Marketing professionals often get very frustrated with PR programs as they don’t always see results. While they may send out press releases or participate in a special focus in local business weekly as part of the construction issue, their failure is likely in part to their lack of strategy. While these activities are important, true public relations is so much more – it is a science. However, it doesn’t have to be complicated if you follow some simple rules for success.
Understanding Public Relations
Public relations is the formal way in which organizations communicate with their publics. It is planned or managed communication – a means to communicate, influence and sometimes even sell. I have personally worked with countless members of the concrete industry and experienced first-hand the benefits of an organized public relations campaign. The medium provides the necessary third-party credibility you cannot achieve with advertising and is a cost-effective means to build a brand. However, it is important to recognize that your message is controlled in advertising since it is a message you create and purchase, while public relations affords you the opportunity to influence publics, but you do not maintain control of your message. Public relations also requires a consistent and concerted effort – it is not as simple as sending one release. True public relations success is achieved by developing a program that carefully delivers a key message to target audiences.
Assembling Your Plan and Media List
A public relations program requires the same planning effort as any other marketing or sales effort. Start by figuring out what stories you have to tell and then determine who would have an interest in your message. When you develop your target media lists, be sure to go beyond the obvious business and daily paper and include association newsletters, industry trades, as well as market specific pieces. What publications are sitting in your office? More important, what publications are sitting in the office of your current and prospective clients? For example, I recently worked with a general contractor to help brand his company as a solution for precast concrete parking garages. Although we targeted the local business and real estate publications, we also made sure we secured placement of his expert piece on how to plan for parking garage growth in healthcare magazines since many healthcare organizations have a parking shortage. Further, we targeted and secured publication in a magazine read by parking professionals.
Your media list should contain publication name, complete editorial contact information, website address, key information on topics found on the editorial calendar, style and editorial theme information, circulation, as well as how editors like to receive information. Don’t mail a release to an editor that prefers fax, and don’t call an editor that prefers email. Learn their preferences, likes and dislikes, just like you would any other business prospect.
Developing Your Message
Some of the best stories can be found through conversations with your staff. What is unique about the project they are working on? Have you done more of something than anyone else? Can you tie a project or new product to a larger trend in the industry? Will a new building you are involved in constructing have an impact on the local economy?
Be sure you have a good read on whether or not the publication audience and the editorial contacts will have any interest in a story before you send them your idea. Your job is to sell your story idea and your company’s role, and the secret to successfully landing coverage lies in understanding your target audience and how your story meets their needs.
Working with the Media
Based on countless conversations with editors in the concrete industry, it is obvious that many fail in their PR efforts simply because they lack good old-fashioned people skills. Editors are like any other businessperson – they have deadlines, families, bosses and feelings. Treat them with the same respect you would any other industry colleague or sales prospect. This includes being honest, positive and respectful of deadlines. If you don’t have an answer to a question, tell the reporter or editor you will find out. Inquire about their deadline and then follow-through. Also make sure you are reachable. Nothing is worse than sending information to a publication and then being unreachable when an editor has interest in your story. Include cellular phone, email address and a second contact if necessary on all correspondence.
In addition to be reachable, commit to serving as a resource. Most editors and writers today know a little about a lot of things, so educating them is encouraged. Be sure to provide your editorial contacts with background information that will make their job easier. Serving as a resource is a great way to build a relationship.
Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking a purchased ad gives you the right to demand editorial coverage. Most publications keep a strict distinction between purchased advertising and the editorial coverage their readers deserve. However, if you do receive an editorial opportunity as a result of your advertising dollars, recognize that this is an opportunity to clearly educate your target audience about your unique selling proposition in a third-party manner. Contrary to what many experts suggest, I recommend placing your ad on a different page than your editorial coverage so it does not appear as if you “purchased the article.”
Without a goal, how will you measure success? There are a variety of methods to measure the effectiveness of your PR efforts – ranging from comparing space received with the cost of buying equal advertising space to expensive market research of those reading target publications – but for a start-up program, simply identifying key stories and key publications/audiences you would like to target is the reasonable means to measure your success. Your goal should not merely be ink and coverage, rather delivery of your key messages. Think of it this way – your firm does not strive to develop proposals and respond to 100 RFPs in 2004. Rather, your goal is to get 25 interviews as a result of your proposal efforts. Develop this same mindset for public relations efforts and set a goal based on the delivery of your firm as a solution.
To launch your program, first identify your motivation for wanting to see your name in print (i.e., sales tool, create an awareness of your firm/employee as the expert in healthcare, opportunity to launch a new product or technology) and then brainstorm a variety of story concepts around this theme. Be sure to go beyond upper management in these discussions as key project or product team members are likely to be involved in the story creation and their early ideas will make for a stronger story concept when presented to editors. After creating five to seven story concepts and the necessary media list, begin developing relationships with editors. Be patient. Since public relations offers the big reward of third-party credibility in the marketplace, you must first earn credibility with the media. Finally, at any step of the way if you get over your head, hire a freelance writer that specializes in your industry. A well-written press release or story concept by someone that clearly understands the concrete industry will quickly find its way to the top of an editor’s inbox.
Sidebar: Tips from the editors