Back to Basics: What is PR?

public relations –noun

1. the actions of a corporation, store, government, individual, etc., in promoting goodwill between itself and the public, the community, employees, customers, etc.

2. the art, technique, or profession of promoting such goodwill.

PR has always been around in one form or another. From time immemorial, PR has been a successful strategy used by Emperors and Kings, Dictators and Evangelists and Savvy politicians.

Yet I am constantly amazed at how many people misunderstand the art of and the value of Public Relations. Public relations strategies and tactics are used to positively influence perception of everything from technology and oil spills to consumer brands, television shows, politicians and philanthropic causes.

So what is PR today?  It is definitely different than it was over 100 years ago, when the term “Public Relations” was coined. How can PR work in conjunction with market research to help turn critical insights into impactful messages? To better understand, let’s start with a look at the origins of the profession.

Meet Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, credited as ‘the father of public relations” in the U.S.

Inspired by his uncle, Bernays used psychology and social science theories to win his clients a place in the hearts and minds of their target audience. Over his long career (he lived to be 103), Bernays successfully instilled positive feelings towards many brands, products and political ideals

He made America fall in love with Bacon, Ballet, and Broadway-  as well as cigarettes, soap and neo-collonialist ideology. In 1954, Bernays reportedly helped design the propaganda that helped the U.S. overthrow the Guatemalan government on behalf of the multinational United Fruit Company, which is now called Chiquita Brands International (hummm… think of that when you eat a Banana!)

A century later, the Internet has changed the very fundamentals of how people access information, and hence, which channels of information influence them.

Anyone can mount a promotional campaign on the web. It’s easy to build a website, a blog, a Facebook page, or to pontificate on sites like the Huffington Post.   And – despite this new democratization of media  – PR is an extremely powerful part of marketing an idea, a company, a product, a thought leader and more.

There are three key things to remember:

  1. PR is not marketing; PR, like market research, is part of a marketing strategy
  2. PR is not sales; PR generates third party validation of what is being sold
  3. PR is not advertising; PR keeps desire and respect alive in people’s minds

Basic #1– PR is part of a marketing strategy:

Here’s how Bernays changed the public’s perception of Ballet.  In the U.S. in 1918 most people thought masculine dancers were deviates!

By launching the first-ever national PR campaign, Bernays and his team placed targeted feature stories in national media outlets, seeded preview stories in local media in advance of every show, and secured reviews of every performance.

Lesson: PR is a strategic tool and, when it is deployed correctly, public relations can build tremendous excitement, anticipation, and validation of an event or product.

Look at Apple.  That company has mastered the art strategic public relations in support of and in sync with their marketing initiatives. This year’s roll out of the iPad is an example of a wildly successful, well-integrated campaign.  And “somehow” information and images leaked to the media.

The company held a widely promoted news conference, and media Tweeted, streamed, and blogged about the iPad as Steve Jobs unveiled it on stage.  Needless to say, coverage appeared instantly around the world and it continues to roll out in news outlets today (6 months later)!

Basic #2 — PR generates third party validation of what is being sold

Bernays recognized that people believe what they hear from an expert. When an authority endorses a cause, a product or an idea, people are automatically influenced either positively or negatively depending on their personal preferences.

The Bacon story:  Hired to promote bacon sales, Bernays surveyed physicians on their breakfast recommendations. When the results were reported, American physicians favored eating what he dubbed a hearty “American Breakfast” that included bacon and eggs. (surprised ?!) Bernays leveraged the data to influence 5,000 additional physicians, who influenced their patients, who influenced their families.  It sure worked, according to Wikipedia, Americans eat 17.9 lb (8.1 kg) per person per year (2007 numbers).

Lesson: PR seeds both positive and negative ideas.  By introducing ideas and innovations to influencers long before the public gets wind of trends, controversies and products, public opinion can be swayed, people can be positively predisposed to an idea, and desire for a product can be ignited.  Influencers help evangelize a message, a product, or idea to a targeted constituency.

Google recently announced it is testing a fleet of Robot vehicles. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, has an opinion piece published in Inc. Magazine about the innovation. Bushnell is known for his thought leadership and for delivering products that the public likes and an article bylined by him builds excitement across a business-focused and financially progressive audience,

Basic #3 — PR keeps desire and respect alive in people’s minds

PR campaigns can successfully motivate groups of people to take action.  Bernays was engaged by Proctor and Gamble to revitalize the Ivory Soap brand, which was originally introduced in 1879.  Bernays’ PR strategy was to convince the public that Ivory Soap was medically superior to any other product on the market and he used really creative and fun tactics to accomplish this including soap sculpting and floating contests.

Lesson: Use PR to keep audiences involved and engaged.  Create opportunities for people to become emotionally invested in what you want to convey.  Bernays created a sense of well-being with his Ivory Soap campaign and interjected a lot of fun into it with contests.

Earlier this year, the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas kicked off a $20 million renovation with a nationally televised opening of a controlled free-fall ride called the SkyJump.  The Today Show got the national broadcast exclusive of the first jump and the AP earned the print exclusive.  The campaign got hundreds of thousands of people to take action, ride the SkyJump and visit the website.

In sum:  PR, when implemented in a thoughtful and strategic manner, can dramatically influence the perception of a company or product in the public eye. Use PR to deliver ideas and listen to what your constituents have to say keep conversations alive all day and all night.

“This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas.” Edward L. Bernays



  1. James Newman says:

    First class blog! A great read too!

  2. Nice job, Heidi. I enjoyed the old school PR with the way it works now. In some ways, it’s world’s apart and many ways…it hasn’t changed that much, especially to a pro like you!

  3. Nicely done Heidi!

    I am grabbing your RSS feed to keep up with your column.

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