Public Relations Class of 2016
It’s that time of year when university exams are just finishing up, and a new generation of PR graduates are looking for internships or their first jobs. It’s safe to say you’ll learn more in your first three months about the industry than you did in the three or four years you spent studying.
Here’s an A to Z guide with some of the basic rules of PR and Communications to help you navigate your first weeks on the job.
As a junior editor, one of the first rules I was taught was ‘If in doubt, leave it out’, and it’s an important one. Your credibility is one of your most vital assets. If there is a sliver of doubt about one of the facts you are including, find a way to verify the information. If you can’t, get rid of it – it has no place in your communication.
There is a tendency, particularly within larger organisations to “play it safe”. Challenge that idea. Hold the courage of your convictions. If you’ve got an idea that is original and you think it will capture people’s imagination, go with it. Remember, Nokia played it safe while Apple innovated. Dare to be different.
You’ve got about five seconds to convince people to buy what you’re selling, so get to the point quickly. In an article or press release, the most important point goes in the headline, and you expand on it in your first sentences. Your first paragraph should tell the whole story in a nutshell, while subsequent paragraphs add detail and colour, including relevant quotes, data and findings.
D: Digital first
Your client’s customers are digital natives and it is increasingly likely that your client is too. Traditional media maintains a vital role, but successful public relations professionals think digital by default. They create video, text and images because they know they’re going to be promoting their campaigns across multiple platforms. They make it easy to share content on social media, and they optimize their written content for SEO [more on that later].
Ethical business means playing by the rules, and not taking shortcuts, however tempting it might be. Bloggers and social media influencers who don’t reveal when they are being paid for posts promoting certain products often lose credibility with their followers. PR ‘experts’ who make over-inflated claims about a product or service find themselves in the same boat
What distinguishes you, your brand or your product? Why should a consumer choose you over the 15 other companies in the area that provide the same service? The answer lies in taste. People will travel further and pay more for a product or service they feel is authentic and appeals to their taste. How does your brand appeal to a particular niche? If you can crack that nut for your client, you’ve struck PR gold.
Getting the basics right is pivotal, as it always has been. Four eyes are better than two. It’s often difficult to spot mistakes hidden in plain sight on a project you’ve been working closely on. Ask a colleague to proof-read your work, and hone your own editorial skills by proof-reading theirs in return.
People love to laugh. Where appropriate, use humour to make your point. Certain words make people giggle just because of how they sound. If you can figure out how to capitalise on that while promoting your product or service, you’ve got the beginnings of a very sharable or even viral campaign at your feet.
I: Be inquisitive
Public Relations is a great career choice for the naturally inquisitive. Asking questions is a great way to learn. When your clients want a press release on a new product, find out absolutely everything about it – whose idea was it, when is it launching, why, and why now, what’s exciting about it, how is this going to make people feel, what are the challenges, what are competitors doing? And so on.
It’s important to note that the time to ask these questions is at the beginning of the project, and not when you’re on the third draft of a press release that was supposed to be finalised a week ago. Clients will appreciate your enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge at the outset of the project.
Your relationships with journalists in your niche will make or break your career. Strong relationships with just a handful of the industry’s most well-respected journalists can have a dramatic impact on how a brand is perceived. Many journalists have a love/hate relationship with public relations managers – being consistent, likable and easy to work with can land you in the ‘love’ category.
Accept right now that you will never be done learning how public relations works. It’s a fluid industry; what worked five years ago won’t work now, and what works now won’t work in another five years. Take every opportunity to keep up with industry developments, keep up with new social media trends, and attend refresher courses as often as you can.
Maintaining your client’s loyalty is a vital skill – it takes far less time and energy to keep your current clients than to go out and win new ones. These articles on entrepreneur.com and Business2Community show some of the ways you can achieve this.
You can’t fake experience. What you can do is recruit someone ten or fifteen years more senior than you to become your mentor. When you’re facing a particularly challenging meeting or taking on a new type of project for the first time, your mentor has likely been there before, and will be able to offer guidance.
If you’re stumped when someone asks you what newspapers you read, you probably shouldn’t be in PR. Previous generations had limited choice in what they could read, based on what was available and affordable. You can access quality journalism from around the globe, mostly for free. Read prolifically. Read outside of your niche. Read journalists whose views you disagree with.
O: Be Original
Journalists receive dozens of press releases every week. People are bombarded with content across the web and social media all day. Think carefully about how you’re going to grab attention – but be wary of sensationalism. A killer headline is a must, but it only gets your foot in the door. After that, it’s all about authentically valuable and engaging content. Ask yourself, if I got this into my inbox, would I read it through to the end?
Paradoxically, in an increasingly digital world, face-to-face relationships have never been more important. Calling up someone you know to ask for a favour is a lot easier than calling up a stranger, or someone with whom you only have an online relationship. Be ballsy. Go to a lot of events. Introduce yourself, and give out your card. Listen more than you talk, and try to figure out if there’s any way you can help the person at hand.
None of the rest of the advice on this page matters if the content you’re producing is of poor quality. Whether it’s a blurry photo on Instagram, a Tweet with a typo or a hastily written press release, poor quality always shows through. Your audience has a thousand other options for where to go to get this kind of content, it’s up to you to convince them to stick with you.
As one of the world’s most successful businessmen, Warren Buffett, once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” You might remember how a single Tweet as she was boarding a flight ruined Justine Sacco’s life by the time she landed. She was a Senior Director of Corporate Communications.
S: SEO optimised
Digital natives are a rapidly growing demographic, so forward-thinking public relations pros now think digital by default. A basic knowledge of SEO is rapidly becoming an essential tool for communications professionals who want to get ahead. Check out this beginner’s guide if you want to get started.
T: Time matters
Be where you say you’re going to be when you say you’re going to be there. Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it. If you can’t handle basic business etiquette, why should clients trust you with their business? Excuses about traffic or weather conditions will likely fall on deaf ears.
U: Understand and be understood
Despite a ton of advice to the contrary, too many communications professionals are still using overly-complicated language and jargon. It’s a transparent attempt to sound more clever than you are, and it’s pointless. Simple works. There is absolutely no point in someone reading your newsletter, magazine or brochure if they don’t understand it. Assume you are writing for an intelligent audience, because that is likely what your readers are – but there is no need to overwhelm them by using unnecessarily sophisticated language or painful buzzwords. As the saying goes – “Never use a big word when a little one will suffice”.
How does the content you just created add value for anyone; in other words: “Why should I care?” Each time you create a piece of content for public consumption, put yourself in your intended audiences shoes and ask yourself if you are adding value for them. If not… back to the drawing board.
W: Write every day
Writing is a bit like running – you can’t get better at it by thinking about it, you just have to practice. If you run every day, you’ll get faster and build stamina. If you write every day, you’ll develop a superior level of fluency and style. PR graduates today are likely to enter roles where they will need to be able to write both long form and short, snappy ad copy. You need to become as comfortable drafting a speech for the Managing Director as you are editing a new brochure. The more practice you do, the more natural this will become.
Clients will automatically expect you to do your job well – that is why they pay you. To earn true loyalty, you have to go the extra mile. Sometimes that means doing a seventh revision on a piece of content because your client just doesn’t know what they want. Sometimes it means going beyond your job description to meet your client’s needs. And it always means doing these things with a smile on your face.
Ever seen the movie ‘Yes Man’? Magical things start happening in your career and in life when you say yes to every opportunity that comes along. People who grasp every opportunity tend to be the ones who get “lucky” more often.
To convince anyone else that your product is exciting, you must get yourself excited about it first. Exude genuine passion, zeal and affinity for your product, and that will shine through in the content you create.
With that, I wish all you PR graduates the best as you begin your careers. Leave a comment and tell us what your post-graduation plans are!
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Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art is a practical guide to creating integrated communications campaigns. It’s all about achieving optimum PR outcomes using the PESO model. Pre-order it now.