What it takes for a successful career in PR

When I teach marketing and public relations courses, or lecture at universities, students often ask about a career in PR.  Too often young people have the wrong idea about what skill-set a full-time PR job requires.  Some believe the public relations business consists of attending parties and posting on Facebook all day.Hardly.PR and marketing are serious business functions.  To be successful in the marketing business one needs to have a strong sense of how business functions, have a keen sense for news and perhaps most important, possess excellent writing skills.I can’t tell you how many resumes I receive from recent college graduates applying for a job with my firm that contain typos, grammatical errors and sentences that don’t make sense.  I am not talking about foreigners but born and raised American young people.

If you want to get into the PR business, sharpen your writing and communication skills, read the newspaper everyday (yes, the newspaper not just the Drudge Report) and learn to understand a balance sheet.

You might attend a party or two, but there will come a time when you will have to write a strategic marketing plan and carry it out.  Or, you can go to law school, not a bad option.

Winning outside the courtroom

There was a time when Americans would take their disputes to the streets, but today, the courtroom is society’s battleground.

Thank goodness we live in a civilized society.

Statistically, most businesses will eventually find itself on one side of a major lawsuit. Many, too many, are frivolous and should never be filed. But then again, companies can have legitimate disputes that necessitate lawyers, a jury and a judge.

And in a growing number of instances, adding to the litigation team will be a litigation PR consultant. In fact, litigation PR is a normal part of the litigation process, along with the jury consultant and expert witness.

A litigation PR expert’s job is to tell clients’ story in a way that can’t be told in the courtroom. In court, there are strict rules of evidence and procedure must be followed, and lawyers need to adhere to the rulings of the judge. But unless the court imposes a gag order, which is only in the highest profile cases, litigants are free to discuss their case in the media and to influential target audiences

This is critical because every business has constituents who have a vested interest in the outcome of corporate litigation. These include employees, vendors, suppliers, customers, shareholders, investors, bankers and more. This is not to mention preserving the branding image a company has with the general public.

Because the outcome of any litigation is never certain until the verdict comes in, or a settlement is reached, companies should be pro-active in getting their message out to the audiences that are important to their survival and operation. In other words, even if an unfavorable decision comes down, a company that has taken steps to communicate with its important audiences can still land on its feet. It has a much better chance of moving forward because it has made its case directly to its important audiences, instead of leaving it to the court and opposing attorneys to do so.

Every law firm and corporation should consider the value a litigation PR consultant brings to the litigation team, and do so well before the gavel strikes on the opening day of court.

Marketing a non-profit

If you’re the executive director of a nonprofit organization, you come to work with two things on your mind. First, how can your agency best fulfill its mission, and second, how will you get the funding you need to fulfill your mission. The two are intertwined, a Catch-22 if you will. While most nonprofit leaders love doing the work of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, educating the uneducated or even furthering the arts, many heads of nonprofits dread the never-ending yet unavoidable task of fundraising.

There are many routes to fundraising. The obvious and perhaps most predominant one is writing grants for foundation funding. But there are many others including government assistance, nurturing private donors and creating special events.

There is no secret to effective fundraising, but it is clear that the most successful nonprofits have an easier time raising funding when they have an effective and ongoing marketing and public relations program in place.

The reason is obvious. First, funding is more likely to come the way of an organization that has an image and that people know or at least have heard of. Second, donors prefer giving money to organizations that are successful, not appearing as through they are teetering on closing their doors. Nobody wants to donate money to an operation that may not exist tomorrow to carry out its mission.

That’s why so many nonprofits are creating and implementing campaigns to brand and position themselves. And most of all, every nonprofit rightfully seeks positive media exposure

Getting the media to profile your nonprofit is not an easy task. In fact it is tough. There are hundreds of thousands of nonprofits in America, each seeking media exposure. How many of these organizations can get profiled on a national television program? How many can get a feature story in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times or any other major metropolitan newspaper?

Too few.

So how is it done? Can it be done? Yes it can.

First, determine how your nonprofit is different from all the others who seemingly do the same thing you do. Yes, every nonprofit agency is different, you just have to look close. Second, think how you can market your differences and make them interesting — no fascinating — to the average reader or TV viewer. Third, define how your work is changing lives for the better. You are, aren’t you? Fourth, look for anecdotes, real-life examples of people whose lives your agency has changed.

Take all over the above, put together a list of media targets that you believe may have interest, and craft an email selling your story. You may not like the term, but it is a sales job and if you believe in your nonprofit, as I’m sure you do, you should have no problem touting yourself.

Certainly this is an oversimplification of how to get media exposure. That’s why public relations professionals exist who have the experience and knowledge to help you craft your message and deliver it to the right people in the right manner.

But if a PR pro is not in your budget, try it yourself. The reporter may say no at first, but don’t give up. Sooner or later you’ll likely come across a story the media will find irresistible. And when you do, take that story and send it to as many donor prospects as you can so when you solicit them for funding, they will know who you are and what you do.

What should a PR firm cost?

When searching for a PR firm, one of the obvious criteria is whether you can afford them. You can find the best PR firm in the world, but if you can’t afford them, then you’re wasting your time. That’s why it is important to understand how PR firms charge and get an understanding of what the total costs may be.

After you’ve made the decision to retain the services of a PR firm, the hard part starts. How do you find the right firm? How do you know they will provide what you want and need? And perhaps most important, can your budget handle their cost requirements?

It is first important to understand the billing practices of most PR firms (there are exceptions to everything, but the following is the basic system of billings). Because PR firms are consultants, they bill in much the same way as any consultancy organizations such as a law firm, CPA firm, architectural firm and so forth. The basic difference is that in the PR business, there often is more flexibility in cost/budget arrangements. This is because every client’s needs are different and PR firms must adapt to the needs of their clients.

The major cost is the fee for service. PR firms typically charge in one of three ways: hourly, monthly retainer or project basis. Let’s look briefly at each:

Hourly – This is self-explanatory. The PR firm tells you their hourly rate, usually based on the level of person working on your account, and then they bill for the hours worked during any given month. Because paying hourly can get out of hand, or leave the client unaware of how many hours the firm is racking up, they may either put a cap on the number of hours they will bill during a month and continue working without charging the additional hours, or tell you when they reached their hourly allotment and then it is your decision whether to approve additional hours of billable work or not.

The hourly billing arrangement is much like how a law firm charges, however, law firms usually bill per six minute increments and every call, email and certainly meeting is accounted for. Most PR firms, I am generalizing here, are not as strict as a law firm in counting the minutes, but this varies and if a PR firm’s policy is to charge by the hour, you should get a clear understanding of what an hour means.

Monthly retainer – This is the most common billing method because most PR campaigns are ongoing without stops and starts. After the PR firm has a clear understanding of your goals, objectives and expectations, they will consider how much time they need to devote to you as a client and then come up with a monthly fee. Almost always, they will put a cap on the number of hours the monthly fee will cover. If more hours are needed, some PR firms will ask for permission to work more hours, while others will just keep working to keep the client happy. Question: what if the PR firm works fewer hours in a given month? Does the client get a credit for the next month’s work? Hard to say. It is unusual for a PR firm to give a client credit for hours not worked simply because the next month they may work more hours than allotted. So it all works out in the end.

Project basis – This is a common billing method when you have a self-contained project that you need help with. A common example would be a special event. There is a point when work needs to start, and a point when the work ends, after the special event is over. In this case, the PR firm will arrive at a price to produce what we call a “scope of work” meaning the firm outlines precisely what it will do for you within the timeframe and put a price tag on it. This is a very clean and clear way of working with a PR firm in that you know going in what your costs will be for the PR firm to handle the special event or project for you.

When discussing PR firm costs, we can’t ignore expenses, as they can be significant. When talking to a PR firm, the potential client needs to get a clear understanding of expense billings, as they vary. Expenses range from local and long distance telephone, messenger services, travel and other standard operational expenses the PR firm incurs on your behalf, to vendor expenses such as photographers, graphic designers, web programmers, printers and the like. The larger PR firms have some of these services in-house such as graphic designers, but they usually bill separately for them.

The most critical aspect of determining what your bottom line costs will be with a PR firm is to have a candid discussion with them about their billing practices and not to allow a PR firm to brush off or belittle expenses. When beginning a relationship with a PR firm, there usually is excitement and a positive attitude going in and elements such as how they bill for their services and what expenses they bill for are often set aside because the chemistry feels right. Unfortunately, not paying close attention to the billing practices of a PR firm often leads to invoice shock after the first 30 days and all that goodwill going in can dissipate rather quickly.

To engage or not to engage

If there is one word that is the most over used term in marketing, it has to be “engage.”  Marketers no longer communicate with target markets.  They engage them.  People no longer post on Facebook.  They engage their followers.When social media took the marketing industry by storm, it was immediately advised that communication is a two way street.  Those who wish to market a product or service send out a message, while eliciting a response or the start of a conversation.

Social media marketing focuses on the word “social,” meaning people talking to one another.  That’s why the worst thing one can do is try to aggressively sell a product or service on social media.  People don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so forth to be sold anything.  They are there to talk to their friends, and if someone mentions something they like, then the tip is usually viewed as helpful.

But whether it is called “engage” or “talk” or “conversation” it is the same thing.  Sometimes words can become tiring and while the process of “engaging” an audience is the correct approach for social media, maybe its time we call it what it it.  Talking.