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Defining PR with the Power of Story

November 21st, 2011

How many of us will be sitting down at the Thanksgiving table this year struggling to explain to Aunt Isabelle, what we do for a living.  “It’s kind of like advertising, but you don’t pay for it,” you offer.   “Oh how wonderful,” she’ll say, “have I seen any of your Superbowl ads?”


Face it, the PR industry has always been the worst at promoting itself.  To help that, the industry’s largest organization, the Public Relations Society of America, is embarking on an endeavor to develop a better definition of “public relations,” one more appropriate for the 21st century.  Their effort starts today, inviting PR practitioners and the general public to offer suggestions about how best to say what we do.

This is a noble effort, but one focused in the wrong direction. The fact is: one of the best definitions was posed by Seth Godin.  In it, he zeroes in on the true core of PR effectiveness—the power or story.

The difference between PR and publicity
By Seth Godin

Most PR firms do publicity, not PR.

Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion. Sometimes publicity is helpful, and good publicity is always good for your ego.

But it’s not PR.

PR is the strategic crafting of your story. It’s the focused examination of your interactions and tactics and products and pricing that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you.

Regis McKenna was great at PR. Yes, he got Steve Jobs and the Mac on the cover of more than 30 magazines in the year it launched. That was just publicity. The real insight was crafting the story of the Mac (and yes, the story of Steve Jobs).

If you send out a boring press release, your publicity effort will probably fail, but your PR already has.

A publicity firm will tell you stories of how they got a client ink. A PR firm will talk about storytelling and being remarkable and spreading the word. They might even suggest you don’t bother getting ink or issuing press releases.

In their book entitled The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, renowned marketing strategist Al Ries and his daughter Laura effectively argue that public relations (infused with story) should be the tools of choice when establishing a brand.  They get it.

It’s time to cut through the phrasing and stats and get right to the story.  It’s always been the art and heart of PR.

PR Pros: How do you talk about PR?  Tell us your definition.

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