Communication field guide: understanding corporate communications and PR
We saw the term corporate communications used earlier in relation to internal communication, but a lot of the time, corporate communications and Public Relations (PR) are outward-looking. They are often grouped together, and here’s what they do.
What do PR people do?
PR people have traditionally handled relationships with the news media. Let’s say an airline is starting a new long-haul flight. The PR department of the company wants this information to appear in the new media — they want coverage on major news outlets, for example. So they write a media release (also called a press release), in which they provide factual and detailed information about this new long-haul flight: destination, duration, when it will be launched, services provided, type of aircraft, and context (e.g. are they the first to do this? What’s particularly interesting or newsworthy about this information?).
They’ll then send this media release to journalists or news editors. For news media in-country, it’s likely that this will get sent to the main news desk because it’s significant news for most people in that country. But if the media release is sent to an international media outlet, it will probably be sent to the travel desk. Or, if the angle of the media release is about how it’s the first carbon-neutral flight, perhaps it will be sent to the climate/environment desk.
How is a media release used?
A media release will be used as the source of an article or news item on any of these news media. For this reason, media releases need to be factual. They can’t say anything that’s directly promoting the product or service. They can talk about its uniqueness, but in a factual way that a journalist could use in an article. This is basically what publicity has traditionally meant — the news media talking about you. Remember that nobody’s paid news outlets for this publicity. These news outlets reported the story because they felt it was newsworthy (and for other reasons we will discuss next).
How do we measure the value of publicity?
The value of publicity can be measured. The traditional way in a print newspaper was column inches. Measure the number of column inches of an article mentioning you. Figure out how much it would cost to buy advertising space in that newspaper on that page. And you get the value of publicity. Do the equivalent for a digital environment: where your article is placed on a news media website, for example, and how much it would cost if you wanted to buy that much advertising space on that website. This is how it’s possible to say “We got $X worth of publicity in this news cycle.” This is a simplified version of the complex calculations often known as Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE). But is this the best way of measuring the value of publicity? The jury’s out on that one.
Why would a journalist or editor run a story?
Simply put, the news media needs newsworthy articles to publish. If you give them the information they need in a media release, they’ll use that information to write an article, or talk about the story on radio or TV news. Due to the nature of how people consume content today, it can also be useful to include a whole media kit in which there are interviews, case studies, quotes, and perhaps videos. Basically, it’s about giving journalists sources to create a newsworthy story.
Journalists may also report on a story if they already have a good relationship with people in the PR department. That’s why good relationships and contacts in the media are essential for PR people. PR departments may also attract and entice the media with a special event like a media event, where there will be various speeches and information, but also good food, entertainment, and free stuff. If you’re launching a new limited-edition champagne, it makes sense to throw a party where you get lifestyle, food, and travel journalists (or bloggers, or influencers) in the same place and give them a fun evening while also giving them detailed and factual information that they can use in their article. PR teams also handle crisis communication and may prepare a statement if something goes wrong somewhere.
What do corporate communications people do?
PR is a part of a bigger picture called corporate communications, so sometimes there’s just one corporate communications department that handles all of it. In addition to the media, corporate communications teams do other things. They may prepare annual reports for the shareholders of a company. They may decide to sponsor an event or a concert. They may need to deal with regulatory bodies and send them information that shows they’re complying with certain regulations, e.g. an emission report, or a diversity statement. They may embark on a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project, sponsor a charity, organise charity events where employees are involved (here’s where there’s an overlap with internal communication), and write a CSR report.
Corporate communication isn’t about selling things in a direct way to customers, but to communicate with various parties about what’s happening in the organisation. Of course, there’s an element of ‘selling’ here — the idea is to make the organisation look good. But it’s rarely about promoting products or services directly to customers. It’s more about telling people what’s happening, assuring authorities that things are on track, enhancing reputation, or creating employee engagement.
It’s entirely possible that these functions are handled by marketing departments or other people in an organisation. But what differentiates these functions from what we call ‘marketing communication’ is the lack of a directly promotional element. PR and corporate communication generally take the following forms: media/press releases, media/press kits, vents for the media, annual reports, shareholder reports, reports on regulation and due diligence, reports or white papers to trade or industry bodies, corporate social responsibility reports, charity events, sponsorship at events.
Audiences for PR and corporate communications tend to be: journalists and editors in the news media, people in the industry such as trade bodies, regulatory bodies, government organisations, shareholders, recipients of sponsorships, employees, and the general public.