PR/corporate communications deserve better marketing. Here’s a start.

I have spent more time handling corporate communications and public relations than any other function (related to social media, digital marketing, and advertising) in my 2 decades+ career in the communications space.

When I first joined a PR firm after spending considerable time in client-side corporate communications (an otherwise unusual move in this space since the movement is usually from the agency to the client-side), I had to explain what PR entails, to my parents. But no matter how I explained it (within the limited understanding and articulation I could muster back then), they just did not get it. They still do not, but that’s more out of not wanting to know it than anything about comprehension 🙂

But looking beyond my parents, how does PR get defined generally?

On one extreme, it gets equated with spin. This implies a derogatory/negative perspective about the PR function as a form of propaganda that intentionally provides a biased interpretation of something to influence public opinion.

The other, often-used definition is around ‘knowing the media’, as in, being connected to key media professionals in a way that they can influence them to either consider listening to their clients and/or publish/air/broadcast something about them too.

Yet another common understanding is that of teams/people managing events since they bring a brand or an organization in touch with the public of public relations.

A more recent definition is surrounding social media platforms – an intermediary that handles what a company communicates to the public via the company’s own social media channels.

There is no doubt that the PR (and the corporate communications) function is primarily about connecting an organization/company (or person, as in celebrity) to the public, but let that not define PR as a whole.

That would be akin to defining advertising as being just about creativity alone. It surely is not. There are tons of functions within advertising that are not about creativity alone. Client servicing, for example. Or the support functions, including HR and finance, that are common to many other businesses that are not about HR and finance but do need them.

If you are an outsider with no context to the PR world, recognizing the profession only as a connector between an organization and the public is rather limiting. That’s just one of the functions within PR, and not the only one.

And this is where I’d like to introduce the fact that PR involves a LOT of creativity too. As much as advertising. No, really. It’s just that the kind of creativity used in PR is vastly different from the kind used in advertising. And there is a solid reason for this.

But before I explain that part, let me also add that there is most definitely an opportunity for advertising-style creativity in PR too. I have written about this a few times earlier:

Creativity in Public Relations: Part 1
Creativity in Public Relations: Part 2
Using advertising-style creativity to effect policy change
Elephant conservation, via PR and advertising

Now, let me come to the crux of this post: the primary definition of PR should be built around framing.

The direct equivalent, for ease of understanding, is that of the advertisement we see on TV or in print, made by an ad agency. What did the agency do? They heard the client’s requirements, understood the industry context, and came up with a narrative that frames the client’s product or service within the constructs of what they want as the outcome.

We call this story-telling because the format it is delivered in is a story (a TV ad that tells that story, for instance).

PR is story-telling too, but with a crucial difference: the audience it communicates to.

Advertising talks directly to end audiences.
PR talks to intermediaries that reach end audiences.
And therein lies the difference.

Advertising needs to influence and convince end audiences.
PR needs to influence and convince influential intermediaries who reach end audiences through the media channels they work for.

People do not/cannot directly question advertising. They can carry an opinion about ads, sure, but advertising is not a 2-way communication. It’s primarily a broadcast (being muddled because of social media, of course).

But the media intermediaries that PR talks to can/and do question quite rigorously before they can be convinced about a client that the PR person is representing. From that perspective, PR is fairly evolved because it starts with the premise that its primary effort is to influence and convince a discerning sub-audience: media professionals who (are supposed to) adhere to media ethics in reporting. And when they write about the client, the end audiences witness the result of the PR process and this is akin to advertising output – ads appear on TV, PR results appear in print, or on news channels, for example.

So where does ‘framing’ come into the picture?

Think about it: how can a PR/corporate communications professional influence or convince a discerning media professional? They need to convey an interesting, compelling, and credible narrative about their client.

Why interesting? Simple communications 101: the journalist is busy with tons of work and news. If a PR person’s pitch is not interesting, it wouldn’t be heard. This is similar to ads needing to be interesting to be watched. Basic stuff, this.

Why compelling? Because a journalist needs to find the pitch worth pursuing, ask more questions, and find it worth reporting eventually. This is similar to ads having a call-to-action that compels us to walk into a store or buy a product.

Why credible? Because a journalist would cross-question the PR professional, and eventually the company spokesperson, to make sure that the narrative adds up and makes sense. Ads are no different either; people see ads and try to find from multiple sources if the claims are credible or not.

The parallels just write themselves 🙂

But, to be interesting, compelling, and credible, the PR person first needs to understand the client’s requirements, outcome, industry context, and craft a narrative. This is the heart of PR.

This narrative building could be as simple as writing a one-page note that quite literally imagines what the outcome would be, for instance, in the form of a news report the next day. Then, it’s a question of working towards making that happen – perhaps not 100% of that note exactly, but at least 50% because a journalist would add her own perspectives to it too, as a (supposedly) unbiased third party.

Now, with this background, imagine looking at The Economic Times on any given day.

The people who do not know PR’s functioning (or couldn’t care) just see it as a newspaper with the news.

But I see it very differently. I’m able to imagine the lines that would have been conceived/written by a PR/corporate communications professional.

Here’s a sample, from yesterday’s Economic Times, for instance.

This is the easiest to recognize. “Strong momentum” was coined by a PR/corporate communications professional and it made it to the news since it adds contextual sense. Deepa’s quote would most probably be co-written by her and a PR professional. This news would have emanated from either an interview or a press release.

This is easy too. Wherever a news says, “… company said”, the quote is the work of a PR/corporate communications person(s). Ditto for ‘said in a statement’. Who wrote that statement? Oh yeah, a PR person. The chairman’s quote? It was approved and perhaps edited by N Chandrasekaran, no doubt, but it was written by the PR person. This news may have been from a press release.

This news would have been a press release that was based on data by JLL, and perhaps followed by a call/meeting between ET’s Kailash and JLL’s Chandranath. Much of the data-related statements would be part of the media release, like the quote by the spokesperson. All these were most likely created by a PR professional at JLL’s PR agency.

This is most probably a press release and/or a follow-up call between ET’s Gaurav and PVR’s Renaud.

This is most probably an interaction between ET’s Ketan and Satish, with TVS’s Sudarshan Venu. What Sudarshan says all through the news piece, mentioned in quotes, started life as a note drafted by TVS’s PR agency with inputs from the corporate communications person. This is called ‘speaker notes’ in PR parlance that Sudarshan would need to deliver impromptu by adding his own style and articulation.

This is what we call, in PR parlance, an ‘industry story’. ET’s Prachi would have a broad story idea in mind and would reach out to her contacts within the PR firms handling ITC, Flipkart, and Wipro, among others mentioned (or the corporate communications people in these companies). In turn, the PR agencies seek specific question from her, answer those questions themselves first as a draft version and send it to the corporate communications team in these organizations. They edit the responses, get approval from the leaders involved, and send them back to the agency that sends them to Prachi. So, imagine where many of the sentences that you see started!

This is an example of the PR team not being involved in the final output you see! Notice the ‘mails sent to XYZ did not elicit any response till press time’? That implies that a PR/corporate communications person/team was involved but they chose not to join the story by adding their perspective.

If you go by this line of thought, it may not be an exaggeration to say that about 20-40% of what you see in the form of sentences, in a newspaper on any given day, was conceived by a PR/corporate communications professional! This (the way I have framed it here!) is a significant selling point for the PR/communications function but it is hardly ever pitched like this.

This line of thought was also the premise for one of my recent posts on LinkedIn around a very quotable quote from Lenskart’s founder Peyush Bansal in Business Today.

Lenskart did clarify in a comment that the framing of Lenskart wanting to be the ‘Maruti of Indian eyewear’ was thought of by Peyush himself.

But it’s not improbable to imagine corporate communications or PR professionals thinking up such catchy framing to explain their organizations/clients best in order to,
(a) attract the attention of the journalist involved
(b) give those lines a stronger chance of being used as-is

But not all/many leaders/spokespersons are as articulate as Peyush. There are many who just want to focus on their work and not be bothered with PR (one such leader, who was not particularly interested in PR—this showed in the way they handled media queries—confessed to me, during my PR days that all they want is to focus on the dhandha and not PR!). I have heard from quite a few leaders that they are petrified to write something/anything, even emails. It’s not that they cannot, but they do not necessarily think that this is an important thing for them to learn/master.

This is where the PR/corporate communications professional plays a significant role. They are supposed to craft the narrative from the ground up, write smart, compelling lines that explain the client’s perspective in order to attract media professionals and use the leaders as the delivery channels.

Incidentally, this was my favorite part of my time in both corporate communications (client-side) and PR (agency-side). I do/did not enjoy the media connection part and I do not believe that was my forte either. There are people who are naturally good at making connections, nurturing them, and keeping those connections warm. I was always more interested in the narrative building part: what is the client’s requirement, what should they communicate, and most importantly, how should they communicate? What words should they use, and how should they frame the story to make it compelling?

And then, there is the joy of seeing some of these sentences that I crafted making it to print or TV the next day even if nobody knows that I conceived/wrote them!

That’s the irony, though.

In advertising, even as they convey fictional stories to frame a client’s products or services, they openly claim credit when the campaign goes live.

But in PR, even as you use credible truth and facts, presented (framing) interestingly, the individuals behind it cannot claim credit for them. The credit goes to the delivery channels – company spokespersons or company name! To be fair, the company spokesperson plays an important part too delivering the lines that were co-written with the PR team, while in advertising, the agency plays a more independent role. But then, another crucial element of the PR function comes to the fore here: media training! And I can attest to the importance of media training having conducted this training myself for quite a few business leaders in my PR agency and corporate communication stints.

So consider seeing a newspaper with different eyes, the next time 🙂 A LOT goes behind the scenes and much of that involves a PR/corporate communications professional.

Cover pic courtesy: Bonus.ly.

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