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To Succeed in Public Relations, Mind Your Business

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Succeeding at public relations requires a combination of skills. Among them are the creativity to frame a story with a unique "hook" or angle; the ability to sell it to a journalist through clear, compelling writing, alongside a subtle combination of "hard sell" and "soft" persuasion; and the strategic thinking and interpersonal skills to manage your client's expectations...even as you "shoot for the stars" in the media.

At the end of the day, however, what really separates an "A+" PR practitioner from the rest of the crowd is not a skill particular to public relations at all.

It is the ability to think, and act, like a businessperson who happens to be in the business of public relations.

This is especially true for owners of PR firms or PR-related businesses, but it also holds true for senior PR pros in corporate or larger agency settings.

How Do You Send the Message?

I can remember the first press release I ever wrote—it was for a nonprofit organization in Chicago—in the late 1980s.

We distributed the release the only way we knew how: we printed on the organization's white bond letterhead and envelopes. We stamped it (the cost of postage was $0.22, if my memory serves), put it in the mailbox, and waited. And waited.

Along came the fax machine...what a revelation! We could fax out dozens of press releases in under an hour and could hit all the local media outlets with whatever news we had to tell easily—and cheaply (much to the chagrin of local editors, we soon learned).

You know the conclusion of the story, or at least the latest chapter: today, email and blogging make virtually any other form of written journalistic communication obsolete.

Emails are what journalists expect to receive and look for. In many cases, they're what they demand.

Which raises the following question: "Who is reading all of those colorful, creatively designed press kits still so common in the profession?" Who is benefiting from the millions of dollars being spent (or allegedly spent) on "mass mailings" to journalists? Why is it that when I hire a young PR guy or gal, the first thing he or she wants to do is write a release, box it up in a press kit, and ship it out via FedEx or (worse!) by a messenger service?

Take the Client's Point of View.

That is not to say press kits are always a bad idea—they are not.

If I were the communications director for a major car company unveiling a new model, for example, I might send a full kit along with colorful photos and reams of product information. (On the other hand, even these might be better handled through JPEGs and PDFs.)

There may still be some "wow" value to sending a neatly packaged visual press kit or a product sample to a targeted editor as an invitation to an event or a new-product launch.

Beyond that, however, it clearly makes better business sense to contact editors via email than any other way. It is quicker, cheaper, and much more efficient.

The cost of your emails to your client? Next to nothing.

And the PR staff person's time invested? Just enough time to assemble the media list and click the button.

If you were a client, which method would you prefer for distributing your news?

Tips for Doing PR Business Like a Savvy Businessperson

The larger point is clear: to do better PR, do it not just like an effective PR person would do it but as an effective businessperson would.

Here are a few tips for doing just that:
  1. Don't confuse effort with impact. It does not matter to your client (in the least!) how many publications you have contacted to place a story or press release. What matters is how many actually printed it. If at the end of the month you send a client reams of paper to document how hard you tried to get ink, you are portraying yourself as less capable of getting results, not more. Businesspeople focus on impact and results.

  2. Spend fewer out-of-pocket dollars, not more. The best stories are often the ones that require the least expenditure to get printed—a carefully honed pitch, a phone call to a journalist based on your research into his or her editorial needs, and a follow-up interview with an executive or product manager. Spending less—less time, less money—can yield better results faster, provided you have the story right. Your client or manager will appreciate your efficiency!

  3. Plan carefully to eliminate the hidden costs of "surprise." The more you plan a PR campaign or effort, the better you will be able to communicate its goals to your client to properly set expectations. The more closely his or her expectations match your results, the less time you will spend resetting the expectations later or redefining the program's goals or strategy. With fewer unpleasant "surprises" later, you can spend less time reviewing program results (or lack of them) and more time serving additional clients—and making more money.

  4. Pitch more; administrate less. There are no two ways about it: PR practitioners get rewarded for "getting ink." At the end of the day, anything else is superfluous to your client and should be secondary for you, too. Filling in time sheets, stuffing the aforementioned press kits, and deliberating over long account-team lunches may sometimes be necessary, but pound for pound, they do not translate into client results as efficiently as getting on the phone and talking to journalists. Administrate less; pitch more.

  5. "Fire a client"...if you have to. Too many PR practitioners spend too much valuable time on clients who will never be profitable—in their own businesses or as clients. Choose your clients carefully. Manage their programs honestly, efficiently, and with their best interests at heart. And if it still doesn't work out, fire them. You will be glad you did (and so might they).
So here's the bottom line for public relations pros and for those just entering the field: thinking creatively is essential, but so is thinking like a business manager. Do so, and watch your business prosper!

About the Author:

Michael Frenkel is the president and owner of M Frenkel Communications (MFC PR), a Manhattan-based public relations and marketing consultancy that provides media relations services, publicity and event management, and strategic business and marketing counsel to a wide variety of consumer and business-to-business enterprises.

Michael founded the firm in 1999 and has engineered innovative PR and marketing campaigns for brands and companies including Hyatt Hotels and Resorts; FelCor Lodging Trust (NYSE:FCH); Mobil Travel Guide/; Audemars Piguet; LQ Management, LLC; and and organizations such as Global Events Partners (GEP), Krisam Group, and The Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States. The firm also represents some of the most distinctive hotel properties in the country, including the Hay-Adams in Washington, DC; the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans; and The Lenox Hotel in Boston.

Michael is a proud—some would say fervent—graduate of the University of Chicago with bachelor's and master's degrees in political philosophy and political theory (1986, 1988). He served as assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL's) Chicago office and then as founding executive director of the Community Relations Institute of Hawaii.

While building a public relations consultancy and corporate career, he earned a J.D. from the Boston University School of Law and moved on to managerial positions in PR and communications at HFS Incorporated (subsequently Cendant Corporation) in New Jersey.

He "graduated" to the world in which professionals bill their time for services when he accepted a position as vice president of consumer marketing at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, New York. There, he planned, managed, and directed multimillion-dollar communications campaigns for clients including the State of Egypt, the Mexico Ministry of Tourism, and Microsoft Corporation (travel and real estate).

Before founding MFC PR, he rebuilt and then tripled the size of the travel and hospitality division of a boutique PR consultancy in New York in less than a year.

Michael hates to talk about himself and prefers to focus on achieving measurable objectives for interesting and fair-minded clients in record time—and under budget. When he does focus on himself, he notes that he is a sustaining member of the International Churchill Society, a sometimes-successful investor in the public markets, and the very proud father of Rebecca, age six, Daniel, age two, and Jonah, who is three months old. He lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife and children.

Reach Michael
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