You are currently viewing WE’RE FORGETTING PR 101 IN SOUTH AFRICA


PEOPLE OFTEN ask me what I do for a living and when I answer that I’m in Public Relations, chances are good that I’ll get a blank stare and a response along the lines of: “That’s like advertising, right?”

Those in the industry know the great chasm that yawns between us and the fly ad guys, but I often wonder myself whether with all the flashy new technology and flavour-of-the-minute new media platforms, we actually remember what it is that we do.

The way I explain what I do is simple. My job is to get my clients noticed by the people who matter to them through media engagement both traditional and new; to have them stand out from the brand clutter and publicly shape them into outstanding leaders in their fields.

It’s a big ask nowadays as media across the board tightens up on “free” publicity, so we start getting lazy and punting suggestions like building an entire communication strategy around growing a client’s social media base, “Because you have to take ownership of your online real estate and use it as the basis for frontline customer engagement. Everyone else is doing it and if you don’t you’re going to be left behind”.

While that might have a small core of legitimacy, the truth is that most people use social media nowadays to catch up on news of all kinds, and share that news with their contacts. What that means is that if your clients aren’t also in various types of news, your superficially sexy strategy is doomed before it’s ever actioned.

The Core

If you strip PR down to one single thing – its very essence – that thing is relationships. And for the young’uns, no, relationships can categorically not be built exclusively via email. I can’t begin to count the number of young PRs I’ve worked with who have either been allergic to or phobic about touching a telephone – unless it’s to text!

My background is in media, so picking up the phone and talking to a client or an editor is the most natural thing in the world. The connection you create by being a real live person rather than an Outlook message is more valuable than gold when it comes to both client retention and nurturing media contacts.

In every PR office where I’ve worked I’ve always been the “go to” person when any account manager has hit turbulence trying to get an important client message into media, and the number of times I’ve failed to pull off a rescue can be counted on one hand. The single, solitary reason for that success rate is simple: relationships.

Walking the Talk (and writing it!)

As PR professionals we’re in the business of communications, yet we’re collectively among the worst communicators I’ve ever encountered.

Firstly, we’ve filled our profession with jargon that we regularly trot out to clients and each other. Why? I don’t have a clue. Perhaps to make ourselves sound smarter and more important? Personally speaking, if I was on the hiring end of a PR company I’d choose the one that spoke a language I understood; the one that clearly communicated its message without feeling the need to resort to waffle, which is essentially what jargon is.

Clear, concise communication goes for both the spoken and the written word. I pitched a story idea to the editor of a rather serious publication the other day via email. She mailed back soon afterwards and said she’d received a release on the general topic very recently that “was not desperately coherent or business-like”, so she binned it and was therefore happy to look at my story instead. Had the other PR company done its job properly, its client would have scored a big media win. My working assumption is that the communication must have been drafted and distributed by a junior without having been reviewed higher up, and the moral of the story here is that no pitch, story or media release should ever leave the office without being content-subbed by a senior staffer who also happens to be a Grammar Nazi.


Why are PR agencies frequently the first casualties when companies are belt-tightening? The fault lies with us; not our clients. They dispense with our services because we haven’t integrated ourselves into their companies and sold the communications strategy convincingly as a primary component of their overall business plan.

And the reason for this is usually that we’ve planned the PR in isolation, rather than taking the initiative and asking to be included in company meetings and strategy sessions, then actively contributing during those sessions and assuming a leadership role.

The only way to become indispensable to your clients is to enthusiastically assimilate yourself into the Borg collective (with apologies to non-Trekkies – look it up) and see yourself as part of their organisation rather than an entity that works separately as a service provider.

There is no “them” when it comes to clients; there is only a unified “us”.

How Long is a Piece of String?

Measuring return on investment for PR is becoming increasingly complicated with new and social media, and even measuring Advertising Value Equivalencies (AVEs) for online is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I have two clients who use two different clipping services. One service will value a story on a particular website at around R700, while the other pegs the value of the same piece at more than R20 000, so which one do you believe? And more importantly, how are clients supposed to trust that they are getting accurate coverage values when the variance is so great? Both services have clear explanations of how they determine their online AVE values and both make sense, but their approaches are completely different so their story values are wildly at odds with each other.

It’s intangibles like this that create mistrust of what we do and the value of our overall service to clients, so the solution goes back to PR 101 – communication. Keep your clients apprised of new media wins, decent increases in social media following, posts that performed exceptionally well, and flag the important published stories with an email link and a short note, or a pdf if it’s print, followed up by a call to congratulate the client on doing such a great job in the interview, strategising the story or just referencing however he or she contributed. Remember that your clients are in the business of running their own businesses; media monitoring isn’t usually on their radar and if they don’t see any coverage – even though it might be there – they don’t know it exists. The thought that follows not far behind, especially if funds are tight, is “why am I paying these people?”

I don’t have the answer to how to accurately measure ROI for clients. But what I do know is that they see value in the fact that I’m there whenever they need me (sometimes at very odd times!), I respond quickly to a summons or query, I communicate actions and wins religiously and draw up comprehensive weekly status reports listing all ongoing actions and successes. Clipping services may offer clashing figures, but my weekly roadmap reports and I remain a constant in my clients’ lives.

Find a Story – Any Story!

This is perhaps the hardest one of all, but since PR companies have essentially become content creation agencies for many budget-constrained media houses, an essential skill is being able to identify a good story angle to pitch for a client. Former journalists pick this  up in a fortnight because they’ve spent years being pitched to and know exactly what they don’t want, but it’s a more  difficult skill to teach a person who has been exclusively PR trained, because you have to think like a journalist.

You also have to write like a chameleon who has experience in everything from lifestyle magazines to hard news stories to industry analysis think pieces for business publications. And truth be told, there are very few of us out there who are able to brain morph into whatever writing style is required. Even some former journalists who are now in communications battle with this, because in their journalism careers most would haves specialised in a certain field.

The fact is that if we’re going to get the basics right as media resources shrink, talented, well-researched writing has to be a tenet on which a PR business is built, or those media opportunities will simply slip away.

PR 101 – A Final Look

If you’re going to take it right back to basics, as an industry we’re currently at the separation stage and we’ll continue to ignore relationships at our peril until the divorce is final and there’s no going back. A computer, no matter how clever, can’t replace human contact in an industry like ours that’s all about relationships and communication.

Secondly, find the time to nurture your media contacts, your client relationships and your staff. I’m not even going to open the door on staff relations, but if you’re horrible to your staff and you have the stomach to train a newbie every three months when someone resigns, then good for you. Personally, I don’t.

The basics are not old-fashioned; they are precisely the values that will see our industry survive and grow in the next decade if we stop getting caught up in the glitz and glamour of the “latest thing” and stick to what we’re good at. We provide an invaluable service to brands in South Africa, and our job now is to take those core values and make them work in the new world.

– Samantha Bartlett

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