James Kelliher is the CEO of The Whiteoaks Consultancy, which provides B2B PR and consulting services for companies in the technology sector. With nearly 20 years of experience in public relations, Kelliher shares his advice for those pursuing a career in PR, outlining three areas that are key for separating great PR professionals from the herd.
1) The strategic framework: establishing objectives and audiences
As Bill Shankly once famously said: “Football is a simple made game complicated by idiots” – and the same is true for PR. At the end of the day, it’s about good content, in the right places, reaching the right people.
My first piece of advice to anyone entering PR is to understand the fundamentals of what a client wants to achieve and how you can help them get there. That means from the very outset you must know the client’s organisational objectives. Though they will naturally vary, the majority of companies investing in PR services are doing so to increase sales, both within their existing customer base and by gaining new ones. This can involve launching new products and services, going into new markets or trying to change legislation to create a market opportunity.
Once the objectives of the campaign are understood, a sharp PR professional will aim to understand and identify both the wider groups and specific individuals they need to engage with, categorising and prioritising them accordingly. This is a crucial part of the process, as it informs us of the correct channels to use in order to reach these audiences, and ensures the client is receiving more than “vanity PR” – campaigns that do little more than make everybody feel good about themselves. What we are talking about is more impactful, as it links that content back to business outcomes, rather than fluffy coverage that does little or nothing for the company.
The next step in a successful campaign is to outline the desired perceptions of the client. What do we need these audiences to think and feel in order to encourage the behaviour we need from them? This is an exercise in thinking about how we’re going to position that particular organisation in its marketplace, and is a key element in this process is finding points of differentiation between the client and their competitors.
Establishing a strategic framework, and aligning the work with it, can separate the average PR professional from a great PR professional.
The final element in the strategic process concerns messaging. What messages do we need to consistently communicate to those audiences in order to achieve the desired perceptions? Generally speaking, you have to communicate the same message seven to 12 times before it impacts the perceptions and behaviours of an audience. With this in mind, Whiteoaks has always encouraged clients to pursue a select number of messages to be used consistently throughout a campaign. The more tightly-defined you can be and the fewer messages you communicate, the more likely they are to penetrate and influence perceptions and behaviours.
I can’t stress enough the importance of establishing a firm strategic framework before rushing into the specific tactics of a campaign. Doing otherwise risks delivering a campaign that completely misses the client’s target objectives. At best, this will amount to wasted time and energy. At worst, it could actually be damaging, should the campaign contradict what the client is trying to accomplish more broadly. Establishing a strategic framework, and aligning the work with it, can separate the average PR professional from a great PR professional.
2) Tactical setup: crafting and delivering content
When executing the tactical phase of a campaign, it’s crucial for PR professionals to establish what kind of content will be needed in order to engage with the client’s chosen audience, which will include defining the mix of news, customer endorsement and thought leadership content to be used for the campaign, as each of these will be of interest to different types of audiences.
Content concerning products and services will be interesting to users of those at the coalface, often influencers in the buying process, but not those holding the chequebook. Content that uses customers to endorse the client, which typically includes strong case studies or win releases, will likely extol the benefits of the client’s product or service and thus influence mid-level management decision makers.
Finally thought leadership content, which explains the issues and challenges within a target market (and how the solutions being offered will address them) is likely to be of interest to the senior layer, such as board level audiences and other planning the strategy and direction of businesses – the people who write the cheques. This audience does not need to know the bits and the bites, but rather an understanding of the business challenges and solutions available.
A good PR professional will be able to link these two campaign factors consistently and always be aware of why they are delivering the content they are putting out.
Once the content has been gathered, it is important to get a handle on the most effective channels for reaching these audiences. This will typically be a mixture of traditional media outlets, which can be very influential if trusted by audiences, direct engagement at events, social media and even industry associations. Increasingly, however, analysts, bloggers and other independent influencer bodies are being utilised to share a company’s message.
It’s absolutely key to align these strategic elements of a campaign with the delivery of content. Many times throughout my career I’ve seen a senior team build a creative and thoughtful strategic framework only for the delivery team to follow-up without any real link to the grand strategy. A good PR professional will be able to link these two campaign factors consistently and always be aware of why they are delivering the content they are putting out.
3) Managing your PR team and building trust with clients
When leading a team, one of the most important tasks is to ensure each member understands what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Whether it’s making a phone call, writing a press release or placing an article, they should always know what goal they are working to. This ensures they can be thoughtful and intelligent about what they’re doing, rather than just cranking out content without passion or direction.
As with many leadership roles, PR professionals must strike a balance between guiding/supporting their team and making them responsible for their own output.
As with many leadership roles, PR professionals must strike a balance between guiding/supporting their team and making them responsible for their own output. Ensuring your team is both empowered and accountable will make them more motivated, more rounded and overall better PR professionals themselves.
While accountability needs to be established within the team, when it comes to clients the buck will always stop with the senior manager. If something goes wrong, you’ll need to be the one who makes the phone call, the one who stands in front of the client and explains what went wrong. You’ve got to defend your team. In my experience, the team will acknowledge and respect that.
A principle to follow when dealing with clients is to under-promise and over-deliver. For example, if you’ve got a courier delivering a package to a client, who needs it by Wednesday, and the courier tells you it will arrive at 10am on Monday, tell the client it will be delivered by 4pm on Tuesday. This ensures that, even if the package arrives late, it will still be exceeding the client’s expectations as long as it arrives before they need it.
However, putting yourself in the opposite situation can quickly erode the client’s trust. Most client-agency relationships that break down do not fall apart due to something big going wrong, they break down after a lot of small things go wrong over a period of time. By consistently over-delivering, you can ensure that trust is regularly reinforced.
Another key element in maintaining a good relationship with clients is responsiveness. While it’s not always possible to answer a client’s query immediately, as finding the right answer often requires some thought and investigation, it’s important to acknowledge the question quickly. Set a realistic timeframe for your response, remembering to under-promise and over-deliver. There’s nothing clients hate more than radio silence.
It’s important to keep clients informed that agreed targets and objectives are consistently being achieved. This is often as simple as sending an email to notify them that the month’s target has been reached or soon to be reached, which again helps build trust.
Becoming a great PR professional means building great PR campaigns. The key to doing this is building a solid framework, crafting strong content, building a loyal client base and remembering to keep all three elements firmly connected.