What is PR? – A Beginner’s Guide

People are often confused by the term PR. How is PR different from advertising, what can you expect from a good PR agency or freelancer, and what is unreasonable/impossible?  This is a beginner’s guide for all those questions that you were too embarrassed to ask.


A PR’s job is to manage your reputation and build awareness for your brand. A big part of that is getting someone your audience trusts (i.e.  the media they read) to talk about you in a positive way. They do this by engaging online and print journalists that are read by your target audience.  However, reputation management is not restricted to achieving this type of editorial, we might also look at social media, partnerships, awards etc. that would give you enhanced credibility. Where appropriate, we partner with digital experts for things such as SEO, which might impact on reputation.

Is your story strong enough?

To achieve editorial coverage the PR has to present journalists with a ‘story’ that their readers will be interested in.  However, journalists are bombarded by PRs every day trying to pitch them stories. Only the very strongest will secure their interest.  One national journalist confessed to me that he had 30k unopened e-mails. Most also leave their phones on voicemail.  An important part of a PR’s expertise is having a good understanding of what a journalist will be interested in and what they will ignore. This will of course vary hugely from publication to publication. However, the following are the most common non-stories that PRs are asked to pitch by clients unfamiliar with PR:

  • New website, logo or app.  You and your team might be really excited, it’s a big day for you, we get it, but unless you’re a household name company, then no-one else is interested (and even if you are, you will still struggle).
  • New features on a product or service. Unless you’re a household name, or it is truly unique or disruptive to the marketplace, there is unlikely to be interest.
  • Winning an award, except for the media partner. There are thousands of awards. The media partner will obviously cover the story, but you have very little chance of getting coverage elsewhere. There are very few exceptions (such as the Oscars).  However winning awards can be used as part of your story and to give you credibility, but a win is not strong enough to base a story on.

A good test, to see if your story has legs, is to look at your target publications and check if they cover similar stories? Would you read an article about another company doing the same thing?  Is it exciting enough to tell your family? Is the story unusual or can thousands of people/companies say the same thing? Editors are looking for relevant, topical and unique stories that impact on their readers.

Creating your story

Most companies don’t have ‘news’ that is strong enough to drive their PR. PRs will instead work hard to create it.  You can expect your PR to ask you for the following in support of this:

  • Unique data, specifically statistics that have not been seen in the public domain before and would be of interest to your audience. If you don’t have any, your PR may suggest running a survey for you.
  • Your topical expert opinion on relevant issues.  PRs will often suggest that their clients work on achieving thought leader status so that journalists know to use them when they’re writing relevant stories. 
  • Strong images – In consumer goods PR they’re vital, but even in B2B PR, high quality photos are important.
  • Impact information – How does your product or service impact on people?  What difference does it make to their lives? This is not a list of the product’s features.
  • Company stats – If you’re asking a journalist to write about you, you should be prepared for the journalist to ask about your business.  If there are sensitivities, then the PR needs to know about them so that they can avoid some messaging and journalists.
  • Your human back story – PRs will interview the founder to find the human-interest nuggets that will interest editors.
  • Independent endorsers – Do you have experts who will go on record in support your claims?  This adds credibility.

PRs may also suggest stunts, particularly in consumer PR.  However, the public are now very cynical, so care has to be taken not to antagonise your target audience or stakeholders. 

PRs need to consider all the above, so preparing for your first press release takes time and effort.  If you want PR to succeed you should expect them to spend the first month, at least, planning your campaign before a press release can be issued. There are some exceptions to this (e.g. when your company is the focus of something very topical and newsworthy).

Is PR right for you?

PR is not for you if want:

  1. Complete control of your messaging and/or to ensure it is ‘on-brand’.  The editor controls the messaging and branding in their publication.
  2. Pre-approval of the article and/or anyone else who is interviewed for it (some publications may allow this, most won’t).
  3. To decide which images go with an article.
  4. A guarantee (from your PR) that your article will appear in a specific publication. That’s the editor’s decision and will be affected by issues outside your PR’s control (e.g. other events).
  5. A guarantee that nothing negative will be said about you.  The journalist may go digging, that’s what they’re paid to do and the risk you have to take with PR. 

To achieve coverage, you have to deliver the needs of editors in this very competitive marketplace (they have hundreds of other stories to choose from). Editors are looking for stories that are interesting and relevant to their readers, that they will then publish in their house style.  It is their brand that readers expect to see, not yours.  PRs will therefore work to match your content, style and language to each publication, so that editors and journalists can quickly see that you’re relevant to them.  If the publication is obsessed with celebrities, for example (which even national papers now are), you will have a better chance of getting coverage if you frame your message by using a celebrity angle (even if you think celebrity obsession is crass).  If you want regional media to write about your product then you have to frame it in the relevant regional context.  If you’re not prepared to deliver the needs of the publications you want to be featured in, then PR is not right for you. You should instead look at advertising.

What are the benefits of PR over advertising?

Now you realise how tough it is why bother?  The main advantages of PR are that it is:

  • More powerful than advertising as your message is conveyed by a third party.  Who would you trust more – me saying how great I am, or someone you respect saying how great I am?
  • Cheaper than advertising.  A respected publication with a large readership can charge around £20k for one article. 
  • Much more likely to be read than advertising. Do you read a paper for the articles or for the advertising?

PR has some clear benefits, but also some challenges.  At its core is a trade-off between your needs and the needs of editors.  PRs will work hard to ensure that both sides benefit, but it is not controlled like advertising is.  If you understand that and work with your PR, it can be powerful and very cost effective. 

Get in touch if you want further guidance on whether PR is right for you. (anne@onyxcomms.com).