What is it you do again?

By Carol Panasiuk, APR
Senior Vice President, Cohn & Wolfe

Usually it’s my mother who asks me to explain what exactly I do but every now and then I am asked by a prospective client what the differences are between various marketing disciplines and articulate what we do in a public relations agency.

Perhaps the following example may help:

“… if the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying ‘Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday’, that’s advertising.  If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that’s promotion.  If the elephant walks through the mayor’s flower bed, that’s publicity.  If you get the mayor to laugh about it, that’s public relations.  If the town’s citizens buy tickets and go to the circus, that’s sales.” *  I would add to the example and say that if the elephant suddenly goes berserk and tramples people at the circus, that’s crisis communications.  If animal rights protesters show up at the circus, that’s issues management.

Public relations include ongoing activities to ensure a company or organization has a strong public image. Public relations activities are designed to help the public understand the company and its products. Often, public relations are conducted through the media, that is, newspapers, television, magazines, etc. – – that activity is called media relations.

So what is publicity?  Publicity is the coverage or the mention in the media. Organizations usually have little control over the message in the media — at least not like they do in advertising.  Reporters and writers decide what will be said.  However, as experts in media relations, a public relations agency’s role is to encourage positive media coverage and facilitate the communication between a company and the reporter.

Does that make us publicists?  It does to an extent, but it’s not a label I’m comfortable with.  For me, it conjures up images of the Hollywood publicist who created stunts to ensure the movie star was always front page news.  The latest trend (primarily in the U.S.), is the self-promoting publicist – – one even had her own reality show on MTV!  Thankfully, most public relations professionals still believe that getting media coverage for a client is more important than getting it for themselves.

Bottom line: public relations goes far beyond publicity and the role of the PR agency is narrow if it is only involved in generating media coverage.  Public relations is truly a communications function that reaches out to a myriad of stakeholders.  It encompasses everything from employee and investor relations to government relations and issues management.  Media relations is an important activity and needs to be done well, but the other elements are critical to helping an organization tell its story and maintain a positive image.

* Readers’ Digest