Picture is illustrative. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

In 1929, on Easter Sunday in New York City, amongst the marchers at the traditional Easter Parade were women, smoking cigarettes. At this time, it was not seen as respectable for women to smoke in public, so this was a scandal! But that day marked the start of a change in public opinion. Was it just a coincidence that these respectable-looking women were seen (and photographed) smoking? No; this was, in fact, what is often cited as the very first public relations stunt, devised by the “founding father of public relations”, Edward Bernays. He had hired these women to join the parade and to smoke cigarettes, which he called “Torches of Freedom”. Bernays hoped that by making cigarettes symbols of freedom and emancipation, he would encourage more women to take up the habit, thus breaking down social taboos, whilst at the same time increasing sales for his clients (tobacco companies). 


And, whilst the end goal may not be in line with modern values, the methods – changing opinions among key target audiences, through creating a talking point, using strong imagery and generating media coverage – are still used today, almost 100 years on and are some of the basics of public relations (PR). 


On the other side of the coin, PR can also be used for public good. And in a more modern day example, someone who has used public relations to galvanise people behind her cause is Greta Thunberg. At the age of 15, Greta caught the world’s attention with her “school strikes for climate change” outside the Swedish Parliament. She has since gone on to frequently address (and berate) World leaders, business leaders, the United Nations etc. She has used classic PR techniques – publicity stunts, personal image, media relations and powerful messaging – to become a very well-known public figure, one could say a spokesperson for her generation, who continues to put pressure on politicians and advocate for the planet. 


What is public relations?

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” That is one way of saying that those that are PR specialists build relationships between organisations and their key audiences through communication. Important elements of this are building a strong reputation and a positive image of the organisation. 


Public relations is often seen as part of the wider Communications and Marketing mix and has much in common and overlaps with other communications disciplines. But, in contrast to advertising, PR is not generally paid for, and the channel for communicating with a given audience using public relations should, importantly, be a trusted one. This is what makes good public relations so effective. For example, a consumer of media is more likely to be persuaded by an article in their preferred newspaper than an advert, which they are aware is paid for. This is because we generally see the traditional media and journalists as “gatekeepers”, they sift the news and tell us what is relevant and important. In essence, they should be a trusted source. This makes media relations a key tool for public relations in general.


PR can include a wide variety of activities to meet the goal of building relationships, such as:


Why do PR?

It is a common misconception that Public Relations is just for corporate organisations and politicians and is not relevant to not-for-profits / NGOs. This is incorrect, because, as mentioned above PR is about building relationships with key audiences and it is about creating a positive image and reputation. This is important for NGOs and also for the youth sector. In fact, you could say that publicly-funded organisations should have especially strong relationships, both with the general public and with those bodies that fund them. Through effective public relations, you can build those relationships and also reach out to more people, making the work you do more impactful. 


Some first steps towards good public relations 

Establishing a PR strategy is important and – given that PR is all about building relationships – an important step towards this strategy is mapping your key audiences.
The next step is deciding which are the best channels and tools to reach those audiences. Is it through media relations? Or maybe you’re hoping to influence policy and it’s more about advocacy? Specific campaigns may form part of your PR strategy.
But going back to that march on an Easter Sunday almost 100 years ago – what gets you noticed and, therefore, builds those relationships that are at the heart of PR – is a strong message and powerful content. With both of these in place you’re in a good position to cement your reputation and have a greater impact.


Photo of Sarah Farndale
Sarah Farndale

Sarah is a communications specialist with 15 years' experience working in-house for a wide range of organisations and institutions, from international NGOs to EU associations and institutions. More recently, she has been advising clients as a freelance communications consultant - based in Brussels - working with organisations on enhancing their communications.