The Why and How of PR for chief executives and busy professionals

By Boni Sones

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Page 1. Why does PR matter?

  • How is your organisation perceived?

Every day as a chief executive of a charity you will be required to communicate with others. You will talk to volunteers, other professionals and those who need your services. You are well aware of what you do, how you operate, what services you offer to others and how you can help them. What you are doing adds value to the community of people you work with.

It’s time now to stop and think about those who work external to your organisation. Try to imagine what they know about your group or charity and what perceptions they have of your work. Are they aware of what you do and what services you have to offer?

As a chief executive one of your roles is to ensure that opinion formers within your community and at a national level know of your work. The first task you have to set yourself is to find out what they know already and how you can build on that knowledge to sustain and develop your work in the future.

You can do that in a number of ways. You can go out and talk to others in your local community outside of your normal circle of influence, or you can commission professional research that will allow someone else to talk to your stakeholders and others on your behalf.

Action: Make sure you set aside time in your diary to talk to those external to your organisation. Remember what they say about you. Think about setting up an external focus group to advise you.
  • Raising your profile

Once you have assessed what others know about you and how you are perceived externally you can start to raise your profile. Often research companies who conduct opinion former research will help you devise a communication strategy.

However, initially your task will probably be to fight for a budget that will allow you to do this. Developing a fully fledged communication strategy will take some time. Step by step you should work towards it. Persistence pays off.

Get to know your local media. Find out what papers, daily and weekly serve your region. Do the same for radio both independent and BBC and for Television. Research which journalists are likely to be interested in your work and why. Start deciding what proactive steps you need to take to raise your profile. Ask to visit the news editors, of what you think, are the most important media locally. Tell them you want to raise your profile and ask for suggestions of how you could work with them to do this.

Don’t forget local papers, radio stations and television outlets often run fundraising campaigns at Christmas for the young, the elderly or those with a disability. Could you become part of that? If not try and think up other ideas or stunts that would appeal to them.

In seeking to influence an external audience you should also host events and ensure you build up a comprehensive and reliable mailing list that you build on over time. Keep it up to date.

Action: Make sure that you go and see at least one news editor locally or a journalist who covers your specialist interest.

  • Day to day concerns

Charities and voluntary organisations often supplement or add value to the work that is undertaken by the public sector. That can often mean that until proper funding is secured they have to function without the resources they need or deserve. Initially you may not be able to appoint one person to take care of marketing and communication but have to allocate the roles to various people in your organisation.

Even if you have to do this take care not to diminish the role of communications and its importance to you. Ask your volunteers and staff who are they talking to externally, what they are saying and how people are reacting to your work.

Raise the issue of communications regularly with your staff and volunteers, talk to them about what others are saying about you. It is a good idea to write down what your six key messages are and to update these regularly. As the chief executive writing down the key messages will help you to focus on what is and what isn’t important at any one time. It is a good companion to ensuring that the policies you have devised become a reality.

Ensure that your staff are aware of what lines you have devised for them to take and that they have the facts and figures necessary to communicate these at their fingertips.

Action: Write out your six key messages and involve others.

  • Launching a campaign

Decide what issues you want to campaign on. You may want more money, you may want to ensure services are improved or you may just want to communicate the fact that the people you help are in need and to say what the full extent of the problem is.

A campaign needs to be thoroughly thought through. What is the issue you want to campaign on? Who else is likely to befriend you? Who is likely to oppose what you are doing? Who else will be affected by your actions? What positive messages do you want to put across?

Answer the Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? Who is your target audience? What do you want to achieve? Why are you launching your campaign now? Where are you going to place your story? When are you going to launch your campaign? How are you going to finance it?

Don’t forget the national press and the trade press maybe interested too. How new is this type of work? Who else is doing it? Why is what you are offering distinctive or different from the rest?

Look for a topical and appropriate time of year to launch your campaign. Education stories hit the headlines in July and August. Fitness campaigns are topical in January. Stories about government policies are often debated during the conference season in September or October.

Charity news and surveys are often put out in January and August when news dairies are notoriously thin. The so called “silly season” maybe an ideal time to get your messages out. But it may also be the case that there is a local event or news item that will make your story more topical. Try and find out what is going on locally and nationally.

You can subscribe to an external events diary if you wish, but initially this service may not be within your budgetary restrictions. You may ask others you know if they do have access to such a service and find out what else is going on around the time you have planned your launch. You may want to wait until there is a national themed week on your specialist area. Again others can help to tell you what is planned when in the years calendar of events.

Action: Find out what other events are planned for the time of your launch. Will it clash with anything else?

  • Start sooner not later

Don’t underestimate just how much time planning a PR campaign will take. You may know what you want to do and when, but think about who else you need to consult and who you want to get to “buy into” your ideas. Arranging meetings takes time, and to access busy people you need to think months ahead. People maybe away or their diaries maybe full. Don’t forget that once you have met them they then have to talk to their staff and get someone to liase with you.

That liaison is time consuming internally and externally, particularly if you have to get others to approve what you are doing. Avoid that eureka moment, it will only confuse others. Build on your ideas and be methodical about them.

The web is an important tool of communication for many and it maybe that you need to think about different logos, special pages, and an interactive campaign where people contact you through the web as well as by post or phone calls. Your web adviser will want to know about this well in advance.

Action: Plan your lead-in times for your campaign and list who else you need to involve.

  • Fundraising

Securing the long term future of your organisation is the most important role a chief executive has. Your volunteers will need you to support them to ensure that your organisation is known to others. The more others know about your work the more likely they are to give donations to you. It takes a relatively long time to drip-feed messages out to the media and you need to be consistent in what you say to build on what is already known about your organisation.

Communicate a few things, consistently over a year to 18 months to ensure that there is reliable public awareness of your work. One big splash is not enough. People will quickly forget what has been said, so you need to ensure your publicity is sustained over a longer period of time.

The media is an important tool for you to use to support and encourage your staff and volunteers.

Those who work for you will be encouraged to do more if they hear you on local radio or television or read what you have said in local or national papers. Encouraging activists to do more is very important. They need a slap on the back too and publicity can help to ensure those volunteers you have stay with you.

Action: Make those who work for you feel good – tell others about what you are doing.

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