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5 Tips for an Impactful PR Program

There’s never a lull in PR. In fact, the holiday season traditionally boasts heightened activity for agency teams. In prep for the new calendar, brands buckle down to align on upcoming annual programs. In many cases, the need to set budgets for the coming year drives brand teams to evaluate and define what’s next. But everything about this seasonal uptick in activity feels backwards to me. Many brands check through the boxes of marketing planning exercises, yet critical steps are often skipped in the hustle to set a course for the year ahead. This can compromise a brand’s program results before the New Year’s ball has even dropped.

After more than a decade of launching countless PR programs, the common denominator to those that I’ve seen successfully propel brands forward, impact bottom lines and rise above competitive chatter are the programs driven by an idea—a story that must be told. But how do you define the narrative and, more importantly, how do you bring it to life through an impactful PR program? Here’s how to avoid PR pitfalls, whether you’re planning your first or 50th PR program.

1. Define “success.” Don’t assume that everyone has the same agenda. Force the conversation with your boss, your staff, your teams: What are we trying to accomplish? Who are we trying to reach? What is the big win? Is it to disrupt the market? Secure top-tier coverage? Get in front of industry tastemakers to champion a new product innovation? When defining success, be cognizant of what matters to your leadership team. And if you sit on the executive bench, share your vision with others so that everyone can work toward what’s most important to the company.

Now that you’ve worked to define (and align with) the destination, you can better evaluate the best path to get there. Crystallize a narrative—what your brand stands for—to serve as a program guide post for all supporting marketing tactics. This platform will inform the “how” behind your program. And to do that, you need to enlist the storytellers.

2. Get the right people (and partners) in place for the journey. Don’t be a hero on your own island. PR is ever-evolving and you need access to insiders who live and breathe the industry on a day-to-day basis to help navigate the convoluted waters and craft an ownable program for your brand story. Surround yourself with opinions you can trust and those who believe in what you’re trying to accomplish. Whether you build an internal PR team or amplify your staff with an external agency partner, listen to the counsel of your PR confidantes and heed their advice in the process because they’ve seen the range of programs—the good, the bad and the ugly.

3. Be collaborative—and inclusive—during the process. You wouldn’t plan a vacation for your family or friends without first confirming their availability and interest in the travel destination, so don’t conceptualize a marketing program without involving a PR contributor in the early brainstorms. We are your watchdogs and sounding board based on our aggregate experiences and can help steer you down the path that will yield maximum PR results. On more occasions than I care to count, I have been approached by clients dictating a campaign they want executed that just doesn’t make strategic PR sense. These individuals are brilliant marketers and business leaders in their own right, but the media landscape is a different ballgame. Campaigns conceptualized for advertising purposes like TV spots, or consumer engagements such as giveaways and sweepstakes, may not carry the same punch in front of reporters. The story—and when you share it—must be tailored to the audience and industry nuances. For example, our PR world usually operates about six months in advance. Christmas (pitching) comes in July because print books can lock up holiday gift guides as early as Labor Day weekend. Allow your PR partners to help you plan against these types of timing considerations based on strategic goals.

4. Track what’s going on beyond company walls. The saying “build it and they will come” has never sparked PR success. You can design the most creative marketing program with a compelling story, but that doesn’t mean that media and bloggers have to cover it. They, too, have assignments to fulfill (and editors to report into). The key to building a story with emotional relevancy is to step outside of the vacuum and stay informed of what’s happening around the world. Global and national events hijack headlines, placing brand initiatives—no matter how clever—on the backburner. Be on the lookout for any scheduled events that may threaten to steal the spotlight by maintaining an ongoing calendar of events to reference for planning purposes.

5. Invest time and resources to be effective. Don’t undercut the time and budget needed to pull off your big idea. There’s a difference in scaling down a program for the right reasons (available resources, etc.) versus trying to shortcut the strategic planning that’s needed to get it launched. I’ve seen fantastic ideas be massaged into the execution of something barely reminiscent of the original concept. If you water down the process, you will get watered down results.

At the end, carve out time to review the findings reported by your team (or agency) and openly discuss the results, what worked and what didn’t work, any key learnings, and future recommendations. These insights will allow you to build upon brand wins—helping you repeat and amplify future program successes.

Taryn Unruh is vice president of the Los Angeles division of Havas Formula, a New York-based PR firm, and has worked with clients including P&G, Dunkin’ Donuts, Sport Chalet and Qualcomm.