Mistakes in PR planning or execution are costly, particularly when you consider the typical investment in a top public relations agency. But errors aren’t always predictable, which is one reason why PR is both endlessly fascinating and frustrating as a career. Years of experience have taught us that when a program isn’t working, it’s often due to a common mistake. Here are some of the more avoidable missteps in planning and executing a PR program.
Confusing strategy with tactics
This isn’t just a common proposal error; it can actually limit the positive outcomes for an otherwise decent PR program. It happens when PR people know that a client wants a splashy press event, or that the CEO thinks USA Today is the most influential media outlet for his message. Those deliverables then become the goals of the PR effort. I’m not saying to ignore a CEO wish list, but any PR program will be more successful when its tactics are driven by an overall communications strategy, and when activities are seen as a means to an end, not the end itself. Most importantly, it places the PR discipline in a category with other essential business functions, which helps ensure proper funding and staffing.
Confusing PR with publicity
This overlaps with the above, and it’s another unfortunate way that PR is “dumbed down,” to the detriment of all involved. While it’s perfectly legitimate to have earned media coverage as its chief desired outcome, those marvelous publicity hits don’t materialize out of nowhere. They’re preceded by research, message/story development, planning, and the creation of the right strategy. That takes time and talent, and those skills deserve recognition and proper resources.
Flawed or half-baked messaging
In public relations, it’s all about how you tell your story, so shaping that story should come before media contact or content creation. It also helps to tap (reasonably) objective experts to test messages and the overall narrative that guides your content. Empower your PR team to help identify the major points that set your organization apart from the pack and make its story compelling. Beware of the trap that many early-stage technology businesses fall into — over-engineered, groupthink—driven messages that are heavy on jargon and light on clarity. They’ll always require a do-over that costs time and money.
You don’t need a $500,000 budget to launch an effective PR campaign, but it’s important to be realistic about the budget that is available and to match the scope of the program to available resources. Even large companies make the mistake of skimping on funds for internal and external PR, and it sometimes comes back to bite them. Glenn DaGian, former government affairs expert at BP, says that one reason the company made so many mistakes after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was that CEO Tony Hayward had cut costs by slashing the external PR and government relations agencies. BP was forced to rely on inexperienced employees in the first critical days after the accident. Your PR investment should be commensurate with your size and reputation risk, as well as the opportunity to build business through positive outcomes.
There are so many ways timing can work for you in PR, but it works against you as well. Particularly when there’s not enough time to prepare in advance of a product launch, or when a competitor steals your thunder but you can’t adapt in time. Getting a pitch with insufficient lead time to develop a story is a top complaint about PR pros among journalists. Backing out of that unfortunate (yet far too common) situation, even a major announcement can require two-to-three months for proper planning, messaging, media negotiation, and interview prep. And there’s nothing sadder than a client who want to promote a back-to-school campaign in August. Trust me, there’s no such thing as being too early or over-prepared.
When PR agencies teams oversell their capabilities or anticipated outcomes to a client, they only hurt themselves. Similarly, if expectations for a PR program swell as part of the internal sales or approval process within a client organization, it can backfire. That’s why we recommend outlining specific deliverables as well as outcomes, and how those outcomes should be measured. If all parties agree in advance, it’s likely to be a beautiful relationship.
No baseline for measuring outcomes
This may be more of an opportunity cost than an outright error, but it stands to reason that setting any program up for success will help all programs in the long run. And a good way to ensure success is to start with a baseline for major metrics like brand visibility, key messages, or share-of-voice in your category. There are many other practical ways to measure outcomes, but it’s best to set up the process before you begin, naturally. The goal is to tie outcomes back to the original objectives, demonstrate legitimate achievements, and set up your next successful program.