#SummerPRChallenge Week Two

Skills and Techniques

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

It’s the job seeker’s lament. To get a job you need experience, yet how do you gain experience without first getting a job?

A contracting economy will mean fewer opportunities, so this conundrum is a very pressing one in 2020. Well, we have some good news for beginners and for job seekers.

The universal basic skills required for roles in public relations cover two areas: communication and media. Communication is the how; media is the where.

Let’s take an example. The BBC is withdrawing free TV licences for all over 75s from this month: free licences will from now be available only to less well off pensioners who receive pension credits.

The communication challenge is to convey this message as clearly – and accurately – as possible without unnecessarily scaring people who might be fearful of being fined if they don’t register for a TV licence. Here’s how the BBC announced the changes.

Please note the subtle but important distinction. This is not a news story written by a BBC journalist; this is a statement issued on the BBC’s media centre on behalf of the corporation’s management. It is written for the media to use (and, increasingly, for the public to see). It will have been written by someone in the press office or corporate communication team, and published with the approval of management. This perspective is made clear in the opening: ‘The BBC Board has confirmed…’ In this context, public relations means communication from management to the public via the media.

The media challenge is to choose the best channels to reach the target groups. Mass media (including the BBC’s own news channels) will be important; so will the internet and social media (you should avoid the crude stereotype of assuming that this generation is not online). Yet the best channel to reach the most affected groups (those over 75; and those over 75 receiving pension credits) is to write to them by post. Did you consider old-fashioned correspondence as a media channel?

The media does include mass media; it does include social media; but it also includes any appropriate means including traditional postal delivery. Some media used in public relations are ‘free’; some (like writing letters to specific households) involves a cost; and some social media campaigns require advertising to boost the chances of reaching the target groups. As noted in last week’s challenge, the distinction between advertising (paid media) and public relations (earned media) is blurring.

In the past, there’s been an assumption that public relations focuses on mass media channels (traditional print and broadcast channels). You should certainly not ignore these channels, but equally you should not ignore digital and peer-to-peer channels. 

To give another example: if you want to reduce obesity by encouraging people to eat healthy foods and take more exercise, is a double page spread in a newspaper likely to achieve your objective? It may help, but it takes much more than this. A smartphone exercise tracking app, advice on healthy eating, and peer pressure from family and friends may be needed too.

Creative communicators (this could include you) should not narrow their thinking and assume that one channel is right for all campaigns. You need more than a wrench in your toolbox.

#1 challenge: Identify a current communication campaign (like my example from the BBC above). Review the quality (or appropriateness) of their communication, and the choice of media channels. What was the reaction?

You can review the reaction to the announcement using Google News and by searching on social media. There is much negative media coverage of the BBC licence fee announcement – but then many print media titles view the BBC as a rival with an unfair advantage because of its funding model, and have an agenda to attack it at every opportunity. So your case study example will allow you to assess how an organisation articulated its message, which channels it used – and what the reaction has been.

Given the complexity of communication (you can speak, but are they listening?) and the wide choice of media channels, how can you develop and demonstrate your skills in communication and media without substantial work experience? 

The answer is to apply public relations principles to you. 

#2 challenge. What is your personal brand? What are your strengths as a communicator and which are your strongest channels? 

For the sake of this exercise, exclude your private communication channels (eg text messaging or Whatsapp groups) and focus on public social media channels. If you’ve created some original content that’s conveyed a message and has reached beyond your immediate circle of family and friends, then you’re demonstrating skills that will appeal to some employers.

I know what you’re thinking. You only created your TikTok videos for a laugh among your friends, and this can’t have any connection to work. But given that you’ll have started with no followers, gaining one follower and turning this into 10, 10 into 100, 100 into 1000 is a measure of your success as a content creator and communicator.

Given how easy it is to create and share content on social media, the challenge is to unlock the secret of creating popular, shareable content. You will know that there’s money to be made by social media influencers who can attract and retain followers through their content; equally, organisations will pay for those who can plan, create and measure successful social media campaigns on their behalf.

Just because the barriers to entry are low doesn’t mean it’s easy – or that anyone can do it. It’s because the barriers to entry are so low that it’s really hard to become a top-earning influencer. If 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute (2019 figures) – which means 720,000 hours of content uploaded each day – even with more than two billion users, the chances of your video getting noticed widely and becoming a viral hit are small.

Learning about the variables is a valuable lesson. What’s the ideal length of video? Is there a good time of day or week to post? How can you cross-promote content on one channel via others? How can you encourage those with large social media followings to like and share your content? What text and hashtags did you use to tell the story and attract attention?

You may still feel this is not sufficient for your CV or for your job applications. In that case, I suggest you move onto the next challenge.

You may already have managed a public relations campaign – without knowing it.

#3 challenge. Have you been involved in fundraising for a good cause?

If you’ve raised money for charity, then you’ll have some data on the sums raised and the numbers of contributors. Did you rely solely on your close circle of family and friends, or did you widen your network to appeal to outsiders. Were you able to turn strangers into friends? If so, it’s a valuable public relations skill.

You may feel it was simply a matter of creating a page on JustGiving – but people outside your network would need a very compelling story to pay attention and lend their support. Storytelling is another valuable public relations skill.

Have you helped arrange a party or an anniversary celebration? Again, the lessons learned in project management and communication could be valuable. You need ways to demonstrate your skills in communication and media to employers.

Communication skills: Presentation skills, persuasion, video and photo editing. These are all useful and if one word sums them up, it’s storytelling. But your best way to appeal to employers is still with the written word. Employers consistently place writing skills at the top of the list of things they look for.

There’s much more to writing than spelling and grammar – like there’s more to eating than table manners. But be warned: public relations practitioners share with journalists a love of the written word, and a poorly written application will do you no favours. It may be acceptable to ignore spelling and punctuation on social media (using their/they’re interchangeably) – but this is not acceptable in the world of professional public relations.

Nor should your writing be literary. Employers are less likely to be impressed with your essay on James Joyce than was your A level English teacher. You may need some fresh examples to show off your writing. How do you do this?

#4 challenge: Blogging.

Blogging is falling from fashion now that we have more immediate and engaging examples of social media. But it remains a good way to show your passion for your chosen subject. It could be film, fashion, sport, travel, the arts – it’s your passion, so it’s your choice. Just remember that popular subjects are already widely written about on blogs and in the traditional media, so you’ll have to work very hard to stand out. Paradoxically, you’ll find it easier to make your mark writing about an unpopular subject. So, if you’re a sports fan – it’s hard to stand out with another football blog (though this MA student succeeded admirably with his passion for non-league matches). So pick a less popular sport, or avoid popular Premier League teams.

If you can help others to share your passion, then you’re doing public relations without knowing it. I knew nothing of Easington Colliery FC, playing in the Northern League Division Two (the seventh tier of English football), but now I’m curious thanks to Connor’’s writing. That’s the power of words, combined with the network effect of social media.

When all media was local, Easington Colliery based in County Durham wouldn’t have crossed my radar. But I’d tuned into a blog by a PR student, and it attracted my attention.

So, writing is fundamental, but it’s not sufficient. You may have written a masterpiece, but until it’s published and promoted – then no one knows about it. So writing is the starting point for public relations, but you have to find opportunities to share your words more widely.

This is where our attention turns to media.

If your essay on James Joyce is unlikely to impress a public relations employer, then so is your love of Netflix or Disney+ (sorry!). The media we’re interested in are those that we can work with to communicate our messages and expand our networks.

When listening to the news bulletins, the public relations perspective is to ask who helped shape that hour’s news. Was there some news about a promising trial of a vaccine for coronavirus? That’s public relations. Was the government telling you to wear a mask, to stay indoors or to go back to work? That’s public relations.

But as noted earlier, the mass and broadcast media are only part of a complex media ecosystem. There’s also social media. What’s trending on Twitter? Why is there talk of TikTok being banned in the US? Why are there persistent questions about Facebook, hate speech and fake news?

Having a curiosity about the media is a requirement for public relations. So pick one media channel to talk about. If you’re on TikTok, how much content have you created. How many followers have you gained? What are you doing to build this number? If your numbers are very modest, then what do you think the big-name creators are doing differently from  you?

Communication and media are the basic, entry-level skills for public relations. The Global Capability Framework lists many more under ‘communication capabilities’ (and yet more under ‘organisational capabilities’ and ‘professional capabilities’) but ‘to communicate effectively across a full range of platforms and technologies’ is the starting point for public relations work.

The good news: you can demonstrate your potential in this area even without substantial work experience.

Reading and resources

PR Place guides: Storytelling; How write a news release 

Global Alliance Global Capability Framework

PR Academy: Introduction to PR (free course)

#SummerPRChallenge: Week One