During my more than 30 years of working in public relations, I’ve learned an uncomfortable truth: No one knows what public relations is.
There are many reasons for this. Certainly, I can blame the (very few) movies and television shows that portray PR in a vague — or worse — highly exaggerated way. For example, Our Brand Is Crisis, Wag the Dog and Scandal present only a narrow version of what happens in political PR. And the PR done on Sex and the City and Flack is so far removed from reality that it’s barely recognizable to those of us in the industry.
I do have to admit, though, that the biggest reason public relations is misunderstood is because, well... that’s our job. The whole point of hiring a PR team is so they can operate from behind the scenes. We stand in the shadows, refining messages and finding the right opportunities to change perceptions, all with deliberate, subtle moves. Which means, of course, that if we’re doing our work right, no one will ever know we were there. Unfortunately, those clandestine habits have a negative trade-off. Not only does my own family have no idea what I do for a living, neither do many of the people whose businesses would benefit from public relations.
3 Common PR Questions
- Can I set it and forget it once I hire my PR team?
- My story is easy to understand, so I don’t need PR, right?
- Can I hire PR as soon as I feel my company is ready to tell the world what we’re doing?
3 Common PR Misconceptions Corrected
So please, enjoy this unfiltered view of a too-often misunderstood profession and let me share the many right, wrong and downright absurd ways I’ve seen PR done over the years. Here are questions I’ve received and misconceptions I’ve heard about optimizing systems and my take on how to solve and correct them.
Once I hire my PR team, I can step away and let them achieve my goals, right?
Sadly, that is wrong. Think about other investments in your business and your life. Do you hire employees and then ignore them? Or do you manage their work and oversee their progress?
How about a car or a house you might own. Do you watch out for issues and intervene when necessary? I hope you said yes to all of the above. (Don’t worry if you never clean behind the refrigerator. No one does that.) While your PR team is likely a capable group of people with the right background and skills, they can’t work in a vacuum.
Maybe it’s time for another story. Years ago, my agency worked for a wonderful company that was growing fast. They knew they could do even better by adding a PR program, so they took their time to get to know our team, agreed we were the right fit, and then hired us. Unfortunately, we could almost never get their attention after that.
My team did everything we could to set the stage for press outreach: We developed a PR plan, researched their competitors, created lists of target media and even spoke to some of their customers. Every time we asked the client to help us develop the story that would drive news coverage, they never had time. Despite asking repeatedly for more details about the customers we had met, we got no answer. Our media leads shared feedback from reporters that the company’s website was difficult to use and their messaging unclear. Nothing changed. We even ghost-wrote some articles on their behalf that their internal team never got around to approving.
On the few occasions we did get their attention, it was only for a few minutes at a time, which they generally used to tell us to “just figure it out.” Unfortunately, that couldn’t work. No matter how much information you share with your PR team, they can’t possibly know your business as well as you do. In the case of this partnership, that meant we were never able to uncover the right ways to talk about them to the media.
I’m sorry to say they spent a lot of money on a PR program that only accomplished a small amount of what would have been possible with the right level of attention from their side. As a rule, we require our clients to dedicate four hours per week to working with us. With any less than that, neither team is in a position to achieve their goals.
Our story is easy to understand, it’s all about the great work we do for our own customers.
My team often works with businesses whose story is built around the work they do for others, like you. Often, we’re able to gain lots of awareness on their behalf. Other times, however, we face an insurmountable obstacle.
Building press outreach entirely on the work you do for someone else presents another problem: You have to get permission to tell the story. Sometimes your customers are happy to agree. After all, they earn free PR in the process. Other times, sadly, they are not on board.
Maybe they work in a closely regulated industry. Or, they have competitors who are always looking for inside information. Many companies are careful to control any news reported on them with their own PR teams. Whatever the reason, it’s smart to get approval to tell another business’s story before you hire PR.
We have innovative and groundbreaking things happening within our own business, and I’m certain we’re ready to tell the world.
Sounds exciting! Before you go too far down the road with PR, I implore you to make sure that everyone else in your company agrees. Because if your leadership is not ready to “tell the world,” that can cause big problems for your PR team. And maybe you.
My agency has learned this the hard way. Those experiences usually involved a client lead who was an excellent marketing manager, or another internal communications leader, who rightly believed it was time to gain public awareness for their company’s work.
In one case, we developed a great PR program only to discover that the company’s chief executive officer was nervous that their tech wasn’t ready for launch. Everything we did was scrapped.
Another time we had a company leader decide that the story we believed was their strongest for media coverage wasn’t the one he wanted to tell. In short order, he undid all our work and insisted on a new direction that ultimately failed. (Another instance where someone misunderstanding PR led to problems. I wish we could have given him this book!)
Other examples include CEOs who are too introverted to do media interviews, are concerned about revealing too much about their business or have been burned by a negative news report in the past. I’m sorry to report that I’ve experienced all of these situations. And every one of them had the potential to ruin a lot of great work done by my agency, as well as the client’s own employees who were managing us. While you and your team might have great vision for your company’s messaging, and all the right elements in place for outstanding PR results, without the buy-in of senior leadership it will be hard to realize any of it.
This is excerpted from PR Confidential: Unlocking the Secrets to Creating a Powerful Public Image by Amanda Proscia. PR Confidential is available now. The excerpt below is reprinted here by permission of the author; all rights are reserved.