Prioritizing Good Practices to Stay Ahead in the PR Game

Last week an opinion piece entitled “Here’s Why the PR Industry is Failing” understandably caused a bit of stir in the communications world. Bill Hankes, a seasoned PR industry veteran, argued that the PR industry is failing because of its reliance on outdated tools such as newswire services and media databases which, he argued are not only ineffective but undermine client credibility and the perception of PR itself.  

I share Hankes’ perspective, and agree the obsolete practices he calls out do, indeed, play too big a part in today’s PR world.

Let’s look first at the media database services. I believe they can and do serve a purpose, but they are no substitute for strong working relationships with reporters, which take time and patience to cultivate. Good PR professionals look at media contacts as individuals, each of whom requires a slightly different approach. PR pros should constantly be considering questions like: Which communication medium works best for this reporter – a quick call or a brief email? What times of day are optimal to reach out? What kinds of stories really pique their interest? What kind of spokesperson will they respond to best?

Media databases like Cision cannot provide that kind of insight, and arguably they were never designed for that purpose. When you have a new client and are working with new publications, or when an existing client expands into a new area, media databases are a great starting point, but they are not – as Hankes points out – a means to “indiscriminately email journalists…en masse.” To do so is bad practice and sloppy PR that undermines the credibility of the industry as a whole. And most importantly, such an approach is highly unlikely to yield quality results.

Similarly, in the case of wire distribution services, Hankes makes a valid point that reporters as a rule don’t get their news via wire distribution services. Also, once the news is widely circulated, it no longer qualifies as news and reporters lose interest. When you pick up 50 press release hits on Internet sites no one reads, that’s simply a poor use of resources. A handful of high-quality stories in select publications will have a far more transformative effective on a brand.

Again, there are reasons to use wire distribution services – to increase SEO rankings and visibility, for example, or to increase brand recognition as part of a larger strategy. Wire distribution can certainly help when you’re dealing with public brands that have a large global presence, when you’re announcing mergers or acquisitions or other finance-related news or when there is a need to reach into emerging markets where newswires may simply be the most effective means of communicating.

But it is clear the industry still overuses wire services and over-emphasizes the importance of press release writing – in effect placing a premium on quantity of coverage over quality and impact.

It is also arguable that too many people in the profession rely on these tools out of habit. As with any business, but particularly in the rapidly evolving world of media, we all need to constantly reevaluate what works and what doesn’t, which tools are out of date and which we should embrace.

Elaborating on this point, Hankes suggests that the PR industry must increasingly consider emerging technologies as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of PR campaigns. He highlights a number of new services that are seeking to “disrupt the status quo,” such as IrisPR, which uses CRM software to gain better visibility into PR performance, or AirPR, a company that uses analytics to provide actionable insights into PR efforts.

While I agree there is value in leveraging new technologies to better understand what works and what doesn’t, I think the article overlooks the importance of getting the PR fundamentals right.

Which fundamentals, you ask? First and foremost, mastering the art of storytelling. No amount of data analysis – or strong editorial relationships, for that matter – can replace the need for an engaging story. A list of facts or product features will never grab the interest of media professionals or their readers. One of the first skills PR professionals must master on the job is the ability to create and tell a good story, one that inspires a vision people can relate to.

In order to do that, PR professionals must invest the time in learning about their clients’ business and the industry at large. What are customers looking for and, more importantly, what do they need?

Only when you can decisively answer that question does it make sense to consider the best vehicle for sharing that message. It could be a pitch to a reporter, a press release, a blog post or a social media campaign. It could also be the case that a direct marketing campaign is a better approach than PR to get the message out.

My point is that when it comes to good PR, the basics matter – a lot.  PR people are paid for getting results, not just for having a Golden Rolodex.

Solid relationships, combined with a strong vision and a compelling story, are fundamental to the success of any campaign. As long as the industry remains focused on these basic principles and resists the temptation to rely on outdated tools that prioritize quantity over quality coverage, it will continue to deliver the results clients expect.