In my experience, the role of public relations (PR) is still largely misunderstood by the very people who could benefit from it most. I’m not just talking about business owners, but some publishers as well.
So in an attempt to clear up all this confusion in relation to the role of PR in business and the media, I recently spoke to former journalist and Head of PR at 303, Melanie King. Melanie has managed PR for some of the biggest brands in Australia and she also teaches PR at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
Born in Canada, Melanie made the move to Australia with her young family to set up home in Sydney 13 years ago. Originally a journalist, Melanie made the switch to PR when her Canadian accent disqualified her from working as a journalist on Australian TV and radio.
Melanie told Australian Women Online, “In Canada I was a journalist and I was on air on radio and television. But when I moved here everybody told me that I talk funny and that Australians wouldn’t want to listen to somebody without an Australian accent.”
“In fact John Singleton told me; ‘Nobody wants to listen to a Yank’. When I told him ‘I’m not a Yank, I’m Canadian’; he said, ‘Australian’s don’t know the difference.’ Then I met Peter and Richard Lazar who owned Professional Public Relations.”
Melanie was Group Director of the Technology and B2B division at Professional Public Relations (PPR) for six years, managing accounts like Toshiba, Oracle, Lexmark, Discovery Channel and Disney Channel before becoming Managing Director of Mango Communications, the PR arm of DDB, for five years. She built the business across Sydney and Melbourne with clients like Wrigley, Yahoo!7, Sanitarium, Sanyo, Double A paper, Skechers, Dr Martens, Whirlpool and many more. In January 2008, Melanie joined 303 as Head of PR to create the PR offering across Sydney and Perth.
“There’s a lot of cross-over between journalism and PR and a lot of people bounce back and forth between the two as there’s a lot of synergy between journalism and public relations,” said Melanie.
“The good thing about having been a journalist whilst working in PR is that I understand what the journalist is looking for. So if I’m pitching to you I’ll look at your publication, or watch your television show, or listen to your radio program and figure out exactly where you’re coming from, who your audience is and then target my pitch or my story angle specifically to you. If I don’t, then I’m not doing my job very well,” she said.
I don’t mind admitting that Australian Women Online owes much of our success to the many PR companies that flood my inbox with media releases each week. Some of our most popular articles began as an interesting story angle pitched by somebody in a PR firm who took the time to anticipate our wants and needs, and those of our readers. But it’s not just the smaller publications like ours that have benefited from PR campaigns – major newspapers, magazines, television and radio, source some of their stories from PR companies as well.
“Many publications and media outlets have cut their staff and a lot of the journalists are stretched really, really thin,” said Melanie. “Generally how it works is that we pitch them a story and a journalist will say, ‘Can you find out this for me?’ and so we give them the best research we can find. Then it’s up to them to write the story.”
In my experience, one of the most common misconceptions about PR is that it’s really just another form of advertising. Although for some PR campaigns the end result for the business may well be the same, there are some very important differences between advertising and PR.
Melanie King explains, “Advertising is based on the fact that you purchase the time on television or the space in a magazine and then you can put whatever you want on there. You can make it about your brand, or your product and it’s designed perfectly and exactly communicates the message – and you and the advertising agency have control over what it looks like.”
“In PR we have to negotiate with the journalist to write the story. So it’s never going to appear as exactly as we write it because the journalist generally puts his or her spin on it, or talks to competitors, or does more research and expands on the story. So you don’t have complete control as you would in advertising.”
As the managing editor of a publication, I have to say that nothing annoys me more than when I receive a media release that reads like a written advertisement, as opposed to a pitch for an interesting story.
“We have to keep in mind as a publication you sell advertising and that helps you publish, whether it’s online or in print, or on air. At the end of the day we want to get our client’s product in your publication or tv show, but we have to give you guys something. If we’re not making it interesting for you or giving you an exciting story, then what’s in it for you?” said Melanie King.
“Even though I might read a magazine and look at the ads and I’m still educated by them, interested in them and excited by them, I still want to get that objective point of view. When a journalist writes a story he or she might include my product and two of my competitors’ products, or do some further research and say what the situation is in Australia, or what the situation is in the UK or Italy, and that makes it more interesting to the reader or the viewer. As PR people we need to keep that in mind, otherwise, as I said, we’re not doing our job very well.”
Of course, no matter how talented or experienced the PR firm you’re dealing with, there are some situations where coming up with an interesting story angle is extremely difficult, if not impossible. I see examples of this in my email inbox every week, where the product isn’t news worthy or interesting, but the person handling the PR will send out a media release anyway.
“For some products it is very hard and that’s why we have to work very closely with our clients to figure out why they are doing it. We try and work with them to narrow down exactly who they want to receive this information and then it’s up to us to be creative and come up with different angles. And yes, sometimes it’s really hard coming up with a good story angle.”
“That’s why our little team is good at what we do, many of us have worked on the other side as it were. Some people call PR the darkside, but let’s just say the other side, and if we can be empathetic and know what both sides can get out of it so everybody can profit at the end of the day, it’s worthwhile. You get a good story and we get our client’s product in the magazine or on the TV show, so it’s worth it in the end.”
As the founding editor of Australian Women Online, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to build good working relationships with some of the most reputable PR professionals in the country.
But like every profession, PR has it’s share of bad apples. On more than one occasion I’ve had some disgruntled PR professional slam the phone down in my ear after I’ve said ‘no thanks’ to a story pitch. What’s up with that?
“That’s absolutely your right,” says Melanie King. “It’s up to you as the publisher to say no thanks and then it’s up to the PR firm to figure out why you said no.”