Everyone wanted to be an investigative reporter when I entered college as a journalism major right after the Watergate scandal. Inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting by Woodward & Bernstein at the Washington Post, competition for classes was fierce.
I worked hard as a stringer and on the student-run college newspaper. Still, my college professors warned me that excellent writing and award-winning reporting skills alone weren’t going to land me the job I craved. For that, I had to cultivate a network of professional editors and writers who knew me and validated my work. I was compelled to attend events sponsored by the professional chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists and monthly meetings of the Orange County Press Club.
To a relatively shy, inexperienced 18-year-old, it was a monumental task to master this thing called ‘networking.’ Since then, I’ve worked as a reporter, copy editor, city editor and managing editor for several newspapers and magazines and in public relations leadership as a consultant for a full-service agency and a university.
Along the way, the networking skills I first learned in college have yielded an expansive network of colleagues and friends. Cementing my network required additional service, so I was elected president of the Orange County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and joined CASE, the professional association for university communicators. It may sound easy, but building a good network takes time and effort.
I choked down many a rubberchicken dinner and sipped many cocktails at mixers while standing on throbbing feet at the end of the day, when all I wanted to do was relax at home, reading bedtime stories to my three kids. But, it was all worthwhile. Colleagues have opened doors for me in every place I’ve worked.
Rarely a week goes by that I’m not networking – including having coffee with a colleague, attending a networking event on Zoom or in person, or sending a job listing to someone who’s looking for work.
Networking has made it possible for me to establish and grow my communications consulting business after I was forced into retirement in 2014. All it took was a single Facebook post advertising my availability to generate more than 75 responses from supportive contacts. Networking is what I do. Once I learned it, I’ve never stopped.
After serving recently as president of the local chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, I’ve developed a new and expanding network of communications professionals. There are countless how-to articles and books that offer many useful tips when you’re learning to network. My advice?
1. Join a local industry-related business group and attend meetings faithfully.
2. Speak to other attendees and get to know people.
3. Practice smiling and being friendly.
4. Listen well. Pay attention. Remember people’s names.
5. Let your natural curiosity take its course. Ask questions.
6. Know your elevator speech. Know how and when to tailor it to your audience.
7. When you leave an event, remember who you spoke to. File the information somewhere.
8. Look for opportunities to connect again.
9. Connect your connections – when you see an opportunity that fits someone to a T, make the referral.
10. Consider volunteering to serve on a committee or board.
I’m thankful to the profs and pros who recommended networking to a green newbie – my decades-old network continues to serve me well. I know that you too will reap rewards from your concentrated networking efforts.
Let’s say you’ve determined that you want to hire a public relations consultant or firm to handle publicizing and promoting your business to the media, trade press, and key audience. You will discover that many large, medium, and small PR agencies operate in your region, as well as a good number of consultants who work independently to serve businesses in your industry. Once you identify the agency or individual with the right fit for your company, how do you and your public relations adviser work together to produce the best results?
Consider these tips:
1. Time is money. A good PR representative will keep detailed records of how they spend their time on each account. Clients receive frequent updates detailing the PR efforts made on their behalf and the results achieved, separate from the monthly invoice.
2. Be sure the right person is representing you. Many PR agencies do the bait-and-switch when pitching new accounts. They send in the big dogs to nail down the new account. Once it’s landed, they pass off the day-to-day work to account executives, who may not have the expertise you expect.
3. Study your invoice. You should receive a detailed list of the hours spent and efforts made on your behalf, whether the time has been spent on event planning, community relations efforts, internal communications, publications, marketing or promotional materials or media relations. You should know the hourly rates you are paying as well as the project-based or monthly retainer fees. Note that the agency’s senior staff will have higher hourly rates than the rest of the team.
4. Expect a strategic communications plan. The best public relations efforts aren’t a series of hit-andmiss media placements. To get the best bang for your buck, it pays to begin with a thoughtful analysis of communications goals and ends with a strategic quarterly or yearlong plan of action. All aspects of PR can be included, or the plan can focus on specific areas. Expected costs, necessary time requirements and anticipated results should be included; these will fluctuate and will be updated accordingly.
5. Make PR part of your leadership team. The best public relations professionals insist that strategic communicators be seated at the table alongside the CEO, COO, senior VPs and other decision-makers. This ensures that in a crisis, during a negotiation, or in anticipation of a big deal, the company issues timely, well-reasoned communications to key audiences. A good PR representative anticipates troublesome issues and works with leadership on the best course of action, including averting potential problem areas.
6. Determine that your PR representative knows the score. When it comes to your company’s strategic communications, sound judgment and critical thinking are as important as expert knowledge of your field and brand. Be sure that the people working on our account have the right knowledge and background to handle your work in a sophisticated and efficient manner.
7. Demand qualitative research. Time-consuming, expensive quantitative research is useful, but often a handful of phone calls to the right people or a communications audit can set the course for your project’s direction.
8. Expect reasonable and effective results. Firms in different businesses measure PR performance in various ways. Some look for higher sales or bigger profits, increased traffic at business locations or events, increased market share, publicity obtained online and in print, or passage of legislation. It’s difficult to accurately measure the effectiveness of a public relations program by itself, of course, because the best plans are integrated with a company’s advertising and marketing efforts. In general, a good PR professional will be able to procure several media placements of decent size each year in large publications or electronic media outlets, as well as handling the day-to-day personnel and product announcements. The big-picture public relations strategic advice to the company leadership is harder to measure but is perhaps the best service the PR professional can offer. And, the crisis averted by a good PR team may be the most valuable but least-visible of all.
9. Anticipate an ongoing commitment. Good communications in support of trusted brands require dedicated strategic efforts on a long-term basis. Just as your business wasn’t born overnight and probably took some time to be successful, so will a well-developed public relations effort. Any PR agency can score a few high-profile media placements, but a sound, long-term strategy is necessary for ongoing, successful communications.
10. Periodically review the team. You will want to develop a long-term relationship with your PR representative, but you must also keep your eye on the bottom line to ensure that your best interests continue to be served over the long haul.
Working closely with a public relations consultant or team can be a rewarding experience both in terms of your company's profits and your own professional development. Utilizing these tips, you can develop a mutually satisfying relationship with your PR representative based on respect, close communications, and shared goals. Ultimately the results of your partnership may pleasantly surprise you.