Public Relations

by Debbie Leven

Supporting the PR function

To help the PR department, you need to be its eyes and ears, to spot opportunities for positive PR, but also identify activities and incidents that may have a negative impact on reputation. By getting to know staff in the PR department, and having a better understanding of the information they are interested in, it is possible to identify opportunities and problems early. Giving the PR department as much time as possible to research and develop ideas, or devise handling strategies, helps to maximise opportunities and manage and minimise the potential impact of negative publicity.

Generating positive PR

Keeping the PR department informed of what you and your team are working on is a useful way to identify quickly any opportunities for PR. Likewise, speaking to the PR team about their priorities and focus will help you to get a better understanding of what ideas and stories would be suitable. Ensuring staff know what to look for in their day-to-day work is important. Customer stories are hugely valuable, but if staff are not tuned into what would make a story, then opportunities will be lost. The types of ideas the PR department will be looking for will vary from organisation to organisation, but it is worth keeping in mind the following and discussing them further with your PR department:

  • New starters in your department
  • Changes in your department
  • Anything unusual that has happened or strange coincidences
  • Staff/departmental successes and recognition
  • Staff involvement with charities/local community/special interest groups
  • Staff interests – involvement in interests outside work
  • Customer stories – strange requests, instances where staff have gone beyond the call of duty
  • Contract wins
  • New products and services
  • Identification of trends
  • Results of research
  • Anything that bucks the trend in the industry
  • Milestones
  • Anniversaries
  • Events/announcements
  • Publication of a report.

If you become aware that any of these are relevant to your department, it is a good idea to discuss this with the PR department or your PR adviser.

In short, the PR department is continually looking for ways to enhance the company’s reputation, and it relies on other departments to keep it informed of activities, changes, stories about staff, customers and so on that can be used to this end. It’s much better for the PR department to know about events and activities in advance than after the event, otherwise opportunities could be missed as well as valuable planning time lost.

What journalists are looking for...

The job of the PR department or your PR adviser is to give journalists the ingredients they know will interest them and present the organisation in the best light. Building in ingredients of a news story, however, is not enough – it’s also important to ensure the news is local, relevant and has a ‘peg’. For a story to be local, it must happen in the publication’s distribution area or involve people/organisations in that area.

So, the dramatic rescue of a child from a pond in Watford will be reported in local Watford newspapers. It’s unlikely to be reported in the Liverpool Echo unless the rescue involved a child or rescuer on a day trip to Watford from Liverpool, or some such.

The key for any journalist is relevance – the story must be of relevance/interest to their audience. It’s likely that outbreaks of ‘foot and mouth’ disease affecting cattle will be of interest to readers of Farmers’ Weekly, but not to readers of Digital Photographer.

There must also be a reason for the doing the story – the ‘peg’. You won’t see articles which just report that an organisation is doing well. There has to be a reason for the article: something has just happened, interesting research results, a new product launch, an event has taken place, the organisation been given an award, a statement about surging sales figures, a milestone has been reached or there has been an anniversary.

Shock has its value and it is one of the best ways to get lots of free publicity above all else.

Brenda Fassie

The ingredients outlined above are what PR specialists look for within their organisations. Being aware and becoming familiar with these will help you identify the opportunities that are most relevant to the PR department or your PR adviser.

Timing and relevance

Understanding how a journalist thinks will help you to identify the types of stories that may provide opportunities for positive PR. A journalist is only interested in stories which are relevant to their specific readership/viewership. If you find a possible story that might be of interest, speak to your PR professional as soon as possible. If something happened last month, it is unlikely to be of interest to a journalist unless they work for a publication which is only published every couple of months.

Journalists work to tight deadlines and so too does the PR department. Staff in the PR department have probably had experience of journalists calling and asking for answers to their questions within 15 minutes so they can meet their deadline. News can move at a fast pace and stories change as experts add their opinions. To secure coverage, it’s important for the PR department to act swiftly in response to those demands from journalists.

Questions your PR people may ask

When a journalist receives your press release there are various questions they will ask. The role of the PR department or your PR specialist is to ensure that, with any press release, these questions have already been considered. When a journalist receives a press release, they will typically consider the following questions:

  • What’s it all about? Is this really a story?
  • What is the human interest angle?
  • What is the impact on people?
  • Where is the conflict angle – who will disagree with this?
  • Who else can add to this story?
  • Do the facts check out – is this the real story?
  • Is this part of a bigger story?
  • Is there any scandal here?
  • Does the story have ‘legs’, in other words is there longevity in this story – potential for it to carry on?

That is why PR advisers sometimes ask tricky questions. They have to put themselves into the mind of the journalist in researching and putting together a potential story. They need to be sure that the story is ‘solid’ and that there are no surprises which could damage the reputation of the organisation.

In addition, when it comes to crisis and incident handling it’s important for the PR department to get the full story, meaning the facts, not an interpretation. This will enable PR staff to advise and support appropriately. When a crisis strikes there is little time or scope for getting the communication wrong – understanding the facts and being clear on the order of events are of paramount importance.

How do I know whether something is useful for PR?

If in doubt, ask your PR department or PR adviser. Keeping them updated on a regular basis about what is happening in your department, as well as what is up and coming, is essential. They will then be able to work with you to identify opportunities. It’s also useful to keep timeliness in mind. Telling your PR department or adviser about an industry award presented two weeks earlier is not helpful. It’s much better to highlight this as far in advance as possible, so they can make the most of the PR opportunity and plan any related activity.

Will they go straight to press?

The PR department, or your PR adviser, is working in the best interests of the organisation – to build and protect reputation. It’s much better to keep them informed so they know what is going on and can support you. If you think there is an issue that could damage the reputation of the organisation, then you should speak to the PR department. Staff need to know so they can prepare the communications material which may need to be used.

We cannot make good news out of bad practice.

Ed Murrow

For all press and media activity, there will be a formal sign-off procedure involving those who have contributed information/views to the news release or statement.

Checking a press release

Press releases are not designed to convey the detail of the story; they are designed to spark the interest of the journalist and encourage them to seek more information. It can sometimes be tempting for people to re-write a press release in their own style. It’s important to remember what the ‘job’ of the press release is – to convey the facts in as concise a fashion as possible. The first paragraph is crucial – if a journalist is not interested at this point, then they will not read any further.

If you are asked to look at a press release, it’s important to focus on the facts – ask yourself whether these are correct and whether you think the key points (meaning what makes it newsworthy – not what is important to you) are conveyed high up in the release. Of course, a press release should always be written in good English, but it should be tailored to the specific press and media being targeted. It is best, however, to avoid jargon wherever possible – the test is whether the reader or viewer would understand the story without further explanation.