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Public relations explained for C-level executives

C-level executives must understand that PR by nature is a double-edged sword.

Disregarding the differences between PR and marketing is a lost opportunity at best.

The key to success is to appreciate the brand’s core message and to hold the PR function accountable at all times.

Many business leaders struggle with public relations. Free publicity, word-of-mouth, a great reputation, no insider threats — all of that sounds enticing, but for most, PR can feel like a coin-toss.

How we define public relations might give you some idea, but it doesn’t explain the strategic approach.

How to define public relations

PR (public relations) = the strategic and tactical use of communication to develop and maintain relationships with stakeholders, influencers, and publics.

Please note:

stakeholders — with various interests in the organisation.

influencers — gatekeepers with important audiences.

publics — groups with key communicative behaviors.

Learn more about public relations.

One of the first things I tell leaders is that while PR could be used to move perceptions, the best strategy is to use PR to amplify your strengths. To illustrate this, I use Treacy and Wiersema’s value disciplines.

Each direction in the model comes with operational and cultural choices that separates your trajectory from the other directions. The gist of the model is that maximising value comes at a cost; the successful brand must choose between striving for product leadership, operational excellence, or customer intimacy.

If you’re doing PR in all directions, you’re falling on your own sword.

Apple is a great example of product leadership and communication; their PR activities aren’t geared towards being a cheap alternative or discussing their roadmap with their biggest fans. Apple’s PR is all about product leadership — and little else.

Any PR strategy should be subservient to what your business is all about. I’m sure there are tons of creative PR ideas for Apple in the direction of “best total cost” and “best total solution”, but Apple’s executives must be merciless in shooting such initiatives down. Because even if such ideas would produce results on the campaign level, they would detract from the brand’s total value strategy.

So, how do you manage the overall direction of your brand’s PR activities?

The most common fail in C-level management is to mistake PR for marketing. The purpose of marketing is to drive sales while the purpose of PR is to manage relationships.

“What gets measured gets done,” and this is sometimes unfortunate.

Many C-level executives are tasking their PR functions to focus on marketing KPIs and as a result, many organisations are leaving strategic communication to chance. This is also why a relatively small subset of businesses, those who are getting their PR strategy just right, can soar high above their competition in the marketplace.

In a world where information is abundant, each and every brand only gets one cognitive claim. Not two, or three, or four. Red Bull, for instance, have chosen to focus on action sports that sends people flying through the air. Since they want that specific spot and that specific relationship with their community, they don’t focus any of their communication activities on anything else.

The key to managing PR is to understand the importance of communication to build and maintain relationships. Not even your best customers are to be seen as quantifiable, deal-seeking, and distractible wallets with legs. They don’t like to be seen or talked to this way; no-one does.

As a C-level executive, you should push your PR function to focus not on specific KPIs (like sales, churn, or acquisition), but towards one (becuse that’s all you get) core message.

To maximise the perceived value of your business, all communication efforts must be focused on dominating that one precious spot in the human mind. Here in the West, for example, online retailer Amazon is so huge that they could be a great many things to a great many people, but they have wisely chosen to push for just one thing — “we are the everything store”.

A cautionary example of core messaging would be Rolex. They used to have one of the most engaging fan pages on Facebook where they focused solely on what their brand community loved — their grand heritage and the craftsmanship. But lately, they’re instead focusing on sponsoring athletes, collaborating with film-makers, and showcasing new watch models. Today, their engagement levels are nowhere near what they used to be. My guess is that Rolex is trying to talk about what market research suggests a younger audience with money to spend would like to see and hear.

To see the world through the lens of PR is to see the world differently; while marketers tend to see opportunities for increasing sales everywhere, which in itself is a good thing, PR sees the various stakeholders your business is depending upon1. From a PR perspective, your business is surrounded not just by customers and journalists, but by various stakeholders.

Typical PR stakeholders and their needs.
Typical PR stakeholders and their needs.

Stakeholder perceptions must be constantly managed to ensure that your organisation is able to focus on its business objectives.

This also where digital marketing professionals tend to suggest activities that might be too narrow for maximising the overall value creation of your business. They’re often sharply focused on increasing conversion through each step of a marketing funnel and not at all concerned about the behaviours of smaller subsets like investors, influencers, journalists, and antagonists — whose overall influence on conversion often surpass that of online majority behaviours.

Summary for C-level executives

Clarify your brand’s value direction and demand that the PR function is 100% onboard with it. Otherwise, replace your PR function immediately.

Make sure that all PR activities revolves around a true and inspiring core message. Push your PR function to communicate this core message in new and creative ways to all key publics over and over again.

Don’t mistake PR for marketing and measure messaging instead of sales. When discussing goal-setting and strategies with PR professionals, discuss from a perspective of different stakeholders instead of target audiences.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


  1. This is where most C-level executives get surprised; I’m typically asked for help with influencers, journalists, and social followers, but many executives are often surprised when I suggest valuable PR activities geared towards policy-makers, legislators, employees, investors, and society as a whole.


Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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