What is Public Relations?

What is Public Relations?

Today, for your reading pleasure, we are going back to basics. We are going to take an in-depth look at a question that has puzzled people for generations: What is Public Relations?

According to all the textbooks, public relations is defined as long-term, deliberate efforts to maintain (and foster) a mutual understanding between a company (or organisation, or not-for-profit, or individual) and its audiences.

The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) goes even further in their definition. The PRIA states that public relations is actually a management function. A management function designed to: evaluate public opinion and perception; align the policies, procedures, products and services of a company with that public opinion; and then execute a communication program that earns public acceptance and understanding.

While extremely detailed, and very specific, this definition can seem a little complicated and a little daunting.

Philip Lesly  had a much simpler definition. Lesly was an award-winning American public relations practitioner (who operated the largest PR firm in world for over 20 years) and author of the Handbook of Public Relations and Communication. He described public relations as all tasks associated with helping an organisation and its public adapt mutually to each other. Lesly’s definition is quite different to some of the more complicated textbook definitions: it describes a mutual adaptation. It highlights the importance of an open dialogue, of two-way communication between audiences and organisations.

But it was not always so.

A Short History of Public Relations

Public relations arrived alongside the rise of mass media in the early 1900s. The exact origins of public relations are difficult to pinpoint; the discipline developed over time and through a series of events.

Some academics have claimed that PR began with the establishment of the Publicity Bureau in Boston in the mid 1900s. Others have claimed that early public relations began as ‘damage control’ efforts. At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers and journalists were prone to stirring up public outcry directed against powerful monopolies and wealthy industrialists. Early PR practitioners attempted to combat this negative press by placing positive stories about their clients.

It is thought that Ivy Lee (a former journalist) was the first person to use press releases. In 1914, he was retained by John D. Rockefeller to represent his company, Standard Oil. Lee fed newspapers media releases (often full of lies and misinformation) explaining away the sins of his apparently misunderstood clients. Lee became so adept at whitewashing even the worst corporate sins that he earnt the nickname ‘Poison Ivy’, helping PR professionals earn the reputation of being ‘spin doctors’.

Public relations has undergone a process of continued evolution since the turn of the century, and the antics of Poison Ivy. At its inception, public relations was quite simple. It began as a more one-sided love affair, focused on securing favourable publicity for one’s client. It then evolved into Lesly’s two-way process: advising clients on how to bolster their public image, garner public support, and engaging in carefully-crafted conversations with the public.

As the sophistication of the discipline grew, so did the realisation that there were many more audiences than just the general public. There were employees, company investors, shareholders, government departments and local communities. PR practitioners quickly realised that each of these audiences could have equally as much impact on the success of an organisation as the general public. So, separate skills and methodologies were developed to more effectively and efficiently communicate with each audience type.

Public relations practitioners pinpointed which communication skills and methodologies worked with each audience type. They called upon other disciplines and other factors to influence public relations campaigns. Psychological factors such as self-interest, third-party impact, cognitive dissonance and credibility played a big part in early public relations campaigns.

Public Relations Today

Rapid changes in society, combined with huge leaps and bounds in technology and media consumption, have resulted in paradigm-shifting audience segmentation and PR practices.

Only ten or fifteen years ago, PR professionals were mailing media kits and faxing pitches. Today, media kits are online and pitches are tweeted. It’s no longer all about journalists and editors on month-long deadlines. It’s about reaching out to bloggers with unlimited, hour-by-hour deadlines. Press conferences have evolved into Twitter chats, product shots are downloaded from Pinterest, focus groups have been replaced by Facebook friends, and Twitter breaks news stories rather than the six o’clock news.

With the rise of content marketing and the veritable landslide of online media, PR professionals are under pressure. PR professionals can no longer send out a media release or three, make a couple of phone calls and watch the editorial roll in. Increasingly, clients are looking for blog posts and bylines, viral social media campaigns, likes and follows and shares by the thousands. With the familiar cry of ‘Content is King!’ echoing through the communications industry, the traditional custodians of content (PR professionals) must adapt to our new world of technology.

In today’s multi-platform, social-media dominated landscape, content marketing is definitely here to stay. The PR industry needs to ensure that they are not sidelined and retain their content custodian status by taking advantage of the technology that is now available. Content is the bread and butter of the PR professional. Embracing this new technology simply stands the PR profession in good stead. At the end of the day, using earned media, in conjunction with owned media outlets, better supports the attainment of a company’s business objectives.

Tips For Writing An Online Style Guide

One of the most popular articles we’ve written at Marketing.com.au is Top 5 Tips for Writing a Style Guide. In today’s digital age, it’s also important for marketers (especially online and digital specialists) to use an online style guide. Writing for the web and generating content can be quite daunting, so we thought we’d share some useful information on online style guides.

A style guide is a set of guidelines that is referenced when writing any communications. A style guide ensures any communications from a company are always consistent and professional, even with multiple authors. An online style guide on the other hand, whilst similar, is specifically tailored for writing and optimising content to be published on the web. It ensures all online communications reflect your overall brand. When preparing your own online style guide, be sure to use plenty of examples, images and sample code. We also like the idea of distributing a reference or cheat sheet which contains key elements that people can post around their workspace.

Here a couple of resources we came across that we highly recommend if you are working on creating your own online style guide.

Yahoo! Style Guide

We’re big fans of the Yahoo! Style Guide It’s one of those simple resources that’s really easy and straightforward to use. It was designed specifically with writing for the web in mind.

Some the key things we found really useful were:

  • Tips on writing for an online audience and making sure that you speak to your entire audience.
  • Understanding the importance of readability of your content and making sure it is ‘easy to scan’ by visitors.
  • Making sure you use neutral language, consistent terminology as well as short and clear sentences.
  • Ensuring that your content is error free (so you are not penalised by search engines). There is also a really handy list of words which is a useful reference.
  • It also helps you ensure your web pages are optimised for search engines, so you appear higher in search results.
  • The guide also has tips on improving your user interface (UI) to make sure visitors can easily navigate around your website.
  • It also addresses how to streamline content to make it email and mobile friendly.
  • You will also find some of the standard style guide references to grammer, punctuation etc.
  • The Yahoo! Style Guide also features some useful HTML code references. We’ve all seen pages that have random symbols that appear because text isn’t rendering correctly. It can be really confusing to read, particularly when the same content is shared across multiple channels.

We’ve also included a short video introduction for you below that we came across where Yahoo! Senior Editorial Director Chris Barr discusses the Yahoo! Style Guide.

Web Style Guide

In addition to the Yahoo! Style Guide, we also highly recommend checking out the Web Style Guide. This guide was written by Patrick J. Lynch who is the Director of Special Technology Projects from the well renowned Yale University’s Information Technology Services. The guide has some other handy tips for styling content specifically for the web. We also found the illustrations used to be particularly handy in demonstrating the principles.

Finally, it’s also an interesting exercise to see how other companies and brands structure their style guides. If you perform a search of “online style guide” there are many great examples from simple single page documents through to detailed guides.

If you’ve come across any other resources you would recommend for creating an online style guide, please share them with us below.

Digital Marketing Trends In Australia

We recently published an article on Inbound Marketing In Your Marketing Mix where we discussed the importance of customer engagement and the need to focus more attention on earning the interest of customers and not just relying on being able to buy it through traditional marketing. However, for many of us, digital marketing is still somewhat of an untamed beast. The good news out this week is we’re not alone.

Responsys got in touch with us and kindly shared their annual Big Australia Report which discusses and benchmarks the practices of digital marketing in Australia based on interviews they conducted with 125 digital marketers around Australia in July and August of this year. (more…)

Being Strategic And Creative With Your Communications – Event

At Marketing.com.au we’re always looking for great marketing events around Australia and you can find them on the conferences and events page. We also encourage the community to share events. The upcoming Strategic Creative Communications seminars were shared by the IABC NSW Chapter and Leanne Joyce has kindly provided us with some further details about the seminars.

I first saw Steve Crescenzo present in San Francisco a few years ago, and I was inspired, entertained, and walked away with some great tips that I was able to apply in the workplace. To me, that’s one big difference between the “talk” and making it work and really improving your skills and confidence.

As a Head of the Communications function, I have always been mindful of the need to demonstrate the value of the group to the CEO, and to be on top of the game in developing the latest tools but linking strategies to organisation goals. This shows you know the business, and THAT’S what turns a CEO on.

So we at the NSW Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators decided that we’d bring Steve and Cindy Crescenzo to Australia for a seminar series. And as they hadn’t been down-under before, they jumped at the opportunity. We’re now having a series on Strategic Creative Communications in Sydney (4 October) and Canberra (5 October) before they head to New Zealand. And to provide a more intimate setting for senior practitioners, we’re having a half-day Masterclass on 3 October 2012 in Sydney. Details are here.

Steve and Cindy have loaded a video on YouTube [EDIT: Currently not available] explaining the eight reasons you should come along:

  1. Work needs to be of high-quality and be creative to get attention and cut through all the noise.
  2. Cindy will give some practical tips on how to do “’guerilla style” research without blowing the budget
  3. Be creative – but not for creativity’s sake. Tie creative content to organisational goals.
  4. Don’t do plans that gather dust. We learn how do to plans that are dynamic and realistic, with a good dose of creativity.
  5. Social media – it’s changed the rules for both internal and external communications but how does it integrate with your plan?
  6. Lots of case studies that demonstrate how to put ideas into practice.
  7. Do less. Do better and don’t over-communicate. A set of tools, research and measures to really make a difference.
  8. Enjoy learning in an informal setting – and we’ll make sure there’s time for laughs and one-one chats throughout.

We’re confident that the seminars will be fun as well as insightful and remind us that its possible to be creative AND deliver wins for your organisation.


Lacking Style? Top 5 Tips for Writing a Style Guide

With such a variety of style guides out there it can be quite overwhelming trying to work out how to write one.

Essentially, a style guide (or brand manual) should be tailor made to suit the individual, company or brand. It is designed to help protect the consistency of your image. If it does that, then you can’t go wrong.

Style guides are commonly used in the world of media, public relations and publishing. A style guide contains a set of guidelines that should be referenced when writing any communications. A style guide ensures that the communications from a company are always consistent and professional, even when there are multiple authors.

A style guide is also a great time saver for a new starter, they can quickly get a feel for the general style requirements without having to ask a hundred questions.

Some of the common elements we have found referenced in style guides include (but are not limited to):

  • Titles and terms – e.g how the company name should be referenced, title of the Managing Director etc.
  • Trademarks
  • Symbols or special characters
  • Abbreviations
  • Logo and colour palette references – e.g minimum size for logo, colour options, background options etc. Also, where to find the accompanying files in various formats and resolutions.
  • Format – e.g use of fonts and styles etc.
  • Indentations
  • Sentence lengths
  • Language, tone and voice preferences – e.g plain english, slang, formal, casual, present, past, third person etc.
  • Spelling – e.g American or English spelling etc.
  • Punctuation – e.g use of commas, semi-colons, parentheses, question marks, exclamation marks, hypens etc.
  • Headings – e.g use of capitalisation or not, format, sub headings etc.
  • Bullet formats and lists
  • Page numbers – e.g will you display them at top, bottom, left, right or centred etc.
  • Time, date, number, speed, percentages, scores and currency format preferences
  • Quotations – e.g how they should appear and be referenced etc.
  • URL formats

Top 5 tips

We browsed through many different style guides and guides on ‘how to’ write them and these are our top five key take outs:

1. Keep it simple – Don’t get bogged down in arduous detail. No one is going to read it. Ideally a style guide should be less than 5 pages in length (unless your a large multi-national corporation obviously). Remember the document should be a reference. At the very minimum include the components that are most likely going to impact on consistency, such as your logo. If you don’t provide your logo in an easy accessible manner (ideally in multiple formats), people will just grab whatever they can from your website or a search engine.

2. Include a table of contents – This will help make the document more user friendly. You may think that everyone will read your document thoroughly but you’ll be lucky if people get past the first page.

3. Consistency is key – Settle those common usage rules right from the get go. For example, will you be using ‘I’, ‘We’ ,’He’, ‘She’, ‘They’, ‘The company’ etc. It doesn’t really matter what you use just make a decision and stick with it. It’s also great to provide concise examples e.g:

  • Correct – 18 June 2012
  • Incorrect – 18th of June 2012

4. Collaborate and allow for feedback – Why not send a draft of your style guide around to a couple of the other content writers to get feedback before you release the document. That way you can double check you haven’t missed anything and also ensure others feel comfortable using it.

5. Make it an active reference – Don’t just send out an email with an attachment and expect it to be implemented. Make your style guide an active and living document. Hold interactive training sessions to roll out the style guide so you can discuss it, take feedback and emphasise its importance. Also publish a copy online or on your local Intranet so that it can be easily referenced at all times.

If you want some further references on writing a style guide, check out the list of resources on Wikipedia.

If you have any tips or experiences you’d like to share about writing style guides, we’d love to hear from you on the comments below.