Relationships Are Still the Bedrock of Good PR

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This post was originally published on MBS Insights, the blog of MBS Value Partners.

Don’t be fooled by the proliferation of Twitter handles and hashtags in the media these days. The bedrock of solid public relations remains the personal relationships developed over time between companies and the journalists who cover them.

Hearing this, you might figure I’m some kind of Luddite who never liked the bloggers, podcasts and i-literati who have become such an important part of our media landscape. Not true. In fact, I’m very much one of them, launching my first podcast as far back as 2006.

I do feel, however, that unbridled belief in the social conversation has led us down the garden path toward the belief that developing real relationships with reporters and editors is passé. That we can effectively publicize our ventures without ever picking up the phone or stepping out from behind our computers. I’m here to say that’s just, plain wrong.

Building solid relationships with reporters is one of those core components of good PR that never falls out of favor. We may use different tools to manage and interact with these individuals, but the idea remains comfortably old-fashioned: treat these folks like you would any other business relationship. Here’s why:

  • Journalists respond to the familiar. This should be obvious, but let’s go ahead and say it. Reporters are more likely to take your call or read your email if they know you. That’ doesn’t mean they’ll listen to your pitch and then write every word you tell them. No way. But it does mean that you at least have a chance to deliver your pitch. Your relationship gives you a leg up in breaking through the noise,
  • Reporters like knowledgeable sources. No reporter wants to spend time on the phone listening to neophyte publicists pitch them stories they barely understand themselves. Sadly, this happens all the time; I remember it un-fondly from my own days as a reporter. But the flipside is true as well. Journalists are generally happy to hear from individuals who provide real information at appropriate times and don’t overdue it. This, to them, adds value.
  • Newspeople need access to newsmakers.  A journalist with no sources at the companies he or she covers is not accomplishing much. Good reporters know this and cultivate sources within their beats so they have access to the people they need, when they need them. And this can be as little as a moment’s notice. Given that reality, reporters will be receptive if you can deliver this type of access, to both yourself and your senior executives, on deadline, time after time.
  • You’ll be better positioned in a crisis. When everything goes wrong and your company is in the early stages of a major crisis, reporters who know your organization will seek you out for information. And they’re usually willing to listen to what you have to say. This is far, far better than the alternative, which is the journalists writing their stories without company input because they simply don’t know whom to call. Relationships are a major crisis-planning tool.
  • Companies need to know their own audiences. To effectively communicate our stories to the media, it’s important to understand the particular needs of news organizations that cover us and the journalists within them. You may know that one reporter is always under pressure to get the story first and another has an editor who cherishes CEO access. Understanding these needs can help you tremendously. It’s hard to meet your journalists’ requirements if you don’t know what they are in the first place.

This list is by no means scientific or exhaustive. There may be another bullet or two you can come up with. But being exhaustive was not my intent.

I simply want us all to remember that while we have never had more exciting tools with which to do our jobs, the core skills of networking and relationship building are still to be highly prized in the modern mediascape. They are at the very core of what we do.

Great Presenters are Made, Not Born

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There has always been this belief that great communicators — writers, actors or presenters of any sort — are simply born with their outrageous skills. That the right words simply jump from their lips with no effort. That their work is hardly work at all.

In truth, communicating well is a skill that takes training, practice and hard work. The better you get, the more effortless it seems to the audience. But it only seems effortless.

Any businessperson preparing for an investor meeting, roadshow, board presentation, speech, media interview or internal event needs to understand that the skills required to be a compelling presenter must be learned before they can be deployed. To think that presenting your company’s story is as simple as reading a set of slides is completely erroneous. In fact, I guarantee that if you try to simply read each slide to your audience, all you’ll succeed in doing is developing yet another cure for insomnia.

With this in mind, I thought I’d provide some thoughts on just how great presenters are made.

Secrets to Becoming a Great Presenter

  • Start with good material. This is sometimes out of your control, as I noted in my last post about presenting bad slides well, but in a perfect world you’ll have a slideshow to present that has the right number of captivating, easy-to-present slides. It’s not enough that the story itself is good, like a presentation about financial results that exceeded expectations, The materials you actually use have to be good. Imagine going into battle with a rifle that misfires. It really doesn’t matter how good a shot you are, does it?
  • Learn proper technique. A set of skills exists that you simply must know to present well. There’s nothing so illustrative as watching a video of your presentation practice with someone who knows what they’re doing. Little things like body language, pacing, the use of props and even how you are dressed can impact the overall feel of the presentation. Everything matters when you’re in front of an audience. You need to know your technique cold.
  • Practice with proper technique. It’s often been said that practice makes perfect. Not true. Practice only makes things permanent, as an old friend once told me. In order to be perfect, you have to practice the proper technique. This means that presenters should practice by rigorously applying the skills they’ve learned to their own materials until the performance is smooth and natural. And don’t stop with the slides. Rehearse the Q&A, too.
  • Recognize you’re on stage. This is one remarkably easy mistake to make. When you’re in front of a large audience, it’s obvious that you should have your game face on. But what about sitting in your own conference room on an earnings call? Or in front of your own management team? Or board of directors? Or your own employees in a conference room you’ve used 100 times before? When you’re presenting your story to an audience, any audience, you’re on stage. Period.
  • Learn to watch your audience. How are you doing? Your audience can tell you, if you’re paying attention. Great presenters know they’re not speaking in a vacuum. If your audience is looking down at their iPhones, Galaxy S3s and Blackberrys, you need to do something. They’re bored. If they look puzzled, you’ve lost them. Figure out what you just explained and do it again in simpler terms. If you’re trying to be provocative or funny, watch to see if it’s working. You need to know.
  • Get feedback. The last thing most people want after a presentation is honest feedback. Because our egos are wrapped up in our presentations, we just want to hear how well we’ve done. Even if we haven’t. My recommendation is to have someone in the audience who will tell you honestly what worked, and what did not. You need this information to improve for the next time. If you spoke too fast or shuffled nervously on stage, you absolutely need to know. The truth can hurt but it will also make you better.
  • Look for opportunities to present. The more you do, the better you will get. This is absolutely a universal truth when it comes to presentations. You don’t need formal invitations to major events in order to present. You can work on your technique when running your team’s weekly meeting or when talking to clients about new ideas. If the opportunity arises to do a lesser conference or a media interview that’s not terribly important, jump at it. Consider it training and prepare as you would for when all the marbles are on the table.

Having read this far, I’m fairly certain you’ll have one of two thoughts. The first is, wow, these are great tips. I can apply some of these. The second is, wow, this sounds interesting but I really don’t have time to do it.

To the second, let me simply says this. For senior executives and entrepreneurs, presentation skills are terribly important. They can represent the difference between success and failure, between getting that investment or having to shut down. How you present adds a critical, personal element to the business case you are trying to make. The slides may have all the right details, but how you present them will either build confidence or erode it.

Investors don’t put their money behind slides, they put them behind people. Turn yourself into a great presenter and success will surely follow.

6 Reasons to Love Your Public Relations Firm

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Your public relations firm is a lot more than just a clip machine. If you think about your PR firm simply as an organization that pitches news and wins coverage, you’re missing a lot of what it has to offer.

Your PR firm works hard to understand your business inside and out so it can be there when you need it most. It’s prepared for the expected and the unexpected. It’s ready to roll in good times and bad. Success and crisis. Addressing positive stories and negative. Training, advising and pitching your business.

There are lots of reasons why you should love your public relations firm. Here are six big ones I’ve come up with.

Why You Should Love Your Public Relations Firm

  1. They’re people you can trust. In any organization, individuals have agendas. But your public relations firm is an outside entity. Your PR firm’s staff members function as your spokespeople and your strategic advisors. Their only goal is to maximize your exposure and reputation. You can trust them, run ideas by them and ask them about things you might not know. No question is too elementary. No confidence will be broken. They’re people you can turn to in a pinch.
  2. They’ll tell it to you straight. One of the most important services a PR firm can offer is telling you when you’re got it wrong. Oftentimes, people in your own organization won’t want to point out errors. However, the staff members at your PR firm have been hired to tell it like it is. If you want to respond to a negative story with a press release setting the record straight, your PR firm will tell you why this may be a bad idea. They’ll risk a little confrontation to make sure you get it right.
  3. They’ve seen it all before. When you hire a public relations firm, you’re hiring experience. Your firm’s publicists and strategists have been there before. This has tremendous value. When your company is under attack in the media, it may feel overwhelming to you and you may want to lash out. Your PR firm will offer dispassionate counsel. This is critical. Public relations professionals deal with these situations all the time and know how they resolve and how much time it can take. This perspective can lead to much better decisions.
  4. They understand social. We all know that we’ve got to be part of Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the other social networks out there. However, some organizations and their marketing/PR folks just don’t have enough experience to be effective in this arena. Your public relations firm does. It can give you the lay of the social landscape, help devise effective social media strategies and make sure your traditional PR efforts complement your social media efforts. Working with social media is just the newest type of media relations, which has been the sweet spot of PR firms forever.
  5. They’re writing professionals. The written word is a challenge for some, an absolute nightmare for others. But for your PR firm, it’s a walk in the park. Public relations firms are experts with the written word. It is their chosen medium. Many PR folks — like myself — are former reporters, so their first love is writing. This can come in handy as your PR firm’s staff can help you with written communications in many forms. Whether you need help blogging, writing white papers and ebooks, or simply crafting internal communications, your PR firm can do it. Just ask.
  6. They’ve got your back. One big job of PR firms is to guard your reputation. In short, they look out for you and respond when the vultures circle. It’s nice to have someone to stand up for you when times get tough, but when it comes to the media it’s essential. Please note, the way your firm responds may not be the way you would think to fire back yourself. But referring to No. 3 above, remember your PR pros have seen it before. However they choose to proceed, know that your PR firm’s staff members are looking out for you.

Certainly, there are other reasons to love your public relations firm. Please let me know if you have more I should add to the list.

My main point, however, is to urge you to think of your public relations firm in the broadest possible terms. It can provide you with a great deal of value in areas you may not have considered.

Why Your PR Agency Gives You Talking Points

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Talking points are a staple of public relations. A bullet-point document that helps clients stay on message during interviews, every PR agency is adept at producing talking points for just about any situation.

In my experience, however, clients sometimes push back when they receive these documents.

There are various reasons for the push back. “I know what I want to say.” “I’ll make my own notes.” “I don’t like talking from bullets.” “This is just make-work designed to bump up billable hours.”

I want to challenge these objections and discuss the usefulness of talking points. They are of great value in many, many situations.

The Value of PR Agency Talking Points

  • Keep you on message. This, of course, is the primary reason talking points are created but it’s worth repeating here. During the span of an interview, it’s easy to get distracted, sidetracked and moved away from the points your organization wants to make. Talking points are useful for bringing you back on message. You can just glance down at the last point you made before the conversation moved off track and start up again with the next bullet. This is useful in any situation where your messaging is critical to your PR strategy.
  • Build consensus. Most clients don’t recognize this value right away, as it’s a by-product of the work of producing talking points. However, it is terribly important, particularly for large organizations. The process of writing talking points, sharing them with your team, editing and tweaking them to say exactly what you want, and ending up with broad buy-in assures that everyone is on the same page. It brings focus throughout the organization. This is an example of the journey itself having value.
  • Allow for multiple spokespeople. This comes up with large organizations and with political campaigns. You have to get a message out or respond to something a competitor has said. If you have talking points ready, you can send out multiple spokespeople to the media all at once. Here, talking points are absolutely necessary as you want to make sure all your spokespeople are completely synced up. This can also hold true for large companies that need to make the same points in multiple markets.
  • Maintain consistency over time. Talking points represent a written record of your messaging for a given campaign or interview. They also allow you to remain consistent in your messaging over time. That’s because when it comes time for the next campaign or series of interviews, you can go back to the prior talking points as a starting point for the next set. What you said in the past will drive what you say going forward, ensuring your organization’s messaging sounds cohesive and consistent. This will go a long way toward making it stick.
  • Let you practice. It’s hard to rehearse for an interview if you don’t know what you want to say. Talking points represent a script in bullet-point format. Once armed with your talking points, practice is possible. You may also want a Q&A document, which anticipates the difficult questions you could be asked and provides bullet-point answers, which your PR agency should also provide. A little rehearsal beforehand, particularly if the topic is sensitive, will give you additional confidence and polish as you move forward to your actual interviews.

There are certainly other reasons why your PR agency might provide you with talking points. But the idea I want to get across is this: Open your mind to the talking points process. Your agency is doing this for good reasons. If you believed in your agency enough to hire it in the first place, give their talking points a shot.