At least three times a week, I get emails from entrepreneurs or small-business owners asking for advice on public relations.
The questions range from “How much should I budget?” and “Should I hire an agency or an in-house person?” all the way to “What can I expect from a sales standpoint if I engage in PR?” This last one makes me cringe the most, because it likely means that the person asking doesn’t really understand PR’s multi-faceted function.
Red flag. Or perhaps, white?
One of the biggest challenges both startup founders and established companies face is keeping up with the evolving PR landscape. They certainly aren’t alone, as the industry also struggles to keep up. Furthermore, the implications of technology and other various drivers (the economic downturn and self-publishing, for example) have affected PR in ways that have yet to fully be discovered.
Related: Are You Ready for a PR Firm?
While I certainly don’t have a magic bullet in terms of answering every PR question that comes across my desk, what I do have is a cadre of extremely adept PR professionals who can help us all understand the ever-changing industry, and what these changes mean for your business.
So whether you are “DIY-ing” PR or hiring an agency to bolster your efforts, below are seven things you should know that have changed to industry over the past decade. Having knowledge of these shifts (including how big data affects PR and what skill sets are required) will likely be useful in understanding what PR should, could and would do for your company.
1. Every aspect of PR is driven by data. Ahh yes, data. Big data. Small data. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Whether qualitative or quantitative, the most effective PR campaigns take both into account while aligning efforts with business objectives.
“PR pros now have to guide clients on gathering the right data from the plethora of metrics they possess and, more importantly, expertly use that data to craft a compelling narrative,” says Kevin McLaughlin of Resound Marketing.
Those who do this are game changers within their businesses, and invaluable resources to the press. So if you’re hiring an agency, ask how they use data to guide their strategy. If you’re hiring someone in-house, they should possess a fundamental knowledge of how to apply data.
2. The evolution of pitching. Previously, when you sent a reporter an email or called them, they responded. Today, reporters and bloggers are inundated with pitches.
“While relationships and targeted pitches were important before, you can't get away with mass pitching anymore, less you risk getting called out by reporters publicly for missing the mark," says seasoned PR pro and co-founder of MeekerQuinn, Heather Meeker. "Pitching has to be thought through carefully and backed by research. It's all about how you tell a client's story in the context of that moment.”
Got it? No more mass emailing pitches. You will likely end up on every journalist's s**t list and could even be referenced in incendiary publicly-accessbile articles.
3. The numbers rule. “Measurement and analytics are playing an enormous role in illustrating the value and return on investment of public relations today," says Kathy Wilson, managing partner of Tier One Partners. "The old measurement standards (think advertising equivalency or mere clip counts) are long gone.”
Wilson and her colleagues have been in the industry for over two decades and have represented hundreds of leading technology companies. They have also been front and center to watch this shift toward analytics-driven PR.
“Today, PR campaigns need to be approached with an emphasis on the programs helping to meet key business objectives, whether it's driving website traffic, increasing engagement with audiences segments, or even pushing leads into the sales funnel," she says.
4. The definition of “influence.” Media are no longer the only powerhouses that can impact brand awareness. You know that blogger who lives in the middle of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and tends to be where you go for the best college sports analysis? Exactly.
Nova Communications founder Jennifer Donovan gives color to this idea of influence: “As the world has become hyper-connected vis-à-vis the Internet, digital influencers and well-connected people on social media can do wonders for your brand. People trust people and a recommendation from a trusted advisor or friend can move mountains.”
5. PR’s trans-functional role. “In 2010, I announced we were no longer a PR firm,” quips the indomitable Gini Dietrich, one of the industry’s leading voices, author of Spin Sucks and co-founder of Chicago-based Arment Dietrich. “I did that because I was tired of prospects calling and saying they wanted PR, when what they really wanted was just publicity.”
To her point: Publicity alone does not a happy client make six months down the road.
“We’ve integrated the four media types: paid, earned, shared and owned to help a client achieve real success while also increasing awareness and building reputation,” she says.
Related: 5 Great Ways to Measure PR Success
This is something to keep in mind as you set out to develop your PR plan. Whether you're outsourcing or insourcing the function, remember that “publicity” is just one piece of the puzzle -- and it alone won’t get you very far.
6. Reading remains fundamentally important. Something that hasn’t changed per se, but has become more blaringly important, is the idea of taking the time to read. It seems silly to even have to bring it up, but most people now don’t read -- they skim and digest headlines.
“While it’s a skill that’s developed in kindergarten, reading is the single most important thing a PR pro can do," says Jennifer Jewett of Ubiquity PR. "The key is appreciating the importance of reading and setting aside time daily to do it. This is the only way you’ll truly understand an industry, stay up to date on what’s happening, and have data points to back up your actions.”
Another truth about reading: It’s the only way to ensure you’re pitching the right journalist with the right story! Reading up on what’s happening within PR and beyond makes you prepared to make intelligent, informed recommendations.
7. Strategic content targeting is mandatory. “The ability to tell the right story to the right audience and knowing how to write compelling content for a variety of audiences is non-negotiable in today’s digitally-driven landscape,” says Paul Wilke, whose company, Upright Position Communications, is a leading IPO PR firm located in the Bay Area.
Since PR is more and more responsible for content creation, those who lead PR efforts must understand the significance of great writing and visually compelling and engaging content. Meanwhile, professionals have to be ever mindful of how to aptly decide where that content should live.
The PR end-game. Ultimately, as you can see, PR has undergone a tremendous amount of change over the past decade. While PR can’t solve every problem, it is certainly one of the most important functions a company can leverage to win market share and mindshare in an ever-more noisy world.
Equipped with this “PR upgrade,” your company will have a much better shot at making a lasting impact on those who matter most.
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