Relaciones públicas

Public relations: the whole and the parts of communication

Picture of Silvia Albert

Talking about public relations in Spain is a bit complicated, especially if you do not belong to the world of communication; Although it is true that the economic development of our country since the 80s and 90s marked a change in perception, the term has almost always carried connotations that are not very positive and almost linked to environments that have little or nothing to do with our activity: parties, discotheques, alcohol… These are some of the nouns that have been used to define public relations throughout our history and that distance it from reality and its essence; Ignorance cannot be a justification for their incorrect placement within the fundamental tools of communication and therefore, we dare to weave a simple but, we hope, clear picture of what they really are; So what should we consider as public relations?

Understanding public relations

As its name suggests, it is the discipline that manages the relationships between organisations and their publics; There is often a tendency to use public relations and communication interchangeably, although they have many things in common, they differ in their basic subject matter: while public relations deals with relationships, communication emphasises information; Yes, I know, it is very subtle and often very difficult to separate because both work with and for both, but it is less so if we think of communication as the whole, and public relations as a part that complements communication;

How does public relations come into being?

Shortly after the First World War, in New York, a very young Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, decided to use psychoanalysis (and work with the unconscious, with emotions) to offer on a platter to the Washington Hill tobacco company, manufacturer of Lucky Strike cigarettes, the solution to their problem: half of the population did not smoke because they considered it inappropriate; That is, women do not smoke, especially not in public; Bernays’ intervention changed that perception and gave women a subtle tool with which to challenge male power; But how?

Bernays hired a group of women to light a cigarette at his signal during the Easter parade that year and to start smoking as a sign of defiance of the established order and to hold up a symbol (like statues of freedom) that might well represent their power, their strength; In addition, he arranged for all the press and photographers to be there, and under a slogan (claim) created especially for the occasion –Torches of freedom– sowed the seed of ‘cigar equals independence, equality, freedom’; The next day, newspapers in New York, across the country and around the world reported the event as a unique and revolutionary gesture for women’s freedom;

This campaign with Washington Hill was followed by others, such as the one for the meat industry and the changes in the eating habits of Americans who, from then on, began to include bacon and eggs in their breakfasts; or the one aimed at creating the need to lighten the cooking time of these breakfasts through ready-made products such as Kellogg’s cereals…

The concept of ‘selling’ begins to shift from the ‘need’ for a product to the ‘desire’ to own that product and in the process acquire the attributes that product bestows on its consumer; After the war and the Great Depression, money starts to flow, industries modernise and production increases; A new mentality was born and the consumer society as we know it today was born; Bernays had just become the father of public relations; In his book Crystallising public opinion (1923), Bernays laid the foundations for understanding and influencing public sentiment and this was used by businesses, politicians, tycoons, presidents and public figures of all kinds to change perceptions, gain reputation and improve image;

From citizen to consumer

Persuasion, propaganda, consent engineering… These are some of the terms with which public relations became identified; In fact, Bernays himself published a book entitled ‘Propaganda’ (1928) in which he promotes the power of communication to influence the masses, which, after the Second World War and the Third Reich’s use of propaganda, was relatively questioned; Indeed, Bernays himself used his powers of persuasion to convey the idea that the United States should enter the fray as a way of guaranteeing democracy in Europe;

It was then that strategies that took into account principles of psychology and sociology began to be used as a way of influencing people’s wants rather than their needs; Many of those ideas are still used today by products and brands and where advertising, marketing and public relations are interconnected;

Main features

  • Public relations is clearly abidirectional, as they involve fluid and constant communication between brands or organisations and their audiences. These seek to establish a direct, optimal and constant relationship between a brand and the people who interact with it;
  • They work forbuilding perceptions and restoring trust. All public relations actions are aimed at shaping consumers’ perceptions of products and services and building a relationship of trust between the two;
  • Leveraging reputationof brands and organisations in order for them to show a concrete image and a solid reputation.
  • Persuade. design and use persuasive strategies to influence public opinion and behaviour;

What are its objectives?

  • Define the brand image. Concrete perceptions about the values, characteristics and basic principles of brands will be derived from public relations actions;
  • Raising public awareness on certain issues that have a direct bearing on the product to be sold; We saw it in the tobacco case: it was not about selling cigarettes but about raising awareness among the target audience of the need for a change of attitude; This requires solid arguments based on sound information;
  • Create interest. Brands must attract the attention of consumers and public relations is the perfect tool to feed this demand based on information that provides content to attract that interest;
  • Democratising knowledge. Thanks to the different actions, brands are able to disseminate much more widely the knowledge about certain topics that, although directly related to the product or service to sell, brings a democratisation of knowledge that, until then, was much more limited;

Types of public relations

We can define three types of public relations:

  • Corporate public relations: centradas en construir y gestionar la imagen global de una corporación.
  • Product public relations : its purpose is the promotion of specific products or services.
  • Crisis public relations: they involve the management and mitigation of crises that may damage an organisation’s reputation.

But it is also important to divide public relations according to the audiences we are addressing, whether they are internal or external audiences;

  • Public relations targeting internal audiences. They refer to all those actions and communications whose focus is on internal audiences, understood as employees, shareholders, suppliers and investors; Through different campaigns, organisations create and consolidate a sense of belonging, ensure transparency, create brand ambassadors and attract both talent and investment;
  • Public relations aimed at external audiences. These are actions whose main objective is to create, transform, consolidate… perceptions about a brand, a topic and/or product of interest to the organisation; External audiences include:
    • Clients and potential clients
    • Media
    • Public administrations
    • Political parties
    • Agents of the sector in which we carry out our activity: employers’ associations, associations, competitors, etc;
    • Social organisations and community

Public relations tools

In order to reach all the audiences of an organisation and having already defined the audiences we are targeting, we have a huge variety of public relations tools that we can use appropriately according to the objectives to be achieved, the available budget and the defined action plan;

  • For internal audiences;
  • Offsite: meetings of all staff or of a specific department offsite to work on the feeling of belonging and to consolidate relationships and links between people; They usually have a working part – either through lectures, talks, or through the use of a team building ordesign thinking– and another for leisure (games, dance, competitions…).
  • Parties: gatherings and celebrations for different reasons;
  • Intranet: internal information channel;
  • Own social networks: which serve as a channel of communication and consolidation of brand perception; They also serve to attract talent;
  • Periodic meetings by organigram or areas: key meetings by department and/or organigram;
  • Voluntary actions: collaborative actions of the organisation and its employees to participate in actions with the local or social environments in which the organisation is involved;
  • For external audiences;

It is important to determine through which channels (media) we reach these audiences; These means can be:

  • Own means:
      • Web: it is the organisation’s window and a perfect platform for the transmission and dissemination of any kind of initiative or information;
      • Blog: consolidates the sectoral and professional content of an organisation for an appropriate reputational positioning, both as an expert and as an opinion maker;
      • RRSS of the company: a much more dynamic and daily window of conversation with the different audiences;
      • Podcast: is the voice of the organisation; It gives other tools to participate in the conversation by leading both the focus and the protagonists and giving greater authority to the brand;
      • Newsletter: organisations regularly meet their audiences directly in their inbox. It also has a return in the form of a monetisable database that should not be neglected;
  • Earned media
      • Media: relations with the media are the transversal axis of public relations since any content or any action is likely to be of interest to the media;
      • Participation in events as guests by reputation and knowledge: the participation of a brand as a guest at any event is the fruit of a correct public relations policy as it has placed its main spokespersons as representatives of the brand in its key territory;
  • Paid media
      • Advertising: The brand has the ability to determine the format, spacing and content, i.e. it controls from start to finish.
      • Events (congresses, seminars, round tables, webinars…): powerful tool for brand positioning and institutional relations management, with the potential to influence the legislation applicable to the products, the brand or the sector in which it operates;
      • Branded contentUse of journalistic content for branding purposes.
      • Brand journalism:positions the company as the leading expert in content related to its activity.
      • Sponsorships: allows the brand to be linked to social and sporting objectives…

Differences with other disciplines

Public relations is often confused with other disciplines that adhere to communication in the broadest sense of the word; If we were to mark the main differences, we would say that public relations differs in that it covers a broader spectrum of contact with the target audiences of brands; Advertising relies on promotional activities through paid channels that ensure control of content while public relations works on attracting interest without the need to pay; Moreover, these are based on reputation and relationships whereas marketing focuses on products and services; And obviously, there are marked differences with institutional relations, which refer to those relations directed at government and politics and in generally regulatory environments;

In any case, all the tools encompassed within the communication umbrella must go hand in hand, work together and establish strategies that are coherent with each other and with the organisation, avoiding that each one of them seeks its own objectives and blurs the perception and reputation of the brand;

Public relations sector in Spain

In Spain, the public relations sector is largely unknown and its activity is largely forgotten, despite the fact that it deals with, looks after and shapes the reputation of the main and largest companies, political parties, the administration and all the agents that make up the daily life of a country;

The communication and public relations consultancy sector, although has grown by 20% in recent years represents a very small percentage of our country’s GDP, and companies such as LLYC, Estudio de Comunicación, Marco or Atrevia, even though they are leaders in the sector, are still too small to achieve wider social recognition outside professionals;

There is no doubt that public relations has evolved since its beginnings in the 20th century, becoming an essential discipline for the management of organisational communication, and that it will continue to do so in the years to come if we also take into account the important and strong irruption of the artificial intelligence that is set to change our industry;

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