I like to think that I am pretty broad minded with a good sense of humour and the ability to laugh at myself. But whilst watching Twenty Twelve – the mockumentary about the team organising the London Olympics – although hilariously funny I actually found myself squirming as the character Siobhan Sharpe helps to draft a press release and delivers back her team’s thoughts on the message and branding options combining the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Siobhan is an expert (apparently) in all aspects of communications theory with the single exception of how to actually apply any of it. She exudes everything that is bad about PR and communications, but sadly is a character that has probably been created on the perception that people have of individuals that work within this profession – unintelligent, dim-witted and all in all a bit of an idiot!

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Rather ironic that the industry we PR professionals seek to influence, the media, is probably responsible for helping to create the reputation that now seems to exist. If only life really was like that of Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone of Absolutely Fabulous notoriety, but you have to laugh!

Joking aside, PR is a powerful tool for building reputations and brand, portraying organisations as trustworthy and for selling products and services. So it needs to be taken seriously. But what deeply saddens me is when I hear of those PR practices that do nothing to help remove the stigma that the PR profession is bad. What I refer to is feedback I have heard from companies that have experienced poor service and advice from PR and communications professionals and no longer see the value – issues such as poor content and badly written copy, lack of knowledge of the market and lack of understanding of relevant media are just a few of the criticisms cited.

So whilst you might think that all PR people are idiots, this is clearly not the case. It is about finding those good practices that have in-depth knowledge and experience of the market your organisation operates within.  When choosing an agency you need to ensure they can demonstrate they have a team that includes people with many years of experience working in your sector so they have a full blooded understanding of the needs and challenges. Check they know and understand the target media and ask if they have existing or ex journalists as part of the team – that have worked for national newspapers and the specialist press. Plus establish who they know within the industry by checking their network and contacts, and get references. This is all an essential part of helping to ensure success.

Speaking personally, I believe successful PR and communications is about developing a good strategy, having good contacts, knowledge, experience and sheer hard work. It’s about working with clients to develop a coherent plan and helping to identify and develop compelling news stories and features. Also it is necessary to use all available media, not just the press, to get messages across, and remember; it is not just about building reputations it’s also about protecting them. Ensure you work with professionals that know how to develop messages and set clear objectives. Just pumping out press releases and developing inane tag lines is not enough.

Seven elements that make good PR

  1. Good PR is telling the client what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear. It not about developing meaningless stories that nobody wants to read about.
  2. Good PR is not just about the over-glorified launch. Good PR helps build and sustain a groundswell of brand support – incrementally changing customers’ behaviours via a steady stream of relevant and thoughtful communication to media and other targeted audiences.
  3. Well written content is essential for good PR – success is when a good story has relevant detail and is told to the right people.
  4. Good PR leverages pre-existing relationships with advocates – customers and influencers in an inclusive, non-exploitative way. And, good PR welcomes the input of ‘neutrals’ and ‘critics’ and adapts strategy accordingly. This helps to build trust and credibility.
  5. Good PR is proactive in idea generation, ‘thought leadership’ and is responsive in a crisis – really it’s about finding the right balance.
  6. Good PR is measurable. (And yet also hard to measure, since most clients want to measure different things.)
  7. Good PR is built on having extensive knowledge, understanding, experience and contacts within the market the client is targeting.

These seven elements may seem simplistic and obvious, but they sum up over 20 years worth of hard lessons in this industry. PR is hard work, strategic work, under promoted but infinitely interesting. So to ensure you avoid a Siobhan an Edina or a Patsy, do some homework first!

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Susan Venables

Founder and Client Services Director
Susan takes a fresh approach to marketing and public relations. She established Highland Marketing in 2002 after a long career working with well-known agencies and clients ranging from SMEs to multi-nationals. During the past 20 years she has helped many companies within the technology and healthcare IT sectors to raise brand awareness and reach new potential customers. Susan is respected by clients, getting them and their services noticed when and where it matters, and by the media where she has many long-standing contacts.
“Effective marketing and communications demands a lot of passion, commitment and experience, and that's exactly what we provide for clients. Right from the start I match them with a team of people who each have at least ten years' experience, and who often know what it's like to run their own business. That mixture of maturity and determination is very potent. Clients really notice the difference, especially those who have previously worked with agencies that send in their top people to win an account then hand the actual work to inexperienced junior staff.”
A little about Susan:
  • Champion athlete - During her first year at Durham University she thought she would have a go at rowing. By the third year she was winning national competitions and was later part of the GB women's lightweight rowing squad.
  • Dog lover - Susan developed a love of dogs when she was a little girl in the Warwickshire market town of Southam when the family's pet used to protect her pram. These days she has two black Labradors, and a Samoyed to exercise.
  • No second best - As a child she always had a rebellious streak combined with a determination to excel, especially at sports like hockey, athletics and netball. Those traits carried over into adult life where she found her niche establishing and building her own business rather than following a corporate career path.

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