Effective PR: thoughts from 21 years as a communicator

This month I have now racked up twenty one years of working in PR and communications. I have certainly lived through a revolution in the way that we communicate but many of the core principles of PR remain the same despite the disruptive and game-changing influences of the rise of digital and social media, the turbulence in the world of TV and the slow steady decline of print media while remaining influential.

When I started in my first job as a press assistant at the fab Bristol-based charity Sustrans back in September 1997 we used to fax and post out press releases and we had to use the phone (yes that is right we had to talk to people) to get pick up for our stories. This was also in the days before email (they do exist) when you had time to think and you didn’t spend your time with pot-noddle productivity, i.e. responding to the latest email to ping into your in box, instantly.

Now seems a good time to reflect on some of what I think still rings true for impactful and effective PR and Communications.

Research matters –listening to the radio, reading a paper or checking-in on twitter should be how everyone working in communications starts every working day (and also keeps across things at the weekend too). It is vital that you understand the media – the way papers are put together, what works for live news programmes and the structure of TV programmes that you might want to target. Our life is so dominated by digital-on-the-move-communications that you can forget that it is still worth reading a physical paper (and I mean all papers) and listening and watching the TV and radio. My proudest moments in communications have been built on the foundation of getting to know what makes the journalists and programmes that you want to reach tick and how you can create stories that they’ll want to cover.

Coffee and chats – developing good relationships with the media is a vital part of being a good press officer (this doesn’t mean that they won’t cover challenging stories about your organisation). This takes time and patience and is built on the foundation of research (see above) and understanding what people write about.  You ideally want to be seen as a good source of stories and also the first person they think of for those more fallow periods of the year (August and Christmas) when the news agenda goes a bit quieter.

Pictures remain at the heart of communications – planning ahead to get the right picture is really important. We all know how a strong picture can make or break a story and it can be a great frustration for press officers when the images that are sent to support a story are just too poor to use. Pictures can be sourced from photo libraries but commissioning your own photography can add an extra dimension to a story that excites the picture desk and can help the story fly on twitter and Instagram.

Telling stories – storytelling is at the heart of what it means to be human and how we share information (and have been for thousands of years). For all of the planning in the world, communications will only work if you have a strong story to tell that will connect with people and be understood by them. I’ve worked on enough projects and campaigns that are awash with jargon, where you have to be honest with people and say that stripped back and accessible prose is the only way forward. You also have to be proactive: don’t wait for stories to fall into your lap, otherwise you’ll be waiting a long time. Building good internal relationships with people that get the value of communications is so important.

The release is dead, long live the release – every so often a comment piece will appear in PR Week or a blog as an obituary for the humble press release.  I still believe in the press release as an important tool in the communications toolbox. Yes you need a range of content and a key messaging document but the writing of a straight down the line press release will help craft a compelling story and journalists still need them (together with exclusives and more placed pieces). Releases are seen as documents of record and in my mind being able to get a complex story across in one or two sides of A4 is a key communications skill.

Data-driven PR – we live in a world awash with data. Seeing the real-time impact of your communications activity via google analytics and social media tools has made life easier compared to the days of waiting for press cuttings to arrive in the post. However, the big challenge now is using the data to understand what our audiences want and how to reach them all with the right message through the most appropriate channel. This level of sosphication means that some of the measureable rigour of marketing can be brought to PR and communications. It also means that the onus is now on us as communications professionals to actually use the data that we can access to improve the way that we communicate.

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