Published: 10 January 2011

PR: no magic buttons, it’s all about relationships

Rob Dyson, PR manager at Whizz-Kidz, demystifies PR

Good PR, bad PR, "we need PR"… Public relations has become shorthand for a mystical wand that turns the mundane into media success; but the fundamentals are really just about telling a story, and being human.

So do you need to be in communications to be enacting public relations? Not especially; you probably do it all the time when you make a phone call, meet someone new, or talk about your job with enthusiasm. It's always been about building relationships, making friends, and framing what you say in language right for that conversation.

When I started out in a press team over 10 years ago, I'd been led to believe it was almost a sales job – and persistence and persuasion would lead to success. Over time I realised that no one responds well to a sales call; and talking at cross-purposes gets you nowhere fast.

So in the spirit of alliteration I thought I'd list the four 'R's that helped me understand that PR is first and foremost about communication, before we worry about measurables like 'media hits' or numbers of mentions.

1. Research.

Who writes about your interest area? Who reads about it, and who are you trying to influence? Which names keep coming up? I'd make a list of the key players and key themes.

2. Read.

Become familiar with the language and tone of this conversation and those in it. A lot of newspapers, magazines and some journals have free web content; use journalisted.com (free website) and Google to search for phrases and journalists and access their articles. From here you can:

3. Re-adjust your message to resonate with the mood.

Parroting language is used by good communicators. Just as in conversation you might adapt the way you speak depending on who you're speaking to, the same is true with media, politicians, and lobby groups. Couching your story in the terms and tone of others can suddenly bring it into sharper focus for your audience.

The Coalition Government re-named a lot of departments and policies when they came into power to differentiate itself from the previous administration, but is it all that different? Community action and volunteering becomes 'Big Society' and suddenly it's an ideology – but all that's happened is a sharper focus on what people have been doing for years, in an attempt to encourage more of it. On a very basic level, Big Society is about trying to build loyalty to a brand and behaviour – like Coca-Cola or Starbucks.

4. Remember all the people that are important (not necessarily big name journalists or politicians).

These are your allies, and they can also introduce you to others. Remember too that people move around, leave jobs, change departments. By building relationships it means these people can take you with them. Use mediauk.com (another free site) to find the names of journalists and media outlets, and samepoint.com (free search engine) to search for bloggers and twitter conversations. You know who the influential people are in your life, so do the same in terms of your charity or area of work. I use my free Evernote.com account to keep articles of interest, names of contacts and so on in one place.

Press releases, phone calls, emails, chats over coffee PR: no magic buttons, it's all about relationships these are all your tools but the content of your conversation is what it's all about.

Tell me your story 

Funnily enough, the social web and spaces like Twitter and Facebook have helped a lot of people remember what it's like to 'have a chat'. We all got used to commenting on friends' photos and building conversations on their Facebook walls, and there shouldn't be any difference for a charity or company in social media either. Twitter is used badly by many people who forget that it's just like a really public text message; tweets invite discourse, questions, answers and discussion. Facebook walls invite comments, debate, posts of interesting links and photographs. You tell me your story, I'll tell you mine. And if I like your story I'll tell it to other people too.

In social media, stories are shared amongst friends and networks; in traditional media, stories are shared on the pages of newspapers, and on the airwaves. The stories may get translated or put into the new storytellers' own words, but that's fine as long as your messages were simple and strong enough in the first place to come through.

To demystify PR for those not working in it, think about how you would recount a funny story to your grandparent, and then how you might tell that same story to your friends, and then how you might tell it to a complete stranger. You'd probably alter the familiarity, maybe adjust any colourful language, play up certain elements, and play down others. It's the same story though.

A charity's relations with the public or media are fluid. The story's fundamentals are the same, but the language changes for the audience. For instance, if it's a national story aimed at a local audience, give it a local angle PR: no magic buttons, it's all about relationships real accounts from real people based in that region (even with anonymity, you can make a story local by naming areas, landmarks, and using local vernacular).

My summarising points would be:

  • Conversation is king: it’s still all about relationships, online & off.
  • Be flexible about your story, and use journalists and news themes to focus your angle.
  • Find your ambassadors & champions online. Make friends and take them with you.

Now…tell me a story?


Rob Dyson, public relations & online engagement manager, Whizz-Kidz

In his day job, Rob leads on all public relations for young people’s charity Whizz-Kidz, including corporate fundraising partnerships, youth campaigning, NHS partnerships and parliamentary work and most notably social media: building conversational, community engagement in Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Flickr. Rob blogs on third sector issues, Big Society, and digital comms and founded the Third Sector PR & Communications Network on Facebook.