I’m preparing a “PR 101” course for a client this week. I’m glad to do it — the client is a non-profit that has never done much in the way of deliberate communications and marketing, and will need to rely on volunteers to keep any kind of communications program moving.
The exercise has me thinking about what it takes to do PR these days. In a lot of ways, PR is easier. For example, when I started work at a big agency in 1992, typical assistant account executive duties included stuffing press kits, sending out faxes, poring through the Bacon’s directories to build media lists and doing daily newspaper scan-and-clips. Doing media relations could be expensive. If you wanted to generate media attention for a national consumer campaign, you’d be prepared to spend thousands of dollars on Nexis or Dialog databases, or you were cold-calling big national media lists (it didn’t make sense, but happened more often than you’d believe today). Needless to say, every bit of that is now digital, searchable or automated.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, what is essential about public relations has not changed: moving people to action by creating credible, meaningful relationships between an organization, and the people and groups important to its success.
What’s changed? The media, the available, the audience and their expectations of organizations. There are more media, they move faster, and expectations are high from organizations, influencers, clients and the audience. The risks and opportunities are higher than ever.
What are the essential skills for today’s public relations practitioner? Some are tangible skills you can learn and practice; others are more of a “state of mind”. I’d start here — I’d welcome your comments — what would you add?
- Sweat the small stuff. PR people are problem solvers. We’re i-dotters and t-crossers. We make sure the reporter has the background, and the VP has the right numbers. If the event requires a microphone, mariachi band or glockenspiel, we find it and get it there. We listen — and make sure the message comes across, and make sure it isn’t misunderstood. My dad liked to tell us kids, “don’t sweat the small stuff” when we’d get too riled up on the details and lose sight of the big picture. A core PR skill is to do just that — so others don’t have to sweat it.
- Know your audience. Who do you want to hear your story? What do you want them to do? You’d be surprised at how many communicators and marketers have trouble answering this simple question.
- Know the media. PR people need to be experts on who’s wielding influence for that audience. Otherwise, how do you know what stories will work and won’t? There are too many PR people read the paper, but they don’t follow news online. Or, they get their news online, but don’t read the paper. They don’t read blogs, or they only read blogs. They’ve never set up an RSS feed, tried out Twitter and Facebook — or think they can get all their news that way. They’ve never seen the evening news or watched Oprah and Ellen, because no one they know is watching. The point is to get to know the media. Love the media. Get to know who’s doing what and writing what and saying what. Note bylines and blog profiles, followers, audience measures and ‘authority’. Know where the conversations are happening. And where you and your organization can and must get involved.
- Be the media. Another “these days” thing. PR needs to think less like a facilitator and more like a producer. What are we going to communicate today? How will our audience get our story? How will we meet them where we are? How will we “move” them today?
- Think outside your organization. Be objective. Sometimes, you have to be the voice of your audience with management. What stories will fly and what won’t? AIG needed someone to do this — to tell them how the public would react to their actions and force them to reconsider their decisions.
- Research…and synthesize. The ability to gather and synthesize information is vital to just about everything we do — from understanding the audience and market environment to getting background on reporters or bloggers before an interview. The ability to help your organization better understand their environment — and connect that understanding to their ability to achieve objectives — is vital.
- Understand measurement. The web promises measurement and analytics never before available to the public relations profession. It is vital for PR people to gain a better understanding of web analytics and to build a greater degree of feedback and measurement into programs. In my time at big agencies, our measurement offerings were too expensive for most clients. This is unacceptable. We need to do a better job with understanding and building in measurement and feedback loops into our programs, and that starts with building a basic understanding of how websites work and web analytics.
- Understand objectives. This is a simple one: We don’t do PR to generate clips or website hits or blog posts or links or viral action. We don’t even do it to raise ‘awareness’ or generate ‘word of mouth’. We do it to increase sales, maintain and build customer loyalty, muster support, gain votes or influence public opinion. We do it to change behavior. While all of the traditional PR measures may well influence behavior, they are not an end in and of themselves. This is why the Skittles experiment is, in my view, doomed to fail. There is no clear benefit beyond generating marketing buzz, which benefits marketers and agencies far more that it drives sales and brand loyalty.
- Write. Storytelling is essential to communications. Nothing has replaced good writing. Not 140 character limits. Not video. Not the web. It all starts with good writing. But it doesn’t end there.
- Communicate in multiple media. The big change in the media world is the primacy of multiple media. Get to know them. Where can podcasts augment press releases? Where can video be more effective? Where can a game, animation or image communicate what the written word cannot? PR people don’t need to be expert in every form of media, but they need to understand the uses and appeal of each.
- Be smart. Reporters constantly complain about bad PR pitches. Bloggers do, too. There’s no excuse for a cold call. It’s too easy to do the research. They know it, and you know it, too.
That’s just my list, and it’s just a start. What’s yours?