Understanding the dark art

Many people think of public relations in terms of 'spin' and imagine that all PR pros are a mini-Ali-Campbell or Malcolm Tucker.

In public sector or Government PR this is often relatively close to the truth. We are often the ones pulling the strings behind the curtain; making our bosses look good and problems disappear. It is quietly rewarding, quiet because there's often very little thanks and because we are the ones on the dark side of the camera lens, rarely in the spotlight. Rewarding because we can enjoy a secret little smile when we manage to pull it off.

But the truth about real PR is different.

Public relations ought to be about doing exactly what it says on the tin - improving relationships with the public. This means to be good at it you have to understand your 'public' whoever they are. In Government terms they really are the 'general public' but for most businesses and organisations the public has to be broken down into much smaller parts.

In marketing terms - and PR is just one element in the wider marketing mix - the 'public' is really the customer. Even if you don't perceive you are selling anything, your audiences are still your customers and you need to work to understand them so you can engage with them more effectively.

In simple terms: think about who uses your service or buys your product, try to visualise them as a real person. Then think about how they might like to be communicated with: are they big on social media or do they prefer more traditional ways to engage with what's going on in the world?

In my view there'll always be a role for journalism, in whatever form it's eventually delivered to the audience, but perhaps that's because I started my career as a newspaper hack!

Through social media you can engage with your customers direct, but I'm going to leave that for another day.

Back to Malcolm Tucker. Most of his time is spent shouting down the phone at journalists. Why?

Because many people continue to rely on 'opinion formers' to help them make sense of things. It doesn't really matter whether the journalist is writing for a local paper or a blog, their opinion counts. So for any PR to be effective, you have to tackle the opinion formers. And that boils down to simple relationships.

Good journalists will always report news straight up, but if you have a relationship with them, they might just give you a fighting chance to get your side of the story across which might mean the eventual story is more balanced.

And, if we're talking positive PR, and we should be; relationships with journalists are doubly important. Don't forget that a reporter's main duty is to fill pages with copy. Of course they want to write good copy, real stories that are important to their readers, but the main thing is to get those pages filled. Whoever saw a newspaper with a blank page?

And, if you have understood your customers correctly, you will be able to supply good stories that mean something to those customers. Leveraging your relationship with your key opinion formers means high quality copy all about your organisation, and it's free!

I hope this is making sense to you, but if you're struggling, don't hesitate to contact me for advice on PR strategies to improve engagement with your customers.