Public relations for absolute beginners

Giant's Causeway, Pixabay
Giant's Causeway, PaulHampshire, Pixabay (Creative Commons)

One small step for a student...

There’s plenty written for those studying or for those practising public relations. This post is for those who don’t know what’s involved, and who haven’t yet decided what to study or where they might work. It’s a practical approach for beginners that may help you decide if public relations is for you.

Students often spend their first year becoming more - not less - confused. That’s because their preconception has been demolished, but nothing has been put in its place that makes sense yet.

But the principles of public relations are simple to grasp. Who doesn’t communicate? Who doesn’t recognise the value of trusted relationships (think of friends and family)? Who isn’t a participant in the media?

Looked at this way, you don’t need to wait for permission to try your hand at public relations. You don’t need to wait for lectures and classes. Like learning to drive, it might just take a parent’s permission and some L plates to get started. The test can wait.

Let’s talk through an everyday example. You must know someone who is fundraising (who doesn’t have a JustGiving page?). Perhaps you are yourself. You don’t have to be in training for the London Marathon - there are many good challenges and many good causes.

Say you (or your friend or family member) has set a challenge to raise £1,000.

The hardest way to achieve this would be to ask 1000 strangers to give you £1 each. The easiest would be to ask 10 people among your friends and family to donate £100 each. It might be easy, but it puts an unreasonable burden on people close to you, and would you be in a position to reciprocate?

So let’s try to find a mid-way between these two extremes. Let’s learn some lessons in public relations.

If your 10 closest supporters pledge £50 on average, you’re halfway to your target. You now need to persuade people you know much less well (or not at all) to support you. You need to turn some strangers into friends.

How do you do this?

You start with your existing networks and you work out from there. I don’t mean social networks like Facebook, I mean real networks of real people with real relationships. Don’t believe me? Then try relying on your 1000 Facebook ‘friends’ alone to support your fundraising challenge.

The networks I’m talking about involve physical communities: school, church, workplaces, clubs. If it’s easiest to ask for money from friends, then the next group to approach will be friends-of-friends.

To reach them, you’ll need a story. Something interesting, memorable and actionable.

Are you fundraising for a medical charity because you’ve lost someone close to you? Are you attempting a noteworthy challenge (like climbing Kilimanjaro)? Are you the youngest person in your family or community to attempt this challenge (is there a superlative in your story)?

You then need to package your story into shareable content so that these friends-of-friends can hear about you. Or you need to create and publicise an event such as a cake sale to give people a reason to support your cause.

Either way, you need publicity for your cause or for your event. If the network is small and closed (such as membership of a community club), then a poster for a noticeboard might be enough. But for larger networks, then you’ll need to find ways of pushing the message out to members.

Is there a newsletter or an online group? How do you get your message into this media? It might mean contacting the editor or moderator, and that’s why you need to get your story clear before you do so.

You can then take the imagery you’ve created for the poster and the story and share this through your own social media channels. It may not raise much more money, but sometimes people need to see a message more than once to take note and decide to do something about it. (Raising awareness of something is just step one; you want people to do something as a result of this awareness and that’s much harder).

Back to your fundraising target. You’d already raised £500 from close friends and family. Let’s say you’ve raised another £250 from your community fundraising (£5 on average from 50 people).

That leaves £250 to reach your target, but you can’t go back to the people who already know you (or friends of friends). For your final fundraising push you’re going to have to reach people who don’t know you and may not know about your cause or your challenge.

You’re going to have to be bold and contact a stranger. I don’t mean taking a begging bowl onto the street, I mean contacting the traditional media.

Do you still have a local newspaper? They’d be interested in the fundraising activities of a local young person, especially if there’s a photograph attached to the story or event. Newspaper stories with photographs are more likely to be read than those without a picture.

Local is the key word here. Your fundraising story is unlikely to appeal to a national or major regional newspaper (think of how many other such stories they might have to run).

No local newspaper? Then what about local radio?

Next you need to prepare your ‘pitch’ to the newspaper or local radio station. That means getting your story clear before you call them. It’s a local story, involving a young person attempting a challenge on behalf of a good cause. If you can combine that with an event and photo or interview opportunity, you might have a winning pitch.

You may need help. There are public relations students who would balk at interrupting a busy person by making an actual phone call. But newspapers depend on a flow of news, and radio needs new people to talk to. If your story is well presented, it should appeal to them.

You may be best placed to make this call because you know the story best, but it’s a rough-tough world and it may be asking too much. Besides, who really likes to talk about themselves?

So this may be a time for a parent to help out. They could make that phone call to the newsdesk (on a newspaper) or forward planning team (on a radio station).

Prepare your notes and rehearse your pitch before calling. You won’t have long to attract their attention.

‘Hello. This is Mrs Muldoon from Armagh. I’m calling about my sixteen year old daughter Siobhan who is in training to pogo stick along the Giant’s Causeway (no don’t worry, we have the support of the National Trust and she’s using a specially adapted pogo stick). She’s doing this to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society because she’s so affected by the condition of her grandmother. She trains in the church hall every Tuesday evening. I can send you some more information, or would you like to talk to Siobhan?’

It’s fanciful. It’s risky. It’s not real. But you can’t interest the media in an ordinary story - there has to be something extraordinary in it and some element of risk or jeopardy. Is it safe? Can she complete the challenge? Will she reach her fundraising target?

This might just be intriguing enough for the media to want to follow it up.

Let’s say the story has appeared in the local newspaper or on the local radio. This does not in itself bring a flood of support.

But imagine someone from the same town, who perhaps went to the same school or church. They don’t know Siobhan and will not have known about the earlier publicity or events. But something in this story has touched them (perhaps they also have a relative with dementia). They now run a successful business and knowing your fundraising target, decide to make up the shortfall with a £250 donation (they pay less than this because of the tax saving benefits of charitable giving).

You can thank them through the JustGiving page or with a personal handwritten note, if you know where to send it.

Now you’ve raised your £1,000. All you need to do is deliver on your commitment.

What have we learnt about public relations?

  • It's purposeful
  • It’s about relationships (networks and communities too)
  • It involves communication (through stories and images)
  • It uses the media (any and all media, from posters to social media posts to press and broadcast media)
  • It can and should be measured
  • It isn’t advertising (we spent no money to get our messages in the media, other than the marginal cost of printing the posters or flyers).
  • What’s marketing got to do with it? There’s money involved, but there are no customers and there’s no profit motive.

What have you learnt about yourself?

  • Are you good at building relationships? How large are your social networks (online and real world)?
  • Are you a good communicator (through the written word, images, speech, video)?
  • Can you create memorable stories and events that people want to share (in)?
  • Are you good at seeing these ideas through (planning and persistence)?

Any of these activities are a useful preparation for public relations. They can help you through an interview for a place on a degree course or onto a workplace apprenticeship. They can help you gain professional work experience or even a foot on the career ladder.

If you’ve completed all of the tasks above, I sense a PR star in the making (because very few people I’ve ever known in public relations have mastered all of this: writers are not always good photographers; creatives are not always good event organisers).

That’s why learning is not only about the subject; it’s about you.

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About the author

Richard Bailey

Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.


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