Saturday, January 19, 2008

Learning PR the hard way

Okay, let's do a bit of clearing up here.

First of all, PR is not "spinning," lying, cheating, flack-ing, or stunt-producing.

PR is not advertising. Nor is it marketing. And it is not "publicity" though most people seem to feel it is exactly that.

And I refuse to be called a press agent because I do so much more than that.

PR is a management function. It's managing communication between an organization and its publics. If you're a nonprofit, I help you send your messages out to the community. In fact, I don't just send the messages. I develop a comprehensive plan so you establish a good relationship with the community, strategies and tactics included. I help you meet your overall goals and objectives. After all, you're not an organization if you don't have a public or publics. That's why it's called "public relations."

If you're a business, I help you build a good profile in the community. In fact, I don't just help you establish a good corporate image; I help you establish a good relationship with the community and your investors/stakeholders and even with your own employees. I'm all about the bottom line. Product launches and special events are tactics I use to meet that bottom line. But I am not advertising.

If you're in a crisis and have seriously fucked up by putting lead in your toys or something, I step in. I wouldn't work for you if this was something you did intentionally and knowingly have put consumers at risk. I do not "spin" or skew news to your favour but encourage you to be honest and show that you are doing everything in your power to solve your problems, and let stakeholders know about it. I'm actually telling the truth when I send out those press releases.

While there are PR people who do not live up to industry standards of honesty and integrity, most would prefer to practice their profession ethically. That's why there are organizations like the Public Relations Society of America, International Association of Business Communicators and Canadian Public Relations Society. These orgs provide accreditation for practitioners and set the standards for PR practice. Anyone can call themselves publicists or press agents, but PR is so much more. There's:

-media relations
-internal or employee relations
-investor/financial relations
-consumer/customer relations
-community relations
-special events management
-public affairs
-marketing communications
-issues management (proactive)
-crisis communications (reactive)

If you're a small business looking for exposure on the community newspaper, take out an ad. You'll see ink on paper for sure, if that's all you want. You'll have the message exactly the way you want it to be seen. Don't get the false idea that PR ensures good coverage if you said things to the media that can be blown way out of proportion. Case in point:

...So she tried again on her own. Last year, Ms. McKay heard that television newsmagazine "20/20" wanted to interview female CEOs. She got in touch with the show and in an interview revealed that she sometimes kept her cellphone turned on in movie theaters and slept next to her laptop. She assumed she'd be portrayed as a busy business owner.

But when the segment aired, she learned it was titled "That's So Rude! What's Happened to Manners in America?" Five minutes into the segment, she says, the hate email began rolling in. Six consulting clients left. "I never thought we'd recover," she says.

Because that's one of the things distinguishing PR from advertising -- you have no control over what is being said in the media. There are gatekeepers -- the editors, the reporters. You have to find the right PR firm for you (don't think all PR agencies are the same), one that specializes in your trade/industry and truly understands your goals and objectives and whom you can have a good working relationship with. Case in point again:

Ms. Zable Fisher had read about Ms. McKay's business and initially contacted her. Reassured that she could simply end the contract at any point if she wasn't seeing results, Ms. McKay paid $1,000 to get started. Ms. Zable Fisher asked Ms. McKay about her PR dream (appearing on "The Oprah Winfrey Show") and what she wasn't so interested in (radio interviews).

Ms. Zable Fisher reaches out to media contacts when she thinks Ms. McKay might be a fit for them — on topics from women-owned businesses to her animal-rights activism.
For instance, Ms. Zable Fisher says her bill for arranging the interview that led to this article will be $6,000. Landing a feature in a large newspaper tops her price scale, which starts at $500 for a mention on a low-traffic Web site or small radio or TV show. Ms. Zable Fisher occasionally forwards interview opportunities without requesting payment. Ms. McKay likes the exposure she has gained so far.

If you equate "results" only to the number of times you're mentioned in the media, maybe it's better that you just take out an ad. Secure a 30-second commercial spot on the radio, pay for a billboard or print some fliers to stick around the neighborhood. There's a lot of unseen PR "results" that just can't be measured by the number of articles in the newspaper -- the local journalists knowing of or about your business, better communication with and among your investors and employees, better standing in the community etc. Public RELATIONS is the name, not Exposure or Publicity, though these could be integral components of the comprehensive term "public relations." Of course, a good PR specialist or firm would have established the means and method of results measurement before they've even started any strategic tactic, media mentions, sales increase or whatnot. But bear in mind there is no direct correlation to the number of products you sell and the amount of work the PR person put in.

Paying for PR only when it "works" is a potentially confusing concept. Make sure you are in agreement with your PR person over what "results" really mean. Make the distinction between long-term results (e.g. good corporate image) over short-term ones (e.g. mentions in the paper which could easily be done through advertising, though the weight of credibility is much higher if you're mentioned in a tiny column of news than when you're seen on a gigantic one-page advertising spread).

PR is a strategy, not a tactic. In chess, it's the gameplan, not the move.

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