Debunking Public Relations Myths So You Can Harness Its Power


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In a small farming village nestled between two mountains, a man claimed to be a rainmaker. This man would walk around the village, splashing people in the face with water, declaring, “Look! It’s raining! My powers have brought rain!”

At first, the villagers, desperate for the rain to nourish their fields, celebrated the rainmaker. But as the weeks went on, the reservoirs remained empty and crops continued to wither. A wise woman saw this and challenged the man’s rainmaker abilities by telling him to produce a rainstorm that saved the crops.

The man ran through the village in response, splashing people in the face with even more water. But the villagers now saw what was happening, and they turned to the wise woman to speak to the rainmaker on their behalf. The woman stood in the center of town, challenging the rainmaker’s superficial claims and said, “Don’t splash water on my face and tell me it’s raining.”

The villagers were disillusioned and felt foolish for trusting the rainmaker. But the wise woman showed them how to capture water and find drought-resilient crops. The villagers worked very hard, and they learned to trust the wise woman because even though her solutions were harder, their crops thrived yearly because of her methods.

This story is a relevant parable for public relations because it illustrates the differences between quick answers and superficial results to long-term solutions, along with authenticity. I share it because there are many misconceptions about PR. Some misconceptions have to do with the media’s portrayal of PR professionals, and some of it is a misunderstanding about what PR is — and isn’t.

Before you hire a PR firm, whether you have big ambitions or there is a crisis, it’s better to understand where PR can and can’t help you.

Related: 5 Common Misconceptions About Public Relations

Myth #1: Public relations is a shield for bad behavior

Destructive behavior differs from an unanticipated crisis.

We can predict bad behavior outcomes; most PR people can see them coming well in advance. Whether it’s unethical business choices, inauthentic advertising claims or gaslighting your customers like “the rainmaker” did, there’s no escaping responsibility. This is especially true if you’re trying to gaslight a journalist. The internet holds a long grudge, and journalists, like the wise woman above, will eventually catch on.

Public relations isn’t about “spin” or misleading journalists or the public. PR is about transparency and authenticity. It’s freedom of the press — the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — that gives PR its power. PR professionals can’t just storm a newsroom or pay off an editor to take down negative news. If journalists removed every negative (but accurate) news article from their newspaper or website because readers bombarded the PR agent of the person or company involved, there would be no free press — and media coverage would hold no value.

Public relations can help you navigate through the revelation of inappropriate behavior, but it can’t fix the choices you’ve made. Typically, inappropriate behavior requires an apology. But believe it or not, the apology is only the first step on a long road. And that road may or may not include press coverage in the aftermath. It’s these next steps that are extremely situational.

Related: How to Build Your Personal Brand and Enhance Your Google Presence Through the Power of Public Relations

Myth #2: PR and advertising are the same thing

Digital PR is relevant in today’s fast-paced media world. The number of content opportunities for thought leaders especially has undoubtedly increased. But that doesn’t mean public relations is a sales channel.

The biggest and most important distinction is that in both owned and paid media, you control the content. You don’t own the content or the story’s direction in PR. Public relations professionals use their knowledge and connections to guide the coverage, but the editor chooses the outcome. Again, the power of PR is independence — that’s why it’s valuable. It brings a third-party trusted perspective; public relations is at the top of the awareness funnel.

If you’re looking to PR to drive sales and track them, it’s a setup for failure. There are a few reasons for this. In earned coverage, there is no guarantee that a link will appear in the article. Sometimes, a link is included and sometimes it isn’t, but that’s an editorial decision that’s out of the hands of your PR team.

I notice a considerable uptick in direct traffic with earned media. It’s hard to pinpoint where direct traffic comes from, but we typically notice a similar correlation. Does that traffic convert? It depends on many factors — the website, the conversion, the cohort and the visitor’s familiarity with the website. That’s not to say there isn’t value to tracking this, but there are too many factors at play to attribute all of this website traffic and conversions to PR.

There are opportunities where PR and sales may cross over, like affiliate programs for consumer products, but ethical PR professionals will articulate the differences. Does PR help sales and business development? You bet. Showcasing your media coverage gives your business development and sales channels additional credibility. It’s not uncommon to see clips of media coverage used in advertising.

Related: Publicity Is Not Free Advertising. Don’t Destroy Your Efforts to Get Press By Slipping Into Sales Mode.

Myth #3: PR is only about media coverage

You could be forgiven if you only think about PR when you see media coverage. It’s certainly the most visible and requested outcome for PR. The reality is that PR encompasses a wide range of activities and strategies aimed at building and maintaining a positive reputation.

PR could touch every single part of your company, from product development to human relations to, of course, marketing. Involving PR from the start of any stakeholder-affected initiative gives you an edge. Not only will positive reputation building be authentically accounted for in the program from the start, PR professionals often have deep insights into consumer perceptions and media opportunities, which could affect almost every program.

Another use of ongoing PR is having a PR crisis plan. Most companies have exposure they don’t even consider. If your team is onsite, what happens if someone is seriously injured, or worse, while there? What if your product hurts someone because of quality or manufacturing error? Once an identifiable crisis happens, the first three hours afterward will set the tone for how your company comes out of the crisis. Having a PR team that knows your brand, understands your team and has the access and plan to act quickly is an important asset.

While these myths may have changed your perceptions of PR, it is a powerful asset for any company, especially ambitious ones. When planning to engage PR, remember these myths. Not only will they help you identify a PR plan that works for you, but they will also help you determine the best PR agencies that are candid with you about PR opportunities and differences.

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