What exactly is PR?

My background is in Public Relations. I was trained to do it and I have been doing it in the public and private sectors for years. Yet when I’m in situations where I might meet potential clients – business networking meetings for instance – and somebody asks me what I do, I don’t say I’m in PR.

It’s not because I’m ashamed of what I do. It’s because I know from experience that most people don’t really know what PR involves, or how it can help their business. Usually they have preconceptions about PR and as soon as I mention it the mental shutters come down. They think PR is just for TV reality stars, footballers and global corporations, not for small businesses. They think PR is always incredibly expensive. They think PR involves the dark arts and that people who work in PR have sold their souls.

None of this is true – well the last bit might be true in some cases, but not as a rule. So when I’m asked I usually say that I work with businesses and individuals with something worthwhile to offer to get them the attention they deserve. Most people can relate to that, and if they are interested enough to ask how I do it I tell them about PR.

Public relations is all about how you relate to your public. It’s as simple, and as complicated as that. It is about reputation – building reputation, managing reputation and maintaining reputation. PR tells an organisation’s story to its public. If you are in business, what do you want people – your potential customers – to say about you? What do they say about you now? Do you even know? How can you find out?

In practice, PR activities form part of a marketing mix for a business and that mix may well also include paid advertising among other things. The big difference between the two is that in advertising there are some certainties. You pay a certain amount and an ad promoting your business, designed to your specifications, will appear in print, on radio or TV, or online. With PR there are fewer certainties because it is far more of an art than a science and we are dealing with the subtleties of influencing a potential market’s opinion and behaviour. Hence the accusation of practising dark arts. Advertising says, ‘I’m good’; PR says, ‘I hear you’re good’.

There are many ways – or channels to use a PR term – of getting a business’s message across, including traditional print and broadcast media, the new-fangled social media, sponsorship, celebrity endorsement and so on. All are designed to enhance reputation and make potential customers think about you in a particular way. What works for one business might not be appropriate for another, and those who practice PR must draw on their experience and expertise when advising clients on the best techniques for them. Done properly and over a long enough timescale, PR can be more cost effective for a small business than paid advertising.

So, before you think about how PR can help your business, think about some of the really strong brands you know. Take Apple (the computer one, not the Beatley one). What do you know about Apple – and how do you know it? When people buy an Ipad, what are they buying? There are plenty of other tablets available after all. Do they really choose an Ipad above all the competitors because Apple’s advertising has convinced them it is the best? Actually no – most people who choose to buy an Ipad are really buying into Apple’s image and reputation, which the company has worked tirelessly to manage through various kinds of PR as well as advertising. The Apple message is so strong and positive that consumers want to be associated with it.

Now think of your own business. OK maybe you’re not Apple, but reputation is just as important to you as it is to them. Have you defined your Target Market? Those are the people you need to be appealing to. What are your Key Messages – what do you want to tell people about your business? What do you want people to be saying about you? If, for example, you have a website, what does it tell people about you – efficient and classy, or cheap and nasty? When you meet people and they ask what you do, what do you tell them? Do you, like me, have an answer prepared which immediately promotes your Key Messages?

Some kinds of Public Relations you can do yourself, but there are plenty of professionals who can help you and it needn’t cost the earth to consult them. Just ask yourself – how do you relate to your public?

Prince Harry’s Dark Secret

On World Aids Day in December 2014 Prince Harry admitted something he had kept secret for years. It was this: he dislikes speaking in public. He evidently feels he is not good at it and gets ‘incredibly nervous’ . Now this caused some amazement in the media at the time. How could a Prince of the Realm, someone whose whole life is conducted in public, whose very position requires him to meet strangers and give speeches – how could he be nervous of public speaking? He seems so confident, doesn’t he?

I have never had the pleasure of tutoring a prince, but frankly I wasn’t all that surprised by Harry’s admission. I have had many clients in senior professional jobs who were literally terrified by the very thought of speaking in public. They all felt this was a personal failing and they all knew someone in their office who could speak wittily at length on any subject at the drop of a hat. Usually such clients are astonished when I tell them that this other person is probably just as nervous as they are, the difference being that they have learned to control their nerves. The good speaker’s apparent confidence comes not from inner strength but from practice.

Of course, if you are in a senior position in a company – or royalty – the nervous feelings of inadequacy can be all the worse. People expect you to speak confidently, so the bar is set that much higher. Yet just because you are a senior manager, or a CEO, or even a prince, that doesn’t make you a confident speaker!

Take another example: Winston Churchill. One of the things he is remembered for, apart from the cigar, the world war and the V sign, is his great skills of oratory. Some say his speeches helped the Allies win the war, by bringing Britain together at just the right moment. Yet by his own admission he was a poor speaker. When speaking in public he was halting, breathless and sometimes struggled to get certain words out. On one occasion in the House of Commons he rose to make a speech but found that nothing would come out of his mouth. After a few false starts he had to sit down again, having said nothing at all. The reason we now think of Churchill as a fine speaker is that he recognised his faults, and worked around them. Most importantly he practised, practised and practised again, often in front of a mirror, until he felt ready to deliver a speech. He had the advantage of being a superb writer of English, and he wrote his scripts to suit his halting style, with short but memorable phrases: ‘Never…in the field of human conflict…has so much…’, well you know the rest. Even though he virtually memorised his speeches he habitually held on to a paper copy when delivering them. He had learned that he was most comfortable doing that, and it gave him a useful prop to wave around if he did lose his place.

Now, you may never be invited to be Prime Minister, or join the royal family. The point I’m making here is that effective public speaking is not something that necessarily comes naturally. Nor do you suddenly acquire it along with a certain job title. It is in fact a skill and like any skill it can be taught, learned and improved with practice.

How do I know that almost anyone’s speaking skills can be improved? Because that’s exactly what I have been doing with my own clients for years. Come to think of it, I think I could help Prince Harry become the confident speaker he obviously wants to be. So if you are reading this, your Royal Highness, my contact details are on this website…