Public relations is a startup business strategy…

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Public relations is a startup business strategy – not a publicity tool.

“I thought I was sitting down with a PR specialist – but you didn’t mention it once in the last two hours!”.

I had spent two hours with a journalist that writes for one of the three main newspapers in Canada – Rick Spence. He was there to see one of the innovations that is part of my business – PR Office Hours – where startup and small business entrepreneurs can sit down with me for 15, 30 or 60 minutes and get advice on how to use public relations to tackle a current business challenge for just $50. They can either book in advance via my website or drop in and hope there’s a spare slot. It’s a model I’ve borrowed from Apple with its Genius bar.

I had filled the afternoon with people that I had worked with before to ensure that the afternoon wasn’t wasted for the journalist if nobody turned up and because I didn’t want to publicize the fact that this particular session was being shadowed. None of the participants had been promised coverage as a result, and had agreed to be there to help me demonstrate how it works. You can read his account of our afternoon together here.

Clear definitions matter

But back to Rick’s observation that I’d not mentioned public relations once during our time together. I explained that, while I hadn’t used the words public relations everything I had talked about was absolutely public relations. It had focused on building and maintaining relationships in order to achieve a specific outcome. I rarely use the phrase PR because it muddied the water. PR is according to most of my peers a process of cold-calling journalists.  The truth is that most PR companies provide publicity and promotion services rather than public relations strategy and implementation. That’s not what I do.

Public relations is a business strategy, not a publicity tool

It’s the second time this topic had been raised in the last few days. A friend, Alan Kay, summed it up best when he said, “so what you’re saying is that public relations should be a business strategy NOT a department”. That’s exactly what I was saying. Building and maintaining relationships is an integral part of every business and not something that should be outsourced to a third party. Certainly not a third party whose main purpose is to pitch journalists in the hope of securing media coverage [think about it, do you consider direct email an attempt to build a relationship with you, or an irritant that usually guarantees you’ll never do business with the company sending it?]

Back to the three hours spent with my journalist shadow. Everything I do helps entrepreneurs build the relationships they need to achieve a specific outcome.  If none existed I helped them to start the process. Where relationships did exist I helped entrepreneurs strengthen them to the point that they were actionable.  A lack of actionable relationships is one of the most common reasons that marketing [the art of getting somebody to take a desired action] fails. Without strong relationships in place ‘marketing’ is effectively asking strangers to do something that benefits your. Often, the request is also without explaining clearly what the benefit is for them.

Public relations. Literally!

My peers contest that my definition of public relations – everything a business does to build and maintain relationships with the people that are most important to its success – is too literal; too old-fashioned; too specific.  My explanation of marketing – everything a company does to get people to take an action on your behalf… because they want to – is, I am often told, is plain wrong. I repeatedly have the discussion – usually with my supposed peers – that my assertion that publicity – the communication of information from an organization to as many people as possible – isn’t public relations.

But, think about it. When we need help in our personal lives – whether to lend us a few dollars for a transit fare because we’ve left our wallets at home, or as entrepreneurs when we need help overcoming a challenge in growing our business – our first call is to somebody we have a relationship with. Whether a friend, a parter, family member or mentor/advisor – we go to people that are the most likely to help us because we have a long-standing relationship with them. We don’t stand on the corner of the street with a megaphone imploring strangers to help us because we know it’s an inefficient way to solve a problem. The chances are slim and we have no way of knowing whether people have the capacity or desire to help.

And yet when it comes to our businesses we do the exact opposite.

Shout at as many people as possible

My industry is telling its customers that the best way to achieve a business outcome is to stand on the street corner with a megaphone shouting at everybody that passes.  Worse, my peers tell entrepreneurs they should pay a third-party to do the shouting for them.  They’re don’t possess the skills to do it themselves.

Building and maintaining key relationships

Public relations is about building and maintaining relationships with the people that matter most to your organization. As a founder or business owner, YOU need to own them. PR needs to be a business strategy that is part of the fabric of your business, not a bolt-on department. It’s not something an early-stage business wants to outsource.

What is public relations?

Public relations is a process of building strong, mutually beneficial, relationships with key stakeholders. Done right it helps early-stage and small businesses achieve commercially valuable outcomes.