People often think you buy PR like you order a pizza: on demand, with all the seasonings and toppings you want.

But PR can't be boxed. A service business, it's dependent in part on the media and others to tell its story, and on marketing and word-of-mouth to make the story hum. It's also affected by world events: If there's a major terrorism outbreak, your story about launching a new gizmo may get buried—or not told at all.

In the age search engines, PR has also had to adjust its perspective: Not only earned media but also owned media (the content you create and publish) matters now, including social media.

To help you navigate this new world of PR, here's a road map to understanding its contours and features—along with tips on how to get some of that PR yourself.

Public relations is NOT advertising and journalists are NOT stenographers

A reporter is not going to jump at the chance to write about your company, nor do so in exacting detail. A reporter needs news, not a puff piece.

Instead: Show, don't tell. Let's say you're a leadership consultancy. Can you comment on leadership changes in the news? Discuss a major company's new hiring practices? Focus on demonstrating your expertise, not just shouting about it from the rafters.

PR people are NOT in cahoots with journalists

PR people don't normally see media copy before publication. After all, reporters are writing a story, not serving your company.

Instead: Ask a reporter whether he or she wants to fact-check anything with you. Some will agree to that. Provide a reporter with a written recap of any interviews, particularly if the subject matter is complicated or confusing. Offer a Q&A or fact sheet that quickly and easily covers the material. Create visuals, where possible, to illustrate your story.

Public Relations is NOT Based on the idea that a PR strategy is created out of thin air

Public relations, like journalism, is based on fact, not fiction. For a PR person to do his job, facts and a story line are requirements. For example, don't expect to build a PR strategy for a survey until you have the survey results.

Instead: Facts in hand, build a strategy for each campaign. Develop a story line with supporting facts. Determine the best venues and ways to tell your story that will reach your key targets. List the content and people needed to make everything happen.

Public Relations is NOT simply about getting the media to write about you

Today, there are multiple nonpaid ways to get your story told—via article writing, webinars, speaking, social media, video, whitepapers, infographics, e-books, newsletters, blogs… The only limiting factor is your imagination.

So although it's useful from a credibility perspective to have the media showcase your thought leadership and knowledge, you don't have to (nor should you) depend only on them.

Here are three essential tips to help you tell your story—both to the media and to customers and prospects:

  1. Develop story ideas people care about. Most trade publications are eager for good content to publish that is not self-promotional. If you can broaden your sphere of influence, pitch your story idea to general business outlets; some, including Businessweek and Forbes, take high-quality, non-self-promotional contributions. Underscore "high quality." And don't forget you can easily publish articles yourself via a blog, website, or newsletter.
  2. Get your happy clients to tell your story. Nothing beats a satisfied customer's telling your story, which is why smart companies include client testimonials on their sites, even if the customer wants to remain anonymous. If you can name your customer, even better.
  3. Develop content that people are eager to consume. Marketo is one company that is a master at this. A virtual content machine, the lead gen company produces reams of free, quality content to help its B2B audience be better marketers. HubSpot is another great creator of educational content. You don't, however, have to launch a content blitz. Begin with an explanatory article or two about your industry that informs and doesn't just sell. Let people know you care and understand their challenges; that will be the first step to a dialogue—and, ultimately, a winning relationship.

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So next time you call for some of that good old-time PR, remember that PR is not something you buy at the counter or order by phone. Ensure your public relations is tailored to your company's needs and audience, and educate—don't sell. Only then can public relations establish your bona fides and endear you to prospects.

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image of Wendy Marx

Wendy Marx is president of Marx Communications, an award-winning B2B PR agency that turns companies and their executives into thought leaders.

Twitter: @wendymarx

LinkedIn: Wendy Marx