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Everything You Need to Know About Working in Public Relations
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Kristina Udice
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You’ve definitely heard the term public relations, but do you really know what it means?

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, public relations is defined as: “The business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution; also: the degree of understanding and goodwill achieved.”

The Public Relations Society of America also took a crack at defining the term public relations. After looking through over a thousand submissions, they came up with this definition: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Now you have a feel for what the phrase public relation means — but there is still so much that needs unpacking.

I mean, what goes into a PR department? What do PR professionals actually do? Is PR different from marketing and advertising? Is PR even necessary? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when we start thinking about public relations. And if you don’t work in this elusive field, you definitely don’t have all the answers.

But PR is vital to business — big or small. Whether you’re trying to get into the field, looking to broaden your knowledge and skill base, or are starting your own company, there are some PR basics that you need to know.

What is PR?

Public relations relates to any activity a company engages in that raises brand awareness. It isn’t the same as advertising, as most PR activities are based on raising awareness and creating engagement more organically and with limited funds — they're sort of like brand ambassadors. It’s about media relations. It’s about strategic communication. It’s about creating a positive client image. It’s about facilitating public attention and favorable public opinion. Public relations is about building and earning trust. Without it, your company is just its product with no public backing.

PR initiatives always involve a third-party, as they are aimed at leveraging connections and creating opportunities to get a company in the spotlight. A lot of public relations is strategy implementation, media relationships, and utilizing social media.

Some specific activities that fall under the PR umbrella include creating press releases, writing blogs, conducting market research, crafting social media campaigns, coordinating outreach and media relation events, and sending out pitches.

PR professionals leverage a mutually beneficial relationship with media outlets and other entities to foster a positive environment and outlook about a company.

How is PR different from marketing and advertising?

First things first, marketing is a broad umbrella field that includes both advertising and PR. Marketing includes all the initiatives that drive traffic, engagement, awareness, and promotions. Advertising and public relations are two different ways of meeting these marketing goals.

What separates advertising and PR, though, are pretty straightforward. Advertising, like PR, is a way of persuading an audience to buy a product for things like TV, radio, billboard, and newspaper ads. Advertising is also much more controlled. You decide what message you want to send out to the world where, in PR, you’re relying on others’ opinions of your brand. When you pay to put up an ad, you decide what to say, where you’re saying it, what your target audience is, and how long it is out in the world.

In short, advertising is all about targeted and specific paid announcements while PR is about unpaid brand awareness, mass communication, and outreach.

Why is PR important?

Public relations is important because it gets the word out about your organization and your product. It’s devoted to getting others to talk about you, which increases credibility and markets your organization as a leader in your industry or field. When a media outlet or other professional organization has something good to say about you, your company image and company reputation get a boost.

PR initiatives create a solid and positive reputation for your brand. You need this in order to succeed in your field, sell your products, and build a reputable, well-known company image. Successful PR initiatives create leads, drive traffic, increase brand equity, and increase brand awareness.

Your organization — whether it’s a start-up or a large corporation — needs an integrated PR strategy in order to drive organic growth, foster positive public opinion, and develop a favorable company reputation. Without it, your company lacks awareness and credibility. You need PR to create conversations, otherwise, the radio silence just might cause your company to close its doors for good.

What Industries Use PR?

Virtually all industries can use PR, though some use it more than others. Business owners of all kinds — whether they're selling clothing, jewelry, home products or something else entirely — use PR to pitch their products to media companies. Anything you see on a television commercial was probably put together by a PR team — cars, travel destinations/tourism boards, insurance companies, retailers, etc.

How Can You Get Started in PR?

As of now, LinkedIn lists more than 12,000 PR companies in its U.S. database, and IBISWorld estimates that nearly 100,000 people are employed in the PR field. There are about 120,000 marketing firms in the U.S. and 500,000 worldwide, which includes ad agencies, design studios and research companies — but not all of them are solely PR agencies. Only 10 percent of U.S. agencies focus exclusively on PR.

That said, a 2017 USC Annenberg Global Communications study suggests that 87 percent of professionals believe the term "public relations" won't actually describe the PR work they do in five years. In fact, 60 percent of marketing executives believe that PR and marketing will become way more aligned and involved. And the PR industry grew 7.4 percent in 2016, according to the Holmes Report — the industry is worth $15 billion today and is expected to close in on $20 billion soon.

This means that getting into PR may soon require a deeper understanding of the industry in which you're working, as well as different credentials and evermore resume skills.

What Educational Background and Experiences Do You Need for PR?

A PR professional is most likely to major in communications. They should know what consumers want and how they want it because, after all, their job is essentially to communicate the benefits of a product or service.

That said, a PR professional might have any type of background. For example, they might have a degree in the sciences and work with PR in the pharmaceutical world. Likewise, they might have a background in engineering and decide to work with PR in the auto industry.

"No PR major? No problem," writes AdWeek contributor Ilana Zalika. "Being successful in PR requires a lot of different skills – you need to be analytical, a great writer, have a grasp of consumer psychology, understand how business works, and more. In fact, majoring in something other than PR gives you a fresh perspective to bring to the table. I was an English major, my co-founder was an Economics major."

Outside of an education, you'll definitely want to get an internship that could set you up for success.

"This is an often-dispensed piece of advice that should not be undervalued," Zalika added. "When faced with a decision, I will almost always choose the applicant with relevant internships. School teaches you a lot, but there is nothing like on-the-job experience — especially in PR. No class can prepare you for what you’ll face in an agency or in-house PR environment. It’s fast-paced and requires multi-tasking, quick thinking, and accountability."

What Skills Do You Need for PR?

"Disciplines in PR are wide-ranging: content creation, corporate communications, events, executive coaching, internal communications, promotional asset production, media relations, multi-media, social media, reputation management and more," wrote Forbes contributor Glenn Gray. "Job descriptions for PR professionals include technical abilities like strategic communications, research, writing and creativity, but also of importance are campaign development, social integration, keynote presentations and other tasks. Gone are the days of writing and distributing news releases, then pitching media. While this process is important and still relevant, incorporating creative visuals and video in the delivery greatly increases the success rates of placements. If the client doesn’t have these assets, it becomes imperative for firms to develop them."

Nowadays, PR professionals need to know how to do a multitude of tasks like the following.

  • Create compelling content
  • Effectively communicate
  • Network with journalists and influencers
  • Build promotional assets
  • Manage and grow social media accounts
  • Write pitch emails
  • Research trends
  • Develop campaigns

These tasks involve certain skills like following.

  • Communicative
  • Organized
  • Reliable (with deadlines)
  • Innovative (with regards to pitches and campaigns)
  • Affable
  • Creative
  • Technologically Sound
  • Flexible
  • Adaptable

What Are the Challenges of Working in PR?

While a job in PR can be a fun and creative job, there are some challenges that come with the role of being a PR professional.

"Public relations has been somewhat reinvented in the 21st century — the internet has made it easy to put out a message and at the same time, has made it hard to be heard," writes Chron contributor Kevin Johnston. "The clutter of PR messages can desensitize readers and viewers, but a message goes viral often enough to make the possibilities intriguing."

In other words, there's more background noise, which makes it harder to impress journalists. There are also several channels through which to stream PR messages, so PR professionals need to choose how they're going to send their messages and learn what the most effective avenues of communication are. Of course, as technology changes, the avenues of communication are changing, too.

Likewise, social media platforms tend to change their algorithms a lot, which means that PR professionals need to stay abreast of any changes. While using text statuses on Facebook used to reach a large audience, now video is distributed more widely, for example. The metrics used to measure the success of a campaign, however, might be altered by these algorithm changes that are outside anyone's control.

How Can You Stem the Tides in PR?

Despite the challenges that PR professionals face today, there are some steps you can take to succeed in PR.

The more you do your research on the industry and keep on top of any news or trends that may affect your client(s), the better you'll be able to service them. Likewise, the more you understand avenues of communication like social media — including any changes to social media and forecasted trends for social media — the better you'll be able to help your client(s). 

Of course, finding a mentor in any profession who can help you hone your skills and be an advocate for you is always a benefit.

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