11/13/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

A Good PR Consultant Needs to Understand Business


Once upon a time, the public relations business was relatively straightforward. You developed a campaign, then sold it into the media. The game was about maximizing coverage and many believed that quantity rather than quality was what mattered. Fortunately, those days are largely gone. Most companies now understand that not all publicity is good publicity. With more businesses fighting for less space in the press and fatigue amongst the media when it comes to PR pitches -- it's more important than ever to make sure that your outreach cuts through the chatter and results in that all important coverage.

In the PR industry, we often face a frustrating battle between what a client wants to release to the media and what we know that journalists will consider newsworthy. As consultants, it is our role to become trusted advisers who can look at the story a business wants to tell and find ways make it relevant to the news agenda.

All too often, I hear journalists complaining on Twitter about uninspiring, formulaic press releases -- which should and could have been avoided. Sometimes the trick is putting the news into context, sometimes it's about changing the format, and often it's about telling the story in a different way. Essentially, as the media consolidates, PR consultants need to find the link between what's interesting to the audience and delivering the right business messages.

This is why understanding business is crucial. With any new client you should first sit down and have a messaging session. In doing so, you can understand their business and precisely what story they are hoping to tell. This means that with any announcement or news story, you can evaluate it and make sure that it is in line with business objectives. Also, it means that instead of putting out boring press releases, you can take the news you are given and look for ways to put it in the context of the wider story. It is also important to keep on top of the news cycle to make sure that you are putting out relevant content that journalists want to use.

If you don't understand the business properly then you have no way of pulling a news story apart and reassembling it in an interesting manner which still achieves what your clients want.

Understanding a business fully also helps you to give the context of a story when you're pitching to journalists. It means that you can explain to them why a certain announcement is worthy of space in their publication, and give them the wider story which shows why what may seem like just another announcement actually fits with the news agenda.

Let me give you an example. A new hire isn't really newsworthy outside the appointments pages unless it's a huge name, right? Well, maybe, but if you understand the business, perhaps an interrogation of why this new hire has come about, might illustrate that in line with a business's increased focus on emerging markets, it's shifting resource and doing more hiring in that region. This is more newsworthy. If you delve deeper, you may find that their biggest growth numbers are in one specific market and have created demand for this specific hire. If you consider the wider news cycle -- you may see that growth and expansion in emerging markets is a hot topic as a trend. So now -- instead of telling the media that 'XXX is hiring a new person', you're saying -- emerging markets are huge right now, particularly given the economic crisis in Europe, and XXX is an example of a company that's seen huge growth in this particular market -- and as such, they're investing money and hiring new staff, for instance they've just hired this person. Instead of a formulaic appointments release -- you've given them that all important context - which creates the story.

That's just an example, but the truth is that by investing time and effort in understanding a business you will also spot other interesting information and collateral that will help you to create stories that further your clients' business objectives. It's important to understand what the business aims are. Is it growth, and if so where? Is it awareness, and if so with who? The better we understand our clients, the easier it is to create compelling stories that fulfill objectives and resonate well with the media.

Understanding business will not only improve media relations but it will also enable you to develop the right messages for owned media platforms, where businesses talk directly to stakeholders. It also improves client relationships, as they trust you to help them decide what content to put out, and where. Understanding businesses is key to ensuring that public relations is not a commoditized service and that instead we become trusted advisers to clients, who rely on us to ensure that their communications fit with their wider business objectives.