While the phrase “public relations” may have a negative connotation for some people, it’s not inherently bad, and PR cycles occur on social media a lot more frequently than you might think. But it is good to be able to spot one so that you can properly decide whether or not a product or angle is worth your buy-in.
What is a PR cycle?
Juliana Martins, CEO and founder of Eleven11 Media Relations, said that a PR cycle “is an actionable, strategic plan a publicist or PR agency will put together when launching a public marketing campaign.”
OK, so what’s a public marketing campaign? In short, it’s a public effort that occurs through forms of media. Based on a predetermined goal, such as increasing revenue or getting influencers to talk about a new product, a team of PR representatives will decide how to approach getting to that outcome. A PR push is purposeful and not organic, although it may be designed to appear that way.
Kyle Ankney, head of PR at Red Heifer Media, noted that “PR cycles [can also] come after a misstep by a brand or a public figure,” but those types of marketing strategies aren’t the only ones that exist. Many social media PR cycles occur to sell a product or get people talking about a brand.
Chan Desai, an account strategist and manager at Otter PR, is clear about the role social media platforms play in shopping habits: “TikTok is home to countless public relations cycles with its lightning-fast ability for virality,” she said. “As publicists, we’re always looking for the hot new thing; if it’s trending on TikTok, naturally, it will weave into PR cycles for that week.”
How do PR cycles work on social media?
After identifying what a brand, organization, influencer or public figure wants out of a PR cycle, the next step is research.
“A publicist will go into deep research of understanding the target audience of the campaign and what they respond best to,” Martins said. “After the campaign launches and if it’s successful, you’ll see an influx of engagement for a few days or weeks.”
You might see this in the form of appeals to particular demographics, with millennials and Gen Z being some of the most easily identifiable on social media. According to Isabel Ludick, PR and marketing director at ExcitedCats.com, “a social media-based PR cycle listens carefully, provides effective and clear communication, and broadcasts good feedback about the brand, products, or services as a means to generate more customers and followers.”
Martins pointed to a 2021 example of a self-tanning brand called Isle of Paradise. The company employed five influencers to create content like tutorials and popular “get ready with me” (GRWM) videos on TikTok that showed them using Isle of Paradise tanning drops, and then boosted that content. Afterward, its revenue reportedly increased by 68% per week.
But the internet is faceted, and a brand’s audience may be separate from the average consumer. Isle of Paradise shoppers may be on a different side of TikTok than, say, shoppers who buy from Pleasing, the unisex beauty line by beloved singer, fashion icon and general young person hot topic Harry Styles. As a result, their PR campaigns may need to utilize similar but contrasting tools and may look entirely different to consumers.
Case in point: One of Pleasing’s most popular TikTok videos has a whopping 4.8 million views. It essentially does nothing to sell the products to users beyond showcasing them at odd angles, instead leaning on obscure viral clips, a Shrek meme, hashtags (#edit, #buythis, #lol, #emotional) and a sound clip that’s not even of Harry Styles. The audio now has over 100 videos of Styles fans reacting to the video.
To someone who isn’t in on the joke (i.e., the weird internet humor adored and used by Gen Z), this video makes absolutely no sense, yet it has more than 992,000 likes with top comments like “IM CRYINH” and “okay i guess i’ll go buy more stuff.”
Both brands have studied their audiences and know them well, producing content that sells ― even if it’s not outwardly advertising the product as something you should buy.
If PR is behind everything, how can I make an informed shopping decision?
Not everything you see from a brand on social media is a PR push — sometimes it’s just ongoing social media marketing — but it’s likely that posts made on a company’s TikTok or Instagram have been carefully curated. And when influencers are recommending or using products, that is very likely part of a PR cycle.
When so much content is biased and skewed towards pushing you to click “add to cart,” how are you supposed to know if the purchase is even worth it?
For one, customer ratings and reviews still can be used for good. While some companies filter out bad reviews on their websites, larger shopping hubs like Amazon and Target generally don’t, provided those negative reviews don’t violate their guidelines. It’s a good idea to read a number of reviews to get a well-informed sense of a product’s possible pros and cons. You can use a browser extension like Fakespot to alert you to when a product at Amazon has reviews that may have been manipulated by the sellers themselves, which has been an ongoing issue for the site.
The Review Index is another helpful plug-in for Chrome or Firefox, and its website is available for use, too. You can enter an Amazon URL and it provides a summary of the reviews and lets you know whether there seem to be a lot of spam reviews.
If you’re interested in experiences with customer service or the validity of a certain company, the Better Business Bureau is a great resource. The BBB is an international association that accredits companies and brands via their integrity and performance. It awards a rating based on complaints history, the type of company, the amount of time in business, transparency in practices and more. These are provided on an A+ through F scale, while customer ratings are given in a 5-star range and depend on reviews written by shoppers. (That said, some businesses aren’t BBB-accredited, but are legit. Pleasing, for instance, isn’t accredited; the only customer review for it on BBB’s site is a complaint.)
TrustPilot is another resource that compiles customer reviews on a variety of brands, companies, and businesses. According to TrustPilot’s About page, the site actively aims to create a better experience for both shoppers and businesses alike. The company works to fight bias and fake reviews, too — there, Pleasing has a 2.8 out of 5 stars rating, noting criticisms have been raised about poor customer service and selling regulations.
And while online shopping is certainly a mode of the present, you don’t have to solely peruse potential purchases on the web. Say, for example, that a TikTok influencer shows up on your “For You” page excitedly talking about a trendy new pair of sneakers they bought. With claims that they’re stylish, comfortable and high-quality, it can be easy to instantly buy into their review. You don’t have to, though. You can go to a store in-person to try the shoes on, walk around in them, and get a feel for whether or not they’d be a good option in your closet.
It’s worth noting that some brands that are popular on social media are exclusively online; Pleasing is one of them. You can welcome hesitancy into your shopping decisions and, instead of immediately swiping to enter your credit card information, choose to either wait on that purchase or reject it altogether. Uncertainty is a welcome trait when it comes to online shopping, simply because you don’t always get what you envisioned in your brain. You can make a decision to wait for reviews from actual buyers or opt to shop for a tried-and-true brand in your repertoire.
So… are PR cycles bad?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
Participating in a PR cycle as a consumer or follower can often be unintentional. Liking, commenting or sharing a specific social media post from a brand isn’t a bad practice — you’re literally using the app for its intended purpose — but you’re definitely contributing to the campaign’s goal. Branded posts are preplanned, strategic and meant to get views, but if you decide to interact with it, it’s likely that a given brand aligns with your interests or sense of humor.
“It’s up to you and your content interests,” Martins said. “If you want to post and support a brand/person/organization’s PR campaign for free, go for it! It can help with exposure and engagement if it’s trending.”
Ankney also pointed out a very valid point: “PR cycles are necessary for brands and influencers alike,” he said. “Knowing your audience, having an intended message or purpose, and executing [that] clearly and methodically isn’t a bad thing.”