Personal PR

I often work with very small businesses, by which I mean businesses that consist of just one person working on their own. An enterprise that small can benefit from good Public Relations just as much as a global conglomerate, albeit using different methods and of course on a smaller scale.

The real difference though, is that when you are running a very small business you are the business, and the business is you. In a very real (and scary) sense, you are marketing yourself. When you are networking, meeting potential clients, or just talking to someone about what you do, you are representing yourself and the business at the same time. That makes it all the more important that you are careful to present yourself in the best possible way – the way that will be most effective from your businesses point of view.

I call this Personal PR, and it’s surprising how many business people neglect it.

Now, I do recognise that the persona we adopt when we are ‘on duty’ is not necessarily the same as when we are not in the public eye. What you do in the privacy of your own home is no business of mine – as long as nobody finds out about it of course. I am talking here about how you present yourself to your potential market, and to existing customers. You may be doing this in person, in letters, by phone, email, social media and so on.

In general you need to think about how people perceive you. It sounds easy but it isn’t – it takes a lot of thought and the ability to step back and see yourself through others’ eyes. It’s much easier the other way round: that is, if you are the other person. Would you invest a lot of money with someone who was personally scruffy and disorganised or seemed reckless? Of course not. Now think about yourself: what sort of person do you seem to others? When they read something you have written, what assumptions do they make about you?

It is a fact that thousands of business people are self-conscious about the way they express themselves. I know this from my own experience helping people with their Personal PR, because many of my clients have been in exactly that situation. They come to me to ask for my help in improving their writing or speaking skills, or both. They feel they are letting themselves down every time they open their mouths or write a sentence, either because of their accent, or the words they use, or because they are worried about a gap in their education.

The fact is that effective spoken and written communications are more important now than ever before, and nobody feels confident if they think they lack them. The good news is these are skills that can be taught, and at any age.

At least one whole generation seems to have gone though the UK education system without being drilled in the essentials of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you are one of these people, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it just means that nobody showed you how to do it.

The same goes for good spoken English. It’s a skill and it can be taught, but first you have to acknowledge that you’re not as good at it as you could be.

Note that I am not necessarily thinking here about talking posh (which can itself be offputting to some potential clients). What I am referring to is the ability to present yourself – and your business – in an effective and appropriate way. Does the image you present to people match their expectations of your business? Would you feel confident in an airliner if you saw the pilot was wearing a tracksuit and a backwards baseball cap, and spoke like someone from TOWIE? Those are the kind of assumptions we – and your potential customers – make.

One final thought.  I bet that if you’ve been in business for any length of time, you will have come across (a) someone else in business who you can’t believe is in business because they just don’t seem businesslike, (b) a website that is so awful that you wouldn’t think of making further enquiries, or (c) misspelt and generally badly produced publicity material. All these things will have put you off dealing with those businesses. Now think – what are people saying about you?

How you do get things into the newspapers?

I am always saying that Public Relations is all about how you relate to your public, and there are many ways to do that. One way most people know about is the press release sent to a local paper.

I was discussing PR with an old friend of mine the other day. She’s a government press officer – a job I used to do by the way, although she works for a different department. The point she was making was that her office hardly ever issues press releases to local newspapers these days. Instead they post news articles onto their website, then use social media like Twitter or blogging to direct journalists to read them.

The reason this works is because newspapers, who have far fewer actual reporters than they used to, actively trawl the internet for material to turn into news stories. Does this mean that we no longer need press releases? Well…no. Probably.

Certainly social media have become vital channels for PR activities and their importance has rocketed over the last five years. The PR team at Amazon surely know what they’re doing and when they launched the latest new Kindle Fire tablet they did it with 14 tweets, not with a press release. Each tweet focused on a different specification of the product. Alex Aiken, the Executive Director for UK Government Communications, declared at a conference last year that the press release was dead. He said that press officers should be content producers and realise that tweets, infographics or videos may be a more relevant method of disseminating a message. In the PR industry his words were met with a mixture of horror and a fair amount of ‘well-so-what-we’ve-known-that-for-years’.

Most PR professionals, though, are of the opinion that there is still a use for the press release in the overall marketing mix for businesses. A well-written release (and yes, they do have to be well-written) can still get the attention of the media as long as it is part of a thought-out strategy and not just something thrown together, hoping for the best. Social media have added to, but not replaced, the so-called ‘traditional’ channels of communication with the media. In fact the most traditional – ongoing relationships with journalists – is still the most important.

When it comes to small businesses this is really all good news. The explosion in social media has provided us with a whole new range of methods to get our message across. Exactly what kind of social media is the best fit for your business depends, among other things, on what kind of business it is. For example, if it’s B2B you may find LinkedIn most useful; if you want to communicate with the public at large you may well favour Facebook and/or Twitter. You may well have considered the composing and distribution of a press release as one of those ‘dark arts’ best left to the professionals. Now – hooray! – you have a whole raft of online communications channels which are free, easy to use, and terrifically exciting and modern. Just sign up and you can fire your business message all over the globe and watch your media profile rise.

Beware, though. Just having lots of extra ways to communicate does not reduce the importance of (a) having a proper PR strategy, (b) choosing your key messages with care, or (c) knowing how to write effective copy, even if it is only 140 characters. If you start filling cyberspace with random, ill thought-out, badly worded and misspelt tweets, blogs and posts, it will not reflect well on your business. In fact, used badly social media is just as effective at showing how useless people are as it is at advertising their products (have a look through Facebook sometime if you don’t believe me).

Before you dive in, think carefully and honestly about what your limitations are, and then think about getting professional help. The fact is, for example, that most people don’t know how to write good copy – after all, that’s why we have colleges to teach it. Okay, it means paying a bit, but if you do it yourself and do it badly, you have an awful lot to lose. And anyway is using social media really free? Maintaining a quality presence online is very time-consuming and in business time equals money, so there is a cost even if you decide to do it all yourself.

So – let us postpone the death knell of the press release while we embrace those new-fangled social media. They each have their place in a well-organised PR strategy. At the same time let’s remember that they are all just channels to communicate. Before you choose your channels you have to be sure of what you want to communicate, and why you need to communicate, and how to communicate it in the most effective way.

What exactly is PR?

My background is in Public Relations. I was trained to do it and I have been doing it in the public and private sectors for years. Yet when I’m in situations where I might meet potential clients – business networking meetings for instance – and somebody asks me what I do, I don’t say I’m in PR.

It’s not because I’m ashamed of what I do. It’s because I know from experience that most people don’t really know what PR involves, or how it can help their business. Usually they have preconceptions about PR and as soon as I mention it the mental shutters come down. They think PR is just for TV reality stars, footballers and global corporations, not for small businesses. They think PR is always incredibly expensive. They think PR involves the dark arts and that people who work in PR have sold their souls.

None of this is true – well the last bit might be true in some cases, but not as a rule. So when I’m asked I usually say that I work with businesses and individuals with something worthwhile to offer to get them the attention they deserve. Most people can relate to that, and if they are interested enough to ask how I do it I tell them about PR.

Public relations is all about how you relate to your public. It’s as simple, and as complicated as that. It is about reputation – building reputation, managing reputation and maintaining reputation. PR tells an organisation’s story to its public. If you are in business, what do you want people – your potential customers – to say about you? What do they say about you now? Do you even know? How can you find out?

In practice, PR activities form part of a marketing mix for a business and that mix may well also include paid advertising among other things. The big difference between the two is that in advertising there are some certainties. You pay a certain amount and an ad promoting your business, designed to your specifications, will appear in print, on radio or TV, or online. With PR there are fewer certainties because it is far more of an art than a science and we are dealing with the subtleties of influencing a potential market’s opinion and behaviour. Hence the accusation of practising dark arts. Advertising says, ‘I’m good’; PR says, ‘I hear you’re good’.

There are many ways – or channels to use a PR term – of getting a business’s message across, including traditional print and broadcast media, the new-fangled social media, sponsorship, celebrity endorsement and so on. All are designed to enhance reputation and make potential customers think about you in a particular way. What works for one business might not be appropriate for another, and those who practice PR must draw on their experience and expertise when advising clients on the best techniques for them. Done properly and over a long enough timescale, PR can be more cost effective for a small business than paid advertising.

So, before you think about how PR can help your business, think about some of the really strong brands you know. Take Apple (the computer one, not the Beatley one). What do you know about Apple – and how do you know it? When people buy an Ipad, what are they buying? There are plenty of other tablets available after all. Do they really choose an Ipad above all the competitors because Apple’s advertising has convinced them it is the best? Actually no – most people who choose to buy an Ipad are really buying into Apple’s image and reputation, which the company has worked tirelessly to manage through various kinds of PR as well as advertising. The Apple message is so strong and positive that consumers want to be associated with it.

Now think of your own business. OK maybe you’re not Apple, but reputation is just as important to you as it is to them. Have you defined your Target Market? Those are the people you need to be appealing to. What are your Key Messages – what do you want to tell people about your business? What do you want people to be saying about you? If, for example, you have a website, what does it tell people about you – efficient and classy, or cheap and nasty? When you meet people and they ask what you do, what do you tell them? Do you, like me, have an answer prepared which immediately promotes your Key Messages?

Some kinds of Public Relations you can do yourself, but there are plenty of professionals who can help you and it needn’t cost the earth to consult them. Just ask yourself – how do you relate to your public?