What is PR, exactly?: It’s all about the ‘why’

By David Martin, Heed Public Relations

It's not hard to find a definition for public relations, but beyond that, most people aren't quite sure what PR looks like in practice. And if you asked ten PR pros how they explain their own field, you'd likely get ten slightly different answers.

Here's my take.  

How I explain PR — getting to the 'why'

Whenever I'm helping someone decide which PR strategy is right for them, immediately out of the gate — or as close to it as possible — I try to make sure we’re on the same page about what PR actually is.

I explain that marketing is the broader discipline and that two of the central pillars supporting that discipline are advertising and public relations. Visualizing that, I say if they build those pillars well, then their overarching marketing objectives will be constructed on a firm foundation.

There is much more to it, but advertising often represents the 'what' of marketing.

Here’s an example: I have this great coffee, and you need great coffee.  

'What' I’ve got in that scenario is great coffee.

According to one recent estimate, we get slammed with at least 4,000 advertisements every single day. That’s a dizzying number, and marketers spend good money finding their target audience and pinging them with those ads at every turn.

Now, if advertising is about the 'what,' PR gets at the 'why' of marketing. By explaining why your brand exists, you deepen the bonds that resonate with consumers and the general public.

Let's go back to the coffee example and explore the 'why' of the brand: This great coffee is more than just coffee, and we believe that by bringing it to you we can help make the world a better place. It’s a high-quality fair trade product, and we give ten percent of all profits to a clean water initiative in developing countries. When you drink our coffee, you’re enabling others to drink clean water.

See?

Beyond the great coffee part, this 'why' gives customers a more substantial reason to purchase the product. Instead of merely buying coffee, they connect with the brand.

Whereas advertising moments are purchased — television, radio, Google ads, billboards, promoted social media posts, etc. — PR is often deployed through organic opportunities like:

  • Earned media and op-eds
  • Thought leadership
  • Custom editorial content
  • Cause marketing
  • Crisis communications
  • Customer service and reviews

The Patagonia example

These days I’ve been talking a lot about Patagonia, the outdoor brand, when giving an example of a company that does an incredible job balancing the 'what' of product advertising and the 'why' of public relations.

Patagonia makes some of the best outerwear on the market, hands down, and I’m sure they have a massive budget dedicated to advertising those products. However, as environmental regulations have softened over the past couple years, Patagonia has doubled down on its vocal environmentalism — even suing the current presidential administration. Their CEO has penned opinion pieces, and scores of articles have been written about the brand’s efforts.

They produce industry-leading gear, and they’re using their position to fight for a healthier planet. For this stance, Patagonia has found increased favor with new customers while cementing loyalty with their existing fans.

Providing customers with both your 'what' and 'why' is paramount.

You’ll get them with the former, and you’ll keep them with the latter.


David Martin is the founder of Heed Public Relations. Parts of this article were taken from his previously written blog post titled, “What Is PR? And Why Do I Love This Coffee?”