When comm leaders think about what makes their PR team powerful, they think about individuals with experience, skill, and relationships. It’s the individuals who make a PR team great. The problem is, when a rock star leaves the team, they leave a chink in the armor that makes the organization weak. The relationships they had go with them. They might leave behind a list of media contacts, but we all know it was how they built their relationships and how they engaged with those media and influencers that made them successful.
Suddenly, the top tier story you thought was in the bag, isn’t. The knowledge of how to best work with the trade organizations most important to your brand or clients is also gone. Something as simple as keeping PR opportunities moving through the pipeline is hard because the influencers liked working with the PR pro they knew and trusted, not this new person who’s calling.
An opportunity exists here, but few PR organizations seize it, choosing to continue depending on a few heroes to carry the entire PR organization.
We’ve Seen This Before
30 years ago, sales organizations had the same problem. The best sales reps had shoeboxes of contacts, deep relationships, and for the most part worked independently. Even the first contact managers, such as ACT!, were geared towards the lone wolves who were pounding the pavement and getting it done. When a company lost their best reps, they took a major hit in revenue.
Then contact managers evolved into what we know today as CRM. The point of implementing CRM technology wasn’t just to help great sales people become greater, it was to help the rest of the team improve too, as well as give managers the insight they needed to create a team of high performers.
When a rock star sales rep left, the company didn’t take a huge hit, and the organization could continue operating with minimal disruption.
In the last 10 years, this model of moving sales teams from individual players to an optimized unit became the norm. CRM has grown from 57 percent to 72 percent adoption in just the last four years. Instead of each sales rep having their own shoebox of contacts that are just theirs, companies have massive digital contact databases that store all of their leads and communication with those contacts. When used correctly, it offers visibility that benefits everyone on the team.
PR organizations can learn from this.
Every Team Member is a Rock Star
Let’s start by killing a commonly held belief. Your A-players have a special “something” that can’t be taught. This is a myth. Every person on your team is special and has their own innate talents, but the reason your rock stars are getting more wins than everyone else is because there’s a science behind their art. They might not even realize it.
Sarah was your quintessential media bulldog. When you had to get a win, Sarah could get it done. The journalists who never responded to anyone else responded to Sarah. Her pitch-to-result ratio was 68%. The average for most PR pros is 15%.
Because of her ability to get it done, Sarah was an incredibly valuable member of the agency. The more the agency grew, the more dependent it was on Sarah, and she was feeling it. Demanding clients wanted her on their teams. She was constantly being asked to help pitch accounts she didn’t work on. Not wanting to let anyone down, she always obliged. She was overworked, stressed, and tired.
And her co-workers weren’t making it easier. Younger team members trying to earn their stripes had opportunities taken away and given to Sarah because the agency couldn’t risk losing the client. Some more experienced team members felt threatened by her.
Realizing that Sarah was about to hit a wall, the agency owner decided the risk of losing Sarah is too great. She wanted to continue growing the agency, but knew she couldn’t so long as she only had one Sarah. She needed a team of Sarahs.
She asked Sarah to give a workshop to the rest of the team, to teach them how she has such a high rate of success in building relationships and earning results with media and influencers.
Sarah was at a loss. She didn’t know that she offered anything different or unique, but agreed (as she always did) to help out.
The agency used a relationship management platform (similar to a CRM, but for PR), so Sarah and the agency owner could go back in history to see what her interactions with media looked like compared to the rest of the team. If you don't have a relationship management tool, you can and should track all of this same activity manually. It's time consuming but worth it for a number of reasons.
In looking through the activity reports, they found some interesting things:
- Before pitching a new media contact, Sarah connected with them first on LinkedIn and followed them on Twitter.
- She personalized each and every pitch to something the media contact or influencer has written about within the last couple of weeks.
- At the end of every pitch, she has a clear and direct call-to-action (requesting a briefing, asking if they’ll consider covering the news, etc.) There was no ambiguity.
- For follow up pitches, she never used the phrase “follow up.” Instead she’d say things like “getting back to you” or “ checking in.”
- She followed up to every pitch within a week.
- She never followed up more than twice.
- She spent time everyday engaging in “relationship building.” She’d reach out to contacts for reasons other than to pitch them a story. She’d ask them if there are any stories they’re working on with which she might be able to help. She asked journalists in her market out to coffee to learn how she can be a good resource for them. She’d comment on, retweet, and repost stories written by journalists she’s trying to forge relationships with.
- She’d take notes on personal things like birthdays, pitch preferences, likes and dislikes, kids, etc. and keeps all the notes recorded in the agency’s relationship manager.
Sarah realized that she did all of these things consistently, and they give her an edge. The agency owner realized, by looking at the rest of the teams’ media communication, that while most team members did some of these things, there was a lot of room for growth. Some younger team members did none of these things.
Sarah gave her workshop to the team, and in the following months everyone’s pitch-to-result rate increased. The number of proactive pitches being sent out decreased and more time was spent on personalization, timing, and relationship building.
The team developed a “relationship practice.” Every week, each team member was tasked with engaging with at least two media contacts or influencers only for the purpose of building their relationships.
After this, building account teams for new clients was easier and less stressful. Sarah’s workload lightened, and she felt better, which meant she performed better. Younger team members leaned on the agency’s relationship management platform to continue to learn from Sarah. Clients saw more and better outcomes, which made them feel better about their investment in PR, and they invested more. The whole agency got better and bigger.
When Sarah eventually left for an in-house communications role, the agency didn’t take a hit. All of Sarah’s current activity and opportunities in the pipeline were well recorded, which meant her replacement could pick up exactly where Sarah left off.
Most importantly, Sarah scaled herself. She left behind an entire team of rock stars. This made her more valuable than any relationship in her back pocket.
Ever have one of those days when it seems that the PR Gods are smiling on you and nothing can go wrong? How about those days when you’re pulling your hair out, while waiting for something, anything, to happen but all you hear are crickets?
These are the outcomes that happen after weeks of hard prep work, endless revisions, late nights, petty fights, unreasonable expectations, pressure, and checking details again, again, and again. Then the PR event happens – a major announcement, a conference, a social media campaign, etc. – and you wait with bated breath to see what happens.
Sometimes you get everything you hoped for and then some. Sometimes you get nothing and it’s devastating.
Either way, you’ve just created something of value. PR campaigns aren’t simply a compilation of tasks that add up to a win or a loss. They are strategic playbooks that teach us how to do PR better.
When you have a winning campaign, part of your post mortem should be to evaluate what, specifically, made it successful. Was it timing? Was the media list perfectly targeted? Was the content out of this world? What worked? What should be done differently next time?
And here’s the most important question: How can we apply this learning to other campaigns?
Same goes for a losing campaign. Take the time to identify what went wrong. Too often PR teams repeat mistakes over and over, simply because they’re not being identified and analyzed.
Your PR campaigns are scaling points, just like your people. PR organizations that see this are outperforming those that don’t.
The thing sales and marketing organizations have figured out, that PR still hasn’t learned, is that outcomes are far more predictable and repeatable that we realize. There is more science than art. Which is why today’s CMO is more data scientist than creative director.
This is also why sales and marketing gets the lions share of budget – up 40% -- while PR sees less than 2% on average.
PR deserves a bigger bite of that pie, and the only way to get there is to blow away the smoke, take down the mirrors, stop believing this is an art that few can master, and root out the science.
Then apply that knowledge everywhere. Find the systems that make things go and repeat them like crazy. Find the things that don’t work and remove them from the toolbox for good.
Stop falling into the traps of relying on heroes and repeating mistakes over and over again. Performance PR teams have no chinks in their armor. They know exactly what works, what doesn’t, and why. They are fully optimized, they perform at their best, as a team.
Performance PR teams have better outcomes, more frequently, and more predictably.