Defining Public Relations, Part Two: Planning for Success

Calendar planning conceptLet’s say you’ve hired a public relations firm, and you are about to have your first meeting.  Of course, the first thing you will want from the meeting is a list of everything they are planning to do for you in the next month, right?  Primarily, you will want to know who in the media they will be contacting about you and when they think they will have some results.

But you may want to step back and consider the following questions:

  1. Do I have a plan for the project or continuing service I have engaged this firm for?
  2. Do they have enough in-depth information about our company to pitch good, solid stories to the news media?

If the answer to each of these questions is “no,”  you really need to take the time during this first meeting to share as much information as possible and ask for a strategic PR plan before anything is done.  That way, you will know what success looks like for your particular PR program – and how to measure it.

Some things to consider during the planning phase.

  • What is my ultimate goal for this PR program?  What do you want to happen within the time-frame of the program?
  • Who is my target audience?  Who do you want to reach with your message?  There may be – and often is – more than one target audience.
  • What is my corporate message?  Your corporate message is what you want people to identify as the main thing your company does or your organization stands for.
  • What is our PR strategy?  A PR strategy is your “road map” for getting to where you want to be.
  • What are the tactics that will be used?  Tactics are the individual activities – marketing materials (brochures, website), media pitches, social media outreach, speaking opportunities, etc. – that are used to carry out your strategy.
  • What are the PR objectives?    These are the measurable benchmarks for you to gauge along the way whether or not your PR program is succeeding.
  • What is the timeline?  You should have a solid idea of what will be done and when, based on your input as well as the PR firm’s best estimates about when things can be accomplished.  Keep in mind that you, as the client, will need to be accessible for consultations and approvals all along the way to keep your timeline on track.  PR firms do not operate well in a vacuum, and most will not send anything out on your behalf without your prior approval.

You may feel that taking the time to plan will mean a serious delay in the implementation of your program.  Yes, there will be some delay, but it shouldn’t take more than a month to get everything on paper and ready to go.   Then you won’t be taking off on this new adventure without a road map.  You will have a really good idea of where you are going and how you will get there.

Next time:  Telling your story

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Defining Public Relations: Part One

PuzzleHiring a PR firm for your business can be a daunting process, especially if it’s the first time you have ever done so.  For one thing, you may be somewhat confused about what a PR firm does – and frankly, who could blame you?  Portrayals of PR practitioners on television or in the movies can be all over the map; schmoozers, hustlers, party planners and influence peddlers are all mixed in with the occasional true representation.    For the small business owner, it’s difficult to determine exactly what a PR firm does and how it can help their business.

It’s really up to PR people to define what they do and not assume everyone knows already.  Today, we begin a series about public relations and its various practices.  Some PR firms may do most or all of the practice areas we will cover; others may specialize in a few specialty areas.

But before we get into what public relations is, it might be a good idea to provide a short list of what it is NOT.

Five misconceptions about PR:

  1. PR is not just about writing and sending news releases.  Think of a news release as the bread and butter that accompanies the meal.  It’s not the whole meal or even the main course.  Every business or nonprofit organization needs to begin any public relations program with a strategic plan – one that incorporates their overall goal, short-term objectives, target audiences, strategy, tactics and how success will be measured.  A news release is one of many tactics that may be used in carrying out the plan.
  2. PR is not “free advertising.”  First of all, public relations and advertising messages are entirely different.  You can overtly promote your organization in an ad, while to obtain “earned” media coverage, your story must make a worthwhile contribution to the editorial content of that media outlet.  That can mean time spent doing background research, designing story angles and pitching ideas.  Second, public relations work is not free; whether you are using in-house staff or an outside firm, you will pay for the time and talent that it takes to get recognition for your business.
  3. PR is not “one size fits all.”  Every business or nonprofit organization is unique in some way, and no one PR plan will be right for each one.   That’s why when you call a PR firm and ask what they can do for you, you may instead get a series of questions in return or a request to meet and talk with you in person.  That’s because the answer to your question depends on all of the factors that will go into your company’s strategic PR plan (see #1, above).
  4. PR cannot cover up your company’s wrongdoing.  Hiring a PR firm to put a positive spin on bad acts by your company is pretty much useless.  The truth has a way of coming out, and in today’s media climate it can be devastating to your business, as online and social media can reach millions of people before you can do anything about it.  The best way – perhaps the only way – to counter negative media coverage is to apologize immediately for any wrongdoing and begin a long-term program to repair the damage to your reputation.  And that PR program has to be based on good acts, or it won’t succeed.
  5. Good PR will rarely bring overnight success.  Public relations is mainly about building a positive long-term reputation.  Yes, you may hire a PR firm to publicize an event, but for lasting impact, you will need a sustained effort over some period of time.

Next in the series:  Planning for success.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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PR FOR START-UPS

ribbon cuttingMost start-ups need public relations, but few have any idea of what a realistic PR budget would be for their particular business.

Often, they decide to handle PR and marketing themselves. This decision can work out fine, depending on the capabilities of the person handling it, the time he or she has to devote to it, and whether or not there is a clear PR strategy.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  Business owners may set up a website, invest in SEO, start a Facebook page and Twitter account, do some advertising and maybe send out a news release or two.  They then bemoan the fact that none of these activities have resulted in any significant business opportunities.

By the time they consult a PR firm, they usually have used up a big chunk of their budget and, frankly, their faith in the value of public relations – both of which make it difficult to plan and implement an effective PR program.

Here are a few suggestions to avoid this merry-go-round:

1.  Check with owners of other small businesses that provide products or services that are similar to yours.  Focus on businesses that have been operating successfully for 3-5 years.  What worked for them?

2.  Ask other new business owners for recommendations of any public relations firms who understand start-ups.

3.  Consult with one or two recommended consultants, but don’t ask for a proposal unless you are seriously planning to hire a firm.  If you just want some strategic advice and ideas, pay the firm for the time they will spend doing that.

4.  Consider hiring a freelance PR person to help you.  Most freelancers have quite a bit of experience before they go out on their own, and their fees are usually quite reasonable.

Why do you need a strategic PR program?  Here’s one reason, courtesy of Wendy Marx, CEO of Marx Communications in Trumbull, CT,  a fellow member of PR Boutiques International.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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So as I was saying…

Dictionary Series - Marketing: communicationI thought it was just me, but apparently people have been noticing this occurrence for quite some time:  the use of the connective word “so” as the beginning of a sentence.

Indeed, it was featured three years ago in a New York Times column by Anand Giridharadas, who examined the current usage, gathering the opinions of experts and finally speculating on the fact that in a world in which communication is fragmented and there is so much competition for our attention, the use of “so” is our effort “to be heard,” and he concludes: “We insist, time and again, that this is it; this is what you’ve been waiting to hear; this is the ‘so’ moment.”

My concern is not based on linguistics or psychology, as interesting as those topics are; it’s more about what the use of “so” to begin every sentence does to “messaging” – the ever-important PR tool.

As I listen to media interviews on the radio or watch them on television, I hear “so” at the start of responses to questions so frequently that it’s hard to ignore.

Interviewer:  “What is the nature of your business?”                                                 Response:  “So our main product is information.”                                                 Interviewer:  “That’s a pretty broad topic.  What do you mean by that?”                Response:  “So we collect and analyze data for surveys and productivity studies.”

You get the idea.

This is the problem with crutch words in general, and “so” is only the latest to join the crowd.  Well, like, um, uh and the ubiquitous you know are all distracting fillers.  What’s even more of a concern, the use of these words seems to be contagious.  We often hear them a few times and begin using them ourselves.  Like weeds in our gardens, we must be ever-vigilant to keep crutch words from invading our vocabulary.

These words are a serious impediment to good communication, and they can completely overshadow your message points in a media interview.

Posted by Margot Dimond

 

 

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Planning: The All-Important PR Tool

plan_ahead_poster-rf50b9d08a292436b9da63b1bfb7bf4eb_w8o_400“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” is the only part of Murphy’s Law most people remember, and although the anonymous adage is meant to be humorous, it’s a good guideline to keep in mind when planning any PR project – especially an event.

Expect the unexpected:  promised items that don’t arrive on time, weather that doesn’t cooperate, audio visual breakdowns, last minute requests – all of these and plenty of other things can pop up.  Planning for an event is not the time to be a positive thinker.  Rather, it’s the time to think of everything that could go wrong and plan for every contingency.

This goes for small events, such as ribbon cuttings, open houses or press conferences, to large special events involving thousands of people.  Be prepared and plan ahead should be your bywords.

Tradeshows are in a special category, since most exhibitors are traveling some distance to attend them.  This makes it essential to plan every detail, as is wonderfully related by Katie Creaser in her article, “Going Back to Basics: Tradeshow Must-Haves” on Tech Affect.

In this article, Creaser not only shares some “nightmare” tradeshow scenarios, she also provides an extensive list of “must-haves” for the tradeshow exhibit planner.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Will Social Media Enhance Perception of PR?

In a recent article in Fortune Tech, Gregory Galant, CEO of MuckRack, writes about the lack of respect for public relations as a business function, especially as compared to advertising.  There’s no program celebrating PR practitioners to compare with the popular AMC TV series Mad Men, he notes.

After providing several reasons why he thinks this is the case, Galant predicts a big change with the rising importance of social media, which “play to the strengths of public relations rather than advertising.”

Here’s why, according to Galant:

  • Effects of PR can now be measured to a greater extent than ever before in history
  • Social media can drive more human communications.
  • You can now scale PR to influencers and by promoting articles.
  • Public relations now has meaningful data to influence big decisions.

You can read the full article here.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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“Spin,” Part 2: Lipstick on a Pig

spinPutting Lipstick on a Pig, Making a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear – these phrases have been used for years to describe so-called “PR spin.”  It’s the usually fruitless activity of trying to slap a positive face on a negative event.

A few years ago, a struggling charity that had expanded its services beyond what it could adequately fund, sent out a letter to its contributors.  The letter, written in a cheerful – almost giddy – tone, described this “exciting” news:  the organization was cutting many of its programs (and the people who worked in them) to focus on its core services.

Yes, it was a positive move financially; no longer would the charity have to struggle to pay its bills.  However, the tone of the letter indicated a complete lack of regard for the negative impact of its decision – not only on the people who used those discarded programs, but also on the employees who had just lost their jobs.

In trying to make what was a necessary, but distressing, decision sound positive, the letter came across as insensitive and insincere.  How much better to just state the facts – that the organization was having financial difficulty and was forced to make cuts to ensure its future survival, since its core services were sorely needed by the community.  That could be followed up with a Call to Action, asking donors to help with the current situation and perhaps increase donations for the future in order to restore some, if not all, of those programs.  After all, one presumes that a charity’s donor base is essentially a friendly audience that supports the cause.

This type of behavior is not unique to that charity; we see it almost daily in the media.  Some prominent organization or person will do or say something that is embarrassing – or, in some cases, just plain awful.  Then they will try to pretend that the incident either never happened – or didn’t happen the way it was portrayed.  Usually these denials are so transparent they prolong what would have been long-forgotten with a simple mea culpa.

In short, when bad things happen, it’s always best to face up to it.  Get the facts out there, quickly and without subterfuge, and tell everyone what you plan to do about the situation.  Ask for assistance (if it’s called for) and report back from time to time to inform everyone about how things are going.

You – and your organization – will look a lot more credible without the “spin.”

Posted by Margot Dimond

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Nonprofit Organizations and Social Media

Nonprofit OrganizationsNonprofit organizations are lagging in the use of social media for outreach to their constituents, according to a recent survey by software and service company Sage, covered in an article in this week’s PR News.

Almost two-thirds of respondents in the study said they don’t use any digital tools to manage social media programs. Not surprisingly, more than half of the respondents weren’t happy with their social media efforts.

Since social media marketing would seem to be made for nonprofit organizations and their communications programs, this is an unfortunate situation.  But from my point of view as someone who has handled public relations for many nonprofit organizations – large and small – there is no mystery as to why this is happening.

While there are many large nonprofit organizations, there are also many more than have limited budgets and operate with a small, multi-tasking administrative staff whose work lives are stretched pretty thin.  Very few charities have an in-house public relations person – let alone a communications staff.

Outsourcing these activities is the answer for these organizations, but they often opt for pro bono work by an outside agency, where necessity dictates their taking a back seat to paying clients.

To be effective, social media marketing takes strategic planning, time and dedication.

It can be a vicious circle:  nonprofit organizations who don’t communicate with their publics on a regular basis miss out on fundraising opportunities, and lack of fundraising opportunities keeps them from adequately funding their communications programs.

Nonprofit organizations that eventually become financially stable have one thing in common: they have leaders who think big and look to the future.  they invest in a public relations program – and in today’s world, that program includes social media.

Post by Margot Dimond

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Is that all we can expect? Or did we choose the wrong PR firm?

As the owner of a professional services firm, I decided late last year that we needed to do a better job of promoting our services.  I know other firms similar to ours that receive quite a bit of attention in the media, and they seem to be expanding at a faster pace than we are, so it definitely seemed like the thing to do.  We interviewed several firms – small, medium and large – and chose the largest firm because it seemed to have the most to offer.  They touted their contacts at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and gave us every indication that we would be featured in those national newspapers.  Unfortunately, after six months our total media coverage has been a small feature in a local business publication.  We are very disappointed and have decided to end our public relations program entirely.  Is this a common occurrence?  Why did this happen?

In answer to your direct question:  This is not a common occurrence, but it does happen all too often.  Unfortunately, it usually happens to business owners who have never before used any type of public relations service.  If your knowledge of public relations and what it can accomplish comes from what you see on television or in the movies, you may think that PR people can pick up the phone and news people will come running.  If only it were that easy!

It is rare that a small firm or a startup gets covered in major national newspapers, and for a public relations firm to dangle that idea in front of you was very misleading.  If, in fact, they promised you editorial coverage, they are in violation of the requirement to “accurately define what public relations activities can accomplish,” as listed in the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, the professional membership organization for PR professionals.

Rather than giving up on having a public relations program, why not think about what you really want to gain from it?  You seem to want to expand your business.  By that, do you mean simply to have more clients?  Or do you have a specific type of client that you would like to work with?  Once you have determined the type of client you want to reach, you will need to have your PR firm work with you to design the right kinds of messages and media outlets to effectively reach them.  At that point, you should expect to see some kind of Action Plan with tactics, activities and timetables.

Your public relations program – whether undertaken internally or by an outside firm – should be viewed as an ongoing enterprise.  It’s all about reputation building and reputation maintenance, and that takes time.

Should you hire an outside firm, or go the DIY route?  Here are a some guidelines.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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If it sounds like it’s too good to be true….

National PublicityPicture this:  You have a relatively new business – one that has received some positive publicity.  But nothing has prepared you for a call from a television production company that wants to feature you on a national television show.  Wow – What luck!

You haven’t heard of this program, but the producer drops the name of a famous broadcaster and indicates that he or she is affiliated with the program.  You are impressed.  The producer sets up an interview day and time for you because they have to see if you are a “good fit” for the program.  During the interview, you are told that you will be responsible for paying $20,000 in production fees to produce your feature story.  Apparently, being a “good fit” means being willing to pay.

This month, one of our clients received two of these calls.  Our client refers all calls from the news media to our office, and we check out the media outlets and reporters with which we are unfamiliar to see if they are legitimate and, if so, what kind of stories they do.

These callers gave us pause.  For one thing, they didn’t want to talk to the public relations person; they only wanted to talk to the CEO.  That’s a red flag.  Most reporters or producers do not object to having their interview requests screened by a public relations person.

Second, in each case, the “producer” said he wanted to interview the CEO to see if the company would qualify for their program.  This is nonsense.  By the time reporters call for an interview, they already are interested in doing a story.

After investigating, we discovered that these programs were “pay for play” schemes.  Pay for Play in the media has been around for quite some time, but never promoted in such an underhanded way.  Many magazines – especially trade magazines – will tell you upfront that if you buy an ad you can get editorial space as well.  The same goes for infomercials – those paid-for time slots that promote products in a talk show setting.  But only in the past few years have we seen this type of deceptive approach.

How do you tell Pay for Play from the real thing?  You should immediately get off the phone if:

1.  You have never heard of the program, while the person on the phone is insisting it’s a big deal.  If you’ve never heard of it, it either doesn’t exist or isn’t worth your time.

2.  The person calling wants to interview the business owner or top executive to see if they “qualify” or are a “good fit” for their program.

3.  The caller is insistent about talking only to the business owner or top executive.

Posted by Margot Dimond

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