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Friday, September 10, 2010

The Confusion About PR

I had an intersting discussion on Thursay that I had to pass along today.  It's a conversation that I've been involved in a million times and one that I think could be the reason why so many small businesses and non-profits struggle when it comes to defining exactly what they want to do when it comes to PR.

The young lady I was talking with happens to be in marketing.  Marketing is one of those things that has always seemed a bit like a black hole to me.  I certainly engage in marketing through my social media efforts, and I believe marketing is a valuable asset to any organization.  However, marketers don't always see social media and PR as viable tools in their arsenal and therefore there has always been a disconnect between PR, social media and marketing.

Case in point:  The woman asked me at one point in our conversation, "What do you do?" to which I replied, "I do PR and social media for small businesses and non-profits."  The blank stare I received told me everything I needed to know.  She really had no idea what I did for a living.  Her follow-up question was nearly as classic, "Sooooo...." she hesitated, "You send out press releases and stuff?  How do you make a living at that?" 

Listen, I'm used to this.  My entire life I've held jobs that simply didn't register for most folks.  When I told people I was a producer in radio and television, many thought, "Wow, that sounds like a cool job!"  And it was.  Invariably, though, they would always follow up with, "What exactly does that mean?  What do you DO?"

I thought when I moved into PR and social media, that question would be self-explanatory.  I was sadly mistaken.  The fact is, most people really don't know for sure what PR means.  As I thought about this conversation more and more, it dawned on me that this could be the reason why so many small business and non-profit PR efforts fail; they really don't know what PR is.

Obviously, that was one of the reasons why I started this blog.  It's important to know what PR is before you can begin to successfully create and implement a PR campaign.  And yet, it still amazes me that for so many, PR is simply about sending out press releases.  For you loyal readers, you have seen that it's much more than that.  However, it's important to know that PR actually encompasses a few different areas, each one as important as the other for small businesses and non-profits.

Media Relations:

When most people think about PR, this is actually what they're familiar with.  The image of a PR pro is that of a person who spends their time trying to garner earned media coverage for their client.  And while this is important, this is only a part of what a true public relations professional does.

This aspect of PR is actually media relations and it can often be the hardest of the three tasks involved in good PR.  Most of what I have written about in this space has dealt with media relations since this is the aspect that most small businesses and non-profits desire from their PR efforts. 

Unlike the other three areas of PR, this one requires the most experience and the most patience.  This area not only involves putting together press releases, but understanding newsroom dynamics, timing, awareness of current events and a strong ability to be a good storyteller. 

There's a reason why the most successful media relations pro's are former journalists.  They have spent time in the trenches and understand instinctively how newsrooms operate and how best to pitch a story.  If you're simply looking for someone to come in and help you get some news coverage for an upcoming event or promotion, then you should really be looking for a qualified media relations individual rather than a fully equipped PR pro.

However, if you're wanting something more, something along the lines of a fully functioning and interactive PR campaign, make sure that you find someone who does more than just promise extensive news coverage.  You want them to talk to you about community outreach, civic outreach, partnerships and public interaction (including online interaction).  This is the person that will give you a well-rounded campaign and not one that makes a quick media splash before disappearing.

The Audience:

Before we move on to the other areas of PR, we need to look at the audiences you're campaign is going after.  Ultimately, you want the biggest audience you can get.  This is why media relations is so appealing.  You can reach tens of thousands of potential customers all at once if you get a feature story in the local paper or leading 10pm newscast.  But those stories are here and gone in a day or so.  Unless you become a regular news darling, you're likely going to only get a single spike in your activity before thing return to normal.

In PR, we're usually dividing up the audience.  There's the media audience, the reporters, producers and editors we're pitching our stories to.  Then there's the public audience, the ones who, ultimately you want the story to reach, and then there's the wildcard audiece.  This audience can be government officials, other businesses or a specifically consumer audience. 

Reaching each of these different audiences is best done through different venues.  A good media relations person knows how to best reach the media audience.  They know how to speak their language and convince them that your story is worth reporting on.  And of course, they're using the media to get your story and your message out to the second audience, the public at large.  They can even utilize specialty media to reach your wildcard or targeted audience.  But a good PR pro realizes that even the best placed news story only give so much bounce.  There are other methods that need to be used in order to really make your PR campaign successful.

Community Outreach:

This is an area of PR that often gets overlooked, but it's so vitally important, that without it, your campaign is doomed to failure.  What is community outreach?  It's very simple, it's getting out into the community and doing something visible, something impactful, something people will remember.  This could be as simple as setting up a booth at a local fair, or as complicated as setting up a travelling show that goes from neighborhood to neighborhood to tell folks what you're all about.

In the end, though, the purpose of community outreach is simply to get out in front of the public, potential customers or "stakeholders" as they're often called in PR circles.  Whatever you do, you need to make sure you are out in the community and visible.  This not only reinforces whatever media coverage you've received, but it also puts a human face on your organization. 

As with the media relations aspect, community outreach also has a media component to it.  Whereas media relations uses the media to get your message out to the public at large, an effective community outreach program can carry your message to the media.  If you want to raise awareness of famine in Africa and you use a powerful community outreach program to visually get your message across, you can stage your event on the steps of the capitol and find yourself surrounded by a handful of television cameras and reporter microphones.

Partnerships:

We've spent some time talking about partnerships before, but this is a third, very important aspect of quality PR.  A good PR pro is always looking for ways to leverage your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.  This area often falls on the shoulders of the organization's willingness to join forces.  I've worked with clients who were dead set against partnering with any other organizations.  This was a mistake in my opinion, but the decision was theirs, not mine, to make.

Partnerships certainly have some cons involved, most obvious is the fact that you suddenly have more chefs in the kitchen and you do lose a little of the autonomy that comes with handling your campaign completely by yourself.  But I believe the pro's outweigh the con's in most instances.

First, a good partnership opens up your organization to an entirely new audience.  You suddenly aren't just talking to folks who might already be aware of you, but you're talking to an audience that might not have ever heard of you.  More importantly, you're reaching these new potential customers through a source that these new folks already trust.  It's a bit like reading about a new restaurant from a newspaper critic who you don't know, or having a longtime friend tell you about a new restaurant.  The critic may love the place, but your longtime friend may have gone there and hated it.  Who do you think you'll listen to?  That's right, the person you know, the friend who's word you value more than some third party who you don't know.

Partnerships also build your public persona as a whole.  In other words, you get the recognition from your own efforts, but then you also get recognition from the efforts of your partner.  In essence, you double the impact of your campaign.  Of course, you partner is doing the same. 

Partnerships can also help shore up any weaknesses your campaign or organization might have in terms of media relations or community outreach.  Let's say your organization is great at getting media coverage, but lacks the kind of community outreach impact you'd really like.  Your best bet is to find a partner that is killer when it comes to community outreach, but might not have the same media relations reach that you do.  This kind of partnership can help shore up the weaknesses of both organizations.

Of course, a quality PR pro goes about finding the right kind of partner for your organization.  They do the research, they find potential partners, either in business or government circles that not only have similar goals, but also have the right cultural fit as well.  Then they work with both organizations to increase the reach of your message and media relations and community outreach efforts.

Final Note:

In the end, a PR pro wears a lot of different hats.  What you get out of your PR campaign really has more to do with what your goals are than what kind of PR pro you bring in.  For most small businesses and non-profits, you can't afford to bring in an agency to handle your campaigns.  You MIGHT, however, be able to afford to bring on a consultant to help with the efforts that you have probably already began.

If you do this, be sure you have your goals well defined.  Do you want more media relations?  Do you want to focus on community outreach?  Ideally, organizations would be able to handle their community outreach efforts and then only need to bring in a consultant to handle their media relations.  However, be aware that all aspects of PR work in concert with each other.  Whatever you do, you have to make sure that your media relations, your community outreach and your partnership efforts are all working towards the same goal with the same message.  If each one is working separately, it doesn't matter how well you execute your plan, it will still be doomed to fail.

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