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Jun 3 / Viji Iyer

What makes for a proficient PR professional?

Steve Polilli

How a company’s public image is perceived has a lot to do which what is being written and published about them in the news. It takes skilled public relations practitioners to build and strengthen a brand though their content. I spoke to one such expert, Steve Polilli from SAS asking him to share some of his wisdom about PR. Here’s what he had to say.

VI: Please share a little about your professional background. How long have you been in PR?
SP: I’ve been in PR for 16 years. Prior to that I was a journalist for 12 years, with time spent in both trade publications and daily newspapers. Journalism was great preparation for PR because I had a great feel for what reporters desire in terms of business news. On the flip side I had a very rigid definition of news based on my journalism experience and I had to learn how to look at increasing the news value of an announcement.

VI: What do you look for in a good PR story? What makes for a compelling story?
SP: First, I consider which publications might be interested in a story. If it’s a story that I think would attract the eye of the Wall Street Journal, that’s the absolute best. If it’s only interesting to a very focused trade publication, that’s a less compelling story based on the limited readership.

The broadest stories are the best. If a story would interest my mom, that’s a very broad topic relevant to many. If it’s something that would be compelling only to a PhD statistician, that’s very limited. However, you have to do both to reach all audiences.

Another consideration is that a business story has to be told in a way that shows the benefit to a reader who might be considering a purchase. In B2B PR, that’s the bottom line: sell more stuff. It’s too easy to fall into telling the story in an inwardly focused way. How much would you care about a news story that describes a company’s strategy for defeating the competition vs. a story that told you how a new product can save you money and make your job easier.

A good story has to have some independent validation. Sure, every company can go on and on about why its products are best, but that’s hardly an independent information source. Isn’t the information more credible if it comes from the lips of another customer or independent observer? The best PR stories always rely on independent validation in some way.

VI: What’s the big deal about coining the right subject line? Why is that so important?
SP: Editors, reporters and bloggers are often flooded with news releases and story pitches. Just as a new release is structured to have the most compelling information in the headline or top of the text, so too must emails have a compelling subject line. They may never be opened otherwise. At the same time it’s important to be brief and factual in the subject line. If you write a subject line that you think might “tease” a reporter in opening the email, you run a big risk of annoying them. Brevity is best—try to capture the essence in a few words.

VI: Is writing a press release a form of storytelling and if so how is it different from other forms?
SP: Yes, writing a press release is a form of storytelling and that seems to be the hot term right now in marketing and PR. But it’s not a chronological narrative where you typically start at the beginning and follow the thread. The story might be how a product creates value for customers, or how one customer used it for competitive advantage. The story might be told with the ending (product value) cited up front and then moving backwards on how they came to that positive result.

VI: How do you think the field of PR is evolving over the years?
SP: The big change, of course, came from the development of email and the Internet. Before then you were dealing with print publications and news releases were spread through wire services and overnight mail. Go back further and it was largely snail mail and press conferences. Print is evaporating, press conferences are much more infrequent and any kind of hard copy news release distribution is virtually extinct. So, the tools have fundamentally changed in the last two decades.

As the methods have changed so have the targets changed for PR professionals. In the print age, PR was only focused on editors and reporters because they were the gatekeepers to spread the word of company news to the broader public. Now the PR audience directly reaches the press and other audiences. Certainly bloggers and other market influencers are now part of the target. And PR also directly reaches the public. Consider the effect of technologies such as search engines. Someone might be interested in a certain topic and use Google alerts or RSS feeds which pull in news releases even if the reader isn’t press. Because of this there is a huge emphasis on search engine optimization of news releases.

VI: Parting words. What advice would you give to upcoming PR professionals?
SP: Constantly improve your writing and learn as much as you can about the business (or non-profit) you are promoting. The writing is critical. Avoid falling into marketing-speak and clichés. For example, I cringe when I hear someone say “game changer” because it is currently so overused.

Try writing things simply. A good example is the word “utilize,” which is just a pompous way of saying “use.” And remember that improving your writing is a career-long process that doesn’t end when you graduate college. You have to have a bit of a thick skin to be in PR but the most important aspect of this is when you receive feedback on your writing.

Feel free to tweet, like and comment if you enjoyed hearing from Steve and learning about what a crucial role content plays in building brand images.

Photo by FindYourSearch

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