PR Strategy: 3 Steps to Becoming a Thought Leader

Our country’s media is under the influence of two opposing trends right now – and no, I’m not talking about political polarization.

As you’ve probably heard, the press is really taking a hit. There used to be 56,200 full-time daily journalists in the country in 2000, but by 2015 that number had sunk to 32,900. This means journalists are spread thinner and thinner as fewer of them try to cover more topics in-depth.

But my industry – the public relations industry – is on the rise, stepping in to help fill the void left by the news media. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are around 306,500 working public relations specialists and PR managers – ten times the amount of daily journalists. Public relations is bridging the gap by helping industries, organizations, and individuals tell the stories that a limited number of overworked journalists are increasingly unable research and tell.

On the one hand, these trends are beneficial: it gives a greater number of diverse voices the opportunity to get heard. On the other hand, this means the competition for earned media is fierce – and getting fiercer every day. As journalists spend more of their time sifting through pitches from all different types of businesses, organizations, and individuals, your story has to be quite compelling if you hope to stand out from the crowd.

For some, the key to pitching a newsworthy story, one that is fresh and original, may be somewhat counterintuitive. It’s not just a matter of declaring that a story is newsworthy, reinventing your look with a new logo or website, or reworking your message with a new tag line – that’s marketing and there’s a big difference. In my experience, it takes a thoughtful, consistent and persistent approach to developing a unique space where your voice matters.

Lots of factors are involved in a successful PR effort, but here are a few key concepts to get you started:

1) Know what you’re about and how to say it concisely.

It sounds simple, but it really isn’t. Many of my clients are incredibly complicated organizations whose work spans a wide range of topics and issues. But we live in a world where few will take the time to read lengthy “about us” summaries and where we expect 140 characters to grab our attention. More, executives sometimes operate in an organizational silo where certain industry-related words and acronyms are used to communicate. So what sounds normal internally may be confusing or become white noise for audiences on the outside.

This is particularly true in the tech world, but it’s not an exclusive club. For example, I once was in a meeting with the communications executive at a telecommunications company where I asked a question about a department outside his purview. The executive responded, “I have no visibility into that department.” What he meant was, “I don’t have access to that information” or, simply, “I don’t know.” But what he said was far less clear. With the possible exception of some trade publications, executives that talk about their companies like that in public will struggle to break through with most reporters. To communicate effectively, executives have to talk about their companies in simple – but not unintelligent! – and concise ways.

So, go ahead and do the hard work of figuring out precisely what your top-line message is and how to talk about it in a way that’s understandable for non-experts – think 30-second elevator pitch. Once developed, don’t be afraid to tweak over time if necessary. Having a simple and consistent message will help outside audiences (reporters) understand exactly what you do and increase the likelihood that they’ll remember.

2) Think like a reporter.

I often counsel clients to consider their reason for developing and executing a public relations communications strategy. The lines are blurry sometimes, but there’s a difference between public relations communications and marketing communication. The best way to understand it is to open the latest issue of your daily newspaper. On the left page is probably an advertisement, perhaps for a car dealership. On the right page, you’ll see news stories covering politics, economics, sports, crime and more. Marketing focuses on the left page, PR on the right. The advertisement on the left page wound up there by an advertising sales representative with the newspaper transacting with the car dealership’s marketing person or agency. The stories on the right are there because a reporter talked with a politician, business person, athlete or their representatives.

Part of PR’s role is to ensure that their client’s stories get in front of the right reporters in an accurate way that then becomes part of ongoing and future news stories. This can involve everything from sit-down, “get to know you” meetings with reporters and editors to send out statements on current news stories, press calls and more. Reporters rely on sources and the goal here is to become a trustworthy, reliable resource. By cultivating these relationships, you position your organization as a thought leader and increase the possibility of coverage while also better controlling your narrative in the press.

Another part of PR’s job is to find interesting new stories to tell on behalf of your organization. They may not be as far-reaching and dramatic as stories covered in the mainstream news, but they’re worth telling nonetheless. Finding and pitching those stories for coverage requires thinking like a reporter. What audience are you trying to reach, what do they care about, what gets them to open the paper, read a story, share it with others and keep them coming back for more?

Journalists are smart people with a knack for sniffing out marketing fluff and repackaged ideas. If you want to be inserted into their stories and maintain relationships with them, you must recognize that not everything you do warrants media coverage – a new website is not news – and resist the urge to let a marketing impulse take over. Adding “breaking news” to the top a product press release doesn’t make it a compelling story if no one’s interested in the product. Strive to be thoughtful and respectful – reporters generally cover specific topics and they’re under a lot of pressure to deliver content. So make certain your message is clear and concise and going to the right person.

Be consistent and persistent in your approach. The hardest thing about the PR industry is that there are many unpredictable variables. News of the day can shift in a moment, positive earned media coverage isn’t guaranteed and a negative story can pop up overnight.

Because of this, creating a positive public narrative is a matter of persistence, hard work and sometimes a little good luck. The old phrase “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” is spot-on here – and if you only take half a dozen shots a year, you’re likely to miss most of those, too. Take the time to build relationships with reporters and consistently provide a fresh, unique take on news of the day. If you do this, you will eventually succeed.

3) Communicate directly with your audience.

According to a 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer report, a whopping 59 percent of people would be more likely to trust a search engine than a human editor. In light of this kind of distrust, the report urges businesses to “get out in front and become an effective advocate…moving away from lobbying toward direct public discourse.” It also specifically recommends making use of “company-owned social media channels [to] supplement mainstream media to educate and to encourage dialogue.”

The takeaway? Having an earned media strategy remains important. But with growing public skepticism, it’s increasingly important for businesses and organizations to develop direct channels to communicate with their audiences. This includes traditional earned media platforms like op-eds and letters to the editor that allow an organization to speak in its own unfiltered words. But it also includes new platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, where communication flows directly to your audience and your audience has the ability to communicate with you.

At first, most executives think this sounds great. They like the idea of communicating directly with customers. But one need only Google the “worst social media blunders” to realize there are lots of potential pitfalls. Consequently, risk-averse executives may opt for safer strategies that fail to use the platforms effectively.

Making the most of owned platforms means taking a few crucial factors into consideration. First, remember that owned platforms are company platforms, not just marketing mouthpieces. Think holistically about what content would add value for your followers. Second, use the platform to talk with customers, not at them. If you’re not getting feedback, you’re failing. Third, accept that some mistakes will happen. Have checks and balances in place, but don’t let the fear of a blunder stop progress.

The Edelman report makes clear that if you want to earn trust with the public (reporters and customers), you can’t dismiss or ignore direct communication channels. If handled properly, owned platforms can provide insight and value that, several years ago, most organizations could only have imagined.

David Fouse is a partner and lead strategist with Pinkston. Stay updated on all Pinkston content by following us on Twitter (@Pinkston_co).