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PR Isn’t What You Think

Mention “public relations” and people’s minds immediately turn to a “spin doctor,” slickly manipulating the media to hide something terrible or promoting another pointless consumer product that no one needs.

That’s never been what public relations is, of course, but that impression continues to remain ingrained in the public consciousness, even as the idea of PR has rapidly evolved with the rise of digital communications, particularly social media.

The media were certainly gatekeepers of information – before social media, you needed to convince a reporter or editor that your story was interesting and relevant in order to reach a large audience (if you weren’t reaching them through advertising). But now people are tuning out from media – how many people read a daily newspaper anymore, in dead tree format or online? It’s a surprisingly small number and getting smaller as people find information in other ways – namely places like Facebook and Twitter and sites like Reddit.

Are people getting good information in these other places? Absolutely not. Think about what kind of content spreads online – the media today is obsessed with “news” that drives clicks, not news that is important to participate in the public sphere. When was the last time a friend of yours shared an Economist article on Facebook? I thought so.

That leads us to the question: what is PR in 2020?

It’s rarely focused solely on media relations. Sure, press releases and pitches get pumped out every day (and used consistently by the diminishing pool of time-starved reporters) but there are better ways of raising your profile to help your business or not-for-profit than hoping a reporter covers your story and doesn’t twist it into something unflattering.

Media were once powerful gatekeepers – but not anymore. Now you can connect directly with your audience using social media and other channels like your blog, a Medium or Substack post, an email newsletter, an ebook and much more. The gates are wide open.

Now the challenge is saying something that will earn attention.

Good PR helps you engage directly with your audience rather than going through an intermediary. The boundaries separating PR from marketing and social media professionals are blurred to the point of being non-existent. They key is understanding how to create content that resonates, regardless of your job title.

One important way that PR people capture attention is through “Thought Leadership.” Yes, it’s one of those annoying business buzzwords, but thought leadership is vital to differentiating your firm, your executive team or your products from the competition.

How do you showcase thought leadership? The first step is actually being a leader. You can’t BS this for long – people are tired of getting jerked around by wildly aspirational marketing bravado. To be sustainable, a thought leadership program must be grounded in truth.

What does a thought leadership program look like? There is not one single answer. Some businesses spend a lot of time on social media while others focus on producing blog posts, podcasts, videos, infographics and so forth. Some spend their energy on speaking opportunities and contributed articles.

They key to it all – and this is important – is that it adds value.

Thought leadership isn’t marketing blah, blah, blah – it’s a useful investment of time for your audience. That’s what forges the connection. No one is going to voluntarily read brochure copy. They need to learn from the encounter.

Good thought leadership programs take time to build. No single blog post or video – no matter how incisive – will directly shape your brand. But building that brand through thought leadership efforts is more sustainable and less expensive than paid media.

That’s 21st century PR.

Allan Gates

Allan Gates is a partner with Bonfire.