Public relations is a powerful tool that is often used poorly. And much of the blame for that lies squarely at the feet of the industry itself.
Ed began in PR after spending several years as a journalist. He almost immediately saw a disconnect between public relations claims and the actual results he was seeing for his clients. “This cult of personality in PR that teaches people that this job is going to be so much easier, nicer, and much more frictionless than it really is. … There is this big PR problem for PR that no one really wants to talk about.”
In his early years in the industry, Ed saw big egos making big promises. And it often seemed to him that the primary skill set was excuse-making. “I think that PR just has this systemic issue of self-importance without the backup,” he says.
Too often, public relations oversells and under delivers. This happens, Ed says, for a couple of reasons. One is simply hubris, or the cult of personality he says permeates the industry. The other is simply not understanding or appreciating media relations.
According to Ed, too many PR managers coast through their careers, seeding terrible habits and poor performance throughout the industry. And this is where both the problem of hubris and the problem of performance begins.
Middle managers attain their positions by simply not being fired; so, there is a sort of apathy and attrition that ripples out into the industry.
“So these middle managers, they’re the ones who train young people; if that person doesn’t pitch a lot, they’re bloody useless,” Ed says. “Because they are … helping people write pitches, they are the educational layer that is poisoning media relations … It’s turning bright young minds out of public relations. And it’s doing so by burning them out by making them spam reporters with bad pitches.”
While Ed is unabashed in his diagnosis of what he sees as a fundamental problem in the public relations industry, he also sees opportunities for excellence. And those opportunities tend to buck the industry to a certain degree.
There are three things Ed cites as hallmarks of excellent public relations. And they make a fantastic set of guides for anyone who wants to become excellent at the PR craft.
Writing For Impact
It may seem obvious, but good writing is foundational for good public relations. However, there’s a specific kind of writing that gets results for public relations. There’s a tendency, perhaps instilled by college composition courses, to focus on flourishes, density, and completeness in writing.
That is exactly the wrong approach for PR writing, Ed says.
“How can I get something across in 100 words with a good subject headline that someone will read and act upon? PR needs to learn how to write in a way that actually communicates stuff.”
Clear concise writing is at the center of an effective PR and media relations professional’s skill set. Not only is good writing in many ways the primary “product” of public relations, it also forms a solid foundation for the kind of critical thinking skills that are essential as well.
One thing that shocks Ed is the know-nothing attitude that so many in his profession seem to share. “I remember when I started out being told not to learn too much–those exact words–because you’ll become a nerd. … The belief is that if you learn too much, you can’t speak in a clear manner. You can’t elucidate on something without getting bogged down in details.”
In reality, it’s only when you deeply understand a subject that you are able to communicate clearly for any audience. Having rich domain expertise means that you can offer the broad strokes for most settings, but, when asked, you can also dive deep. The true creativity of the field only comes into play when you have that breadth of knowledge and expertise.
“Almost universally, sports PR people I’ve met, they know the games back to front and side to side. It works. It makes for great PR people. Knowledge is important.
Taking the time to understand your subject also puts you one step ahead in media relations. Reporters, editors, and producers all enjoy having an intelligent conversation with someone who knows what they’re talking about. And this can translate into media hits for clients.
Putting It All Together
The third key skill Ed highlights is synthesis, taking complex inputs and translating them into a meaningful message. “If you know how to put a point across, you also know how to synthesize information–not just remember it–synthesize it and say ‘This is what’s important.’”
That synthesizing skill is really where the other two skills come together. When you truly understand a subject and are able to contextualize it, you can communicate with a clear, compelling message.
“Being able to cut down everything around you … what’s happening in the news, what happened to you in your life, what’s happened to your client, what will happen to your client–being able to synthesize that information and spit out something worthwhile is a learned skill,” Ed says.
When PR professionals learn that skill, they get big wins for their clients.
“If you just have a PR person who knows their industry better, you can just get more, better coverage,” Ed says. “And on the other side, when something goes wrong. You can actually have a PR person who can engage with the media and find out that they’re going to dome you and maybe have a conversation around that.”
Good public relations is rooted in just that: relationships. Communicating clearly, understanding your subject, and contextualizing should be deployed to develop relationships with journalists and with outlets that help elevate an organization’s relationship with the public.
You can watch the entire interview with Ed Zitron on Leadtail TV.
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