After having been in the game for a long time, I've found it's obvious a lot of people in business are unclear about what public relations really is. There's been lots written about this and definitions abound. That hasn't clarified the question very much, so I figured I'd take a different tack: Let's talk about what PR isn't.
The one you hear the most is that PR is "free advertising." Not true! Ads are a very different form of promotion. Of course, ads are useful but not at all like PR. One is paid the other is earned. Publicity, one form of doing PR that earns exposure or coverage in the media, stands on its informational merits. Or in short, "with advertising you pay, with PR you pray." Oh, and doing publicity isn't free just because there's no space or time purchase. It takes skilled people time and creativity to make things happen and they like getting paid for it. So it's hardly free.
PR is not "spin." The term connotes lies. Lies, especially in today's world and especially in high-tech, will be outed with very often-negative consequences. Public relations content is most often developed with an angle benefitting its sponsor. However, effective PR content provides useful and factual information the audience wants or needs. The promotional benefit accrues to the sponsoring organization simply as the provider, not because the info is packed with brand promotion. PR is not putting a pretty face on a mess. Read about the challenges of crisis PR. No spin involved.
PR isn't merely tactical. Sure there are tons of PR tactics that can be employed. But most effective campaigns are based on a clear strategic direction. "Just doing some PR" isn't usually a formula for the best results. It can be a formula for wasting time and money. Having a clearly differentiated competitive story before launching your effort will bring far better results sooner and more cost-effectively. Amazing how few brands observe the simple advice: Strategy first, then tactics.
Basing a PR program only on helping drive sales is missing the larger concept of PR. It's going to make the same mistake mentioned above. Sales promotion is useful and PR can be a part of that. However, it can do lots more to build a brand's value perceptions, market awareness, preference as well as demand. If a PR campaign only focuses on product or service selling, there's a wide range of opportunities being missed. More on that could fill books. I wrote one such book: Connecting the Mind and Voice of Business. Some of the most successful PR campaigns I've created and managed are ones where products weren't yet available and we had to help the client prepare the market for when their latest, greatest electronic widget or software when it finally escaped from R&D or beta testing.
PR using "corporate speak" is dumb mostly because its not talking the language of customers and prospects. This is also true of "engineering speak" because not all customers and prospects are specialists in the same narrow engineering discipline as your company's design team. Neither are the journalists and market analysts who follow and report on your market segment. So using plain, simple language for explaining what you do that helps people will get more attention than all the corporate-speak, buzzwords and engineering jargon that can be dreamed up. The idea isn't sounding cool, its about clearly communicating benefits.
PR is certainly not journalism. It obviously applies some journalistic skills including story-telling and effective writing. Lots of former journalists are successful in PR. But journalism, as generally practiced, is info-gathering and reporting for the public's benefit. PR exists to help promote a brand or entity. Don't get the two mixed up.
The twisted, made-up term "brand journalism" has recently popped up. Its even been exclaimed as "the new PR." Not really. Taking a straightforward, informational versus a promotional perspective on content development is not new. I suggest the new term was created by newbies because some PR or content development pros want to somehow gain higher status. Journalists have traditionally been well-respected. So I guess these so-called brand journalists are looking for some rub-off effect. Get over it! Marketing is honorable work. You're not doing journalism when your employer or client is paying you to grow their company.
PR isn't just social media but it includes social media. Social media isn't all there is to PR. Social is a channel. Some B2B brands can apply and benefit from it. Others can't. This is another topic begging lots more space. Discover whether your organization can handle the social media channel. But don't just attempt it because of its cool factor. There are a lot of other PR actions you may be able to execute far more cost-effectively.
PR also is not: single-dimensional, easy, static, a string of press releases (PR Doesn't Stand for "Press Release"), the CEOs' mouthpiece, ignorant of its publics, audiences, communities and stakeholders or for every organization or brand. Some companies just can't handle it for a variety of structural or personality reasons. But every company is affected by and has a public image, whether they manage it or not.