PR 101: What You Need to Know Before You Hire a Publicist

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In my 20 years as a communications specialist – specifically, as a branding, marketing and public relations (PR) pro with extensive writing and editing experience – my first priority when working with a new client is educating them on the difference between branding, marketing and PR. Usually, people lump all three of those categories into one, and call it all marketing. And, while it’s challenging to encourage people to unlearn a wrong way of thinking, it’s also exhilarating when I see the “I get it now” circuit in their brains switch to the ON position.

This post will solely deal with PR, as most people really don’t have a clue what it is, how it works and why it’s so expensive to hire a publicist. For those of you who already have an elementary understanding of PR, bear with me. You’re definitely in the minority, and a refresher course never hurts.

First, a glossary of a few (not nearly all) commonly used PR terms.

NOTE: these definitions relate to the public relations field only. For example, the word media in PR circles does not mean design work.

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  • PR: Short for public relations. Also known as buzz, publicity, getting press and media attention.
  • Publicist: A public relations professional who regularly secures editorial press coverage for clients looking to increase awareness of a person, product or service. Publicists should also specialize in writing press releases, media alerts, speeches, biographies, backgrounders, newsletters, SME content, blogs and ghost copy (among many, many other things). Publicists should be extremely adept at social media marketing, content creation, coordinating and marketing special events and press conferences. They should also be strong in media relations, media training and securing reviews (i.e. books, restaurants, etc.). The list is endless, really.
  • The Media: The writers, journalists, editors, news anchors, reporters, columnists, bloggers, etc. working for editorial outlets featuring unique stories about people, places and things in every industry. Also known as “the press.” 
  • Publication: The media outlet featuring the editorial story.
  • Editorial story: A story written from the point of view of the media industry professional. It usually includes interviewing a subject and the inclusion of direct quotes spoken by that subject. Editorial stories are the opposite of advertisements (which are written from the point of view of the person, company or agency purchasing the ad space).
  • Feature story: A human-interest story that is not directly linked to a current event or news story.
  • Pitch: The story about the person, place or thing (product) a publicist crafts into a newsworthy attraction and offers to a writer, reporter, editor, blogger, etc. Also known as a story angle. The pitch has to be relevant to the publication and to its audience. It also should be timed so that, if / when the pitch is accepted and the story it is featured in the publication, it coincides with the client’s business or product launch, event or with the service being rendered.
  • Op Ed: Stands for “Opposite Editorial” (often mistakenly called “Opinion Editorial”), and means it is literally opposite the editorial page. Carries opinion columns about hot-button topics or relevant news stories.
  • Blurb: A short written summary in a media outlet.
  • Pictorial: A story told in a publication with pictures and captions as the main feature.
  • Cover story: A lengthy story inside a publication featuring a personality, business, person or product that is also on the cover of the publication. Cover stories are highly coveted.
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  • Advertorial: An advertisement (usually accompanying a purchased ad) written in editorial or journalistic style.
  • Press release: An official announcement written for and distributed to the media.
  • Press kit: A compilation of informative marketing or promotional material distributed to the media.
  • Media list: List of media outlets to be pitched in a PR campaign. Also known as a target editorial list.
  • Contact list: A publicists’ professional rolodex. A publicists’ media contacts are, in almost every case, off limits to everyone except the publicist. They’re protected like gold at Fort Knox, and rarely (if ever) divulged to clients or other publicists.
  • Ink: The length of the actual story that runs in a print publication. Also known as editorial placements, stories, articles or pieces.
  • Run date: The actual date a story will be in the publication for public view. Also known as the publishing date or post date (especially for guest blogs).
  • Editorial calendar: The dates a media outlet assigns for specific stories to run. Editorial calendars are a means of controlling the content in the publication.
  • Editorial update: A document generated by a publicist chronicling secured editorial placements throughout the course of a PR campaign.
  • Space Value Report: A report generated by a publicist noting the monetary value of each editorial placement based the cost of advertising space consuming the same space in the publication. Not every publicist generates this report. I do.
  • Reputation management: Influencing the reputation of an individual, business or company through strategically crafted messaging and public positioning.Also known as crisis communication or crisis management and, unfortunately, spinning.

DON’T PUBLICISTS JUST CALL THE PRESS?

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There are many, but one of the primary functions of PR is increasing the public profile of an individual (such as a celebrity or a service), a product (such as a brand, a book or an invention – something people can purchase) or a story (such as breaking news or a human interest story) through securing editorial press coverage.

Securing the press coverage involves a great deal of strategic planning and advanced level writing. It’s not for wimps.

While I’m on the subject …

A WORD ON WRITING

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A publicist should have a better than average knowledge, understanding and application of the written word. I am embarrassed for the entire public relations profession when I see spelling, punctuation and grammar errors rampantly littering press releases, guest editorial stories and blog posts. Everyone makes the occasional mistake, but people who have been writing professionally for years are really dropping the grammatical ball. I’m one of the few intolerants. My husband calls me “Colonel Correction.”

Suffice it to say, the book The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is one every publicist should own. As well, every good publicist should know how to write and edit according to Associated Press Style (AP Style) and The Chicago Manual of Style (I just used The Chicago Manual of Style by italicizing that book title).

WHAT ISN’T PR? 

PR is not advertising.

The difference is the editorial component. Anyone (or any business) can purchase an ad in any publication, on a billboard, at a gas station pump, on the radio, on television or on the Internet. But convincing an editorial team (a journalist / reporter and the various editors who must approve every story that goes to print or on air) that what you’re doing or selling is “newsworthy” requires relationship building from a skilled PR professional who knows how to craft, position and pitch your story.

THE VALUE OF ADVERTISING VS. THE VALUE OF PR

Once a reporter / editor is “sold” on a story – and they objectively report on it to their readership, listenership or viewership – the value of that editorial exposure is ten times the value of an ad taking up the same amount of space in that publication (or the same amount of air time on a news broadcast, guest appearance on a talk show, radio broadcast, press conference, speaking engagement, etc.).

The broad means of positioning your story is through a press kit (which can include many things, but usually includes several written snapshot documents such as a press release, bio, backgrounder, images, social media highlights and sometimes an electronic press kit – EPK) which is serviced to select media outlets and specific journalists / reporters / editors covering respective news beats. News beats are otherwise known as the “sections” in a newspaper or on a news telecast. A good PR pro will know exactly which beats to create your campaign around, and will have access to every relevant reporter, writer, columnist, blogger and editor within each of those beats.

Major breaking news is also competition in the PR world. I have had stories slated to run on certain days, and been bumped to a later date because of a stock market crash, fires in southern California and a celebrity death. It happens all the time (especially in nationally circulated publications). The “sexy” stories that will drive traffic to online publications, sell papers and sell magazines always take precedence on the editorial calendar. This can interfere with product and service launches, which is why I rarely predicate a launch on the day a story is slated to run. As long as stories run within a feasible timeframe of the launch, the timing of the ink isn’t a deal-breaker.

Some people pay for wire services to mass blast their press release to hundreds of media outlets at once to try and secure ink with either the verbatim publishing of a press release or blurbs written about the press release (with or without an interview). This has its place, but it has to be done in conjunction with several other marketing strategies to be effective and worth the additional investment in wire services. 

WHY DO PUBLICISTS COST SO MUCH?

A very good publicist will often wear many hats (I know I do): agent, manager, business consultant, writer, editor, publisher, content creator and marketing strategist extraordinaire. I have worked alongside some of the most brilliant marketing minds and public relations experts in the country. Each one of these professionals work by the same philosophy: know your client better than they know themselves. I adopted and embraced this client management practice when I was first bitten by the PR bug nearly two decades ago and, more often than not, I end up wearing every one of those hats. Not because I want to, but because my clients realize they don’t know what they need until I tell them what’s missing. When they discover I’m a one-stop-shop of experience (with consistently good results) across several disciplines, they’ll move heaven and earth to retain the services of someone who “gets” them.

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The old adage is true: good help is hard to find.

This next point is important to remember. Highlight it. Developing newsworthy story angles is an infinitely important skill. But here’s the catch: the word “newsworthy” is relative. A good PR professional is a master at knowing who to pitch, when to pitch them (every reporter is different – with different endlessly pressing deadlines and assignments) and how best to pitch them.

This is where the relationship building part comes in.

One pitch definitely does not fit all, and the time it takes to know how – and when – each reporter prefers to be pitched. Some media industry folk will never pick up the phone and have an actual conversation, some will not respond to email, some insist on a mailed press kit before any communication can happen, and so on.

It’s incredibly time consuming, particularly when the client is not JK Rowling, Bill Gates, a high profile pro athlete or a politician embroiled in a scandal. Most publicists really have to sell the story to the media because the aforementioned categories of people trump lesser-known clients – even when the lesser-known clients have really compelling stories to tell.

Dirt is king.

Here’s another point to remember. Highlight this one, too. The value of a good publicist is that they can secure a story about the average person with something interesting to say or sell who wouldn’t otherwise be heard if not for a reporter who considers it relevant to their audience. The publicist convinces the reporter of its relevance.

PR is sales. All day. Every day.

Another reason publicists are pricey is because of the climate of the media industry. It is, to say the least, temperamental. Because of the massive shift from traditional (published paper) media to various forms of electronic media (people by and large go online to get their news – they don’t buy printed papers anymore), there is a revolving door of journalists and editors jumping from publication to publication. It used to be that journalists and editors stayed at one publication – covering one beat – for many years. Now, not only are they jumping publications, but they’re jumping beats, too. For instance, I once secured a Wall Street Journal story for a client. The reporter who interviewed my client and wrote the story had been writing for the business section of the Wall Street Journal for many years. Today, that reporter writes an entertainment industry blog, reporting on celebrity sightings in Atlanta.

A lot of very experienced, talented reporters and journalists are in the same boat: having to reinvent themselves within their profession to accommodate the demand for homogenized pop culture “news.” Because of this massive shift, a good PR professional has to have their finger on the pulse of all the movement within the media industry. That in and of itself is at least one-third of a publicists’ fee (if they’re worth their salt). Today’s journalists and editors are moving targets.

By the way, that story in the Wall Street Journal ran on the MarketPlacesection of the paper. There is no advertising space available on that page. It’s not for sale. It’s all editorial space. That means the monetary value of my client’s story was immeasurable and invaluable.

By the way, that client inked a feature film deal with Paramount. The Wall Street Journal story is what I used to lure Hollywood studio executives to an in-person introduction that turned into a bidding war for the film. The film debuted #2 at the box office.

That’s the power of PR.

Let me hear from you. Share your experiences working with PR professionals, or share why you think it may be time to hire one.