of the UK trust TV ads, and that was the highest of any medium.
In comparison, one of the biggest advantages of public relations is how much better it is at generating trust. Here’s why:
As a general rule, consumers won’t trust something they have never seen or heard of before. Sure, an all-singing, all-dancing ad might look the part, but your target market is far more likely to trust an objective source — even if the ad is a cinematic spectacle.
Third party endorsements from influencers, journalists and editorials they already know and trust are way more valuable.
Caveat: This doesn’t mean advertising is pointless. It has its place. But if you want to build an image of a credible, trustworthy, reliable brand, PR is often the best way to go.
Demonstrates a brand’s commitment
Today’s consumers want to see that brands are committed to worthy causes. In fact, research by Smart Insights found that 64% of consumers are belief-driven buyers who want brands to deliver on societal issues.
When companies go the extra mile to do this, they reap the rewards in customer loyalty and positive PR. Take UK supermarket chain Aldi. In 2017, they launched a five-year partnership with the Teenage Cancer Trust, with the aim of raising £5m for the charity. By 2019, they had raised £3m. This was due to the outstanding efforts of Aldi staff across the 825 stores, who took part in fundraising events such as the London Marathon and a 7,000-mile bike ride.
The low cost supermarket brand smashed their five-year target in 2020 and pledged to raise a further £5 million by 2027.
Aldi’s commitment to the cause didn’t go unnoticed. It resulted in glowing coverage in regional newspapers up and down the UK, and a huge boost in brand perception.
The moral of the story is, if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, your audience isn’t going to either. Committing to a cause is crucial to not only establishing credibility, but also for building quality relationships with your target market.
Find out more about the power of CSR here: What is Corporate Social Responsibility?
Advantages of public relations #2: viral reach
Advertising is expensive. Like really, really expensive. Between 2015 and 2020, for example, Coca-Cola spent an average of $4 billion on advertising each year.
In comparison, one of public relations’ advantages is the incredible reach you can get for very little money. I’m talking, of course, about that elusive PR tactic every brand strives for: ‘virality.’
Viral content is anything that makes people want to share it with their friends, who share it with their friends, and so on.
Going viral is a PR dream because:
- It gets people actively sharing your brand, not passively consuming content
- It’s cheap: just a single viral photo can build a business
- People respect a brand that has their finger on the cultural pulse.
Sadly, you can never plan for something to go viral — that’s why it’s public relations, not advertising. But you can weigh the scales in your favour.
Take Spotify, for example. It’s easy to see why their ‘Unwrapped’ event became a meme in 2020. Like most good ideas, it was simple: a bright, colourful interactive experience that broke down people’s stats over the past year, including their most listened-to artists, songs and genres.
‘Unwrapped’ worked because it let people publicly celebrate their tastes (or sheepishly admit how much time they spent listening to showtunes). It was perfect material for YouTube reaction videos. Spotify even leaned into the meme with funny, distinctive posters that were ripe for retweeting.
Sometimes, viral content can make you popular in markets you didn’t intend to reach. Take Hakuhodo Inc.’s bizarre video-series for chewing gum, called Long Long Man. The risqué parody of soap operas took off in the West, despite a Japanese target audience. As a result, subtitled compilations of the ads got millions of views on YouTube.
The catchy trumpet tune didn’t hurt, either.
In short, while you could write a long list of all the advantages and disadvantages of social media in public relations, the ability to go viral is a clear PR goal. Global reach for comparatively tiny cost is a no-brainer.
Advantages of public relations #3: it lasts, and lasts, and lasts
Due to the exorbitant cost of advertising, most campaigns only last for a few months, if that. As a result, we tend not to remember them. These stats published in The Guardian say it all: ‘In 90 minutes, Owen saw 250 adverts from more than 100 brands in 70 different formats. The number recalled without prompting was 1.’ Depressing huh?
One of the advantages of PR is that it lingers. In fact, thanks to what’s known as ‘long-tail’ public relations, PR campaigns tend to get attention long after the initial hubbub has died down. Because the internet is like an elephant and never forgets, PR content you plant today can ripen in Google search results for years on end.
Of course, a write-up on the BBC homepage would be wonderful, but statistically, you’re going to get more attention over time from small, interconnected blog posts and social media comments than from big-time influence-peddlers.
You probably now think that PR is the be-all and end-all of marketing. But this post is about the pros and cons of public relations. So here are three things you need to think about before jumping into a PR campaign.
Disadvantages of public relations #1: lack of control
With a traditional marketing campaign, you have complete control. Want to re-record some lines for a TV spot? Easy. Want to deploy a banner ad somewhere else? Not a problem. With money and time, you can do anything.
With public relations, you have a lot less direct influence over your campaign’s success.
No matter how much effort you put in, results aren’t guaranteed.
The most common scenario is that your campaign never gets off the ground. You don’t snag the radio appearance you need to get the ball rolling, or maybe your press kit didn’t get journalists excited enough. If that’s the case, here’s some advice on handling the press: How to be pitch perfect: 5 golden rules for pitching to the press
Sometimes, though, a PR fail is not your fault. You might get unlucky and launch a campaign days before a big piece of news grabs the public’s attention. The coronavirus pandemic, for example, hurt the industry so badly it will take years for global ad spend to recover.
This lack of control isn’t something you can ‘fix’. There’s always going to be uncertainty when you launch a PR campaign, so the best approach is to take things slowly and see how they develop.
With advertising, it makes sense to go all-out and blow your budget on a single salvo of ads. But with PR, it’s better to invest your time and money piecemeal. If you evaluate your success as you go along, you can stay flexible and adjust your campaign as needed.
Disadvantages of public relations #2: hard to evaluate
Imagine if your teachers at school didn’t tell you what marks you got for your exams. You’d have no idea what subjects you were good at, and which you needed extra help with. Similarly, a big problem in public relations is that you won’t get much concrete feedback on how well your campaign does.
With advertising, you get cold hard facts: x number of people clicked on your website, x many eyeballs saw your TV ad. (Mostly, anyway: TV figures aren’t exact.)
With PR, it’s not so clear-cut. It’s all about reputation, which is harder to quantify.
One of the advantages of using social media in public relations is that you can engage with fans and the public on a personal, emotional level. But what’s the exchange rate between a thousand Twitter followers and a glowing write-up in a popular magazine?
That said, there are guiding principles for measuring the return-on-investment of a public relations campaign:
Set clear goals
You need to know what you want to achieve ahead of time to judge the success of a campaign. The best way to do this is with SMART targets.
Focus on a few key stats
Don’t get overwhelmed by the hundreds of potential PR metrics you can track. Pick two or three which matter to you and focus on them.
Evaluate all the way through
If you leave it till the dust has settled, you might end up running your campaign into a wall. Evaluate how you’re doing at regular intervals so you can change course as needed.
Use tools to help
There’s a booming market for tools that help analyse PR campaigns. Even free options like Google Alerts can keep you up-to-date with the impact your campaign is making.
You’ll never squish PR down into a neat spreadsheet, but with these tips it’s a lot easier to judge how your campaigns are faring.
Disadvantages of public relations #3: there’s a lot to learn
PR isn’t a magic spell you can cast to instantly make yourself popular. It requires skills that are easy to pick up, but hard to master. If you’re not careful, you might end up putting your foot in it. As Warren Buffett, the famous financial advisor once said, ‘it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.’
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot should have paid heed to Warren’s words. He famously stared into space for half a minute while the cameras were rolling, during a televised interview.
He made several more major PR gaffes during interviews, resulting in mocking from the public and media. To avoid something similar read: Media Training Tips: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need
Similarly, one of the most important — and most difficult — PR skills to master is crisis comms. Whatever public relations’ advantages and disadvantages may be, it’s an effective tool for recovering your reputation after disaster or tragedy strikes your business.
But if you do it wrong, you might end up like Boeing in 2018. When two of their planes crashed in quick succession, Boeing’s response came off as cold.
Here’s everything they did wrong: Grounded: A Lesson in Crisis Comms from Boeing
To avoid this fate, you need media training, which will teach you how to speak, act and present yourself to the media without looking like a fool. It’s a combination of public speaking, research, practise and self-confidence. Jumping into a public appearance without training is an easy way to sink your brand.
The pros and cons of PR
When it comes to the advantages and disadvantages of public relations, this post just skims the surface. There’s a lot more that goes into good PR.
If you’d like expert advice on where to go next, get in touch.