20 years in PR and 20 lessons learned – this article is perfect for 2020! Looking back on my experience with technology companies over 20 years, I came up with the following which I would like to share. I hope readers find something useful here, and I would love to know if you agree or disagree?
What is PR?
Starting with the basics, PR is Public Relations, which is the art of maintaining a good reputation with a public audience. This is not the same as “PR” in the way that it’s used in marketing departments today. Marketing departments, especially in technology companies, are primarily interested in marketing communications and media relations, yet this is only one aspect of true public relations. Real public relations is a much broader subject – it might involve charitable activities and other kinds of public appearances.
PR is not free advertising!
I have noticed there is often a feeling that you can put a press release out, and lots of people will read it, giving you a nice piece of free publicity. The reality is that it isn’t quite like that, because to do it well, you should invest some time in the story you create and the way that the story is shared. This means there is a cost, although it is not high. Besides this, editorial and advertising have very different purposes. Editorial is better for explaining complex messages, while advertising is better for reinforcing brands and grabbing attention.
It’s not just about news
I meet companies who go for months and months without issuing any news, because they haven’t launched a new product or won a major customer contract, so they think they have no news. But if they were to work with a PR professional – either an agency or a freelancer – they would find that there are plenty of other ways to get their message out there.
Writing style matters
A journalistic style is always be best because it’s easier to read than management-speak. Long inverted sentences are confusing and make text harder to understand. The length of your sentences and the way they are constructed will make your message clear – or not. This has always been the case, but when you are writing for the web, you will find that the search engines’ attention span is pretty short too.
Thinking about writing style, I would recommend that you remove all of the adjectives from your marketing text. If you can find other ways to demonstrate the value of your products and services, the story will be far more convincing.
Marketing and customers have different interests
There is a great difference between the message a marketer wants to write and the article a customer wants to read. Editors are independent third parties who need something different again – a good read. Your most successful PR pieces will be the ones that work for all three parties.
Relations with editors have changed over 20 years. Today, you are much less likely to meet journalists face to face. Journalists’ time is too valuable to attend speculative meetings. This is even more true in the US where long distances make meetings even less practical. If you do meet a journalist in person, take care to respect the effort they have made to meet you. Remember that they need to find a story, or you have wasted their time – and your own time too!
Bloggers work exactly the same way as journalists.
Photos are valuable
Always use photography, whatever the story. Text on its own is dull. Images attract attention and look good on the page – whether it is printed or online.
Professional photos are even more valuable
Professional photos are always better, especially for business portraits, and in my experience investing in professional pictures usually repays you with dividends. A professional photographer will choose a background that works well, and capture a person with a good facial expression. People who know about photography will appreciate that although there is a reasonable camera in your phone, the lens is not as good as the one in a SLR camera. I have seen plenty of amateur ‘selfies’ and phone shots that really didn’t do the subjects justice!
Content formats matter
Each editor works to a format. This applies online publications as well as printed magazines. Your communications plan should bear this in mind, and you will be more successful if you can provide text and images that fit into the publishers’ different page sizes and frameworks.
What publishers offer
Publishers’ reader lists are some of the best contact lists around. They are updated and audited and focus on selected reader groups. In the past they may have been rented for direct mail, now they offer valuable channels for email marketing.
Most editors and publishers are active on social media and are looking for material that will be shared widely. This should inform the content you create and release.
GDPR and PR
For a while, people turned away from PR, tending to embrace digital marketing channels which were low cost and brought quick results. I believe this has changed as the digital marketing industry has matured and professionalised – it is no longer the low-cost route to market that it was. Perhaps because the GDPR now limits what you can send to individual people, marketers are re-discovering the value of the professional media.
Trade shows and press releases
Companies often time their new products to be released at major trade shows, and announcing a new order is a good way to create a buzz at an exhibition. However, exhibition time isn’t an easy time to look for media coverage, because everyone is competing for the same space and attention.
16. PR and sales leads
PR may bring sales leads, but that is not guaranteed. A long time ago, I attended a talk where a PR agency person compared PR to a perfume wafting around a garden. He took the view that PR sets the background for a marketing campaign by helping a company to look good and creating a positive environment to enable the sale of products and services. I think there is truth in this, but it is a nebulous concept, and one of the reasons why there is so much discussion about the measurement and value of PR. This is one of those areas where 20 years of experience is useful. I usually have a good idea whether a PR campaign is likely to create sales leads or not.
Winning an industry award is a glorious accolade, but surprisingly it is rarely regarded as a news story. However, the reason why a company won an award could lead to a genuinely interesting story.
Vanity and other motives
Most people enjoy reading about themselves and their own business, and I can think of one or two publications that people eagerly read, looking for a piece about themselves! Appearing in print feels good and affirms what we do.
However, there are much more important reasons for seeking a higher profile for your business. It might be a strategy you choose to show that your company is as good, or better than its competitors. It could be something you do to help find a buyer for your company in the longer term. Similarly, it might be part of a drive to recruit technical people in a competitive market.
You will recognise successful PR
There are several well-known ways to measure the results of a PR campaign. The old way was to count column inches, then people began to report on positive comments and mentions of a brand. With digital media, you can make excellent reports showing the huge numbers of readers reached, and these cannot fail to impress. My feeling is that however you compute these numbers, they can never really measure the value of a campaign. The real value spans reputation, brand and credibility which are impossible to measure in numbers. In the end though, I have observed that people always know whether PR is worthwhile or not – take a broader view and trust your instinct.
Smaller firms have good stories
As a freelancer, I have tended to work with small-to-medium businesses, and for these it is often more difficult to build a successful PR campaign. While editors will usually cover a story from the big players, such as Microsoft, it is completely different for smaller firms who start from a position where they are not well-known. However, in my opinion, smaller firms are more interesting because of what their founders have achieved, and the personalities who have created their business. There are plenty of ways they can build a profile, but the approach needs to be much more creative.
My experience with PR is based on 20 years working with small-to-medium technology businesses – typically IT companies and equipment manufacturers working in specialist B2B markets. If you find this interesting and would like to discuss a project, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a call.