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PR as explained to a (really, really smart) five-year-old

By Tracey-Ann Mee


Recently a friend asked me, “So what do you actually do in advertising?”. I was a little shocked, frankly. Advertising? Apparently three decades of sharing the highs and lows of life in the fast lane that is PR had given her a fair grasp on how exciting my work can be, but no actual clue as to what it is I do. I have great admiration for advertising professionals, it just isn’t what I do. At all.

So, I set out to do what any good PR professional would do – to educate my market. I started big, with the definition imprinted upon my mind back in college in the year-none-of-your-business, “Public Relations is a deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an audience and its publics.”

My enthusiastic delivery was met with a blank stare followed by this entreaty, “Why don’t you explain it to me like I’m five?”. For the record, my friend is smart, though as you gathered, not someone whose work is in any shape or form marketing-adjacent.

The conversation that followed really challenged me to define to an ‘outsider’ what exactly PR is, and how it’s different from, yet complementary to advertising. I’ll admit, it was more difficult than I expected. In 30+ years in PR, I have educated markets on that brand new, scary thing called the internet, on an incomprehensible new software model called open source, described to a skeptical public the likely benefits of pebble bed nuclear reactors as a potential new energy source, and more besides, but my worth as a PR professional had now come down to my ability to define PR – as if that were any more complex than the things I just mentioned!

Here’s more or less how I explained PR to her, and judging by the fact that her eyes weren’t glazed over when I was done, I’m optimistic that if I didn’t actually succeed, then at least I didn’t confuse her further.


What is PR?

Public Relations is a strategic and sustained effort to create, nurture and maintain mutual understanding and beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics. In practice, PR includes efforts to create and sustain awareness, to affect public perception, to build, protect and defend the organization’s reputation, and to win the goodwill, trust and patronage of its public(s) by generating earned media (free coverage), through sharing news, demonstrating thought leadership and inserting the organization into relevant conversations. And while generating leads is seldom a PR goal per se, it is frequently a happy consequence of well executed PR that it helps tremendously in the awareness and consideration phases of the sales funnel. Besides earned media, additional tools and components of a well-rounded PR program include, among others, social media, award entries, securing speaking opportunities, and managing Analyst Relations.


Sidebar: We can stop pretending that I succeeded at explaining this as if she were five-years old. If I learned anything from this exercise it’s that I’m no good at all at explaining things to little children!

PR is not a science. It’s an art, and a subtle one at that. While PR places a heavy emphasis on media coverage, it is not a guarantee of media coverage. Advertising is a guarantee of media coverage.

How PR differs from advertising

  • Advertising sells. PR tells.

  • Advertising sells to a skeptical audience. PR talks to an interested audience.

  • Advertising guarantees placement with total creative control, in a particular publication on a specified date at the cost of the going rate for that advertising space, but because it’s advertising it conveys no particular credibility upon the brand or message.

  • PR relies on news value, creative storytelling, persuasive powers, relationships and the goodwill of journalists to earn the publication of a story and message that can neither be creatively curated nor corrected (except factually), once it is published. It achieves this through skill, hard work, and persistence, and the end-result, an effective third-party endorsement by a respected journalist, lends credibility to the message.

All this may sound like a push for PR over advertising. But no, I do not subscribe to the school of thought that says a pitched battle rages between advertising and PR. On the contrary, I believe the two marketing tools are immensely complementary, and any great marketing campaign will leave room (and budget) for both. Indeed, PR is sometimes able to leverage advertising spend to secure editorial coverage and provided there’s no disconnect between the messages of both, when they work in tandem, in service of a common strategy and goals, the value of each is increased exponentially.

Why spend money when there are no guarantees?

The earned coverage generated by PR is essentially a third-party endorsement. This makes it more credible, valuable, digestible, memorable and impactful to the audiences who read, see or listen to it than advertising. And, while coverage may not be achieved immediately, PR and awareness building are incremental processes – each effort building on the last. To get a journalist’s attention, you may have to pitch them three stories, three times. To get coverage in national or business media, you must first tend to your tech trades, whose take on your product is, at the end of the day, far more important to your tech buyer audience than a mention in the WSJ – as valuable as the latter may be! First, you must build a presence with this critical group of influencers (trades), so that when you do have something to say to the national and business media and they Google you, there’s a body of work that proves your relevance.


And that’s PR, in a nutshell. How’d you like that? Want to learn more about PR and what it can do for your brand? Call or email us today at hello@watersagency.com


About the author:

Tracey-Ann Mee is VP, Client Experience at Waters Agency. Tracey has 31 years of experience in agency-side PR, having worked at and run several agencies and founded her own. She has managed small teams and very large teams, and worked with dozens of clients on B2B, B2C, G2C and non-profit campaigns. Her clients at Waters span telecoms, BizOps, cloud and cyber security markets.

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