Ask 100 people on the street what they think public relations is and you’ll get myriad answers (although I’m tipping most responses would be along the lines of “Free publicity in the media”).

Ask 100 PR professionals the same question and you might well get 100 different answers. Let’s just say our industry is somewhat divided on what PR is, or just as importantly, what it isn’t.

The goal of this post is to strip back and simplify PR and, in doing so, encourage debate and conversation about the discipline. Please add your comments below!

Suffice to say, this post is my personal take on public relations. Is it a technically correct and theoretically detailed explanation of the discipline? Hell no, just an uncomplicated view of PR in today’s social media age.

Spheres of Conversation

PR has much to do with content and conversations. Good PR people create compelling content – talking points, as it were – that people can chat or write about.

Brands, companies and organisations need to define who they are and what they stand for. Focus is the key here. What do you want people to think or talk about when they hear the name of your organisation? What topics do you want your brand to be associated with? What ‘category’ do you want to ‘own’ in the mind of consumers and stakeholders? I refer to these as your ‘Spheres of Conversation’: define them!

If you’re a large organisation, you might have multiple spheres; if you’re a small start-up or not-for-profit, or you’re focusing on your personal brand, you might have only two or three. The number doesn’t matter so much, but the focus does.

By way of example, my spheres include ‘Redefining PR for a Hyper-connected Age’ and ‘Social Media as it Pertains to PR, Marcomms and Brand Reputation’. Therefore, when I’m out speaking and presenting, or writing articles and blog posts like this one, I try wherever possible to stay within the bounds of these spheres. My goal is to become known as someone who understands and promotes ‘new’ PR thinking, as well as grasps social media from a PR perspective. By focusing, I am (hopefully) reinforcing my reputation in these specific areas.

Think of it as repeatedly hammering nails in to a block of wood: if you focus on, say, three nails, you’ll hammer them in far more quickly than if you had dozens of nails to contend with.

The ‘Spheres of Conversation’ model holds true for professional services firms, B2B companies, not-for-profits, social issues, sports and entertainment properties, even consumer brands. The latter, for example, might need to create a strategic communications platform from which to provoke conversation and spark word-of-mouth (a music sponsorship or partnership with a social cause, for example). A professional services firm, on the other hand, might have a sphere that covers its particular industry, as well as one or two specific areas that fall within it (and that demonstrate the firm’s thought leadership and expertise).

Okay, once you know what areas of conversation you want to focus on, it’s time to select which channels to use to get the word out (and in doing so, this will determine how you package your content). I call these your ‘Spheres of Influence’.

Spheres of Influence

Broadcast and print mediums have long been the target for PR people wanting to get word out about a particular brand, product, service, cause or issue. Nothing wrong with that – the media is a powerful beast and continues to exert strong influence. Well-placed, positive editorial in the ‘right’ medium is a powerful tactic. Reach plus perceived third-party endorsement is a heady mix and can do wonders for a brand.

But TV, radio, newspapers and magazines are not the only channels at PR’s disposal. By focusing only on traditional media, you’re potentially missing out on all sorts of fantastic opportunities to promote your brand. The internet, as we know, has changed the ballgame forever and leveled the playing field for businesses everywhere. A small but savvy company or organisation can leverage a myriad of interlinked online channels to punch above its weight in getting people talking about its brand.

Digital channels, including your website and online newsroom, plus social media – the collective term for platforms such as blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, social bookmarking, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter etc – are fast emerging as a potent way in which brands can communicate and connect with people that matter to its business.

And don’t – I implore you – overlook face-to-face communications: they remain one of the most potent mediums you can use. Together with the interactivity of event-based activity, you have powerful amalgam of influence that I refer to as the ‘yin’ to social media’s ‘yang’.

Sponsorships and events are also fantastic mediums that brands can leverage to bring their messages to life and get people talking. Combined with the ‘ripple effect’ power of social media, you can make serious headway. Add traditional media to the mix and you’ve got serious communications ‘touch-points’ happening!

As an example: you may create a really cool branded event that draws in your target audience and use social media to pre-promote and generate buzz in the lead-up to the gathering, as well as raising visibility on the day and post the event. By inviting targeted journalists (and bloggers) to the event, you increase the potential for coverage to a broader audience.