8 all-too-familiar PR blunders—and ways to avoid them

Nebulous goals, unclear messaging and inadequate media prep are just some of the easily solvable problems that can mar or even undermine your otherwise outstanding campaign.

PR campaigns can sputter for any number of reasons, but course corrections are easier than you might think.

Here are common pitfalls to sidestep:

1. Fuzzy goals

Sometimes PR objectives are described in vague terms, like “increased visibility” or “greater brand recognition.” Most PR agencies have become more sophisticated about goal-setting and measurement. It’s better for everyone if objectives are precise.

Think “increase awareness among prospective customers by 20%,” and make sure there’s a mechanism to measure it. B2B communicators can often rely on their own website analytics to gauge the power of earned media, while others use third-party vendors to conduct baseline customer research or calculate share-of-voice movement within a category.

It all comes back to accurate tracking of progress toward specific, measurable key performance indicators.

2. Insufficient research

Many people who work in PR thrive on the creative nature of what we do; after all, not everyone can dream up a winning idea for a product launch or the two-line pitch that will capture a journalist’s attention. It takes talent, and we’re proud of that. Still, the best campaigns are fueled by creativity, yet informed by research.

The right research ensures that a PR program is strategic by targeting the specific audiences for whom the campaign is relevant, as well as the messages that will resonate. It may also play a part in measuring a program’s success or impact.

The only way to know if we’ve met the 20% awareness goal is to have a baseline at the outset. The right research, even when subjective, can also inspire great program, content and event ideas. Data can be an enormous asset to even the most creative campaign.

3. Muddled messaging

We see this too often in technology PR. There’s a tendency to emphasize tech bells and whistles rather than the true benefit of a product or service. How is it relevant? What problem does it solve?

No matter how awesome the technology is, it’s a trap to fall in love with it to the exclusion of other attributes. Unless the target audience is highly technical, the messaging will fall short.

Another common mistake is to try to be all things to all people. It’s far better to target the message so that it’s germane to a specific business or consumer audience, with a plan to broaden or add new components once momentum is generated.

4. Bad timing

This occurs in media relations when a PR pro pitches a story idea to a journalist who’s just posted a similar piece, or when we’re too late offering comment on a hot topic.

There are also initiatives that simply come too early in the life of a brand or company. For example, a new mattress brand wanted to stage a PR stunt in New York City to “protest” the clock moving forward for Daylight Saving Time.

It’s a nice idea for a photo opp, but such an event works far better for a known brand that wants to position itself an an advocate for better sleep. Even assuming heavy media coverage, it’s unlikely that consumers would learn or remember the new brand behind the stunt.

5. Getting lost in tactics

There’s often a tendency to jump into tactics first. That’s natural, because execution is the fun part, and clients are often impatient for media relations outcomes. Still, it pays to make sure the tactics are guided by the right strategy.

This can apply particularly to media relations, where you typically get one shot at a story idea. Again, the mattress stunt example might succeed at generating coverage because it was well planned, visual and clever. Yet if the brand identity gets lost in the tactics, the whole campaign falls short.

6. Insufficient interview prep

Even if a reporter or content editor has been sold on spending 20 minutes with a client as an expert resource, that doesn’t mean the story is in the bag. It pays to treat each and every interview (and pre-interview) opportunity as an audition.

At times a top-level executive will reject the idea of media prep, either because they lack the time or they feel they know the drill as well as anyone. The PR placement graveyard is filled with examples of dull executive interviews, missed opportunities and even a few disasters.

Smart interview prep will create greater fluency in delivering two or three top messages, and practice interviews, though they may feel awkward, typically benefit the entire team.

7. Ignoring red flags

We in PR should have our ears to the ground; we have to be skilled at listening and analyzing feedback as well as pushing out a message. Recurring online complaints from customers or rumors that keep popping up are a warning sign.

Other flags may come in the form of repeated questions about a troubling issue from employees, business partners, or other stakeholders. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually a smoldering problem to address. Failure to handle concerns early can open a company to reputation harm and could derail a positive PR campaign.

8. Lack of a real story

If your “story” is about how many more or better features your product offers versus the competition, that’s not a story; it’s self-promotion that’s unlikely to get much attention among the people who matter.

A good PR agency team will tap its own institutional experience and expertise to explain why a story will or won’t work and, when possible, how to take a bland or unworkable pitch and improve it.

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO of Crenshaw Communications. A version of this post first appeared on the ImPRessions blog.

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