Public relations (PR) for businesses: the basics

What is PR and why is it important?

  • Public relations (PR) means getting your business known about by the public and/or the press in the way you want, by managing your business' image and the information you give out about it.
  • It also includes reputation management - how to deal positively with a crisis and handle any negative PR or coverage.
  • There are loads of different ways to do PR - see below for examples.
  • PR differs from advertising because your audience usually receives the message you send out about your business through a third party - such as a magazine you've sent a press release writing an article hat includes a positive mention of your latest product.
  • Because of this, you can often build more credibility for your brand through PR, as it's no so direct a sell for your business as advertising is.
  • This is essential as customers are more likely to trust a third party than they are you when you try to promote yourself.
  • PR is crucial for engaging, informing and building a relationship with target customers, and also with your staff, suppliers and other companies you do business with.
  • It's very much tied in with your brand, as you want to be sending out positive messages that are in line with our brand at al times.
  • As well as being aligned with your brand values, good PR tailors information given out about a business to perfectly appeal to that business' target customers. It uses the language, messages and ideas that they respond most positively to.

How to do PR as a small business

  • Because of the need to for PR to be in tune with your brand and your target customers, it requires careful planning and research, as well as very close management. One damaging article in the press can have greater effect than ten positive ones.
  • You can either do your own PR in-house or employ a PR or communications agency to do it for you.
  • Read more about whether an agency would be best for you in our guide on how to use a PR agency.
  • Read more about doing PR yourself in our guide how to get your business into the press.
  • You may want to use an agency just when you want to generate most publicity - for your launch or for a heavily-invested-in new product range, for example - and manage things yourself for the rest of the time. This is usually a cheaper option.
  • If you're running a business that's going to need more or less ongoing PR and publicity for as long as you can foresee, it may be well worth bringing in an employee specifically to handle PR.
    • In the long run, this will probably work out to be cheaper than using an agency full-time for a long period of time.
    • Someone working in-house will also be fully associated with all aspects of your business and brand so will ensure messages going out to the public are always consistent, on-brand and highlighting the best details of whatever it is you're telling the public about.
    • They are also likely to be much more dedicated to any PR campaigns you do and to convey passion for your business much better than a PR agency handling lots of different companies and not as familiar with your business.

What are the different types of PR?

  • The list of ways to get publicity is more or less endless - new ideas emerge every day. But the options below are the most common and effective, and the ones you or a PR agency are most likely to use.
  • Sending out press releases:
    • Emailing or posting journalists a few paragraphs on something to do with your business in the hope that they will write about it.
    • Read more about how to get it right (because it's not as easy as it sounds) in our guide on *how to get your business into the press.*
    • By far the most common way to get press attention.
    • Also virtually free - although time-consuming and takes care to get right.
  • Publicity stunts:
    • Anything from dressing up and handing out samples on a high street to a carefully orchestrated campaign costing tens of thousands of pounds.
    • Read more in our guide on how to get your business into the press.
    • Takes ingenuity and often guts too, but can often get more publicity than conventional means.
    • Cost depends entirely on what you to spend, which is a large bonus.
    • Should be accompanied by press releases so you have the best chance of local papers giving you coverage for anything you do.
  • Incentivising word of mouth:
    • Get existing customers to spread the word about your business by incentivising them with discounts for referrals or similar schemes.
    • Read more in our guide on how to get your business into the press.
    • Requires high quality and good service to work effectively, but a cost-efficient way of spreading a positive public image.
  • Charity work:
    • Being seen to be helping out the community will always work in your favour, and is an old-time trick for celebrities trying to up their public credentials.
    • You're unlikely to get press coverage unless you either make a very large donation or host a particularly big event, but word of your do-gooding will spread gradually and earn you local favour.
    • You can also use the charitable work you're doing on marketing material (e.g. by including a logo of the charity you're supporting and saying you're supporting them, ideally by stating a percentage of profit being donated).
    • This can be quite a slow-moving way to get publicity and is better for long-term PR campaigns, with the intention of gradually building a positive reputation in your local community.
  • Social media:
    • Using online networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can be a good way to spread your reputation online and give your business a human face, using personal accounts of either yourself or employees.
    • It's also completely free.
    • However, it will only work if your target market uses the sites, and if you have time to maintain your profiles online daily.
    • Read more in our guides on social media.
  • Sponsorship:
    • Sponsoring events or awards either within your industry, in your community or even nationally gets your name out there and builds a reputation that you're supportive of others.
    • It also gives an impression of being established.
    • However, it's usually pretty pricey - think thousands to tens to thousands of pounds. (Local prizes may be cheaper but may not receive any press coverage.)
    • There is also no guarantee that simply having your name printed on the brochure will drive people to your business or give them any idea f what it does.
    • Usually best for fairly well established companies rather than those in their first couple of years, and at least best left until you definitely have enough cash to invest in them.
  • Networking and being seen to be seen:
    • You are, at all times, a representative for your business. Being seen at the right parties ad networking with people is a immediate, ongoing and free chance to publicise your business and generate interest in it.
    • You don't want to bore people though - practise describing your business in no more tan 30 seconds in an engaging way that gets both your passion and the nub of the idea across.
    • But don't overdo it - gauge the other person's interest and don't bang on about it unless they seem interested.
    • Make sure you have plenty of other things to talk about so you come across as a well-rounded, interesting person rather than someone constantly trying to sell their business - keep up-to-date with industry news and current affairs.
  • Being shortlisted for and winning awards:
    • Fantastic PR on all accounts, but not easy to do, and remember award ceremonies often cost a few hundred pounds to attend.
    • Find out about all the ins and outs of awards, what judges are looking for and whether it's worth your while entering in our feature on how to win awards as a small business.
  • Spin:
    • The favourite of politicians and mega-companies alike, spin is essentially turning a potentially reputation-damaging piece of news into something more positive.
    • It's quite an art, but hopefully you won't be dealing with this too often.
    • If you do hit a crisis, a good PR company with experience of reputation management in similar circumstances is a good first port of call if your bad news is likely to attract press attention.
    • Otherwise, exceptional customer service, full apologies and compensation for anyone you've upset will hopefully be enough to pull you through.
  • Public speaking or giving 'expert opinions' to publications:
    • If you position yourself as an expert and feel confident enough to give engaging talks at industry events, you up your business' reputation by extension.
    • Completely free and great networking potential.
    • But many people find it difficult to give a great talk, and you're unlikely to be asked to either talk or give commentary unless you're already some way to being fairly established.
    • Making yourself known to journalists in your sector is a good alternative. Let them know they can call you up for comment whenever needed for an article.


When should I consider using a PR agency?
As a general rule of thumb, if your PR budget is more than £10,000. But that I a very general rule of thumb, and you'll most likely be able to tell intuitively whether or not you business is in need.

That said, using a PR company to help you launch your business is invaluable, as getting press coverage is a great way to drive people to your business and you'll be in heavy need of that.

At other times a PR company can help with big events, launches of new products, and at any other time when you want to absolutely certain you're going to get some media coverage.

Jargon buster

On-brand / on-message: in line with the message you want to give out about your business - in line with your brand and its aims.

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