By Robert Wynne, Contributor
The public relations industry does a terrible job of public relations.
Very few people can explain what people in public relations really do. If you’re a cop, a construction worker or a cowboy, everybody knows your job function. (If you’re a cop, construction worker and a cowboy who hangs out with a guy dressed in leather, you’re in the Village People.)
As the owner of a boutique PR agency, I constantly have to explain that we don’t buy advertisements, we don’t order journalists to write stories for our clients, we don’t produce cute radio jingles, and we don’t hand out free samples at the mall. Yes, we try to promote our clients, our products or ourselves. But unlike advertisers, we persuade our external or internal audiences via unpaid or earned methods. Whether it’s the traditional media, social media or speaking engagements, we communicate with our audiences through trusted, not paid, sources.
To help the general public understand public relations and how to use these skills, and for those in the industry who need to explain their jobs to their grandparents, the occasional stranger, and friends, here are Five Things Everyone Should Know about Public Relations.
What is public relations?
PR is the Persuasion Business. You are trying to convince an audience, inside your building or town, and outside your usual sphere of influence, to promote your idea, purchase your product, support your position, or recognize your accomplishments. Here’s what the Public Relations Society of America PRSA agreed upon after a few thousand submissions: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
PR people are storytellers. They create narratives to advance their agenda. PR can be used to protect, enhance or build reputations through the media, social media, or self-produced communications. A good PR practitioner will analyze the organization, find the positive messages and translate those messages into positive stories. When the news is bad, they can formulate the best response and mitigate the damage.
The Princeton Review notes that: “A public relations specialist is an image shaper. Their job is to generate positive publicity for their client and enhance their reputation … They keep the public informed about the activity of government agencies, explain policy, and manage political campaigns. Public relations people working for a company may handle consumer relations, or the relationship between parts of the company such as the managers and employees, or different branch offices.”
Our tools include the following:
Write and distribute press releases
Write pitches (less formal than press releases) about a firm and send them directly to journalists
Create and execute special events designed for public outreach and media relations
Conduct market research on the firm or the firm’s messaging
Expansion of business contacts via personal networking or attendance and sponsoring at events
Writing and blogging for the web (internal or external sites)
Crisis public relations strategies
Social media promotions and responses to negative opinions online
2. How is public relations different than advertising?
It’s Unpaid vs. Paid. Earned vs. Purchased. Credible vs. skeptical. Public relations tastes great, advertising is less filling.
There’s an old saying: “Advertising is what you pay for, publicity is what you pray for.”
Advertising is paid media, public relations is earned media. This means you convince reporters or editors to write a positive story about you or your client, your candidate, brand or issue. It appears in the editorial section of the magazine, newspaper, TV station or website, rather than the “paid media” section where advertising messages appear. So your story has more credibility because it was independently verified by a trusted third party, rather than purchased. Here’s a good chart from a previous column:
Another huge difference is price. PR firms charge monthly retainers or can be hired for specific projects. Advertising can be very pricey.
A former client purchased one full-page ad in a weekly magazine that cost him $125,000. He expected a wave of phone calls, viral media and multiple conversations about the ad. He got zero. In contrast, getting quoted in the New York Times, Forbes and Reuters resulted in national speaking invitations, calls from new and existing clients, and solid credibility. Not everyone can afford $125,000, but advertising can be expensive when you figure the cost of the space or time plus the creative designs and production costs. And most advertisements need to be repeated several times before the consumer can be influenced.
Because it’s in their best interest to sell you more ads, advertising folks tell clients what you WANT to hear. “Baby you’re the best! You just need to pay for a few months more for billboards and TV spots!” Because PR people deal with crises, image enhancement and creation of long-term relationships where your story often must be accepted by others (the media) before you obtain recognition, PR people tell you what you NEED to hear.
3.What is news?
Before hiring a PR firm or starting your own campaign, it’s important to understand the nature of news. There are only two ways to make news: 1) Create a story or 2) Follow a story.
This is of vital importance to anyone who wants to understand, execute and exploit the power of public relations. Before answering your client or boss who orders you to “Get me on the front page of the New York Times!” Getting a story in a publication because you want it there, or your boss demands it, doesn’t matter. Remember, journalists, speakers, bloggers and other influencers are not stenographers. They will ask “What’s in it for Me and my audience?” In other words, pretend you are on the receiving end. Answer this: What’s the story? Why should I care? Why should I care NOW?
Here is more criteria to consider: Is it new? Is it unusual? Is there a human interest angle? Here are the two ways to make news.
Create A Story. This is the most common form of public relations. It involves storytelling and. Most of the time, firms looking to make the news want to promote something fresh: a new car, a new app, a new market, a new CEO or other significant hire, a new business plan, merger, winning an award, something of this nature. Other methods of making news include bylined articles written for an independent publication, Opinion-Editorials (not about you, about a controversial topic), social media (blog posts, tweets, photos, videos, etc.), content marketing on your website, and more.
Some firms create their own events or speak in front of prestigious groups. This can be great, but it can be time consuming and expensive, with no guarantees of coverage. Many colleges and universities create news with surveys and original research. Entrepreneurs and small businesses usually can’t afford this expense. It may be easier to conduct simple phone and email surveys of peers, clients and suppliers. A brief series of questions that result in new information that shed light on a certain issue might be newsworthy to the trade media.
Follow a Story. Opportunity Knocks. You answer. This is when you notice a story in the news, and respond. It could be a plunge in the stock market; a political scandal; the economic effects of droughts or snowstorms; the popularity of a new crop and what it means for farmers and grain prices, etc. For breaking news, journalists often need an expert to comment in real time via a phone interview, video-conference, live video interview, Tweet, email or IM. Reporters often contact their usual list of suspects, experts whom they know or trust. With some quick thinking, reaching out can lead to great new connections and media attention.
When the story isn’t immediate, businesses can insert themselves into a trend. These are usually feature stories, in contrast to news happening today. If more law firms are cutting deals on hourly prices in return for guaranteed monthly retainers, and your attorneys signed a big deal like this with a major client, that’s one instance of a trend.
4. Can social media replace traditional media?
There’s a growing perception that blog posts or Tweets, if enough people see them, are just as good as quotes in the New York Times. Don’t be fooled by the hype. Social media can augment PR efforts and serve as an amplifier. Greg Galant, the CEO of the website Muckrack that connects PR practitioners to journalists, offers advice on for digital outreach.
“Boring doesn’t work on social media,” Galant says. “The last thing you want to do is take a press release and post it to a social network. It’s much better to tailor your announcement in a human way for each social network your audience will care about. On Twitter, come up with an exciting way to say your announcement in 107 characters, remember you’ll need to save 23 characters for your link. Find a great image related to your announcement to include on your posts in Instagram and Pinterest. Make a 6 second video about you announcement for Vine. Even on social networks where you can posts a lot of text, like Facebook and Tumblr, don’t post a press release. Rewrite it without the jargon, stock quotes and meaningless phrases as though you’re telling a friend why your announcement matters.”
Bonus advice: punch up your prose, such as imagining your headline as a tweet.
The Princeton Review notes that Digital PR is about “developing strong relationships with all the players in your social graph. The techniques include SEO, content development, social media, online newsrooms, websites, blogs and online media coverage. Online Reputation Social media and consumer generated content can have a rapid effect on your reputation – both positive and negative.”
“Building relationships Digital PR makes use of social media platforms, networks and tools to interact with people online and build relationships. The social media part is the content and conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube. The Digital PR part is the support functions needed to make those conversations relevant and effective – research, social audits, identifying influencers, developing and distributing the content.”
Author and digital media expert David Meerman Scott (“The New Rules of Marketing & PR”) preaches speed and relevance. Scott recommends these actions: “Blog your take on the news,” “Tweet it using an established hashtag,” “Send a real-time media alert,” “Hold a live or virtual news conference” and “Directly contact a journalist who might be interested.”
5. Can you measure PR?
But it’s not an exact science. There are many people and firms who have created many models, spreadsheets, and estimates. And let’s be clear. They are all estimates. Some are much better than others. This is easily the most emotionally charged subject in the PR industry.
Many professionals swear by the Barcelona Principles. These are seven voluntary guidelines established by professionals in the industry to measure the value of PR campaigns. The first principles were established in 2010 when practitioners from 33 countries met in Lisbon, Portugal. Just kidding, it was Barcelona. We will be examining this in more detail, including an interview with the author, in a future column. Measuring and judging and calculating the seven principles can be complicated, time consuming and costly, and this may involve hiring an outside firm, but it’s a noble effort and it’s worth further study. The principles were recently updated in 2015.
I don’t agree with their rejection of advertising equivalency for three reasons: user experience, buyer experience and the free market. User experience: Ads and editorial are seen at the same time, you cannot divorce one from the other. Buyer experience: businesses make the decision every day to spend their marketing funds on PR or advertising. It’s a choice grounded in reality. Free market: tens of billions of dollars are spent on TV, internet and print advertising every year. It’s a huge business that tries to communicate many of the same messages of PR, albeit in a different way.
But reasonable people can disagree. The Barcelona Principles, or anything else that bolsters the comprehension and value of the PR industry, is a good thing. Without efforts like these, nobody would know what we do. And if that happens, all of us might as well join a cover band for the Village People.
Robert Wynne owns a public relations agency in Manhattan Beach, CA. He is a former journalist who wrote for Newsweek and the L.A. Times.