Tag Archives: PR profession

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?

Public Relations in the Extreme

3 Jun

Politics is public relations in the extreme.  It magnifies and amplifies the best and worst of PR practice.  We’ll often use politicians as examples for media training — they consistently stay ‘on message’.  We appreciate spokespeople who get out there and take the heat from the press corps — the ones like John Wodele, who had to explain Jesse Ventura for four years and did it with — at least from this outside perspective — his honesty and dignity intact. 

Then there’s Scott McClellan.  As President Bush’s assistant and then lead press secretary, McClellan was a cog in the execution of a major public affairs campaign to marshal public opinion in support of the Iraq invasion.  A campaign, he now says, was misled the public. This is PR in the extreme – facilitating public discussion and decision-making with the public’s blood and treasure on the line.

Most of us don’t have to deal with this day-to-day.  In my work, I’m helping tech companies find new ways to stay in the public eye. I’m helping another communicate its brand to employees and partners.  I’m working with a private school to remind its community that there are good stories amid tough financial times.  I’m helping a startup with its message and developing online and offline communication strategy for its launch. 

It’s fun.  It’s great work, and, I’d argue, important work.  But for all of that, we can be a bit thin-skinned as a profession.  Last year’s kerfuffle over Wired Editor Chris Anderson’s PR blacklist is on example; Sunday’s rant and response by CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen is another.  Cohen’s points about the core dishonesty of public relations practice were flip, ignorant and over the top.  But, as he points out, there is a reason why PR has such a poor reputation. 

Here’s my take on why:  Public Relations calls itself a “profession” — like Law or even Journalism.  It’s not. And this core identity crisis leaves us challenged to even define public relations, let alone defend it.

Lawyers are accountable to their clients, but they’re also accountable to state and federal regulations and their state bar association.  Even the role of the news media is made plain in the Constitution and their ideals and standards are part of our civic education. They can hold themselves as upholding ideas beyond the narrow interests of their clients and bosses.

Public relations people, whether we’re at an agency or an organization, are hired to help sell something. Our clients want people to choose their brand of soup, support their technology platform, build new stadiums, specify their brand, donate time and money to their cause, work with us in a crisis, vote for their legislation, and invest in their stock.  Public relations is a core part of the business of convincing people to take the action an organization wants them to take.  Our responsibility is to our organization, bound by ethics, honesty, civic duty and common sense.  We sell.

Now, our preferred methodology is to facilitate public discussion — to help our clients make their most compelling case through the news media and influential institutions, organizations, social networks and forums.  This distinguishes our practice from direct “sales”.  

But our practice is inherently self-interested on behalf of our organizations.  We speak with bias.  We focus on the story our organization wants to tell, toward our organization’s goals. We have no responsibility to tell another party’s story, but in my experience, the best, most credible and convincing stories are the ones that that are rich discussions that give clarity to complex issues — so sometimes, we’ll help make that happen, too.

As I said, it’s great work, fun and sometimes exciting.  And it’s necessary.  Contrary to popular belief, the truth doesn’t write itself — someone has to choose the right words.  Some stories are too complicated for simple headlines and pretty pictures.  Not every marketer is a great writer. Not every executive is a student of the increasingly complex news and social media environment. 

PR people are.  We’re good at words.  We’re students of the media and the Internet. We talk about what’s in the news, share stories, and argue about strategy.  We engage with journalists, bloggers, friends and others in online networks.  And we help our organizations and our clients do the same. 

So, no, Mr. Cohen, our profession is not full of liars and dissemblers. We’re advocates for the success of our organizations, and we know that our organizations’ successes hinge upon being believed, credible and convincing.  It means we’re biased and self-interested, but it means, as a practice, as a career, and as, well, professionals,  we’re on the side of the truth.  You can sort it out form there.

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