Category Archives: PR

Effective PR: Research really does matter

Over the next six weeks I’m going to take a deeper dive into some of the principles that I feel are at the heart of PR and communications. They have remained a constant in more than two decades of working in press offices, large and small, across different sectors.

I’m starting with an essential and pretty fundamental ingredient to becoming a good and effective communicator – the fact that research really does matters.

Every day communicators should be consuming broadcast, print, digital and social media.  I’m always amazed how this isn’t the bread and butter of everyone working in PR and communications.  It is so easy to focus on social and digital where you can feel a buzz but you forget broadcast and print at your peril.

It is vital to get the mix right: understanding the look and feel of newspapers, magazines, TV and radio is really important. How can you hope to pitch ideas to media outlets if you don’t know how they are structured and what the deadlines are for placing stories?

When planning a PR campaign or thinking about placing a story build in the time to absorb the media that you want to target. Nothing annoys a journalist or producer more than a poorly pitched or timed story. You need to get it right because you only have one chance.

Make sure that you understand what makes specialist correspondents tick or the fact that news programmes can be very last minute or plan weeks ahead matter.  Get it right and give a journalist, editor or producer a good story and you can be laying the foundation for another one of my fundamental principles – good relationships.

I remember a producer who worked on the Sunday night staple – Countryfile on BBC1 – telling me that a PR got in touch the week before transmission with an idea for that week, when programmes can be planned months ahead.

You might think that print media, with dwindling circulations, and what is perceived to be traditional broadcast media in the age of Netlfix and the march of podcasts, are losing their place at the top table of influential communication channels. You’d be wrong. The new kids on the block do matter and provide so many more opportunities to get your story out there. But the daily papers and flagship news programmes still shape the days agenda and create the mood music for social media conversation. Get your story or organisation on to a prime slot on a news programme or a nice spread in a national or regional newspaper and it could generate extra interest.

Another useful piece of research is looking at the long- term trends of how people get their news or consume content. Following organisations such as the Reuters Institute or OFCOM on twitter can be a rich source of insight that will help you sharpen your knowledge of a rapidly evolving sector.

My proudest moments in communications have all been built on the foundation of research – 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.

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.

Video and media relations

Anyone who works in PR dreams of a You Tube sensation. Something that goes viral and gives you a second, third or even fourth bite of the cherry.

The reality is that these opportunities come up very rarely and its often the very simple that captures the public’s imagination.

Video is becoming an essential part of any story or PR campaign. It has the potential to add real value if done well. The devil is in the detail of the brief. Ask a production company or individual to make a video about x and you might get z. If you want y there is a need for a clear brief and you need a clear idea of the end product that you want.

Sometimes a home movie style film can work wonders. Another time a more slick and professional production will do the trick.

A well produced video with a storyline can also work for newspaper websites, whether local or national. They have plenty of space to fill and your video could be viewed by numbers far in excess of those that visit your website.

Time is also of the essence. Keep it short and punchy with clear messages and perhaps a call to action. A two minute film should do the trick.

Video is changing the face of media relations. But like so much digital media you need to think about it’s purpose and the end product. There is a danger of just producing a video for the sake of it.

The end of press officers?

Once upon a time it was all relatively clear. A press officer dealt with the press. Their job was to tell the story of the organisation they are working for to the outside world. And react to media calls with efficiency and effectiveness.

Yes there were elements of internal communications (depending on the size of the organisation) and the need to have a clear understanding of who you needed to know and how to get the stories.

You certainly needed to know your media well. Reading papers, flicking through magazines or listening to TV and radio provided you with a knowledge of where to place stories and kept you up to date with the issues of the day.

It was a clearly defined role with some grey areas where your communication skills would help other parts of the organisation.

But now the concept of a press officer role is fast becoming history. The brave new world of social media and the rise and rise of online driven content means that press officers have in effect become communications officers. It is as important to know how the digital world works and how quickly things can happen as understanding traditional media (newspapers, magazines etc). Yes the core part of a press officer role still deals with the media but this is evolving fast and there are new aspects to the job that didn’t exist even a few years ago.

These changing dynamics of media relations work mean that press officers need to think laterally all of the time. They need to have a clear idea of how stories can break and the need to think and act quickly to a story that can go global on twitter or Facebook in minutes.

The skills and experience needed are also rapidly changing. The way that stories break is moving beyond the press release to blogs and twitter. You can spend as much time dealing with a tweet as a phone call from a journalist.

To say that we’re all communication officers now is not over egging it. People working in a press office have always had to be good communicators that can write with brevity and accuracy and have the ability to grasp complex topics. But the clearly defined boundaries for press officers have broken down and in the purest sense this job title has become irrelevant.

Radio renaissance

Once upon a time the future was clear. As the pop song says: ‘video killed the radio star.’ Reading the rune stones meant seeing a future clearly dominated by TV. Countless channels and technological advances meant that TV would trump radio which seemed so last century.

The reality is somewhat different. Local BBC radio is thriving and the latest audience figures suggest that radio is far from being on it’s last legs. Many of the flagship BBC programmes such as the Today Programme are seeing their audiences rising and BBC Radio 2 presenters have a very high profile.

There is something intimate about listening to the radio. The power of words, carefully crafted stories and the richness of language can capture our imagination. Notions of a ‘fireside chat’ remain as alluring as ever. Whether it’s the president of the USA talking or a phone in on Talk Sport the radio breeds a special relationship between the listener and the broadcaster.

And the advent of smartphones and web TV had meant that we can listen to programmes when ever and where ever we want. We have the choice as never before. No need to get up with the lark to listen to Farming Today as I player means you’re in control.

What does this mean for people working in media relations? It means that broadcast journalists, researchers and producers matter. You need to think about how you get a story covered: whether it’s in the news bulletins or as a live interview. This means thinking about who your great storytellers are and supporting their development. Two to three minutes can seem like a lifetime when on air but it’s only a few hundred words so clarity and preciseness are the key watchwords.

Many programmes have loyal followings and can command large audiences that any national newspaper could dream of. Whether it’s a news story or a 30 minutes on orchards you need to understand the programme your pitching to: get those headphones on and listen.

Crisis, what crisis? (part one)

The way that an organisation deals with a crisis can make or break a reputation.

Handle it badly and years of brand loyalty can whiter away or an organisations name can become toxic. Get it right and an organisation can cement it’s reputation.

There are plenty of examples out there of organisations that have handled a crisis well getting the tone and reaction right. And there are plenty of examples of when things go badly wrong and run away from an organisation.

Most people, when something goes wrong, want to see someone take responsibility and a clear strategy for dealing with the crisis. Empathy is a key watchword and leadership is a key quality (making things happen rather than waiting for others to act).

Traditionally you had the deadlines that the print and broadcast media work to every day. This gave you time to think and get what you do and say right. Rolling news to some extent was game changing with reporters having hours of live telly to fill.

But with the rise of twitter and facebook we’re in a real period of flux. The rules of engagement have changed and you’re now dealing with instant responses. You might have had hours or even minutes to think and get it right but now it’s sometimes a matter of minutes. And what you say in 140 characters can travel the world in no time.

This in effect means that the role of a press officer is changing. It’s much more about communications in the whole and understanding the dynamics of social and digital media which can create added pressure or opportunity very quickly.

Yes times they are a changing and when it comes to dealing with the media in a crisis that must include new media too which can turn a story in an instant.