What’s the point of public relations?

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

I still recall the start of a training course I’d been sent on when new to public relations. It was at the PRCA, a long time ago.

As people introduced themselves around the room, a strange dialogue took place.

‘What area of public relations are you involved in?’ I was asked by one of the trainers.

‘Media relations.’

‘For sales support?’

Not understanding her question, but pretty certain I wasn’t involved in sales, I repeated my answer to the first question: ‘media relations’.

‘Yes, but is this for sales support?’

‘No, media relations for technology companies.’

Luckily, the trainer decided not to pursue this nonsense answer and the discussion moved on.

My confusion was glaringly obvious. But I’m not alone, otherwise why would the head of government comms, Alex Aiken, have to keep on challenging the tendency of those in public relations and comms roles to keep on ‘sending out stuff’ (SOS).

It’s a conversation I often have with students, fresh back from their year’s placement at a large organisation. They’ve often been given press office tasks, but are unable to tell me whether press office functions are growing or declining in importance in the world of digital and social media. Nor are they clear what the purpose of media relations is – whether to develop relationships with journalists, or to gain positive publicity, or to reduce the risk of negative headlines, or to help journalists do their job.

Nor is it confined to media relations. Internal communicators can be very focused on channels and messages, and sometimes unable to tell me what the end purpose is to this activity.

Yet press offices, external consultancies and internal comms teams are a cost to an organisation. There are the salaries, the media production costs and the cost of hosting events (whether for employees or for journalists or the public).

These costs have to be justified, and someone has to be able to provide some way of calculating a return on investment (ROI). It’s management 101.

The start point for answering these questions is to ask yourself what success looks like.

I once overheard a colleague repeatedly phoning a journalist to complain that the expected coverage had not appeared in print. Since the journalist worked for the Financial Times, I remember wincing at an approach that I thought could have irrevocably damaged a relationship with a major player in the media.

Yes, we hope for positive publicity as a result of our public relations activity – but is this the end point? Why do we even need to be in the press?

Isn’t the relationship with the journalist more important and more enduring than that day’s news coverage?

If so, why are we pursuing the relationship: what do we hope to gain from it? What’s the value in it?

I know there are lots of questions here – and I know that some of them may be hard to answer, particularly when you’re on a lower pay grade.

But you can’t duck these questions. As I found, you might be asked to explain yourself – and justify the public relations or communication function – at any moment.

My advice is to focus not just on what you do, but why you do it.

The answers to ‘what we do’ have a short-term focus while the answers to ‘why we do it’ suggest a long-term orientation.

I’m grateful to my long-ago trainer for providing a prod in this direction.

Good educators aren’t there to give you all the answers. They’re there to ask you the right questions.