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The Seven Deadly Sins of PR

Public relations is well recognized as a broad and ever-changing field of promotion, one that offers huge potential for advancing causes, business, and political action. There are lots of ways of doing it right…as well as some clear pitfalls.

This list is intended for public relations pros, their management and clients, and anyone else in the game. With so many paths to success, there are also lots of ways to go down in flames in the PR arena. Applying the PR corollary to the carpenters' mantra, "Measure twice, cut once," let's coin a new saying: "Think twice, speak once."

1. Lying to your market or network. This cardinal sin comes out way ahead of any others, since it's a guaranteed way of destroying your credibility with whoever you want to connect with. Public relations is certainly about storytelling but it ought to be non-fiction.

Amplification is tolerated, but crossing the line into fabrication will get you or your organization burned sooner or later. More likely it will be sooner, given the wisdom of the masses multiplied by the power of the Web.

2. Being unable to clearly or convincingly explain PR's value to management or your client. If you can't provide a clear ROI or benefit story, you're going to lose sponsorship—and perhaps your job. There's ample evidence to support how, when, and why PR makes good financial and business sense.

3. Failure to hire (or contract with) senior experts who will take communications programs to the next level, and instead hiring newbies, is a false economy. This isn't a game for the uninitiated, and most organizations don't have the opportunity, time, or resources for a do-over.

4 Under-investing in comprehension of the overall communications challenge and creating an effective campaign strategy. Typical errors are just plunging into implementing tactics without clear differentiation. This may sound like a marketing problem, but it really hurts when attempting a PR program.

5. Slow or unresponsive to media requests. PR pros occasionally receive praise from writers/editors/reporters/journalists because they get back to them right away with the desired info. Being fast (and accurate) is truly valuable. The media reporting about your business sector hasn't got time to wait. Get your info together for immediate application.

6. Substituting a lower-echelon person or a PR spokesperson (mouthpiece) when the media wants (and deserves) to talk to a specific top exec. Like the CEO.

7. Not hiring PR staff with an understanding of or respect for journalism and the ability to write well. Add to that not hiring staffers who read the newspapers and publications important to their business sector. Allowing people to work in PR who are clueless of the overall business world and how their company or client fits into it. Not encouraging or allowing staff time for this essential training activity.

Here are a few more no-no's aimed primarily at the PR service sector. In too many places, there's a long way to go in improving how public relations services can be more effectively provided. These are a few of the sins most often committed:

• Pushing the vital elements of writing and media pitching to lower-level staffers who haven't been well trained, coached or well briefed in campaign strategy. (See number four above.)

• Not investing in effective staff development, relying instead on learning by doing. On-the-job training only goes so far. Newer pros want and need help to become proficient and effective. This is an investment in lowering staff turnover.

• Piling too much work on staffers so they can only do a superficial job for clients, even when they spend 10 or more hours a day in the office. Not to mention, expecting them to then also be available remotely 24/7. Can you say "sweat shop?"

• Setting unreal client expectations. "Sure, we can get you the cover of BusinessWeek in three months. We did it for client X—we can do it for you." Give me a break! Or better yet, give the account team that's going to work on this new client's business, a break. Over-promising is sure path to rapid client turnover.

Ford Kanzler is managing partner of Marketing/PR Savvy in El Granada, CA. He can be reached via e-mail at ford@prsavvy.com.