What Makes a Great Public Relations Campaign?

You could probably ask 10 random people what they thought public relations was and you’d likely receive 10 different answers. The truth is, it encompasses many things. 

By C&EN Media Group

Reading Time: 8 minutes

What makes a great public relations (PR) campaign? It’s a subjective question with an answer that varies based on who you are talking to because, ironically, public relations itself suffers from its own identity crisis. You could probably ask 10 random people what they thought public relations was and you’d likely receive 10 different answers. The truth is, it encompasses many things. 

A great PR campaign delivers value to an organization, to its stakeholders and shareholders, to its customers. Within an organization itself, what makes a PR campaign great may have different values to different groups. A company’s senior executives might say, for example, that a great PR campaign delivers business growth: Increased sales, higher market value, improved stock performance, higher shareholder dividends, more capital on hand to expand. A sales director might define a campaign’s greatness through increased traffic driving more business leads, and greater market recognition and visibility compared to competitors. A marketing function might see earned coverage value and audience pick up as a measure of greatness. The common bottom line, however, is positive results.

Defining and understanding Public Relations

Effective management of an organization’s reputation, so that the perception projected is correct and desirable, is central to success in modern business. This is particularly true in the life science industries, where organizations are often communicating information critical to consumer medical health, safety and well-being.  

One could argue that public relations, that is, relating to a public, is just about everything an organization, and individuals within that organization, do that has an audience. From the top down and bottom up and sideways, everyone and everything creates an impression through interactions and relationships. Within an organization, public relations should really cover everything – from an article in a trade publication to a website; a social media channel to a sales associate; a brochure to a logo; an event to how a product is packaged; a mobile app to a glossy advertisement; an internal incentive program to a TV interview; the smell of a showroom to a discussion in a bar. It’s all of this and more. It is everything that creates a perception or experience; that elicits a reaction or fires an emotion.

Understanding the strategic value of public relations is central to a business and requires a cohesive effort that permeates throughout a business. PR is earned media, which means it is not paid for but comes through third party journalistic or analyst endorsement and is widely viewed as more valuable than paid media (advertising and such). It’s important, therefore, for an organization to define and understand public relations as a sustained effort that builds the consistency and quality of all of these interactions to create a system of moving parts which become an organization’s reputation. It is any and all interactions with an audience, whether internal or external, conducted by an organization or individuals working on behalf of that organization. More than that – It’s how an entity projects itself. Most importantly, it’s how an organization acts and how it is seen to act.

As the definition and scope of public relations is constantly evolving, so organizations have to adapt to maximize on opportunities. Involving people, giving them a vested interest, and making them care is important. Given the right tools, they too can make others care, and that’s half the battle won. In defining a business, agreeing value propositions and a solid narrative, and ensuring that every channel, every interaction, is geared to present a consistent projection across all elements of how that business relates to its publics, organizations move forwards successfully.

When it comes to running a great PR campaign, there’s no magic bullet, no alchemy, no great earth-shattering revelations to be had. Simply, a great campaign is well-planned and strategic. It’s a blend of comprehensive research, creative thinking, compelling storytelling, timing, and relevance.

Establishing unambiguous goals and objectives

In order to project outwards, there is a need to look inwards and encourage self-analysis. Clarity of purpose is one of the key building blocks in the public relations process. It’s vital to start with a strategic plan of action, and establish clear, unambiguous goals and objectives for the campaign.

What are the goals and objectives for the campaign and how will they be measured? Campaign goals should ladder up to the organization’s overarching marketing and business plan, adding value to the organization, moving the overall narrative forwards, positively, but can be very specific relative to individual campaign objectives. The PR campaign can also be developed to dovetail with other marketing activities such as paid, owned and social media campaigns, and events, to provide additional, cohesive brand exposure that can cross-pollinate marketing channels.

It’s important to also set observable measures of success when planning a public relations campaign. As we mentioned, success will mean different things to different functions within an organization, so each needs to be clearly defined.

Relevance and knowing your audiences

The best PR campaigns are always tightly-defined, well-researched and highly-targeted. Understanding who the audience is, where they are, how they consume content and how a campaign is relevant to them is critical. Looking at life sciences, for example, there is a significant multi-faceted audience from drug discovery and development through clinical trials, approvals and scale-up. Each audience has specific informational needs in terms of factual data and proof of concept. 

In order for a campaign to succeed, it’s important to comprehensively understand the industry and the audience that is being targeted. Who are they within an organization? Where do they sit in the purchasing and decision-making process? What are their roles? What challenges do they face? What is being done by the organization to solve those challenges, and how does that present? How can their lives be made easier? It is here that sharing knowledge within an organization has real value in terms of the historic perspective of the market and the business, the challenges and opportunities and the current landscape. Understanding the various audience demographics means that specific talking points can be developed and integrated as part of the larger PR campaign.

Of course, the end consumer audience is just one target group. Influencers are needed to tell the story impartially, so it’s vital to build solid, long-term relationships with journalists and industry analysts. Knowing what they are interested in, the pressures they are under, and working to make their jobs easier by providing solid information with supporting data, goes a long way to securing positive outcomes. Researching a media outlet and looking at who covers the specific area that a campaign is targeting, then starting a conversation to feed into that area, can all pay handsome dividends. Building trust over time as a reliable source of information can lead to journalists actually reaching out to an organization for content when they have a relevant subject. This is particularly important these days as many journalists work across numerous media outlets.

Keyword research is important both to find out who writes about which subject matter, but also to look at what competitors have done successfully, which can help hone targeting further.

Meaningful storytelling demonstrating tangible value

Connecting with an audience and building strong relationships through meaningful stories that attract, engage and resonate invariably leads to successful campaigns. One of the keys to connecting with an audience is to be relatable, developing stories that are based in reality and have elements familiar to the reader. Looking at campaigns through a human interest lens can really heighten the impact of a PR campaign, and life sciences is an area where this can be particularly powerful, given the nature of the industry and its focus on preserving and enhancing life.

One great example of a long-running and highly successful campaign is The Heart Truth, created for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in 2002 by PR firm Ogilvy. The campaign sought to raise awareness of the fact that heart disease was the leading cause of death amongst women in the United States, a fact that research found only a third of women were aware, encouraging proactive heart health. The NHLBI sought recommendations from more than 70 women’s health experts, while the campaign launched a creative tagline – “Heart Disease Doesn’t Care What You Wear — It’s the #1 Killer of Women®” – cut straight to the heart of the matter (no pun intended). The program initially focused on women aged 40-60 with an emphasis on reaching women of color. As the campaign gathered momentum, partnerships were forged with many leaders in the fashion industry. and in 2003, the iconic Red Dress symbol was introduced and has become the national symbol for women’s heart health, as well as the enduring centerpiece of what has become a movement that has spawned a number of high profile initiatives.

The first Red Dress Collection fashion show took place in 2003 when nineteen designers, including Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta made dresses that were displayed during New York Fashion Week. The show is now a high profile annual event with red dresses created by top designers worn by well-known women of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities, including Sheryl Crow, Natalie Morales, Debbie Harry, Venus Williams, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams, Allison Janney, Sara Ramirez, Billie Jean King, LeAnn Rimes, Christina Milian, Fergie, Jordin Sparks, Ashanti, Hilary Duff, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Rose McGowan, and Eartha Kitt.

National Wear Red Day is celebrated on the first Friday each February, continuing to raise awareness about heart disease, and is run by NHLBI, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), HHS Office on Women’s Health, and many other groups around the country and ties in to American Heart Month.

As well as sparking a women’s heart health movement that continues to successfully raise awareness of heart disease not only amongst women but for everybody, The Heart Truth has increased the number of women who have taken risk-reducing action, built a network of grassroots partnerships with hundreds of national, regional and local community organizations, as well as establishing ties with corporate supporters including AMEX, General MIlls, Swarovski and Johnson & Johnson, nonprofit organizations, and media partnerships with titles such as Time, and Glamour. In the past two decades, the program has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and awards to drive improved heart health, and doubtless saved countless lives in the process.

Nobody wants to struggle in life. Whether at home or at work, we all welcome elements that make our lives a little bit easier. The same applies when engaging an audience in a PR campaign. Problem solving, process improvements, time savings, cost savings, new developments that change dynamics, are all touchstones that can resonate with audiences. 

Meaningful storytelling focuses on sharing beliefs and qualities with the audience that connect on both a mental and emotional level. The best stories get the audience to care and empower them by essentially putting them in the story through a narrative that identifies and understands their needs, presents a solution that will help solve challenges, underpinned with supporting data that provides tangible takeaways for the reader. It’s important to spend time, therefore, storyboarding a number of storyline narratives for individual audiences who may derive different values from the same story.

Timeliness and opportunism

How to use newsjacking to transform your PR campaign
(Image Source: Marketing-Interactive)

Although PR campaigns generally move to their own timeline that relates back to an organization’s operations, for example, a new product announcement, facility opening, research findings and so forth, monitoring news trends for opportunities that are relevant to a campaign can present chance to piggyback, or ‘news jack’  to leverage a breaking news story with a campaign hot take. One famous example of this was in 2019, when McDonalds famously lost ownerships of the ‘Big Mac’ phrase after a legal battle. Burger King took huge advantage of this by newsjacking the story, mobilizing quickly to announce their ‘Not Big Mac’s’ menu, and gaining huge viral coverage.

Playing the long game

One of the most important elements of a great PR campaign is that it is sustained effort. News cycles tend to be short, especially given the voracity of global digital media, so building out a calendar of campaign activities should be a solid part of any PR campaign to map out activities both from a proactive standpoint – a rolling news cycle, white papers, blog posts and developed editorial, for example – and reactive standpoint, pitching to place editorial based on media outlet editorial calendars which show what a publication will be covering and when over the course of a year. Having a bird’s eye campaign view helps provide a holistic view of overall marketing. Elements can be added or switched out if necessary and the best platform for each content piece to be chosen.

In closing, a great PR campaign is well-thought out and researched, is relevant and timely, has tangible meaning to identified audiences, shows demonstrable value through compelling, meaningful and identifiable storytelling, supported by proof of concept and solid, verifiable data. Executed effectively, a PR campaign can add value to a company on many different levels, adding credibility, building thought-leadership, enhancing reputation, building trust and even adding monetary value.

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