The key to any successful relationship is good communication, and this includes the relationship between a business or organization and the public it serves. However, communicating with the public and getting one’s news out to the world can be trickier than it seems for companies, charities or other organizations without expertise in public relations. Small business or nonprofit managers may wonder: How can I get people to care about my organization’s news, products or services? How can I avoid slipups when making a public announcement? Should I be working with a PR firm to ensure that my communication is smooth and strategic?
Careful communication with potential clientele can improve an organization’s reputation and get more people interested in interacting with that organization in the future. But uncoordinated communication can lead to ignored or badly received announcements and can set a company back in attracting and engaging its audience and consumers.
The following tips from professionals in the PR field explain how to—and how not to—communicate with the public, as well as when to consider hiring a PR firm and how to choose a firm that will best suit an organization’s needs.
Public relations is different from advertising, although both can serve the purpose of getting people interested in your organization’s products, services or activities. The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”
This type of communication does more than ask potential consumers to purchase goods or visit a location—it continually fosters a relationship between an organization and the community that surrounds it.
PR is also about building trust and credibility with the public. A 2014 Nielsen study, commissioned by the marketing platform inPowered, found that public relations is 88 percent more effective than content marketing in impacting consumers’ purchasing decisions. And as pointed out by PR executive Robert Wynne in his Forbes magazine article ‘The Real Difference Between PR And Advertising,’ “With advertising, you tell people how great you are. With publicity, others sing your praises.”
However, this “singing of praises” will not happen automatically. An organization must implement strategy in attracting the media and the public to the information it wants to share, and good strategy takes thought and planning.
What should one do to start a conversation between the public and their organization? Where should they start?
“Whether it’s to internal audiences or external audiences, communications should be strategic and planned,” says William Murray, executive vice president and national director of leading full-service PR agency MWW. “Any business or organization should first answer several questions when developing that plan: 1. Why? What is the goal? 2. Who is the audience? 3. What do I want that audience to do; why is it important to them?”
Answering these three questions can help an organization begin to craft their communications, but strategy does not stop there.
“Communications also shouldn’t be viewed as a single, one-off action item. It should be part of the overall business, marketing or advocacy plan—and align with the objectives in those plans.” Murray continues. “While that sounds fairly basic—it’s surprising how many view and implement communications as a series of transactional announcements.”
Joshua Knoller, senior director at Nicholas & Lence Communications, one of the New York Observer’s Top 50 Most Powerful Public Relations Firms in America, adds that “timeliness and creativity” should factor into the strategic release of news and information.
“If there’s a relevant news peg to latch on to, that will also help attract attention from reporters who may be looking for content on a story they’re working on,” Knoller says. “I always ask myself ‘why now’ when putting together an event or sharing a story.”
When it comes to the different forms of media or “vehicles” of the information one wants to share, one should think outside the box and use a variety of platforms to maximize visibility and impact, Murray suggests.
“Analyze and select the communications vehicles carefully—not everything is a blast announcement,” he explains. “Go beyond the traditional press release mentality—engage traditional media directly and combine with a social strategy that maximizes visibility and impact. You may find that a social strategy may be more critical to success than traditional media—which is why it’s important to plan ahead.”
When putting announcements out into the world for all to see, many businesses may fear the mythical “PR disaster” that leads to backlash and outrage. But in reality, the worst case scenario for many organizations will be communication that is met with yawns—or goes completely ignored. To avoid wasting any effort on something that few will see or care about, Murray advises well-timed and well-targeted releases for maximum impact.
“Be relevant and impactful. Release information during times that will gain the most attention—if you want the most attention. Late in the week usually isn’t the best time,” he explains. “Rifle strategies often are better and more targeted than shotgun strategies.”
Knoller points out that another pitfall that could lead to ignored or badly received news is “crafting long-winded press releases instead of getting right to the point.”
“As a general rule of thumb, I always try to keep news releases to a page tops, with some exceptions of course,” he says.
One 2008 academic study from the University of Hamburg, Germany, titled “Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use,” found that users who read articles online only read about 20-28 percent of each article before moving on to something else. This is something to keep in mind when publishing news for internet consumption.
Hiring a PR firm
It is reasonable to believe that, like many other things, PR is best left to the specialists and professionals who are trained and well versed in subject. But for a small business, a startup or a fledgeling nonprofit, it may make more sense to handle PR independently before taking the step of hiring outside help for managing communications.
“If an organization or business has someone—or a team—with the expertise to conduct communications programs internally—capitalize on their capabilities,” Murray advises. “The cost of PR firms often can be too high for small businesses or smaller nonprofits. But, as that business grows, as the nonprofit becomes larger, outside counsel often provides more reach, more expertise and more impact.”
When it does come time for an organization to starting looking into hiring a firm, it is important to choose one that is a good fit with the organization’s objectives, audience and industry.
“Not all communications firms are the same. Some can handle a variety of programs, while others are more specialized,” Murray says. “You wouldn’t hire a plumber to do your electrical work—even if they are from the same company or trade union. The same is true of communications firms.”
One should also look out for a track record of success and positive outcomes when choosing a potential PR firm to work with.
“They should look at successful campaigns a firm has ran to see if that fits within the kind of campaign they’d be looking to execute,” says Knoller. “Also finding a firm you have chemistry with and you think you can have fun with is also important.”