Several people have recently asked me about how to get starting with a public relations practice, so I’ve put together a primer post on the subject. If, however, you are just looking for tips on how to write a press release, then I suggest you check out this great resource from PR Newswire. And, this diagram might be of use.
Ok, for everyone else, here’s something more substantial:
What is PR?
At it’s core public relations is focused on managing the flow of information that goes in and out of your organization and through third party intermediaries (The Capital “P” Press) between your business and your customers. Depending on how your organization is structured, this function may be managed by corporate communications, a public relations team, or under a general marketing team. What started changing PR was the advent of consumer generated media, company wikis, forums, and other online resources that have made the boundary between communities more porous. This has had the effect of distributing the public relations function deeper into, and across, organizations.
Still, organizations do make “official” announcements that are indisputably managed by public relations professionals. Official messages are not always intended for external consumption, but can also be directed internally for distribution to, and by, employees. It might be easiest to understand these messages as “accepted company stories”. These stories are often made available though communication guides embedded in wikis or FAQ pages. It’s also important to note that these stories are not always be defined in a top down manner. In fact, many of the most engaging and compelling stories arise from within organizations.
How is technology changing PR?
Companies are increasingly telling their stories through blogs, wikis, FAQs and other resources that are made available to internal stakeholders and consumers. Because of this, it is possible to efficiently deliver messages to the press without necessarilyÂ having to contact them directly. In many cases, members of the press (including consumer generated media authors) are able to follow companies by simply subscribing to these services. Obviously, there are times when you’ll want to break news to specific news organizations in advance of making the story public through your website. In this case, customer relationship management tools (CRM) make this process easier. I’ve written about CRM tools in this earlier post.
CRM tools allow you to manage your relationships with your customers but also with people in the press (who may also be customers). When used correctly, these tools can enable you to serve your customers and the press more effectively. For example, they can help you keep track of how members of the press prefer to be contacted (e-mail, phone, fax, etc). They also offer tools for tracking the effectiveness of these approaches. For example, showing how many of your e-mails were opened and clicked through and where you get the best responses. And, in the case of phone conversations, you can capture notes about those conversations, schedule follow-ups, and make additional resources available to your contacts. You can also use CRM tools to capture articles that have been written about you in the past, tagging articles and making them available as a resource for your team. With a CRM system in place you’ll be able to understand what your contacts are interested in, while being able to share the relationship as a resource with the rest of your organization.
In house, or Outside Firm?
Not all companies have the resources to set up a CRM system and manage their press relationships, which means that it may make more sense to work with an outside firm. This decision is complicatedÂ and there are many factors to consider including the size of your organization, your growth plans, and the amount of press interaction you expect to have. As a general rule, I would say that it’s preferable to develop an internal competence if possible, but that working with a PR firm along the way, and for ongoing support, can be very helpful.
Managing PR internally has several benefits:
- MORE EFFICIENT CONNECTIONS – The press is always more interested in talking to someone from the company who is us as close as possible to the actual story. PR staff should be focused on serving as a conduit between the press and the relevant story teller. It’s easier to do this if you’re already working internally.
- BETTER SUPPORT – PR teams should also focus on developing resources to support the story so that the story teller has everything s/he needs to make the story compelling and engaging. Internal PR staff will find it easier to obtain the necessary resources to support the story. External support can be helpful though to review and improve these materials.
- MORE VALUE FROM THE RELATIONSHIPS – As internal teams develop a PR practice, they also develop relationships that have immense value over time. Whereas working with external firms decreases the likelihood that organizations will capture these relationships. Of course, people in the press are constantly moving around so it’s hard to keep your contacts up to date. Again, external support can be useful here but depends on how often you are in contact with your network. The less frequent, the more support you’ll want from an external firm. As a general guide, if you are sending out one release per month you can probably manage on your own or with the help of a good freelancer. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are sending more than four messages a month you might want support from a firm that offers ongoing practice development.
Should I use the wires?
The short answer is probably not unless you’re a larger company announcing some really big news. That said, the same companies that send messages out over the wire, such as PR Newswire, offer a suite of support services that are useful. These services offer some of the functions of the CRM I mentioned above. They have tools to create lists, make notes on specific contacts, capture how they prefer to be contacted, etc. They also offer an updated database of contacts at most publications, which is a big deal because people in the press move around a lot. If you’re not using your list frequently enough to keep up, this service can be very helpful.
The problem is that the service is also quite expensive, so it only makes sense if you have enough volume to support a subscription. This is where the freelancers and PR firms that I mentioned above can help out. Since contacting people in the press is a core part of their business, they almost always have subscriptions to these services which they can leverage for you through your partnership.They also have experience working with the platform and can generally provide significant value, particularly if you’re just getting your practice started.
I should note, PR Newwire is not as savvy when it comes to consumer generated media, though I understand that they are making efforts to come up to speed. This is another area where PR firms can help out because they have established relationships with bloggers through their work for various clients.
How should I tell the story?
You should adjust the way you tell the story depending on how you are delivering it and to whom. The essence of the story, however, should remain consistent. For example, if you’re announcing a beta of a new product or service via twitter the message will not be the same as the press release you send out to your contacts via e-mail. In general, the formality of your message should be inversely proportional to the frquency on which it is sent out. Thus, twitter messages are frequent and informal and press releases, which are sent out only when you’ve got big news to share, are more formal. I am including a worksheet below that outlines three models to start thinking how aÂ message fits into a larger portfolio of messages.
Thanks for reading and I hope this is helpful. I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.
Over the past several months it seems there has been a steady stream of articles about good, bad, and ugly redesign roll-outs. In addition to what I’ve been reading in the media, I’ve been involved in a few roll-outs through my work at Adaptive Path. As a marketing guy, I sometimes work with our clients on the roll-out of our work, so I pay special attention to the way we announce, prepare for, and follow through with launches. In my opinion, sending messages to those who will be affected, and opening lines of communication for feedback, is an important part of this process that still gets short changed. Beyond that, usability testing and roll-out planning are frequently overlooked all together. Often it’s because there is significant pressure to launch the %&#*! thing. Sometimes the roll-out strategy and planning is simply overlooked, or underestimated, when a project is initially scoped.Â I’m writing to put a spotlight on roll-out strategy, to highlight the value, and to point out three approaches that might work for you.
The Value Of Rolling-Out Right
A solid roll-out plan is like a good follow through for a golfer. You’re practically done with the swing, but that little bit at the end can make all the difference. You’ve worked hard to create a great redesign and you want to make sure that it comes to market in a way that complements the work itself. This is equally important when you’re working on a short putt or a long drive.
The value of a well coordinated roll-out can be seen clearly through the relationship you have with your customers, and how they respond to change. Most people don’t like change, so roll-outs are inherently a tricky business. I recommend putting a dollar amount on the time you’ll spend managing a roll-out gone bad (not to mention the headache) and I assure you that it makes sense to invest in planning up front. This reminds me of a piece of advice that I’ve heard from many athletes, “it takes twice as long to re-hydrate as it does to hydrate.” Quick response time can be very helpful when rolling out redesigns, so be prepared with for as many scenarios as possible.
The perceived value of your team can be affected as well because their brilliant work can get lost if a flood of criticism rolls in without contingencies in place. It’s important to stay on course towards the long-term value, so plan out how you’ll respond to issues before they arise, and dedicate extra bandwidth to respond to the initial waves of reaction. If all goes well, you can use this extra time to drink some champagne.
Finally, the clearest articulation of value is expressed in returning business. Many organizations track attrition and conversion associated with roll-outs by comparing normal attrition/conversion rates against those after a roll-out. Look at the value of those customers over the average life of their patronage to estimate value. The real cost should be some standard percentage larger than this when you account for the goodwill and evangelism for your service that is lost.
How you prepare depends on how significant your redesign is. As a general rule, and in the interest of fair disclosure, my own opinion is that large scale redesigns often send the wrong message to the community because they are hard to tie to user feedback. They can cause the support network to break down, they offer less opportunity to build on the site’s legacy of interaction design, and they are always more jarring. Of course, there are situations in which massive redesign can’t be avoided. In other words, I prefer a more Agile approach when possible, because this lets you roll out changes slowly over time and keep your community close. That said, there are different opportunities depending on what you’re launching.
Here are three archetypal approaches to consider as you formulate a plan for your roll-out:
- The Slow Burn – this is similar to an “early and often” approach and involves getting your initial message out in the context of a multi-part reveal that you’ll be updating at key points along the way.
- Media Impact: this can be helpful in establishing relationships with the media because you can build the dialogue over a series of communications. This works best with more traditional media where journalists may be working on larger stories that require long lead times. You can still take advantage of exclusive releases, and embargoed stories with this approach if you’ve got a good reason to do so. Obviously there will be lots of opportunities for you to get the message out through your own communication channels, just make sure to honor whatever arrangements you have made with the media.
- Implementation: Changes can be released on a time-line with countdowns, where you give your community fair warning before they are implemented. If the changes are small enough though, you can sometimes migrate them without much of a fuss. Celebrate the best changes, and minimize the less sexy parts.
- Going Beta – this approach can be combined with The Slow Burn approach, or can be run faster, and usually includes an opt-in by existing customers.
- Media Impact: this has the advantage of letting the media get into the opt-in site along side the self-selecting members of your community. The good news is that self-selecting participants may be more likely to like the redesign, which means that media might be exposed to mostly positive feedback. At the same time, the media is less likely to make as big of a deal about a beta release (though there are exceptions to this because different sites interpret what it means to be in beta differently). If they don’t make a big deal out of it, then you shouldÂ work with them to make a big deal of migrating from the beta to a fully rolled-out redesign. It’ll be a bit less dramatic though because the cat is already out of the bag.
- Implementation: when doing opt-in Beta releases you’ll want to make sure you have some sort of moderated feedback forum to collect responses from the community. It can be helpful to collect the most useful feedback on a board along with planned responses and/or explanations. This is most important when you are working in the context of a site that has a tight community of evangelists.
- The Launch – Many people use this interchangeably with roll-out, but I think a launch is a dramatic type of roll-out. it’s not exactly a secret, but with this approach you’re artificially building pressure by creating a scarcity of information around your redesign. This can be very effective at generating a burst of coverage, and excitement in advance. This works particularly well when you are offering a stand service or content piece that your community can line up to get. Though this was not for a redesign or a website, we used this approach with the release of the Adaptive Path Aurora Concept Video.
- Media Impact: in this case it’s easier to set up exclusive coverage for a story, particularly if you already have a good relationships with the media outlets you plan on targeting. Embargoed stories may be required, but beware of “leaks” that may compromise your media relationships. Obviously, the more well known the service the better this approach can work.
- Implementation: the countdown approach works well in this scenario. Be ready for hell to break loose if you haven’t done any test markets or beta testing. This is the riskiest approach, but if you plan well it can survive some glitches. Think back to the launch of Firefox 3 which crashed their servers, but still set a world-record, and came across in a positive light (the ugly example in the intro).
Mistakes Not To Make (And Some Stuff To Watch Out For)
Some of the examples I cited in the introduction involve companies that host significantly engaged communities that were affected by the roll-out of redesigned pages or websites. Earlier this year, Adaptive Path worked on a website with a very involved community as well, MySpace (read a case study about this project here). When there is community involved, you’ll often see sites offering members a chance to opt-in to the redesigned areas to try them out. There are a couple of things to remember when doing this kind of activity:
- Always remember that you’re working with a self-selecting group that may not be a representative sample of your community.
- Such groups may tend to be more positive because they’ve actively chosen to participate.
- Provide a resource for the community to offer feedback and make it highly visible to both those in and out of the opt-in.
- Make sure that resource includes a means of acknowledging feedback with well moderated replies.
- Collect the most common issues and respond to them in a clear and concise way that is consistent with your brand personality.
- Be patient, and wait until new issues come up infrequently.
But beware! It’s possible to listen to all the feedback, and incorporate it in a balanced way, and still get massive resistance during roll-out. Perhaps Facebook did all of the above well, and even extensively tested the redesign to make sure it was solid. Let’s even assume that the redesign benefited from all the community input. That still won’t address the shock that the community will feel when they come to their Facebook page one day and see that everything has moved.
Sometimes this issue has nothing to do with the redesign itself. So what is it about, and how can I avoid it?
- Don’t move too fast – Avoid going from an opt-in beta to a site wide roll-out suddenly. A banner at the top of the page requesting that people opt-in, is not enough warning in an of itself. Give people time to figure out what’s going on. Some people touch your website everyday, others may only visit once a month or less. This means it may take for the message to get to them.
- Don’t explain after the fact – Speaking of getting the message out there, don’t forget to let the community know why you are doing this in the first place. I recommend building such messages into some sort of countdown. I’m not necessarily talking about a literal countdown, though that can work. I’m talking about a messaging plan that culminates with a message that reaches deeply into your community, either through your own communication channels or through those in the media.
- Don’t lose your focus – Direct your energy to the aspects of the redesign that are most likely to cause a stir, and be prepared to support your decisions. The smaller issues aren’t likely to be deal breakers so don’t stress about the small stuff.
There are many approaches and pitfalls associated with rolling-out redesigns, but hopefully this has gotten you thinking. As is often the case, the single most important factor to consider is the end user. What is their experience going to be like, and what can you do to make the experience the best it can be? If you’ve got other insights about how to roll-out redesigns please comment below!