There are all types of PR problems, but one of the most troubling is the public relations program that just isn’t generating traction, or one where outcomes fall short of expectations by the client or PR agency. What happened, and what are the best mid-course corrections? Here are some of the most likely mistakes.
Sometimes PR objectives are described in vague terms, like “increased visibility” or “greater brand recognition.” But most PR agencies have become more sophisticated about goal-setting and measurement. It’s better for everyone if objectives are precise. Think “increase awareness among prospective customers by 20%” and make sure there’s a mechanism to measure it. B2B brands can often rely on their own website analytics to gauge the power of earned media, while others use third-party vendors to conduct baseline customer research, or calculate share-of-voice movement within a category. It all comes back to accurate tracking of progress toward specific, measurable key performance indicators or KPIs.
Many people who work in PR thrive on the creative nature of what we do; after all, not everyone can dream up a winning idea for a product launch, or the two-line pitch that will capture a journalist’s attention. It takes talent, and we’re proud of that. But the best campaigns are fueled by creativity, yet informed by research. The right research ensures that a PR program is strategic by targeting the specific audiences for whom the campaign is relevant, and the messages that resonate. It may also play a part in measuring a program’s success or impact, as in the example above. The only way to know if we’ve met the 20% awareness goal is to have a baseline at the outset. The right research – even when subjective – can also inspire great program, content and event ideas. Data can be an enormous asset to even the most creative campaign; check out Richard’s post on data-driven storytelling tips.
We see this too often in technology PR. There’s a tendency to emphasize tech bells and whistles rather than the true benefit of a product or service. How is it relevant? What problem does it solve? No matter how awesome the tech is, it’s usually a trap to fall in love with it to the exclusion of other attributes. Unless the target audience is highly technical, the messaging will fall short. Another common mistake is to try to be all things to all people. It’s far better to target the message so that it’s germane to a specific business or consumer audience, with a plan to broaden or add new components once momentum is generated.
This occurs in media relations, where a PR pitches a story idea to a journalist who’s just posted a similar piece, or when we’re too late offering comment on a hot topic. But there are also initiatives that simply come too early in the life of a brand or company. For example, a brand new mattress brand wanted to stage a PR stunt in New York City to “protest” the clock moving forward for Daylight Saving Time. It’s a nice idea for a photo opp, but in my view such an event works far better for a known brand that wants to position itself an an advocate for better sleep. Even assuming heavy media coverage, it’s unlikely that consumers would learn or remember the new brand behind the stunt.
There’s often a tendency to jump into tactics first. That’s natural, because execution is the fun part, and clients are often impatient for media relations outcomes. But it pays to make sure the tactics are guided by the right strategy. This can particularly apply to media relations, where you typically get one shot at a story idea. Again, the mattress stunt example may succeed at generating coverage because it was well planned, visual, and clever. Yet if the brand identity is lost in the tactics, the whole campaign falls short.
Just because a reporter or content editor has been sold on spending 20 minutes with a client as an expert resource, it doesn’t mean the story is in the bag. It pays to treat each and every interview (and pre-interview) opportunity as an audition. At times a C-level executive will reject the idea of media prep, either because they lack the time or they feel they know the drill as well as anyone. But the PR placement graveyard is filled with examples of dull executive interviews, missed opportunities, and even a few disasters. Smart interview prep will create greater fluency in delivering two or three top messages, and practice interviews, though they may feel awkward, typically benefit the entire team.
When it comes to reputation, you’d think professional communicators would pay attention to red flags, but it’s not always the case. We in PR should have our ears to the ground; we need to be skilled at listening and analyzing feedback as well as pushing out a message. Complaints that recur from customers online, or rumors that keep popping up are a warning sign. Other flags may come in the form of repeated questions about a troubling issue from employees, business partners, or other stakeholders. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually a need to address a simmering problem. Failure to handle concerns early can open a company to reputation harm and has the potential to derail a positive PR campaign.
If your story is about how many more or better features your product offers versus the competition, that’s not a story, it’s self-promotion that’s unlikely to get much attention among the people who matter. A good PR agency team will tap their own institutional experience and expertise to explain why a story will or won’t work and where possible, and how to take a bland or unworkable pitch and improve it. For more on classic storytelling motifs and how they translate to winning PR campaigns, check out this post.