11 Essential PR Skills

25 Mar

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?

22 Responses to “11 Essential PR Skills”

  1. Christopher Ming Ryan March 25, 2009 at 3:13 pm #


    Great list. I’m going to print this one out and keep it handy. It’s a smart reminder every time we meet new and old clients on how PR people can add value.

    I would add to your #11 about being smart: the media needs you. I was terrible at media relations until I started to think that my job was to help the press. I wasn’t intruding in on their day but actually providing a value to them.

    A good PR person knows that the journalist and blogger need a big pipeline of exciting topical and local stories to write about. Always.

    I found all writers to be receptive of a pitch that had content that was in their niche, informative or helpful, local, and had a newsy edge. But, yeah, you gotta do the research to make a pitch that really sings.


    • Ken Kadet March 25, 2009 at 8:37 pm #

      Chris and Jo, thanks. I do have to admit, though, that I’ve never liked the idea of media relations professionals claiming that the media “needs us”. As Jo points out, they may well, but it’s not a productive attitude. PR folks have to make themselves needed — I like the way Chris puts it — you need to always strive to be helpful and valuable to the media — because it creates a relationship that is valuable to your organization or your clients.

  2. Jo Smyth March 25, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    You are so right, and especially about #11.
    I was a journalist before I moved into PR. Journalists rely on their newshound instincts but they also need good PROs to feed them good stories. You need to build a relationship up and have contacts. I have written about this in my own blog, at http://www.couttssmyth.co.uk – dealing with journalists

  3. Adam Singer March 27, 2009 at 5:19 pm #

    Great points Ken, these are skills not just all PR people should have, but all marketers should be aware of as well, especially when they are working in tandem with PR people. I can’t count how often I see marketing people pressing PR folk for coverage and not realizing what is required of them. If they were more educated on the backend, they would be able to work much better with us.

  4. Ken Kadet March 28, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    Yes, that’s the secret behind this point of view — that most communications and marketing should be both media agnostic and ‘discipline agnostic’ — with an eye on audience and objectives before strategies and tactics. I happen to see public relations’ mindset as a good starting point for strategic communications like this…but with the first 15 years of my career at PR agencies, I would…:-)

  5. Joe Loveland March 31, 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. Especially like the advice about new media. Use it enough that you know what it can and can’t do for your clients.

    Too many PR people a) ignore new media or b) fall head over heels in love with new media. New media is neither a panacea nor irrelevant, and you have to get it under your fingernails to understand where it fits and doesn’t fit.

  6. Ken Kadet March 31, 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    Well put, Joe…and thanks for visiting!

  7. Tressa Robbins April 14, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Great post Ken (and thanks to @journalistics for the tweet!). I’ve also been thinking and writing about this recently. #11 is so key – Be smart and do your homework! There’s just no excuse these days. Whether one has access to a media database or not, everyone has access to Google, etc. to research. To know about that outlet and journalist or blogger. To know what they write about and what’s been recently written. And to construe what it is about your story that the journalist and his/her readers are going to care about!

    I’ve bookmarked this post – I know it’s going to come in handy. Thanks Ken!


  8. Ken Kadet April 14, 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    Tressa, thanks for the kind words. When you think about it, these days there are some folks out there who will expect you to do this for just about anything … think job interviews, new business pitches. Less a competitive advantage than a price of entry. Now, when you can turn that into actual insight and competitive advantage… then you’re getting somewhere!


  9. radiantedge July 30, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    Thanks Ken – These are great! As a newbie to PR but well within the know of marketing these will be beneficial key points to understand and infuse with how I work already.

    I too, have bookmarked this page for reference.


  10. Ken Kadet July 30, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    Glad you liked it … thanks for reading!

  11. Sharon N July 8, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    Hi Ken!

    I came across this as I was preparing for my first meeting with a PR agency tomorrow as an intern. I am a recent graduate, and new to this field. This was very helpful and was great in helping narrow down the specific skills I need to develop for success in this industry!

    If you have any more tips to do well, please do post! I have just recently started a blog myself, please check it out every now and then!

    • Ken Kadet July 8, 2010 at 10:43 pm #

      Well that’s good to know! Actually, tell me what you think: what kinds of skills are PR firms asking about these days?

  12. israel March 16, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    i liked all of your 11 list of skills. They sound realy good to me. I am working for a dealership that sale cars and i am a frontline staff that recieves all the customers and make sure they all get what they need as soon as they can. So i have come to realise that i need to do a course, diploma or even a digree in PR. A lot of customers like my service and like me a lot. It motivates me and i want to make a name in this field for myself. I am gona need all the help i can from everyone out there who can. Thank you for your list and i will definately use them!!

  13. Ronak February 11, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    Thnx 4 providin me d essential skills 4 pr..im gonna opt 4 pr in near future so dis info hs shown me a way 2 success in pr…:)

  14. Cindy February 23, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    @Ronak….I really think you missed point 9.

  15. Ken February 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Cindy…funny. Remember: Grammar is your friend!

  16. silverash October 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Reblogged this on Silverash's Blog.

  17. regina kipesha May 2, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    thank for this information. am reading for exams


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