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Top PR mistakes and how to avoid them

“If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on PR,” as Bill Gates once said. When done successfully, a PR campaign is crucial to an organisation’s success, be it mopping up damage or establishing your place amongst more seasoned competitors.

When done well.

PR doesn’t pay for a private booth for your firm like advertising does. Instead, the aim of the game is convincing media outlets why they should take an interest in what you’ve got going on. To do that requires continued commitment to building long-lasting relationships with journalists.

Needless to say, there is a lot of room for things to go pear-shaped.

Here are the top five PR mistakes and how to avoid them:

1. Lacking a plan

Unless you’re a miracle-worker, steam-rolling your way into an unplanned PR campaign is sure to see you end up in a position you don’t like. How do you know who to pitch to, or when to send a follow-up email?

There are a far greater number of directions you don’t want to head in than directions you do. Discuss a strategy, pick out media outlets that are likely to be receptive and have your target audience in their readership, and establish a timetable.

To make sure you’re prepared for anything, consider back-up options as well. This will save you scrabbling around for purchase when you inevitably send out an unsuccessful press release.

2. Poor timing

Topics have seasons in the media. A national or international crisis can linger on for months, sometimes even years. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic still makes headlines more than two years after it broke out in Wuhan.

To make as much of an impact in the news as possible, synchronise when you release information with the most current issues. This ensures relevancy.

From a single stock of press releases, you could mastermind a highly successful or abysmally poor PR campaign based on the order you send them out in.

3. Writing with needless complexity

Journalists are busy. They get hundreds of emails every day, so they have to be brutal in cutting out anything readers won’t read. The first whiff of filler will put them off. Choose only a handful of the most relevant facts, and exercise your inner poet another time.

Structure your pitches and press releases in a tight pyramid style, most important information at the top, and expanding out to provide context. Not too much context though. Also, refrain from using jargon. If your grandmother can’t understand it, it has no place in a pitch.

Employ Mark Twain’s proverb, “My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately, everybody drinks water,” and you won’t go far wrong.

4. Being inconsistent in your efforts

This brings us back to the purpose of PR. It’s about the long-term. The relationships you build with journalists are founded on cooperation. If it makes your blood boil when they cancel a meeting last minute, you know how it feels in vice versa.

Similarly, you cannot afford to abandon all PR efforts for a few months. The consistency of the brand appearing in the media over stretches of time is more valuable than one or two massive hits.

The opposite is also detrimental. Constantly pushing out press releases on everything will result in you, and potentially your institution too, being blacklisted by journalists who are fed up of you flooding their inbox with uninteresting stories. The job of a good PR consultancy is to walk the tightrope between publishing too much and too little.

5. Failing to manage expectations

This applies threefold: to you, your stakeholders and your media contacts. It’s your responsibility to make sure you keep your aspirations for a piece of coverage realistic. Stubbornly pitching a story to national publications when it is more applicable to trade press will result in missed opportunities, a piece of stale news, and a bruised ego. Possibly several.

Some of the time, you have to push back on stories your stakeholders want to see published. It may be interesting, but interesting and newsworthy are different things. If they persist, you must do your job, but make plain to them your expectations beforehand, so that they know what to expect.

Then when it flops, they are aware it’s not your poor work ethic that’s the issue, but the coverage you warned them would go nowhere.

Integrity is also key to good relations with journalists. If you cannot help them with a story, don’t pretend you can. Don’t inflate the information in your press releases. Remain friendly, try to help wherever you can, avoid lies or half-truths unsupported by the evidence of your material, and they will remember you are one of the good ones.

team photosAuthor: Jamie Hose

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Originally published April 2018, updated April 2022

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