By Sierra Oshrin

When I first decided to leave the news industry, my mind was flooded with questions as to what I would do next. I had always heard public relations was a relatively smooth transition, and many reporters I knew crossed over to the dark side and began careers in PR. But what exactly is public relations? Up until this point, I primarily thought of public relations as media relations. Boy was I wrong.

Robert Wynne, a contributor for Forbes, put it best when he wrote, “the public relations industry does a terrible job of public relations.” I honestly couldn’t agree more. To this day, when I’m out at networking events or meeting friends for coffee, many ask me that same question. And to be honest, it took me a while to learn how to best explain it. Some think of it as a sub-set of marketing. But while marketing and public relations can work hand in hand, there are several things that set them apart.

One of the key differences between marketing advertisements and public relations boils down to credibility. An advertisement displays a flashy image or statement aimed at leaving an impression with the consumer, with the ultimate goal of driving traffic to the company’s website or store front. But it’s paid for, and most consumers are going to be skeptical of whether or not the product does what the ad says it is going to do. Now that they’ve heard of the product, they’ll ask their friends, look at reviews online, and see if there’s any negative media attention surrounding the company. Their final decision will ultimately be influenced by the company’s public perception.

Public Relations is about altering that perception and building good will among your industry, customers, and investors. There are many ways you can do this, but the most traditional method is by securing media coverage. If a company spokesperson is interviewed during the news segment, they have the opportunity to control the message being broadcast. Companies essentially get a 30 second to 3 minute promotion of their product without having to pay a penny. And it adds credibility because journalists will offer a (mostly) objective view on it, asking the questions that consumers want answered.

In addition to media relations, here are 3 things I now think of when describing public relations.

  • The cornerstone of public relations is engaging with the public. Community involvement is important because not only does it bring new awareness to your company, but it gives people an inside look at your company’s values and culture. Organizations who closely match the things that matter most to your company will allow you to tap into your target audience and interact with them first-hand.
  • Being a recognized expert and leader within your industry is a powerful way to position your company as the first choice for new customers. The key to accomplishing this is by giving members of your leadership team opportunities to share your company’s expertise, philosophy, and successes with the right audience. You can do this through speaking opportunities at trade shows, or by piggy-backing off of news stories that pertain to your industry; telling the reporter what could have gone wrong or explaining how something went right.
  • Awards also provide your company powerful credibility. Companies that win awards or become finalists for them are seen as superior to those who don’t. With nominations and awards credited to your company’s name, you’ll be able to stand out in your industry as a leader. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, and the easiest way to lose an award is by failing to apply. But it can be a lengthy process.

Public Relations is built upon the idea of controlling your story. Find the right firm that can manage your company’s reputation and image in a positive way that will be able to withstand any threat.  Maybe that firm is the one where I work, maybe it isn’t.  It doesn’t make the need to influence and share your own story any less important.