Pay it forward

The platinum rule of public relations: pay it forward

Why do journalists badmouth PR people so much? It is probably because they are bombarded by calls and emails from practitioners who seem solely interested in themselves.

These practitioners don’t develop relationships: they have “contacts”, a euphemism for exporting a list of journalists from an off-the-shelf database. They don’t have much of a notion of what is newsworthy and endlessly spam newsrooms with obviously poor quality material.

Effective PR practitioners, however, are not always out to get. They know that good PR, both for their clients and from themselves, is about reputation. They want to be known among the media as a source of good ideas, so that when their emails pop up in a journalist’s inbox, the writer says “Oh, this guy sends me good material”. They are helpful, even when there is nothing directly in it for them.

When I worked at the Adam Smith Institute, we had a reputation for knowing who the best, most media-friendly free-market experts were on a massive range of subjects. The result is that we would be frequently rung by television and radio programmes before anyone else. They’d want to know who we would recommend to go on and speak about European welfare systems or a current global summit. We’d say, “Oh, you need Professor Such and Such at the University of Durham and here are her numbers”. It was helped by our having an in-house book containing all the details, including biographical information.

Our objective when taking media calls wasn’t to grab every interview for the Institute. We didn’t want to talk about every subject, and we wanted to make sure that the BBC or ITV or whoever got a first-rate guest. Our rule was to never turn down an interview request without suggesting an alternative person.

This was in the days when lots of other institutes simply didn’t answer the phone at the weekend (we had calls diverted to a dedicated mobile phone which I spent the weekend looking after). I’m pretty sure the Institute’s reputation for being helpful carries on to this day.

Anyway, it occurs to me that just being as helpful as possible, even if it doesn’t directly benefit you, is the most powerful tool that a PR practitioner can deploy. If 100% of your emails to the media are asking for coverage, is that really a relationship, or the behaviour of an in-your-face beggar?

By the way, this principle is true whether your focus is media relations or employee communications or stakeholder engagement or whatever. One of the best lobbyists I have ever come across was among the most helpful people in Westminster (he recently retired). He never asked anyone for anything, but would ensure that charities that asked for his help would get it. He attended everything and was nice to people. The result? When politicians needed to know about his sector, they’d ask his opinion on what government policy should be.

In the movie Pay It Forward, the protagonist, Trevor McKinney, puts forward the notion that the world would be a better place if people were unilaterally kind, without wanting anything in return. And that, to my mind, is what PR should be about: a long-term, generous attitude.

This is not an easy concept when you have a short-termist media team of 21-year-olds who are under pressure to get coverage in the next two hours on a topic they know nothing about. But a well-run PR function should be able to pause from this. Its leader should make sure staff spend their time learning about what they are working on and then develop relationships by becoming genuinely helpful.

I call creating relationships with unilateral helpfulness the platinum rule of PR. Nothing in the world is more effective.

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