Beyond the Press Release

Beyond the Press Release article

Successfully raising your profile among customers, prospects, and the media takes time—and a carefully crafted PR campaign

By Lisa C. Hahn, president, Caugherty Hahn Communications, Inc.

How many times have you seen a competitor’s company or product featured in a newspaper or magazine article and said, “Why can’t my company get coverage like that?” The answer is often simple: The company used some form of public relations.

Public relations is effective when a company must produce changes in awareness, opinions, attitudes, and behaviors inside and outside the organization. When used effectively, public relations will help companies and brands turn influencers into brand advocates; target customers who influence the thinking of thousands of other consumers; generate buzz; be embedded in news content; meet customers face to face; enable customers to experience products and services; and get customers to events.

Like direct marketing, public relations is about generating two-way communication between a company and its audience. It’s not merely about getting your new product featured in the editorial pages of Lucky or Widgets Monthly. If you’re thinking of taking your company public in a few years but find that Wall Street analysts aren’t interested in your market sector, implementing a campaign can raise your profile among the investment community prior to your filing for an initial public offering. If you want to boost your company’s credibility as a “go to” source of information about a specific type of product or service, a campaign can position representatives from your firm as experts in the field and valuable sources of information for news stories that touch upon particular topics.

The job of a PR professional is to serve management in translating private aims into publicly acceptable policy and, more importantly, in executing a plan of action. To do this, public relations counselors help companies understand the values and attitudes of their public, develop effective relationships, and maintain these relationships.

Before you can revel in seeing your company’s name in articles in prominent magazines, in hearing the phones of your call center ring continuously, or watching Web site hits rise dramatically, you have to determine what type of public relations campaign your company needs. Basically there are three types: A standing plan will help you build and nurture ongoing relationships and assist the company long term. An ad hoc plan addresses a temporary situation, such as the launch of a product line. Then there is the contingency plan, which helps you in the event of a crisis or a potential crisis—say, a failure in your warehouse management system that makes it impossible for you to deliver your holiday orders in time or a breach of your data security.

Most businesses opt to begin with a standing public relations plan. That strategy makes sense, especially if you are a novice to PR. Because good PR campaigns require long-term commitments to achieve long-term goals, a short-term, ad hoc campaign may introduce your company to new potential customers but might not enable you to retain a relationship with them.

That said, every PR plan should have five qualities:
  • The plan should support a specific goal. Saying you want to improve your company’s profile isn’t enough. You need a somewhat specific goal statement, such as “to increase awareness among men 18-35 years old by 20%, generate sales of $1 million, and increase inquiries by 10% during the next 12 months.”
  • The plan should stay goal oriented throughout the duration. Everything in the plan must be focused towards achieving the goal. If your company is like nearly every other business, your budgets are limited and your staff pressed for time, so if tasks don’t directly contribute toward achieving the goal, consider whether they are worth conducting. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Is it nice, or is it necessary?”
  • The plan must be realistic. Is the targeted goal achievable with the available budget, staff support, and time allotted? Are the tactics themselves doable?
  • The plan must be a win-win proposition for the company and its audience. An important element of public relations is consideration of the company’s as well as the targeted audience’s attitudes and opinions.
  • The plan must be values driven. What are the company’s values, and where do they intersect or diverge from your audiences’ values? Knowing this will help drive the campaign and its messages.
There are four steps to conducting a solid public relations plan:
  1. Research. Before you can do anything else, you need to verify what you know and don’t know. Use research to help formulate strategy, test messages, size up the competition, and sway opinion. Stakeholder or audience research is particularly important: It helps identify the level of interest in the particular issue, product, or service as well as the messages that will marry the public’s values with your company’s needs.

  2. Strategy. Strategy statements in a PR plan target specific milestones that measure the progress toward achieving the campaign goal. When focused on multiple audiences, a standing plan may have two, three, or four specific strategy statements, to accommodate the different tactics required to achieve the goal.

    Each strategy statement should focus on one or more stakeholders, be measurable, refer to an ends not a means, and have a time frame for completion. Here’s a potential strategy statement to help launch a PR campaign for an apparel cataloger: “To raise awareness and generate 20% of inquiries and 5% of sales among new female customers via a media relations campaign during the fourth quarter of 2007.” Note that the strategy statement is similar to the goal statement.

  3. Communications. This is the fun part—getting creative in how to communicate with your many audiences to achieve your campaign goal. For multichannel merchants such as your company, media relations will likely play a key role. Consider the multiple opportunities you have to be in front of your audiences, from industry conferences to special events held at your facilities to media interviews.

    Direct marketers have a special tactical advantage: great copywriters. Many times PR pros work closely with catalog copywriters to mirror their turns of phrase in press releases and other collateral pieces. It’s important to note, however, that press release verbiage and copy designed to sell products are—or at least should be—very different. A reporter can sniff advertising a mile away. Copy sent to the news media should be news or trend focused and written in a nonsales tone.

    When most people think of PR, press releases and pitch letters sent to newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets come to mind. But they’re not the only tools and tactics at your disposal. Letters to the editor and op-ed articles, for instance, can go a long way to establishing your company’s expertise and credibility.

    Exhibiting and speaking at pertinent trade shows and conferences will help raise your company’s profile within a specific audience, including potential investors and employees. And altruistic activities, such as donating merchandise to goody bags at a walkathon or sponsoring a fundraiser, can shine a positive light on your company—so long as the organizations you’re helping complement your company’s mission and your audience’s attitudes, and so long as you don’t appear to be participating merely for the publicity.

  4. Evaluation. Companies and their public relations counselors must identify the most valuable means of evaluating the PR campaign’s success. The number of sales and inquiries an effort can generate will typically be the highest priority. In addition, you can identify the quality and quantity of media coverage received, testimonials, event participation data, and other stakeholder response. With media coverage, evaluate each placement with an eye toward use of key messages and company contact information (Web site addresses and toll-free number), photographs used, and specific products or services cited.

    Consider what information is most important for your company’s evaluation. Is knowing the amount of media coverage your organization received vs. how much competition garnered important? Is the buzz surrounding your staff at key industry events a telling result?

    Don’t let anyone fool you: Planning and implementing an effective PR campaign takes effort. What’s more, building good relationships—with customers and prospects, with investors, and with the media—takes time. The payoff of a successful campaign, however, can be huge in terms of sales, audience awareness, and brand imaging.

    So if you want to be in the news article, be swamped with leads, be happily buzzing about the increase in sales, or be inundated with great new employees excited about being a part of your team, then consider adding public relations to your box of marketing tools.

Why Some Campaigns Fail

If you’ve experienced less-than-desired results form past PR campaigns, Lisa Hahn suggests you consider if any of these commonly cited reasons apply:
  • Lack of top-level management support and buy-in
  • Lack of appropriate funding
  • Limited staff resources to conduct the campaign
  • Poor or nonexistent research
  • Incorrectly targeted campaign goals and desired results
  • Lack in results monitoring by back end
  • Failure to use appropriate communications tactics
  • Failure to provide media with information that was newsworthy, timely, or topical
Lisa Hahn suggests the following texts, which are excellent in studying public relations:
Effective Public Relations, 7th Edition, by Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, and Glen M. Broom, © 1994 Prentice Hall
Public Relations, A Values-Driven Approach, Second Edition, by David W. Guth and Charles Marsh, © 2003 Pearson Education, Inc.

This article first appeared in Catalog Age (now titled Multichannel Merchant), March 2005, and was updated by Lisa Hahn in August 2007.

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