In his recent book How To Think: A Survival Guide For A World At Odds, Alan Jacobs makes a poignant observation within the first 30 pages of the book:
"Whoever it was who first said that happiness is something one cannot aim straight at, but rather can achieve only by focusing on other good things, could have said it about thinking and been equally correct."
If you are a public relations or communications professional, this statement will likely stop you dead in your tracks. Why? Because this is likely the best summation of the challenges of our profession: We are tasked with aiming directly at things (like marketers and advertisers) and expected to do so according to a set of arbitrary rules (set forth by a governing body most of us aren't involved with directly); and yet, when we get down to the sheer art of it, aiming directly at outcomes is contrary to the "art form" itself.
This is not to say that the "art of relating to and communicating with the public" can't have science applied to it. I spent six years of my life building attribution and measurement technology alongside a talented team AirPR to meet those needs. My point is only to acknowledge why it is so extraordinarily difficult to be in the profession at present.
It actually takes years to build a solid reputation, to pull ahead of competitors, to build a business, and to become a media mainstay. And yet, PR is often expected to swoop in and do it in less than six months. No wonder it's been rated in the "Top 10 Most Stressful Jobs" year after year basically since the invention of the printing press.
While industry leaders like Gini Dietrich (the founder of SpinSucks) and Deirdre Breakenridge (founder of Pure Performance Communications and author of several guide books including the recent Answers For Modern Communicators), certainly give us good, solid directions and are outspoken about the changes occuring, it's going to take the entire industry accepting defeat in one key area: Direct PR, like direct marketing, does not exist. And it never will. We must accept that PR is at first an art, and then a science. Not the other way around.
Our opportunity, then, is building a framework around solidly-based practices of art that will allow us to have intelligible conversations about what we bring to the table. Here I'm suggesting nothing new - at least not for seasoned PR pros and communication experts.
What I'm doing, rather, is providing a clear, five-step methodology and process for increasing PR success through tangibles, which in today's environment is the content itself along with its relationship to what can be measured.
#1 - Content strategy
Simply put, developing a content strategy simply means deciding which type of content you're going to create and how you're going to distribute it. This includes understanding why your content matters in the context of business outcomes, and the top 3 things you want readers/consumers to take away from your content.
These variables will be based on your current brand position, current messaging, larger market drivers, competitive landscape, and opportunities for developing a point of view.
Who develops the strategy? Generally speaking, the ones who have the most input are the heads of marketing (CMO, SVP) or those spearheading the PR efforts. The content strategy, which includes news items as well as company owned materials like blog posts, will never be successful if created in a vacuum. It requires, as Jacobs would likely agree, a good amount of thinking and deliberation. From this strategy comes a clear set of goals, deliverables, and desired outcomes.
Pro Tip: If you want a great resource for building a solid brand foundation prior to the content strategy (sometimes we tend to get ahead of ourselves) I'd recommend Andy Cunningham's book Get To Aha! She was Steve Jobs' marketing and communications strategist during his rise to fame and understands fundamentals like no one else.
#2 - Content bank
After watching content morph into data points - with everything from press releases to feature stories to blog posts being stored into perpetuity and analyzed - what I concluded was that in the digital age a company's content is a form of currency and should be treated as such.
Thus, the content bank idea was born. Essentially it means developing materials that can support the strategy and be distributed to a specific target market or audience. As the bank increases in assets (pieces of content) the value rises and exponentially increases over time as a company creates referenceable content and resources that build on each other, much like compounding interest.
Pro Tip: Here is a quick overview of types of content that can be found inside the bank:
Hard news items: product launches, funding announcements, ground breaking reports backed by company-owned data report. (Note: this is what traditional PR pros focus on and where they shine)
Thought leadership articles that support a specific point of view established by the company. (Note: more and more, PR pros are tasked with getting these byline articles placed in industry publications, and require good writers to work alongside them in order to do so)
A company docu-film or video series that highlights company offerings, customers success stories, or a behind-the-scenes look at the team. (Note: PR pros often ask for these resources in order to help bolster profile story pitching for the company, as they are good reference materials)
A long form "playbook" or book that can be used as a de facto industry resource. (This helps establish your brand as an expert, and makes PR outreach and "attention getting" exponentially easier)
#3 - Content distribution
Content distribution of old used to entail obtaining news coverage through earned media channels. Additionally, it could also include distributing content to an opted-in customer base or targeted prospect list. Now, there are thousands of content distribution channels to choose from ranging from established media outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, all the way down to niche publications like the Scary Mommy blog and influential social media profiles such as (I know, and I'm sorry) Kim Kardashian's.
The goal of the PR pro and communicator extraordinaire has morphed into amplifying the content on channels that make the most sense for the brand or campaign goals, as well as deciding how to re-purpose and/or redistribute the content once it's published. It often takes an insightful human and technology systems to sift through the morass piles of BS channels in order to find the most relevant and useful ones.
Pro Tip: Once the content has been distributed and "picked up" by an outside publication, or published on an internal channel like your CEO's LinkedIn profile, the content can be leveraged for marketing and sales materials, customer emails or newsletters, and even investor relations communications. In other words: content distribution doesn't have one cycle, it can have many cycles and iterations over time. That's called darn good ROPRS ("Return On PR Spend").
#4 - Content web
More than ever, building backlinks to a brand's main digital property (usually a company website) to increase SEO and discoverability is something PR is tasked to do, and for good reason. Certainly getting a product news launch covered in TechCrunch or Recode is a huge win, but it takes hundreds of inbound links coming from legitimate digital properties to keep your company top of mind and top of search engine rankings.
Building your content web can take anywhere from one to five years, depending on the frequency and distribution efforts. It takes consistency and focus to do so, and like anything else of high quality it does take time. This requires a sound investment not only in media relations, but also in publishing byline articles, doing content swaps with other notable companies in your industry, and a concentrated focus on having a steady drumbeat of thoughtful content out there on the web.
Pro Tip: Unfortunately, many shady practices for building backlinks exist today. Do your homework and ask for references before you engage with any type of professional or company making claims to boost your SEO overnight. One great resource I'd recommend for building out your content web is a company called Fractl. I've worked with them on several occasions and they can be a great addition to more traditional PR efforts.
#5 - Content measurement
Measurement is the thing that all at once allows us to make better decisions, but as artists makes us cringe. It's not because we don't want to be held accountable, rather it is because if measurement methods don't value the full spectrum of PR inputs it often leaves us looking like amateurs.
For example, if your company only measures success by onsite conversion from media coverage, you'll likely come up short. The numbers may appear small, thus unsuccessful. Alternately, if the company measures solely on reach numbers (which can be in the millions), it creates incongruence with the actual outcomes and provides little value for future decision making.
Content measurement is, however, a necessary evil that must be decided upon at the outset, likely in the content strategy phase. It is how we understand the overall success and key outcomes of all the content activities, and it provides benchmarks that can be set using a variety of metrics, ranging from traffic onsite and amplification to share of voice and Power of Voice TM.
Pro Tip: Make sure before you start an initiative you have a fundamental understanding of what is being measured. This often requires access to analytics - powered by software systems like Google Analytics, BuzzSumo, or AirPR. Sometimes the metric is as simple as a number of media placements achieved, and the UVPMs or website authority of the those outlets. Every engagement is different, which is why the question needs to be asked at the beginning.
The reason I don't think "PR measurement" is the most accurate forward-thinking term, is because the art of what it takes to be a communicator, much like the art of finding happiness, requires an "X factor" that is extremely difficult to quantify. You often don't achieve PR success by aiming directly at things. However, if we take a giant step backwards, inhale deeply, and acknowledge what's true about our profession - that there is a science aspect which can be measured, and in doing so we validate our art - we will be an industry ripe with leaders who can gently, yet definitively, navigate the ever-changing tides of business challenges, market opportunities, and company growth.