Why is Public Relations Important?
In 2013, Virgin CEO Richard Branson said, ‘Publicity is absolutely critical … A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front-page ad.’
It was true then and is just as true today. But why is public relations important? And why is it crucial for businesses?
Let’s start with a definition.
What is public relations?
Most people have heard of public relations, or PR, but find it hard to pin down exactly what it is.
In 2012, The Public Relations Society of America asked thousands of industry experts for their definition of PR. They settled on this:
‘Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.’
This is a good start, but we can go simpler. In one word, public relations is about image. More specifically, it’s about cultivating and spreading the image you want people to have of you.
Now you know what it is, let’s look at why public relations matters.
Why public relations matters
Compared to traditional advertising, public relations can seem like a lot of effort. But if you consider that PR is 90% more likely to influence customers than standard ads, according to a study by market research company Nielsen, you’ll see the value of putting the time in.
In fact, trust in advertising has hit rock-bottom, as this article by Campaign magazine shows. The mystique of ads means nothing to Millennials, and it’s only going to get worse. So investing in PR is futureproofing your organisation.
The benefits of PR don’t stop there. A strong PR strategy is a great way to sink bad press before it happens. And as bad user reviews or word-of-mouth can tank small and large businesses at any time, it pays to be proactive.
The real-world importance of public relations
Remember when the Samsung Galaxy phones burst into flames? Or when Volkswagen got into hot water with its emissions scandal? And what memories do ‘BP’ and ‘oil spill disaster’ bring up? Certainly not good ones.
Years after the fact, people remember these corporate catastrophes, and so do their wallets. Public relations can prevent your mistakes from becoming something people still distrust you for, years down the line.
When done well, of course, PR can achieve a lot more. Great PR makes companies into icons that people actively want to support.
Examples of why public relations is important
Time for the good stuff. Let’s look at some examples of memorable PR campaigns and the lessons you can take from them. We’ll also look at what happens when things go wrong to get another perspective on why public relations is important in any sustainable business strategy.
Greggs and the vegan sausage roll
First up is Greggs, with their quirky vegan sausage roll campaign from 2019. While their online video ads were amusing, what really got people talking was what happened on social media.
On Twitter, TV presenter and outrage merchant Piers Morgan called Greggs ‘PC-ravaged clowns ‘for releasing the vegan product that ‘nobody was waiting for’.
While the standard playbook would be to ignore him, Greggs responded with a tweet saying: ‘Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you.’
The humorous rebuke was met with praise from appreciative Twitter users, who said they planned to buy a vegan sausage roll just to spite Morgan. One user said, ‘Hello Greggs; I have never eaten anything made by you, and I am not a vegan. But you have p—-d off Piers Morgan, so I shall make sure I buy one of your vegan sausage rolls just because of that.’
The praise wasn’t confined to the internet. Greggs saw a surge in sales and executive Roger Whiteside thanked Morgan, saying their success was ‘all down to him’.
If only it was always that easy!
What does Greggs’ campaign tell us about the importance of public relations:
- PR helps you engage directly with your fans
- It can convert neutral onlookers into fans
- And it helps you to respond to criticism and turn it to your advantage
Be sure to read our page about Vegan PR!
Nike and Colin Kaepernick
In 2018, the clothing brand Nike launched an ad campaign called ‘Dream Crazy’. Narrated by former American NFL footballer Colin Kaepernick, the ad told the stories of sports stars like Serena Williams and LeBron James, illustrating how they defied expectations to make seemingly impossible dreams a reality.
The ad came two years after Kaepernick chose not to stand for the national anthem during an NFL pre-season game, in protest of racial injustice.
As a result of bringing politics into sport, he was banned from playing professionally.
Most brands would avoid partnerships with a disgraced sports star, but in a risky move, Nike chose him as their front man.
There was also a billboard featuring a picture of Kaepernick with the slogan, ‘believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.’
Initially, there was uproar from fans, who posted videos of themselves burning Nike apparel as they disapproved of Kaepernick’s protests and saw Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick as anti-American.
The campaign sparked a national debate about the appropriateness of bringing politics into marketing.
But after the initial furore, opinions changed. The message behind the campaign was inspiring and emotive. The campaign wasn’t just a success: it was one of their most successful ever. Sales almost doubled from the previous year and they won an Emmy for the most ‘outstanding commercial’.
Controversy gets attention, but it’s a tough act to balance. Thankfully, it paid off for Nike. They showed they weren’t just talking a big game. To support the campaign, they earmarked forty million dollars for social justice causes. That’s serious cash, and it’s the perfect way to boost their image as an authentic, caring company.
So, what does Nike’s campaign tell us about the importance of public relations in an organisation?
Public relations links you to wider social trends
Taking a stand makes people believe in you, and consumers care about this more than ever. A study by American social media software brand Sprout Social found that ‘two-thirds of consumers (66%) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues, and more than half (58%) are open to this happening on social media – the top channel for consumer receptivity.’
Public relations trades risk for massive results
It’s easy to imagine a world where things didn’t go so well for Nike. People could have boycotted the brand, or seen the company as phony. But this kind of risk is exactly why public relations matters.
Nike knew they would be courting controversy by standing against police brutality. But good PR skills let them plan ahead, weigh the pros and cons and leverage the attention for their own benefit.
Of course, not everyone pulls off PR as well as Nike or Greggs. If you’re going to balance on that knife-edge, you’ve got to be careful not to fall off.
Studying PR blunders is just as informative as studying the success stories, so let’s look at a recent example.
It’s safe to say that Boeing, one of the world’s oldest aircraft companies, hasn’t been in the good books lately. Even before COVID-19 crippled the global air-travel industry, a deadly scandal in 2019 had already wreaked havoc on their reputation.
The nightmare began when a new aircraft model, the 737 MAX 8 jet, malfunctioned and crashed in the waters off Jakarta, killing hundreds of passengers. While tragic by itself, this was followed by another crash that killed another 200 people.
Boeing’s radio silence
Having a response ready for situations like this shows the importance of public relations in an organisation. It’s an opportunity to show you’re proactive and care about public safety. Boeing’s path was clear: apologise, investigate and take responsibility. Instead? Radio silence.
But it took Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg a full week from the second crash to issue a response. That’s not a lot of time in the business world, but it’s decades in the realm of public opinion. Their silence let people direct the narrative before they could.
In many ways, it was a textbook PR failure. Rather than reassuring the public that an investigation was underway, Boeing said nothing.
The result? Their reputation was in tatters. On a scale from 100 to -100, their reputation in January 2020 was a shocking -71. Most companies don’t survive hitting rock-bottom like that, and it’ll almost certainly take them years to recover.
The financial consequences? Disastrous. The company lost some $40 billion worth of stock from their 2019 peak. Some of that loss was unavoidable, but not all of it.
What Boeing did wrong
What Boeing did here, or didn’t do, has obvious lessons for us all. The massive hit to their finances and reputation are proof that the importance of public relations in an organisation can’t be overstated.
Muilenberg’s response should’ve been out within hours, not days. Also, Boeing waited for other countries like China and the EU to ground the remaining new planes, rather than doing it themselves.
These decisions made them seem at best indecisive, or at worst, in total denial of how bad the situation was. Ostriches and sand, anyone?
Smoothing over disasters like this is just one of the reasons why public relations matters. A strong, proactive response would’ve cushioned their reputation and saved them from the worst of the fallout.
When it comes to public relations should you choose in-house or outsource?
By now you should understand why public relations is important. Having a PR team or public relations consultant isn’t a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s essential for any serious business. So it pays to think carefully about who you choose.
One of the choices you need to make is whether you’re going to hire permanent staff and have them work in-house or outsource your PR to someone outside the company.
Naturally, both sides have their pros and cons:
An in-house PR consultant will have:
- A complete focus on you and your business
- Full understanding of how you work
- A vested interest in your success as you pay their wages
If you outsource your PR, you can expect:
- More varied experience across different companies/sectors
- Lower cost as you only hire when you have something to say
- More resources and connections
For small businesses, outsourcing makes sense. Even if you have a big launch, news won’t stay at that level after the initial excitement. Hiring a full-time employee right away means that most of the time, you’ll be paying them to sit around and do nothing. Charitable, but not economical!
So, let’s say you outsource. What then? How do you find someone who understands the importance of public relations, and has the skills to back it up? How do you find a ‘PR superstar’ for your company?
You may want to contact an agency. But be sure to choose one that’s the right size for you. Too big, and they might not give you much attention over other, larger clients. Too small, and they won’t have the reach or pull you’re after.
If agencies don’t suit you, consider hiring a freelancer. Independent PR consultants already know why public relations is important, because they have to constantly sell themselves to build good relations with clients.
Whatever path you take, a proper PR specialist could be the difference between your reputation going up in flames or hitting the front pages.
Why you need public relations
Bad PR can sink almost any company. Even Boeing, with a hundred-year prestige, had years of profits wiped out in a few weeks.
On the other hand, recognising the importance of public relations early on can boost your reputation and profits massively down the line. As consumers switch from traditional advertising, no savvy business of any size should ignore the importance of PR.
Whether it’s a snarky post going viral like Greggs, or an inspiring message of change like Nike, you’ll be able to build an identity for your brand that’s durable and authentic beyond traditional advertising.