Janet Murray

So what exactly is PR? (and how can it help your business?)

This happens to me a lot.

I meet a smart business owner, tell them I teach PR and they’re keen to know more.

They know someone who doubled their client list, landed a book deal, secured a really juicy speaking gig (or something equally impressive) - and put it down to ‘great PR.’

They think it could be great for their business too.

The problem is, they’re not exactly sure what PR is (and are a bit embarrassed to ask).

If this sounds like you, here’s five questions you probably want to ask about PR:

So what exactly is PR?

There are dozens of definitions of PR on the internet, many of which are far more complicated - than they need to be.

For small businesses, I think it’s about raising awareness of who you are, what you do and what you stand for through coverage in newspapers, magazines, and on radio and TV.

In a wider sense, it’s also about your public image - about how you show up in the world. This can include anything from the way you dress, the look and feel of your website to how your answer the phone - all of which can have a big impact on how people see you and, crucially, whether they want to do business with you.

So how can PR help your business?

I hear a lot of vague reasons why people want PR for their business. Phrases like: ‘brand awareness’, ‘thought leadership’ or ‘influence.’

This is what happens when I dig a bit deeper:

‘Yes but why do you want brand awareness?’

Because I want to get a book deal’

‘And why do you want a book deal?’

‘Because I want to get more high profile speaking engagements.’

‘Why do you want more high profile speaking engagements?’

‘So I can attract higher paying clients.’

Boom.

While the motivation might be different, most small business owners want PR because, ultimately, they want to make more money. Even the charities I work with see PR as a way to generate cash (after all, the more money they raise, the more people they can help).

So don’t be apologetic about being motivated by money. In fact, the clearer you are about what you want to achieve, the more successful you’ll be with your PR.

Being quoted in a newspaper article, featured in a glossy magazine or giving an interview on prime time TV will raise awareness of who you are, what you do and what you stand for.

This can help you win more clients (or the right kind of clients), get better paid speaking gigs, sell more books or whatever it is you need to do to make a living. If you have a deeper purpose, it can also help you share your message with the world. And you can’t do that if you’re starving in an attic.

You do need to be realistic; a one-off feature in a newspaper or radio interview probably isn’t going to make you millions. But a steady stream of newspaper and magazine articles, over time, will help you build your brand.

Why is PR better than advertising?

It’s cheaper, for a start.

A half page advert in a national newspaper could set you back thousands.

Being featured in newspaper and magazines articles, writing guest posts on sites like the Huffington Post or offering expert comment on stories already being covered in the media will only cost you your time.

And if a journalist has chosen to write about you (as opposed to dashing off advertising ‘puff’ because you’ve thrown money at them) it’s far more credible.

Can I do my own PR?

Absolutely.

Anyone can pick up the phone (or fire off an email) to a journalist or radio/TV producer with a story idea.

You don’t need to work for a PR company or have prior experience.

All you need is a good idea or expertise on a particular subject.

How do I get started?

You can read this post on how to get press coverage for your small business and how to write a press release for your small business. Or you can sign up for my free five-day course on how to write press releases at the top of this page.

Why good people write bad copy (and what you can do about it)...

Does this ever happen to you?

You’re feeling pretty good about something you’ve written. So you take a break to watch cat videos, stalk your ex on Facebook or whatever you do to ‘unwind’ on the web.

But when you come back to your work, you realise that what you thought was Pulitzer Prize winning copy is actually pretty shoddy. In fact, you’re pretty sure a nine-year-old could have made a better job of it (in fact - no word of a lie - my nine-year-old is reading this over my shoulder right now and telling me she could do better).

I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years, but I still have days when I can’t get started, find the right words or my copy is just plain awful.

So what makes good people write bad copy? Read on and find out…

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the biggest barrier to good writing. It’s what makes you spend hours on a single word or sentence (and I’ve been there many times) and can even stop you getting started at all.

But when you overthink your writing, you’re in danger of:

  • Including everything you know about a topic (rather than what’s relevant)
  • Making things more complicated than they need to be (using too many big words, for example)
  • Burying the most important part of your story (generally by writing long, rambly introductions )

All things that can kill your writing.

Beating yourself up about being a perfectionist is a waste of energy. And having high standards and wanting to do your best are pretty good qualities.

So instead of trying to change yourself, how about changing the way you see the problem?

In my experience, people generally get stuck with writing for one reason: they don’t know what they want to say. They sit down at their computer with a vague idea of what they’re going to write about, then wonder why they’re still sitting there, hours later, staring at a blank screen.

I silence my inner critic (or at least turn down the volume) through mantras (‘don’t it right, get it written’ is my favourite) and rituals (writing in the morning, when I’m at my best).

And I use my perfectionism to plan what I’m going to write, in minute detail, paragraph by paragraph. Breaking it down in manageable chunks ensures my writing is well-structured, with each section moving logically to the next. And what perfectionist doesn’t love order and logic?

But here’s the surprising bit: rigorous planning puts me in a state of creative flow.

When I sit down to write, all I have to worry about is the words and the rhythm. I write, without stopping (even if it leads to a few clunky words and phrases) and go back and fix things later.

I’m not saying this exact strategy will work for you. Or that I get it right every time (I still have days when I procrastinate or don’t follow my own advice). But I am challenging you to think differently about how you can use your perfectionism to tackle your writing blocks.

And what I do know is this: when you see your perfectionism as a gift, it creates a subtle shift in perception that makes everything feel much easier.

Fear

Perfectionism has a partner in crime and it’s called in fear.

Fear of not being good enough.

Fear of making a mistake.

Fear of what people will think.

Fear of embarrassment or rejection.

And a million other fears I haven’t mentioned.

Fear of not being good enough is what makes me spend hours trawling the net for blog post ideas or inspiration for clickbaity titles. It’s also what made me spend twice as long as I should have writing this post.

Of course, not everything about fear is bad.

My fear of creating crappy content is what motivates me to make every post better - and more shareable - than the last one. And that’s a good thing.

But my fear of not being good enough sometimes holds me back: from taking risks or letting my true writing voice come through.

Yet I know that when I feel most fearful about sharing something, it means I’m at the edge of my comfort zone.  And getting uncomfortable usually helps me grow - both as a person and a writer.

Ego

Good writing is about service to your audience.

Often it’s about making complex ideas accessible. Other times it’s about thought leadership. Sometimes it’s about entertainment or escapism.

But never is it about you. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I’m totally with Alexander Franzen when she says we should think less about writing and more about creating ‘little miracles’ for our readers.

But your ego - or how you see yourself in relation to the world - can have a big influence on  your writing.

Having an overinflated view of your ability make you self-important, which generally manifests itself in hyperbolic language and excessive description - both things that are a big turn off for readers. It can also make you resistant to feedback.

I’m yet to come across a single writer - and I’ve had the privilege of interviewing dozens at the top of their game - who thinks their writing is perfect. Although criticism can be hard to take - it’s absolutely necessary if you want to improve. And thinking you have nothing new to learn can stunt your growth as a writer.

Remember, also, that the ego can be your friend.

When you’re writing is motivated by the pursuit of fame and recognition - rather than because you have a genuine message to share - you’ll feel it in your writing. So when you feel like the words on the page don’t reflect your authentic voice, it’s usually a sign you’ve drifted away from your purpose. And just noticing this can be enough to get you back on track.

Boredom

When I published this post on how to write exciting copy about boring things, someone tweeted me to say I was wrong to write it. People just shouldn’t write copy about boring things, they said.

I disagreed for a multitude of reasons - not least because what I line the cat’s litter tray with might be riveting to you. But mainly because it’s just not practical. We all enjoy writing about some things more than others. And there are some things we just have to write - whether we like it or not (and with 15 years in journalism behind me, I say that on good authority).

I firmly believe you can make any subject interesting - simply by focusing on people.

And I deal with boredom by being playful.

I paint pictures with words rather than write articles or features

I write love letters rather than sales emails/press releases (thank you Gabrielle Bernstein for that).

I write little miracles rather than blog posts (thanks, again, to Alexandra Franzen for that)

All small shifts in perception that make the process of writing seem more magical and creative.

Which is exactly as it should be.

How to do PR when you're an introvert

I can address a packed conference hall, sing in front of hundreds of people and handle myself with confidence in most social situations. So people are sometimes surprised to hear I’m an introvert.

But while I love being around people, I find them exhausting. I enjoy parties, but usually want to leave long before midnight. I love concerts and the theatre but feel overwhelmed by crowds. And while I have loads of friends, I’d much rather see people one-to-one, or in small groups.

While teaching people how to sell stories into the national media might seem like an odd choice of career for me, I believe I have a lot to offer. In fact I’d go as far as to say us introverts have unique qualities that increase our chances of PR success.

So if you hate calling journalists or would rather cut off your own nose than go to a networking do, these PR tips are just for you:

Play to your strengths

As an introvert, you’re more likely to be sensitive to others’ needs and interested in what makes people tick. You’re probably also perceptive, empathetic and a good listener. This makes you ideally placed to understand what journalists are looking for and develop stories that are a perfect fit for their audience - which is what good PR is all about.

When you approach PR from a place of service (rather than self-interest) you’re more likely to develop ideas that interest journalists. So use your natural intuitiveness and empathy to understand what kind of content journalists on your target publications/programmes are looking for (and what they’re not).

Study their publications/programmes – ideally over a number of weeks or months – so you can get an understanding of what kinds of topics they cover, how and why. The more you can get under the skin of a publication/programme - and the journalist or editor behind it - the better chance you’ll have of success.

Want more pitching tips? Read six mind hacks that will help you get more press coverage. 

Make connections online

Many introverts (myself included) love networking online. So if you hate face-to-face networking, do yourself a favour and stay at home. Most journalists are now on Twitter and other social media platforms and are happy to interact with you there.

If you let your natural sensitivity guide you (rather than simply bombarding journalists with pitches and press releases) you can build long-term relationships that will help you get press coverage.

To find out more, read: how to find + network with journalists on Twitter without being a sleazy stalker.

Remember also that many journalists use social media to look for ideas, so the more content you share on your blog - or on platforms like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, GooglePlus and Slideshare - the more likely journalists are to find you. An up-to-date Linked page with examples of your work (including video and audio) is also a good idea.

And if you hate calling journalists, don’t do it.

Most journalists I know are so inundated, they rarely answer their phones. So a well-crafted email pitch, with a compelling subject header can be just as effective - if not more so - than a phone call.

If you do have to call (if your idea is particularly timely, for example), remember it’s all in the idea. It’s only when you pitch story ideas you don’t believe in (which usually happens when you’re just after an ego massage) that you feel like a sleazy salesperson. When you pitch story ideas that come from the heart - and offer something of value to the world - you’ll feel like you’re having a conversation, not a sales call.

When you’re on the phone to a journalist - or in a face-to-face meeting - make the most of your listening skills. If a journalist says they don’t want to run your story, ask them if they have time to explain why - then use the information to make your next pitch even better.

And never hang up - or leave a meeting with a journalist - without asking ‘is there anything else I can help you with at the moment?’ Even if you can’t help with a specific request, hearing them talk about what they are looking for in a story can be invaluable.

Get to the heart of the matter  

Introverts tend to think before they speak, which means they’re good at getting to the heart of a matter. Make the most of your natural ability by crafting compelling email subject headers and first lines of press releases that will sell your stories to journalists (taking the time to do this will also help you when you have to speak to journalists on the phone).

And if you’re looking for some writing inspiration you might like how to write exciting copy about boring things and 11 signs you’re a good writer (word nerds will love #11).

Six mind hacks that will help you get more press coverage

When I was training for my first marathon, my running buddies said that completing the 26.2 mile course was as much about mental strength as it was about physical fitness.  And boy were they right: when things got tough, it was my mind - not my body - that helped me put one foot in front of the other.

As I struggled through the last six miles, changing the mental talk in my head from 'I can't run any further' to ' 'you only have to do this for one more hour' or 'just focus on getting to the next mile marker' created subtle shifts in how I perceived the challenge - and got me to the finish line.

I've used tricks like this to master many skills - from learning the piano to practising yoga. So here's my top mind hacks to help you get more press coverage:

Practise mindfulness

Developing great ideas for media coverage is often simply about noticing things, like what kind of stories journalists on your target publications/programmes cover (and, crucially, what they don’t).

When you 'tune in' and ask yourself questions like 'why did the editor of publication x choose to run story y?’ or ‘why are they talking about x on my favourite radio show today?’ your understanding of the media grows. And the more you know about how the media works, the better your ideas will be.

Be of service to journalists

This means putting your needs to one side and pitching story ideas that are a perfect fit for their audience (rather than an ego rub for you/ your business). To do this, you need to study their publications/programmes - ideally over a number of weeks or months - to get an understanding of the kind of content they typically run.

Sending a generic press release to a bunch of journalists on different publications/programmes, with no consideration of the kind of content they're looking for - or the needs of their audience - comes from a place of self-interest. It's also disrespectful - like going to a job interview without having researched the company you're applying to (and still expecting to get the job).

When you approach PR from a place of kindness, something magical happens: ideas flow more easily, you start having conversations with journalists (instead of sales calls) and feel like you're helping them (rather than pestering them for coverage). And guess what? It gets you better results.

Drop the ego

Journalists aren’t interested in promoting your business (and it’s not their job to do so either). So if you’re just after a quick ego massage, they can tell.

When you pitch story ideas that come from the heart, that reflect your mission and values, you’ll have a much better chance of getting journalists interested  - like this story about an electrical shop in Belfast or this one  about the Australian CEO who’s paying his employees’ children’s university fees.

Write love letters, not press releases

Imagine getting a heartfelt note from an admirer - or an invitation to an exclusive event - then finding out you weren’t the only recipient. That’s exactly how most press releases feel for journalists.

When you write a personal pitch or press release that shows you’ve taken the time to get to know their publication/programme, and offer them something that’s a perfect fit for their audience, you stand out a mile.

Read more about how to write effective press releases. 

Have conversations with journalists (not sales calls)

If running a story idea past a journalist feels like a sales pitch, ask yourself some honest questions. Are you motivated by service and kindness...or are you just looking for a quick ego rub? Do you have a message you want to share with the world...or do you just want to see your name in print?

When it comes to buying products and services, we’re all heavily influenced by visions and values. Apple doesn’t just sell tech products - it sells a lifestyle. Google wants to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ Amazon’s mission is to help people find and buy anything they want online. And this is exactly what comes across in their PR and marketing.

When you have a great story idea for a journalist, that reflects your vision and values, you should feel like you’re having a conversation - not begging the them to take your story. You may still feel nervous, but you’ll be itching to make that call because you’re so excited about your story.

 Let it go

You will have great stories that don’t make it into the media. That’s a fact.

Often it’s about timing (a similar story has run recently or a bigger story pushes yours down the news agenda, for example). Sometimes it’s about space (they like your story but don’t have room). Other times it’s completely subjective (it doesn’t ‘grab’ the journalist you’re pitching to, when another might bite your hand off for it).

But no amount of pushing will persuade a journalist to run your story if they’re not interested. In fact, if you sound too desperate, it can be a big turn-off (a bit like dating, really).

When you’re not attached to the outcome of your pitch (i.e. you’d love to get a ‘yes’ but accept it might not happen, and if it doesn’t, there’s probably something better around the corner), your interactions with journalists are more easy and relaxed. Not only does that make you more pleasant to deal with, it allows you to learn from the experience and move on quickly.

Embrace failure

Early in my career, I made the mistake of pitching the same story to two rival publications. Actually my mistake wasn’t pitching to both magazines, it was not being straight with the journalists involved. When the story appeared in both publications - days apart - I got blasted by one of the editors. While the experience wasn’t pleasant, it taught me to be completely transparent with journalists at all times - even if it cost me column inches.

When you make a mistake, not only does this create an emotional experience that makes the lesson stick, it also moves you one step closer to mastery. It can also make you more determined; the embarrassment of being taken down by an editor, for something I really should have known, strengthened my desire to prove myself and toughened me up for future failures.

Did you see: 17 signs you're doing ok with your PR (even if you don't think so) and four free PR resources you already have (but probably aren't using enough). 

Four free PR resources you already have (but probably aren't using enough)...

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight (or know someone who has) this phrase might be familiar:

‘I’ll start my diet when...I’ve been on holiday/moved house/joined a gym*.

I’ve noticed people - small business owners, in particular - often talk about PR in the same way.

‘I’ll start doing some PR when I’ve…got more clients/hit six figures/can afford to hire a PR company*.

Or (for bigger organisations):

‘We’ll do more PR when we’ve got this launch out the way/hired a new team member/moved offices*.

So just as you might delay starting a diet until you have the latest exercise equipment or diet book, you end up putting off  PR until you have a press release (or a costly distribution service) or the cash to hire a professional.

But you don’t need a string of qualifications - or even experience - to get coverage in a newspaper or magazine, or on radio or TV. In fact, you already have many resources at your disposal - that won’t cost you a thing (or certainly no more than the price of a posh coffee).

These are:

Internet access

Getting media coverage is all about understanding what journalists are looking for and offering stories that are perfect fit for their audience. This means studying the publication or programmes you’d like to get coverage in, over a period of time, so you can get a feel for the (a) audience and (b) the kind of content that is typically covered.

While this might seem time-consuming, investing time upfront, to do this kind of research will save you time pitching ideas that journalists are never going to run with.

Let’s say you’re keen to get coverage in a leading business magazine. Your initial idea might be to offer a first-person interview with yourself or your CEO. But after studying a number of back editions, you notice that they never feature this kind of article...which means pitching this would be a complete waste of time. They do, however, have a regular opinion column so you suggest an idea for that instead, giving yourself a much better chance of success.

Most publications and programmes now publish most (if not all) of their back content online (if they don’t or it’s behind a paywall, there’s more about what to do below) which means it’s perfectly possible to do this research online.

You can also use the internet to find the email addresses of people you want to pitch ideas to (although the phone is usually quicker) and connect with journalists on social media platforms like Twitter.

Tip: If you can’t find TV/radio programmes online, you can often find clips on Youtube.

Libraries and cafes

If the publication you want to pitch to is behind a paywall, you can get copies of most magazines and newspapers in libraries. Some cafes - particularly those attached to big bookshops - are happy for you to thumb through their newspapers and magazines (as long as you buy a coffee).

Even if you can get access to everything you need online, it’s a good idea to ‘get your fingers grubby’ from time to time, as it’s often easier to get a sense of the structure of a newspaper or magazine from the print version and identifying regular slots or sections you could suggest ideas to.

Telephone

If you’ve got thousands of pounds to spare, you can buy databases of journalists’ contact details, but in my experience, they are often out-of-date and don’t give you those little bits of information that can make all the difference to your pitching (that x editor is on a sabbatical or covering x journalist’s maternity leave for example).

While you might get the odd grumpy comment (newsrooms are generally busy places), and get passed around a bit before you find the right person, the information you get from a quick ring-round is usually far more useful than any database. And the conversations you have can often lead to coverage.

Passion

If you love your business or organisation, it will show. Most journalists would much rather talk to a passionate business owner or CEO than a PR exec handling various clients/accounts who has to keep nipping off to get information...so use this to your advantage.

*delete/replace as appropriate

Why press releases are dead (but you should keep writing them)...

I get hundreds of press releases every week - most of which I delete without opening.

Why? Because most of them are completely irrelevant to me. They are also often badly presented, with dull or obscure titles - or worse still - with ‘re:’ or ‘press release’ in the email subject header, giving me absolutely no incentive to open them.

Personally, I’d much rather get a short email or telephone pitch, outlining a story in a sentence or two. Most journalists I know say exactly the same.

And I think business and organisations - of all sizes - waste huge amounts of time and money writing press releases that will never get coverage.

So why do I think you should keep writing press releases? Read on and find out...

You'll get better at nailing your 'top line'

A press release is not a ‘story’. It is a form of communication that helps journalists decide whether or not they want to cover a story.

So while a press release is no guarantee of media coverage, the process of writing one can help you get clear about what you want to say about your business or organisation.

The first line of a press release should summarise - in around 15-20 words - your ‘top line’ i.e. the most important ‘bit’ of your announcement/story.

Selecting the most important information and getting it into a single sentence can be a challenge, but learning to do this well (and quickly) can help with all your communications: from writing a compelling ‘about’ page for your website, to crafting compelling social media updates or killer sales copy.

You'll get more regional news coverage

Many regional publications and programmes are produced by small teams, with minimal resources. So a well-written press release can make it into print - or on air - without you even speaking to a journalist.

But this is a scattergun approach to PR. So - unless you have a major news story on your hands (rare for most businesses or organisations) - send a tailored pitch to every journalist you contact and paste your press release in the body of the email below.

You'll feel more credible 

While I personally have no problem with getting an informal email pitch from a ‘gmail’ or ‘hotmail’ address (in fact I rather like it), offering a story in a format that journalists are familiar with, does give you a certain level of legitimacy. Just don’t let not having one stop you from pitching stories to journalists.

I’ve seen far too many people (small business owners in particular) miss out on press coverage because they don’t have time to write a press release. If you think you’ve got something journalists will be interested in, just pick up the phone or dash off a quick email - they can always ask for more information if they need it.

You'll create versatile content

A press release can easily be turned into a news story for your website (although I think most people would rather read a news story with an attractive picture than a press release), copy for your newsletter or annual report. And, if nothing else, writing a weekly or monthly release is a way of documenting your news over the course of a year.

There’s a lot of debate on whether posting press releases online can help boost your SEO. But while it seems logical to assume that the more online content there is about your business, the better, if no one is likely to use search engines to find the content in your press releases (is anyone really going to be searching to find out about your new marketing director, for example?), I’d question the value of doing this.

For many people, a business blog with useful content that solves peoples’ problems (your ideal clients or target audience, that is) or makes their lives easier in some way is far more likely to send you soaring up the search engine rankings. And will probably save you time and money.

Journalists will love you for it (well, maybe just a little bit)

Most journalists like having a document they can refer to with key points, names and contacts - all in one place -  particularly when they’re working to a tight deadline (and most journalists usually are).

You'll have lazer-sharp focus 

When you’re busy running a business - or juggling a busy communications role - PR is often the thing that gets pushed to the bottom of your ‘to-do’ list. Setting yourself a target to write a fortnightly or monthly press release can keep you focused and spark creative story ideas - even when it feels like there’s nothing new to say.

Want more on this? Read: Eight things you can do to boost your press coverage when you don't have any news. And if you want to avoid the most common press release mistakes, read this and this.