Monday, June 21, 2010

Don't Be Fooled: PR Is Not All About Relationships

There are many misconceptions that individuals have about public relations, especially those who have never hired a PR consultant or agency before. But the one I'd say tops the list is the notion that successful PR pros are limited to those who have personal relationships with influential journalists.

Ever since the PR industry stood by while this reputation of PR pros as being little more than people who “smile and dial” took hold, there's been a notion that if you aren't friends with someone, they won't take your call and won't run your story. PR pros themselves have in many ways tried to capitalize on this myth by saying they're the only ones who can make leading journalists pick up their phones.

Interestingly, neither the client nor the agency/consultant usually sees the big problem with this approach. Simply put, how well do they think that approach is going to work when the editor or reporter with whom they may have a rapport leaves or gets downsized -- situations that are happening every day in the current environment?

For the PR pro or agency, a similar question would be what are you going to do when the industry in which you've been specializing all the sudden hits a rough patch and you can no longer rely on a handful of journalist relationships? Obviously, any PR pro who has built his or her reputation on this kind of strategy is going to have a tough time convincing current or prospective clients that he or she will be able to do the job once tough times it if all they've banked on is a relationship strategy.

Instead of positioning PR strategy and execution-like sales, think of it like a typical professional service and realize that the real value comes from strategic counsel as much as execution. Just as a lawyer can't control which judge will preside over a hearing or trial, no PR pro can control who the reporter is that covers a given beat at a target publication. However, just like lawyers make planning, research, and preparation a key part of their strategy, so can PR pros.

Whether you're handling a pitch or client that's in an industry in which you have extensive experience or you're taking on a client in an industry that's relatively new to you, the elements of success are the same. Put the emphasis on research so that you can properly identify appropriate outlets and targets and spend the time to create a newsworthy pitch that incorporates an angle that will have an impact on the readers of your target publication. Once these two initial steps are done, the final step is making sure you get your message into the hands of the right reporter and editor.

When it comes to picking the appropriate contact, I prefer a mix of tools and time. By that I mean while I do use media databases, I also spend a lot of time researching the content that's appeared in a particular target. This helps you both prepare a pitch that they'll likely appreciate and ensure that you're targeting an appropriate journalist. Once you succeed on both fronts, the chances your pitch will get picked up increase exponentially.

I say all this from personal experience. Over the course of the recession, like most small PR pros, while I've maintained my industry concentrations, I've also had to pitch business in industries that were relatively new to me. However, through research and a methodical approach, I was able to find success in these areas and came to add them to my mix of service offerings. While branching out may not make for the most comfortable experience, in all likelihood it will be a necessity at one time or another. Given that, the earlier you prepare, the better.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

No Matter How PR Evolves, Message Remains King

One of the things business is fond of doing is spending endless hours debating what the future will be like and how it will threaten the way things have been done over the recent past. PR is no exception to this, with the debate largely focusing on the evolving media landscape and the increasing importance of online publications/mediums over print. However, there are some simple things that, if kept in mind, will ensure future success.

Unfortunately, one thing we've lost appreciation for in American society is the art of writing. Sure, we all claim to do it with varying regularity, but its role has changed just as the way we've “digested” information has changed. While at one point in time, it was very common for the average American to receive a daily or weekly newspaper, newspaper circulation has continued to drop -- first with the increasing influence of television and then in the mid-'90s with the proliferation of the Internet.

That trend has slowly taken us away from long-form journalism typically found in newspapers and news magazines toward shorter-form narratives on television, blogs, and other online publications. Interestingly, I would posit that most didn't notice the trend when it first started, since you don't usually time broadcast news pieces or count the words in an online news article or blog posting. It's been happening for a while, and I would put it as one of the big reasons that newspapers have run into so much trouble. Simply put, we don't really have much of an attention span anymore.

For PR pros, this trend has brought an interesting challenge. On one hand, the number of overall outlets actually has increased if you count online venues like The Huffington Post and other blogs and e-zines that actually practice journalism. On the other hand, it's required PR pros to get much more serious about something many are uncomfortable with, which is writing.

Jack O'Dwyer and others who write about the PR profession have long lamented that many people's impression of PR is basically a “smile and dial” approach where 20-somethings are unleashed on the phone, given scripts, and told to sound friendly when they pitch reporters. That approach basically made PR a “numbers game,” in that PR execs believed that if you called enough people, surely a few of them were bound to say yes to your idea. Needless to say, that approach is a tougher sale in an age where the number of potential targets is shrinking. Now more than ever, a message has to be targeted, with the right subject matching the right person for success to be found.

Rather than continually debating what the future of PR will be like and how the status quo can be maintained, I urge everyone getting into the business, and even those practicing now, to think more about what you're saying than ever before. Success comes from articulating a value proposition, along with anticipating questions and skepticisms about your story idea or pitch. Answering those even before you get very far down the road in your dialog with a particular reporter and editor will do a lot to favor your cause.

Many PR pros can also serve as valuable resources to reporters, especially those working in fields that are dominated by legal and legislative developments. In an era of shrinking newsroom budgets, reporters simply don't have the same amount of time that they once did to research stories and ideas. Therefore, PR pros who send well-researched pitches backed up with details on how the story suggestions will have a quantifiable impact will still find success.

Of course, many of the “old rules” will still apply. For example, when picking media targets, you still want to make sure that you're reaching the highest number of potential customers and clients for your client as possible. Also, try to think of quality over quantity when it comes to placements and other results. Finally, before embarking on any tactics, make sure everything's guided by a plan detailing how your efforts will further a client's goals.

While change is never easy and the evolution will certainly be unsettling, following some time-tested, common sense rules will greatly enhance the chances of a successful evolution.