by Tom Rankin, APR
President, Thomas Rankin Associates

Note: This article is adapted from a presentation Mr. Rankin made at Neuroscience in October, 1999. The article appeared in The Scientist Biocommunicator, March/April 2000

PR is a term that is much used and little understood. While most people have an instinctive "feel" for what PR is, very few actually know specifically what PR people do, or more importantly, how they can go about the process for themselves. The fact is, PR is not all 'spin' or politics, and it is not just hype. Indeed, for marketers in the life sciences with tight budgets and good stories to tell, it can provide a boon of incalculable value.

As a profession, PR can trace its roots back to the 5th century BC, when two fellows named Corax and Tisias set up shop in Syracuse to offer speech writing and the ancient version of presentation training. They called their craft "Rhetoric," a term Aristotle later defined as, "the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever."

In recent years PR has emerged as an extremely valuable tool for marketing, and in the opinion of many, has even eclipsed the role of traditional advertising in setting strategic direction for marketing communications. PR offers the credibility of "soft sell" editorial, a broad array of tools for delivering key messages, and can be incredibly cost effective.

But PR also plays by different rules than traditional advertising, and those who would benefit from its marketing power would do well to pay heed. Advertising relies on purchasing power to deliver its message; PR has to rely on the quality of its content to persuade editors. Where advertising commands acceptance, PR must earn it. In the role-playing parlance of the marketplace, advertisers deal with the media as "vendors," while for PR, they are "customers."

This difference in attitude is key to making PR work for marketers. Good PR is not puff (or "spin") but a win/win proposition that helps journalists find and report legitimate news that is important to their readers, and helps organizations disseminate information important to their constituencies. Reporters have always relied on "tips" to help them find the news. PR--editorial, marketing PR, or product publicity--is simply an organized means of providing those tips.

The value of PR lies in our social conditioning. We perceive as leaders those we read about in the press. Thus, getting good press coverage helps build a perception of leadership. Further, the more news we make, the more credible we become as newsmakers; and the more coverage we receive, the more worthy we are deemed to receive coverage. In other words, assuming you have the "right stuff" to back it up, good PR has a snowball effect. If not, that other old saying--that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear--also plays a role.

At base, PR is a craft, and relies on good process for results. Here are five ways you can help ensure a successful program:

1) Develop a PR mindset. PR will simply not happen if left to chance. It must be a deliberately planned and implemented activity. Write your plan down. Define specific objectives, messages, audiences. Identify the media, the players, the special publication issues you 'have' to be in. Assemble your own information base as well: background on products and technologies, market research, friendly customers. The final step is to develop an activities calendar for a year, with as many specific projects spelled out as possible.

Done correctly, this planning and researching process should provide you with a "news metric" through which you can filter subjects and opportunities. Should you do a news release on the new equipment in the lab? Or would a story on a successful product test or research contract more likely further your objectives? Planning helps you prioritize and get the most from limited resources.

2) Make the editor's job easy. PR is about relationship building. Editors are the key customers of PR and your relationship with them should be helpful and service oriented. The idea is to become a valuable resource to these folks, one they will turn to time and time again. There are several ways to do this. First, consider the interests of their readers, not just of your CEO. Provide newsworthy pieces, not self-centered 'corporatisms.' Second, call with real ideas, not just to see if the editor got your latest release, and most definitely not to complain that your CEO didn't get quoted enough and threaten to "pull your advertising." Finally, and absolutely, return editors' calls, set up their interviews, find their photos, and in general, facilitate their process.

3) Put it in writing. You've seen editors come around at trade shows with their little notebooks, jotting furiously away. Think about the size of the shows, the numbers of products and booths: what chance do you think they have of getting all that right? Or even more, of getting it the way you want it? Don't take the risk. As sharp as most editors are, they don't know your products or technology. They don't have time to write your stuff, and they are not interested in presenting your message your way. You have to help them if you want it done right.

4) Write for the book, not the boss. Read publications before submitting to them. If they don't run by-lined features, don't write one. Look at the publication. Most are structured along similar lines and need similar things. In addition to the new products section, most pubs have news sections up front; technology or application brief sections; most offer case histories of one sort or another; many offer by-lined, state-of-the-art pieces; and almost all run staff written "round-ups." All these offer opportunities for coverage, and by structuring your material to fit the section, you improve your chances of being picked up. Also, query editors in advance, be sensitive to deadlines and their needs for exclusives, and always provide quality graphics. Again, make their jobs as easy as possible.

5) Be consistent. PR is a process, not a project. If you are to become an editorial resource, you need to be there when the editors need you, not just when you need them. Make sure you schedule releases so something is going out on a regular basis and you are not overloading the press (we like to do at least one thing per month). Also, set up an editorial calendar of special issues of publications you want to be in. A call to an editor with a good idea three to four months ahead of his or her deadline can pay big dividends in coverage and positioning for your company.

©2000 Thomas Rankin Associates

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Getting Your Message to the Right People, at the Right Time

Recent Articles by Tom Rankin

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How to Make an Apples to Apples Comparison of PR and MarCom Services.

Ten Ways to Make News
(and help sell your products).

PR and Propaganda: on the Ethics of Truth

Zen and the Art of PR:
Image Building as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

Marketing PR in the Life Sciences:
A Primer


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