In today's fast-changing world - where communications is central to
business, politics, the arts, charities, sports - pretty much any
organised activity you care to mention, the role of PR continues to
increase in importance.
Hardly a day goes by without the media using the words 'puff' or 'spin'
in relation to a story they are covering. These terms, although
disparaging, provide some indication of the power and impact of PR. But
what they fail to do is tell the positive story of how PR helps
organisations meet vital objectives. Nor do they do justice to the sheer
variety of potential career paths available in what is a very broad area
PR is much, much more than media relations, albeit that dealing with
journalists is often an important part of the job. Audiences range from
politicians to professors, clubbers to captains of industry, the
affluent to the needy. The 'public' in public relations can stand for
external audiences, from shareholders to shoppers, and internal
audiences like employees.
Most organisations employ in-house PR people. Or they employ a
consultancy to handle the activity for them. And it not unusual for
bigger companies to buy into both options, using consultancy services to
complement their own in-house team.
Those at a senior level shape communications strategy and manage teams,
while more junior staff will be involved in the day-to-day nitty-gritty
and excitement of implementing programmes, which may have as their
objective the simple generation of publicity, or the greater challenge
of changing opinion.
Although we have looked below at the main PR practice areas
individually, none sits in a vacuum. Major communications campaigns may
call for two, three or more practice areas to work together - and
whoever is running such a campaign will need to understand the many
facets of PR.
It is a much more varied and stimulating career than many people
And one that gets more varied and rewarding the further you
Contrary to misconceptions fostered by programmes such as Jennifer
Saunders' biting comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, consumer PR is not a
long succession of glamorous parties and star-studded events,
interspersed with the occasional need to issue a press release. It is a
serious component in the marketing mix and requires creativity and
dedication in equal measure.
Yes, there can be a glamorous dimension to it, but for the most part it
is a tough job. Creating a buzz about a product or service and ensuring
it has more exposure and credibility than its competitors have to offer
is a real challenge. Getting the media interested, securing endorsements
from opinion formers, and planning events that will capture the
imagination of the public all call for hard work and original ideas.
'Creativity is very important in consumer PR. You have got to be able to
think outside of the box,' says Liz Fraser, human resources director
Europe at leading PR consultancy Edelman.
Most big consumer launches - whether it be in the area of cosmetics or
cars, movies or charity fundraising appeals - involve PR to some
However, PR to launch products and services is only one element of the
consumer practice area.
Sponsorships can have an important part to play. This works by
negotiating to associate a brand's name with a particular event and then
maximising that relationship to boost the perceptions and standing of
A prime example of this is the way that Whitbread Beer Company has
promoted its premium lager Stella Artois through its Stella Screen
association with film, which has been heavily supported by PR
Another key area of consumer PR is what is known as issue or crisis
This is when PR is used to defend the reputation of a brand or service
that has been hit by bad news or negative media coverage. Instances of
this are when products have to be recalled by their manufacturers or
retailers because they are faulty or have been tampered with. Or when
public confidence in a brand or product has to be maintained or rebuilt
in a brand or product, such as after train crashes, or outbreaks of
livestock diseases such as BSE and foot-and-mouth.
A good example of crisis PR is the work that Weber Shandwick Worldwide
had to do last year relating to the abandoned maiden voyage of the P&O
cruise liner Aurora.
'We had to make the public feel it's a ship they still want to try,'
says Clare Fazackerley, WSW head of human resources and resourcing.
'This sort of stuff goes way beyond the perception of consumer PR as all
But there are a large number of challenges facing those on the consumer
side. People think big brands are easy to work on but they are harder
because you've got to come up with fresh ideas all the time.'
Nevertheless, consumer is the practice area to which most prospective
entrants to a career in PR aspire, usually because it is the one with
which they have the most familiarity. Consequently, it is one of the
hardest areas to break into. Yet other practice areas can be equally if
not more rewarding.
Some of the large consultancies like Edelman and Weber Shandwick have a
policy of rotating their graduate intake through different practice
areas. During the course of this process, many of the new recruits
discover, sometimes to their surprise, areas they would rather work in
instead of consumer PR.
'IT is not a peculiar little niche, it is now the biggest industry in
the world,' says Jonathan Simnett, vice-chairman of technology PR
specialist Brodeur Worldwide.
'What we do is not about publicity, it's a well-managed, important
element of the marketing mix. And we have all kinds of different
clients, from new economy companies that are cash rich but resource poor
that we help to grow quickly, to global mature companies that need to
reinvent themselves. The idea of being a few months out of college and
being put on a team that changes the future of a global player is one of
the most exciting career options you can have.'
Simnett cites work Brodeur has done for clients of the stature of IBM,
Nortel and Cable & Wireless, which has explained how the nature of the
business has changed due to strategic choices, acquisitions and
technological developments. This sort of work is a mixture of corporate
and technology PR.
Away from the strategic end, there is a need to communicate at a product
level to an IT audience. Clearly, this requires practitioners to acquire
a reasonable technical knowledge. But more often than not, PR programmes
focus on the capabilities and business benefits of particular products
and services as much if not more than the technical specifications.
The internet boom has propelled the emergence of a technology PR
sub-category called consumer-tech. This is about targeting a consumer
audience with messages about technology related things that are relevant
for them - such as home PCs, software, internet services and
Corporate PR is similar to consumer in that it spans a broad spectrum
and comprises elements such as sponsorship and issue/crisis
However, with corporate much of the focus is on reputation management -
making sure an organisation is perceived in the way it wants to be
Corporate PR requires a sound understanding of business. It involves
putting together platforms and forums that allow companies to deliver
crucial messages. Increasingly, it extends into the area of corporate
social responsibility in that pressure groups and consumers expect
corporations to behave ethically with regard to the environment, and the
good treatment of their workforce, and will exert pressure if this is
deemed not to be the case. Companies such as Gap, Nike and Shell have
all used PR to defend their reputations as good corporate citizens when
criticised for their labour or environmental policies.
On the one hand, corporate PR can have a local dimension - for example
in community relations programmes focused on areas where an organisation
is a major employer. Or it can be international, perhaps necessitating
the co-ordination of PR campaigns across borders.
Shifts in business strategy or corporate rebranding are usually
accompanied by PR activity. Leading PR consultancy Burson-Marsteller was
recently heavily involved in supporting the name change of global client
Accenture, previously Andersen Consulting.
In situations such as this, and in corporate mergers and acquisitions
(M&As) there is generally a need for internal communications, i.e.
explaining what is going on to employees. Many in-house PR departments
and PR consultancies provide internal communications services, helping
companies spread important information to staff via a host of means such
as newsletters, webcasts, corporate TV, live events and e-mail.
Healthcare PR is another area that has grown strongly over recent
The majority of graduates that go into this area have a science degree,
but it is not an absolute necessity so far as most employers are
There are two main areas: 'ethical' and 'OTC'. Ethical refers to
prescription medicines. How these can be promoted is strictly regulated
- it is against the law to promote them directly to consumers. With
products of this sort, the pharmaceutical companies and their PR
advisers target the medical profession, talking direct to eminent
consultants, GPs and bodies such as the National Institute for Clinical
Excellence with a view to ensuring that products are more widely
'In healthcare PR you could work with a drugs company three or four
years pre-launch when drugs are going through clinical trials,' says
There are many important international conferences in the health sector,
so travel is likely in this field. A lot of PR involves collaboration
with charities and patient support groups that are able to point
patients in the direction of new treatments in a way that drugs
OTC, meanwhile, stands for over-the-counter treatments that consumers
can buy in pharmacies or other shops without requiring a
These products are much less tightly regulated and can be promoted to
Some healthcare PR specialists work on both ethical and OTC
Countrywide Porter Novelli consultant Georgina Hunt, for example, works
on ethical products in the respiratory and cardiovascular categories,
but also promotes Ribena, particularly its vitamin C benefits, straight
Business-to-business, frequently shortened to B2B, is another key area
of PR. Sometimes this is subsumed under the corporate PR heading (and a
lot of technology PR is also B2B), but it is such a thriving activity
that it merits a separate look.
In essence, B2B is all about communicating with customers and
Tools to reach a business audience range from conferences and seminars
to coverage in the business media and trade press. Whether you are a
courier company, a firm of City lawyers or even an advertising agency,
building your profile among your business audience by using PR can help
bring in lots of new business.
In addition to talking to their customers, companies need to talk to
their stakeholders as well. And if they are publicly quoted, the onus is
on them to communicate more widely with the financial community at
Financial, therefore, is another key practice area within PR. But while
it calls for many skills common to the rest of PR, there are some
'People planning to go into financial PR need to realise they won't be
living in the marketing world,' says Charles Watson, chief executive
officer of financial PR consultancy Financial Dynamics. 'You're not in
the West End, in advertising agency territory. You're in the City
dealing with analysts and investment banks, who are prime referrers of
Financial PR involves media relations, but also requires talking to key
opinion formers such as financial analysts, whose views influence
institutional and private investors. As well as day-to-day briefings
about strategy and management, PR activity is stepped up when companies
release their interim and annual results. It can also spill into crisis
management if financial results are poor.
There is also a job to be done promoting IPOs (initial public offerings)
which is when private companies first float on the stock market. And of
course in the event of mergers and acquisitions. Particularly when M&As
are hostile in nature, i.e. when the board of one company opposes the
offer made by another firm and an aggressive PR campaign is fought by
both sides to win the shareholders over to their point of view.
Financial Dynamics worked on two successful, high profile M&As last
year: Vodafone's bid for Mannesmann and Royal Bank of Scotland's
acquisition of NatWest.
Tightly bound in with financial PR is investor relations (IR) which
focuses on providing the investors in a company with the information
Many quoted companies have in-house IR teams and most of the leading
financial PR agencies offer IR services.
Finally, we come to public affairs, sometimes called lobbying.
'It's primarily about helping clients understand the threats and
opportunities to their business that are presented by Government,'
explains Fishburn Hedges associate director Gordon Tempest-Hay. 'It's
much less these days about holding glittering receptions and pressing
the palms of MPs. A lot of it is about working with senior civil
servants to get them to influence ministers.'
When the Government announced the birth of stakeholder pensions,
Fishburn Hedges made sure its client Pearl Assurance got to play a part
in shaping their development by holding focus groups on pensions using
the kind of consumers the Government was targeting, which civil servants
and ministers were invited along to watch from behind two-way glass.
Given the nature of public affairs, it does attract a high proportion of
graduates who are interested in building a political career. But it also
appeals to those with a genuine interest in business strategy and how it
can be affected by public policy.