5 Things PR Can Learn From College Admissions

It’s college admissions season, and there are surprisingly many parallels between public relations work and the process of gaining acceptance to the school of your choice. For all who’ve been through it, or have accompanied family members, it can be a trying, angst-ridden time, but there’s much to be learned. Here are five things PR practitioners can learn from the college admissions process.

Cast a wide net, but not too wide. College applicants are advised to apply to enough schools to ensure acceptance somewhere, but not too many schools so as to wear oneself out (or break the bank). With pitching stories to media, it’s equally important to cast a wide enough net to ensure some success for story placement. But blasting hundreds of journalists has pitfalls. Media appreciate personalized pitches and are aggravated by boilerplate emails to massive lists.. In creating a media list, include some “safeties,” just as students are advised with schools, along with a few “reaches,” and a handful in between.

Know your targets. Many a high school student and family make the college circuit tour, visiting schools (especially their top picks) to get to know them better. Some schools are documenting visits to their campuses as part of the applicant’s file to note keen interest in attending. The same should go for PR pros and media. Journalists tell us again and again how important it is for PR people to understand their publication and their particular beat. Taking care to know what the journalist covers and how the publication handles certain topics and features goes a long way toward convincing a reporter your story is a fit.

Don’t be too wowed by big names. Big names impress many college applicants (and their parents), to the detriment of lesser known schools that might be a better fit for the student’s particular needs. Clients can sometimes be similarly fixated on big media brands, even though other publications might have better potential to reach desired audiences. We’ve seen companies land placements in top-tier media with little impact on their business, while stories in a less celebrated publication drive business because they’re precisely focused. A brand name story is nice for the ego, but often real business impact is about the finding the right fit.

Understand the key to acceptance is the merits of your story. No amount of research and due diligence will mean acceptance for an applicant who hasn’t already built a strong case with years of hard work and substance. Likewise, a pitch is more likely to earn media interest if it’s based on real content — a compelling, credible story, backed by evidence. Such attributes are built over time, often long before a business is ready for PR. PR people are often asked to make news when there isn’t any, but when the foundation for newsworthiness is already laid, the chance for success if higher.

Show some levity. The PR world was chagrined this week when it became public that many publicists took seriously a satirical column Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times, bemoaning how Stanford boasted a zero percent acceptance rate this year. Media outlets shared pitches from PR pros representing college admissions experts, offering to comment on the “zero acceptance rate.” A mini lesson one of our staffers noted here: when in doubt, check multiple sources! The overall lesson? PR can be challenging and stressful. Take the work seriously, but not so much that you miss the opportunity to have a good laugh. It can do wonders in the long run.

5 Tips For Great PR Story Angles

In public relations, there’s a visceral thrill to connecting with a reporter and making a relevant story happen. The road to the great story is seldom a direct path from “light bulb” to posted or published, but there are some time-tested ways to develop and nurture promising ideas.

Freestyle. Sometimes it pays to divert from the meeting agenda. We start every client conversation by asking what’s new. And we mean it, because that’s often where the great stories hide. Recently a client casually mentioned that his company was expanding its work in medical 3D printing, and this released a torrent of interesting story angles for writers who hadn’t covered the company previously.

Refocus on your audience. What good is a great story if it appears somewhere that misses the intended audience? Keep up-to-date lists of the publications, websites, broadcast outlets that reach top prospects. Savvy PR “pitchers” update their lists constantly – we like to say, add at least one new outlet or writer every day. Research what each addition covers and get to know each one’s tone and voice. This helps ensure story development in lock step with journalist needs.

Refresh your research daily. Sure, you can monitor for a company’s press coverage or that of its competition, but to ferret out the interesting angles, it pays to know the category inside out. This also helps craft a list of the top reporters who cover the industry regularly and who would appreciate hearing a different, creative take on the subject matter. While reading, don’t skip the comments section. As we referred to in this post, these sections are often full of unexplored possibilities.

Rip it from the headlines. The best PR storytellers know that “newsjacking” is still one of the best ways to come up with relevant story angles. These include riffing on something seasonal or newsworthy like March Madness or new movies or TV series, or tying a story to what’s trending right now – weighing in on the Tribeca Film Festival “Vaxxed” controversy or the escalating smutfest between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Know reporter hot-buttons. Does that reporter who covers women and tech also blog about her family? How about the workplace diversity journo who tweets incessantly about food? Can a plausible story angle be devised that combines reporter beats and personal interests? We say, yes, give it a try. And, once you have those valuable media relationships, a great story angle can come from simply asking a journalist “hey, what are you working on?”

How To Get The Best From A PR Agency

A relationship with a public relations agency can be a little like a marriage. It starts with a spark, yet like any partnership, it can change over time. Take a look on Quora, or talk to someone who has worked with many different PR agencies, and you’re likely to hear about a range of experiences, from highly productive to sorely disappointing.

As with any professional services business, the burden is on the agency to offer consistently high service levels and produce agreed-upon outcomes. But the client’s participation is also a key factor. In the ideal world, the individual who manages the PR firm is a trained communications professional with a deep understanding of public relations. Yet this isn’t always possible, particularly with an early-state company or an organization in transition.

In the past few years, we’ve reported to a lawyer-turned-retail-company COO (with amazing publicity instincts); a style entrepreneur who always took our lead; and a marketing MBA who struggled to understand why sales promotions weren’t mediaworthy.

No two client-agency relationships are the same, but here are some “secrets” of our most successful clients to getting the best from a PR team.

Ask what they need. It sounds obvious, but the specific needs and workstyle of an agency team can be lost in a mountain of onboarding powerpoint decks and product briefings. A candid conversation about their needs will also give your PR team the sense that they have a voice in setting expectations and the degree of access that they’ll have, which often impacts outcomes.

Offer access. This is likely at the top of the agency’s list. Access – to plans, corporate history, sales meetings, senior management’s POV – will not only help the agency represent the organization, but it will inevitably save time over the long run and possibly enhance earned media outcomes. PR hates an information vacuum, and agency teams prize access to client executives in order to do our job.

Share your expectations. The more specific, the better. This conversation should be about how the client defines success, but it should also cover service levels, responsiveness, face-to-face communication, internal assessment of outcomes, and other aspects of collaboration that enhance productivity.

Communicate regularly. As noted, most agency teams get a thorough information dump at the start of a relationship; we have a checklist of detailed information as part of our onboarding process that helps get our team off to a strong start. But things can change over time. It’s absolutely critical to involve the agency in appropriate meetings with partner agencies, product launch plans, touch-base meetings with new executives whose roles are relevant to PR, and important internal announcements, just to name a few.

Tie PR to business goals. Most PR agency teams have a hunger to know how earned media and other outcomes actually impact their client’s business. A client contact who regularly shares analytics, feedback from senior executives, sales trends, and other information that supports the value of the PR investment will not only help himself internally, but he will win the undying loyalty of the PR team.

Nip problems early. Some well-meaning client executives let issues simmer or worse because they fear a confrontation, or perhaps the agency team doesn’t seem receptive to feedback. But early course-corrections – well articulated and supported in writing – have saved many a relationship.

Celebrate success. The pace of communications is often frantic, and it’s easy to take positive outcomes for granted, or to move on to the next thing. A note of congratulations, a simple thank-you for an individual contribution to the team, or a celebratory lunch can be amazing morale-boosters that refresh the relationship, and the team’s motivation, for the next challenge.

5 Things PR People Do In Spring

Public relations practitioners are acutely aware of the changing seasons and what’s happening on the calendar. Back-to-school time brings pitches about ramping up and starting anew, while the holidays generate angles about celebrating, gifting, feasting, and making resolutions. Now that winter is receding in the Northeast, we’re seeing people flock to spring-like activities, and PR people are no exception. Here are five things your PR team might be doing now that spring has sprung.

Plan a redesign. Whether it’s your website, your logo or your office layout (did you catch ours, by the way?), spring tends to inspire PR teams to freshen up the look of things. It’s more than just a typical “spring cleaning” or cosmetic change. Design has important implications for user experience, an important and growing area for businesses. So open up the windows, grab some design inspiration, and shake things up a bit. You might ruffle some feathers at first, but change tends to invigorate in the long run.

Travel. After a long cold winter, getting the itch to explore new places is understandable. Now is the time when PR pros like to dust off their suitcases and see a bit of the world. But don’t think taking time off for travel — and away from work — is a bad thing. Working in a creative profession like PR requires time to unplug and refresh oneself to be able to return to work and continue generating fresh ideas. Take it as a good sign if you see team members taking a week to travel, get a change of scenery, and new adventures under their belts. They’ll return to work the better for it.

Book speaking engagements. Warming temperatures in the Northeast means late spring and early summer conferences are finalizing their rosters of speakers and panelists for some of their most well-attended conferences and events. A robust calendar of speaking engagements is a key tenet of a strong thought leadership program — a core part of any public relations program for most brands and companies looking to improve visibility in their category.

Lock in awards. Since much of public relations is about earned endorsements, awards form another key component of any public visibility campaign. Our team has seen a flurry of award deadlines in recent weeks, meaning we’ve been heads down on detail oriented, customized applications for some of the most coveted industry honors. Even if the awards in question do not pan out, the process is a helpful way to repurpose and recast content such as existing messaging and previously published materials. The documentation, if well organized, is bound to come in handy somewhere else down the road.

Meet up in person. We all know the drill: as soon as no-jacket weather arrives, expect longer waits for outdoor spots at your favorite watering holes. But this is a good thing. PR people know the value of developing and maintaining relationships — with clients, media, other industry people, potential partners, etc. — and one of the best ways to do that is face to face. Sunny skies and warmer weather facilitates the in-person meet-up more than anything. Table for two, outside, please?

3 Ways PR Can Leverage A Comments Section

As anyone in PR today knows, an article’s comments section can be as revealing as the piece itself. Online comments are so fascinating that there’s even a book about the topic (Reading The Comments.) Yet anonymous comments can be controversial due to the negative conversations they may spark, prompting many publications to limit or do away with them altogether.

Many outlets have moved comments to Facebook or other social platforms due to the negative impact of anonymous comments, or simple lack of participation. Research shows that few readers actually take the opportunity to comment on an article. Slate found that of 12,000 pieces published, the articles “almost never engaged more than 1 percent of their readers as commenters,” but that 12 percent of the sampled 12,000 attracted participation from over 100 commenters.

For the PR-savvy, though, there may be hidden gems in online comments. We choose to look for what’s useful in a comments section and offer three ways a PR team can leverage what they find there.

Look for potential business opportunities. Comments are, after all, a form of conversation. While some readers use comments to vent, others look to start a relationship. When Wendy Roberts, CEO of Five Elements Robotics, penned this article on the future of robotics, she heard from a poster who began by disagreeing with her article’s thesis but ultimately wanted to discuss a potential deal.

Glean ideas for future articles. As noted, sometimes the comments section is more interesting than an article itself. With that in mind, we often scan reader comments for interesting additional angles on a topic. For example, when a regional publication’s coverage of Not Your Father’s Root Beer prompted a writer to comment on using root beer for a marinade, our team got busy enlisting a chef to do just that, resulting in coverage like this.

Show us what’s trending.  Many publications list their “most-commented on” articles at year-end, and the lists can tell us a lot. The New York Times list cited an article about Amazon’s bruising workplace (which we just “commented” on in a post last week) while The Washington Post included a story about House of Cards. As the author of Reading The Comments insists, “Conversations ‘on the bottom half of the Internet’ can tell us much about human nature and social behavior.”

3 Tech Trends PR Should Care About

Public relations is always changing, and technology trends are a big influence on how PR evolves. Whether your world is strictly B2B or your target audience straddles business and consumer audiences, there are some technology trends that can — and should — influence your PR and communications campaigns.

New in content-sharing: audio. New apps for sharing content always interest communications professionals. Visual and video content have been most shareable, but this year, we’re starting to see new ways of developing audio content, too. Anchor, which generated buzz at SXSW this year, calls itself “radio by the people,” and lets you respond to social media posts in your own voice. KnowMe, an app that lets you share voice and video messages and also record voice-overs for your existing photos, was founded by filmmaker JJ Abrams and Moviefone founder Andrew Jarecki, which doesn’t hurt. The trend is a continuation of self-publishing, providing another medium on which people can broadcast in – literally – their own voice. It’s only a matter of time before brands, influencers, and publishers develop a presence and practice for using audio-sharing platforms, giving PR professionals something new to work with.

Tools for streamlining the work of PR. It seems we’ve fallen out of love with email in favor of tools that help streamline digital communications and workflow. Slack quickly became a media darling and is rumored to have raised another $200 million in funding to continue expanding its empire. But it’s more than just a way to declutter: media companies are using it as a content publishing tool also. That has major implications for PR, broadening the scope of where to pitch stories and share messages with their audiences.

Virtual Reality. Virtual or augmented reality is perhaps more prevalent as a marketing tool, as brands in travel, outdoor gear, and retail experiment with new ways to let customers experience their products or services. But there are bound to be implications for PR. Media relations is often about relationship building, and we’re already seeing companies build relationships with key media contacts covering their space by offering VR reality experiences as a cool new way to get to know the company. One of our clients recently hosted a successful VR fair to showcase different aspects of its work. Were media interested in a VR experience to learn more about the company’s initiatives? The answer was a resounding “yes.”

Why DIY PR Will (Usually) Fail

For a public relations professional, it’s annoying to read about “DIY PR”. These types of articles – usually targeted to small companies or startups – can contain useful information. But they imply that anyone can learn to do PR with a crash course consisting of a few blog posts. Maybe it’s just professional pride speaking, but no one who has built a career in PR thinks it comes so easily.

Last year I agreed to help an acquaintance school his staff on some media relations and PR techniques. His nonprofit group was struggling with some perception issues, and because I have some direct experience and a strong interest in his area, I was moved to try to help. But the group lacked a real PR budget, so my team and I could only “coach” his staff and suggest ways to execute media relations. Our advice was mildly helpful, but the experience was a reminder of why DIY PR so often falls short.

A PR campaign is a commitment. Take this blog post – not to pick on Dan Simon, but he outlines everything from goal-setting and media audits, to creating a quality content program, to networking with journalists, to broadcast media relations. My point is, for the time you must invest in learning and doing those things and more, you might as well hire a competent and well-trained PR person.

Execution may be harder than strategy. Consulting about strategy is one thing; but to be effective, execution must be skillful and efficient, and it requires many course-corrections along the way. It was relatively painless for me to advise my friend on the best positioning for his nonprofit and to assess his internal communications. But when it came to the implementation of media relations, trying to ‘train’ someone with no communications background was a nonstarter, even with regular check-ins.

Beware the opportunity cost. PR requires time. Lots of it. The truth is that business owners know their stuff better than anyone, and some even have a gift for PR. But they have other priorities. Generating earned media coverage requires weeks or months of research, planning, outreach, and timely follow-up, and it rarely bears fruit right away. DIY-ers who foist the responsibility on themselves or others should ask themselves what’s not getting done as a result? Again, if you’re going to make it someone’s job, you may as well hire a professional.

Experience informs judgment. Often what we do on a day-to-day basis comes down to a series of timely judgment calls. It looks and even feels easy. But that’s because, like anything else, our judgment is informed by years of experience that is simply impossible to convey in a weekly consulting meeting. There are definitely reasons to hire an in-house PR professional, including specialist industry expertise. But a key advantage to tapping an agency is the multiplier effect. Instead of hiring an individual, you are renting the expertise of many individuals, each with a specific skill set and range of media contacts. Chances are, they’ve done it before, and that will save time in the long run.

Sometimes you get what you pay for.

5 PR Tips For Working With Medium

PR and communications professionals are constantly on the lookout for new and useful services to enhance their work. Although Medium, the writing and networking platform, has been around for a few years, it has recently caught fire.

What is Medium? Cofounder Ev Williams calls it “a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends.” Anyone with a voice and point of view should consider posting on its well-read site. Important influencers have also used the site in interesting ways such as when Amazon wanted to rebut the now infamous “everyone cries at their desk” piece in The New York Times, it didn’t take to traditional media but to Medium to slug it out publicly.

Improve your writing by reading. Medium is the place for some of the best writing out there by journalists with whom you’re already familiar via The Atlantic, Wired or the New Yorker. Sign up to Medium and peruse and choose from several topical groupings (much like mini-magazines) and start to receive curated “Daily Digests” of cool articles, such as this story about the tech industry and gun control.

Soak up all the on-point social media and “tech tools” advice. After reading well-written essays and fact-packed news stories, read the writers who offer on-point social media and “tech tools” advice that will improve your work. This piece about the importance of “backlinks” in SEO is an excellent example and points to another great feature of the site — the stories all include the number of minutes it should take  to read.

Produce your own engaging content. Start writing for yourself, or on behalf of the exec voices you represent, and see how beautifully Medium publishes. Start by checking out the Medium Responses function to comment and join a conversation that actually builds on the original post and takes the article in new directions.

Leverage “breaking news.”  A study showed that Medium’s “breaking news” feature delivered top headlines quicker than any other notification platform. This is a PR dream come true. The feature assists with company and industry monitoring as well as providing “news-jacking.” Download the app — but beware it’s addictive.

Become more knowledgeable about PR. Put PR into Medium’s search engine and enroll in a “crash course” on the subject. There are case studies, strategy pieces and provocative critiques to learn from. Ideally, this will spur comments and new dialogues as well as the opportunity to re-purpose existing content such as this post we recently did on PR and pitching podcasts.
Here’s a great place to start on Medium, and it’s just a quick four-minute read.

Beyond Green Beer: PR Ideas For St. Patrick’s Day

For those in PR who love to take advantage of holidays, St. Patrick’s Day can be among the most fun. After all, what other occasion calls for lunching on green bagels and green beer? But even the most die-hard followers of the Irish Apostle can tire of the same old tricks year after year. Not to worry – our team tapped the luck of the Irish to cultivate fresh ideas for generating some good PR around St. Patrick’s Day.

Win new followers. Social media is increasingly a tool for PR teams to work with, right alongside earned media and content development to drive awareness and engagement for your company or brand. Take advantage of the festive holiday frenzy and win new followers on social media platforms by getting clever about how you incorporate St. Patrick’s Day hashtags. #luckoftheirish is sure to be trending, as is #potofgold and of course, #stpatricksday. And don’t neglect a St. Pat’s Day push on social media if B2B PR is your game — social media is equally relevant for the B2B crowd, as we wrote about recently here. Inject a little competition for your internal communications team and set a goal for how many new followers you’d like to earn on each platform. Make it a public campaign and give a prize away to the follower who pushes you over your goal.

Try a contest. A festive holiday lends itself to driving engagement on social media. Think of a relevant St. Patrick’s Day Sweepstakes idea, or best use of your product or service in a St. Patrick’s costume or activity, and ask followers to photograph their entries, putting them in the running for a prize. The contest is bound to add to your following, as mentioned above, and drive engagement and awareness for your brand.

Ideas for entertaining. Does your company or brand make or do anything relevant for partying? The National Retail Federation estimates St. Patrick’s Day generates roughly $4.6 billion in spending on festivities. With that bit of data on hand, media will be looking to help viewers and readers with great ideas for entertaining and frolicking — moving beyond green beer, of course. Come up with a fresh list of new ideas that will catch people’s attention to offer up to entertainment and lifestyle media. Think across the entire spectrum of the holiday’s festivities, from decor and fun accessories to food and drink, to music and party games.

Make a big splash. In other words, try a PR stunt, if the fit is right for you. Our favorite St. Patrick’s Day stunt is still the city of Chicago’s decades-old tradition of dying the Chicago River green. If making a big splash is up your alley, be sure to check out our post on the secrets to a successful PR stunt from last year.

Why stop at St. Patrick’s Day? Every month is filled with reasons to celebrate. The creative PR team keeps a calendar for the year to make sure no day is left unrecognized.  There are offbeat holidays like the upcoming National Potato Chip Day, and there are also significant times of year that some companies can really “own.” Crenshaw cleverly leveraged Daylight Saving Time (coming this weekend) to great effect for Sleepy’s, which has reaped PR benefits for years.

How To Measure PR Outcomes: A Practical Guide

In my first New York public relations job, one of my tasks was to sort and tally the stacks of client publicity clips that came in from the clipping service. That’s right, kids, there were actual newspaper or magazine cuttings, each bearing a white tag that listed where and when the item appeared. My fingers would be newsprint-grimy within an hour. That was how we measured the PR team’s performance – by counting the publicity clips our work generated.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the PR industry has grown far larger and more sophisticated. Our program strategies are more likely to be informed by behavioral data. We use social media listening tools, review market research, and create SEO-enhanced content. But when it comes to measuring the value of an investment in public relations, in many ways, we’re still counting clips.

Beyond Counting Clips and AVEs

There’s nothing wrong with quantifying publicity. Earned media placements are usually at the top of a client’s wish list. At my agency, we generate a great deal of earned media for clients, and even after all these years, it still feels like magic when a great story hits. But despite the thrill of strong publicity results, most clients need more objective ways of evaluating the return on their PR investment. What is that interview or profile actually worth? And how to measure the other activities that a PR group delivers? The absence of a standard formula for measuring PR success remains our holy-grail challenge as an industry.

For years, the PR industry’s response to the problem was to measure outcomes by treating earned media stories as paid advertising, with a dollar value calculated from standard ad rates. The ad equivalent formula was popular with marketers because it translated PR output into something familiar – advertising! But the problems with AVE (Advertising Value Equivalent) are obvious.

Measuring earned media as if it were paid advertising is a little like using a map of Arizona to navigate Nevada. It’s just not the same thing. For more about AVE and the industry’s response, see this post for marketing group MENG on how marketers should evaluate PR programs.

The short version of the PR industry’s evolution is that six years ago it created the Barcelona Principles, a set of seven voluntary guidelines to measure the efficacy of PR campaigns. The principles aren’t a magic formula for measuring earned media, but they help refute the AVE standard and are useful as a guide.

So, how should we measure PR outcomes? The methods will vary with individual business goals and needs, but most clients can’t afford to do matrix-mix modeling or complex studies. Here are my real-world guidelines for PR professionals.

Set a budget for measurement. This is obvious, but it’s surprising how often measurement is not considered when the PR budget is finalized. And it’s usually for a good reason; market research can be costly. Some evaluation tools are either too narrow in what they do, overpriced, or both, so a mix of paid and free tools is generally best. PRSA recommends that 5% of a given PR budget we reserved for measurement, which is a reasonable figure and one that should be feasible for just about any program.

Benchmark awareness first. It’s hard to measure progress toward goals if you don’t have a baseline. In my view, every PR program should start with a baseline audit of a brand’s media visibility, including searchable content about brand attributes, customer complaints, reviews, and earned media coverage. If favorability versus competitors is a goal, then the audit should obviously include competitive brands as well. A brand audit is also effective for informing PR messaging and even tactics, so it’s a win-win for everyone. Depending on the size of the brand in question, an audit can be performed very cost effectively.

Consider other key awareness indicators for benchmarking. Within the broad label of “awareness” it’s helpful to break down specific variables like reach (as measured by impressions), marketing message delivery, and the social sharing that can amplify the impact of earned media. Most social mentions can be evaluated with the analytics already embedded in major social platforms, or with specially designed tools for social media monitoring and evaluation. None of these criteria stand alone, and some are even arguable, but in aggregate they are powerful, and the most important factor is an apples-to-apples comparison over time.

Track earned media against web analytics. Most of our clients do this already, but there are cases where the PR team isn’t informed about what’s actually driving site traffic or conversions, so communication here is key. Then, too, not every program has the goal of producing web traffic. A campaign to build awareness for a new craft beer probably wants to drive beer lovers into stores or bars. A health promotion campaign may seek to get people to stop smoking or cut saturated fat consumption. In cases like these, tracking web searches, coupled with awareness surveys, are more effective than site analytics.

Measure what is most relevant. We’ve all experienced the PR relationship where you spend more time tracking and measuring than you do talking to media or creating results. To avoid that, focus on what is truly important. Some clients will count clips, but it may be more useful to analyze the message pull-through in the earned media generated by a PR campaign. Or it may make more sense for B2B brands to invest the measurement budget in a study that gauges brand preference in a given customer segment, or corporate reputation lift over time.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for measuring PR success. But with a modest investment of time and budget before the campaign, and an agreement on methods that measure what PR truly does well, we can all be more successful in what we do.