PR pros know all too well the feeling of sending out a press release and anxiously hoping it will be well-received. And then getting frustrated when there’s little to no response and you’re left wondering: what went wrong?
While it is uncomfortable to feel unsuccessful, especially at your job, it is completely natural to fail. And we would all benefit from getting accustomed to failure.
We often celebrate successes, but we don’t celebrate failure. It sounds odd to do so because failure implies something has gone wrong. However, we can learn more from failing than succeeding. Awards and accolades are great but give me the opportunity to fall flat on my face and I guarantee I will come out stronger and smarter than before I fell.
I have been fortunate to have a fairly diversified career, starting out in government communications before making the switch to PR and corporate communications. Among my peers, I have noticed a fear of failure, especially among those just starting out.
There is a lot of pressure, particularly in an agency environment, to exceed client expectations. Anything less is unacceptable. This thinking creates unrealistic expectations, places unnecessary stress on employees, and accomplishes nothing. Instead, we should embrace our shortcomings and use them as an opportunity for growth.
This lesson is something I have really taken to heart while working at Innocean Worldwide Canada, a Toronto-based full-service advertising agency. Summed up, my role is to generate awareness and interest in the agency through PR, social media, awards, and other means. I can confidently say it has been the most challenging but rewarding experience of my career. Mostly because I am given ample opportunity, as well as trust from senior leadership, to try new things and fail in the process.
Each time I failed, I learned something new and these experiences changed my approach to problem-solving. They also forced me to look at situations through a different lens and strengthened my communications strategies.
Along the way, I’ve encountered PR “failures” that are common in our profession and I want to share what they taught me.
Not setting clear priorities from the get-go
In the world of communications, there are countless strategies you can try. It can be tempting to try them all because you think it will give you the best chance of getting your message out there. Actually, if you try to accomplish everything, then chances are you will accomplish nothing.
When I first started at Innocean Worldwide Canada, I had a picture in my mind of what I needed to do to help the company grow: get media coverage, build up our social media presence, and use thought leadership to establish our voice. The list went on.
I’d like to do it all, but in reality, I won’t be able to accomplish everything. When you set out to do too much, you won’t sink your teeth in and fully flesh out your plans.
If I were to do things differently from when I started, I would pick a few things or a handful of projects to focus on throughout the year and put more time and energy into executing them to the best of my ability. Even if it takes more time and means sacrificing other projects along the way. I’d rather produce a few highly impactful communications programs than several “just okay” ones.
Starting a project without laying the foundation
When working in a fast-paced environment, it’s easy to get caught up doing things on a project-by-project or case-by-case basis. There are some benefits to this approach such as saving time, increasing the amount of work you can take on, better flexibility, etc.
But if you only focus on one project at a time, you often miss the bigger picture. As a communications professional, you’re likely familiar with writing communications plans or strategies. Laying the foundation for a solid communications plan takes more than just a piece of paper where you unilaterally lay out your grand plans.
To set yourself up for success, you need to start at the very beginning. Begin by assessing the corporate culture and making sure everyone, not just senior leadership, is on board and ready to work towards a singular vision. By this, I mean figuring out if your corporate culture is one that will support your communications efforts or if there are internal challenges that may get in your way.
For example, does everyone in the organization agree on the key messages you want to put out into the world? If not, you need to have that discussion internally first. Another example of this could be assessing the resources available to make sure you have everything you need to execute your plans. Do you have access to graphic designers, web developers, or social media experts? Or do you need to do it yourself and what tools do you require?
It would be worth going through a few exercises with coworkers such as your sales or marketing teams, or the decision-makers of your organization, to properly identify the target audience, messaging, etc. to help ensure any and every communication project you take on is aligned to the same business objectives. Otherwise, your communications may feel piecemeal, will lack structure, and ultimately, have less impact.
Trying to use a catch-all approach
Plenty of times, I’ve been in situations where I think one strategy will work and it doesn’t. I believed it would work because it was a strategy I had read about, seen others use, or had used myself in the past. But just because it worked before, doesn’t mean it is right for your current project, company, or client.
In hindsight, it seems obvious, but the trouble is you will never know until you try and fail. Sure, there are some general guidelines that feel comfortable to follow. For example, you may want to look at research about the best times to post on social media and adjust your content calendar accordingly. You may see a positive impact on your results, but not the best results you could get.
Ultimately, the best times to post on social media will be unique to your company and your audience. It may take a few tries, and then some, to post at different times and figure out when works best. So, get used to seeing some posts underperform until you find that magic hour to connect with your social following.
The same goes for media relations: there are some general rules of thumb when it comes to interacting with journalists, but every journalist is different. Instead, you should figure out what makes that particular individual tick, what methods they react well to, and what they’re more likely to respond to. If you aren’t sure, ask. And if you can’t get the answer, figure it out by trying to reach them, possibly failing a few times, until you get the response you want.
Overestimating your story’s “newsworthiness”
It’s not uncommon to send out communications material and not get the response you expected. I’ve been there. If you’ve done your homework and followed up with the journalists to find out what went wrong, you might discover what you thought was “newsworthy” just wasn’t.
Once you strike out enough times during a pitching spree, it is necessary to stop and reassess your approach. Continuing to go along is only a waste of your time, and your company’s leadership or your client won’t be impressed by the lack of results.
Before you send out your next press release or pitch, think about what exactly you want the journalist to write about. Something important to your company or your client, might not be that interesting to the publication’s readers.
Often the secret to a good pitch is all about timing. You need to think about what is going on in the world right now, and how does the information you are sharing or what you are asking the journalist to write about (the pitch) fit within this context.
Think about the value you provide to journalists to ensure better reception of your pitch. Evaluate what’s that something special you can offer the journalist that they might not find elsewhere. It could be new information, an exclusive story or interview that you haven’t offered to anyone else, or maybe an add-on for a story or series of stories they are already working on. Value could also come in the form of a different or unique perspective on a current issue or topic.
Playing it too safe
I’m drawn to companies that take bold risks in their communications or advertising. Why? Because I can see they have something interesting to say and worthy of my attention. However, communications professionals, myself included, don’t always emulate this.
Doing something new and different is often scary and can be risky. Communications plays a huge part in managing a company’s public face so you don’t want to do something wrong or controversial that will jeopardize its reputation.
At the same time, you don’t want to fade into the background by playing things too safe. Going by the book or following the lead of other companies won’t make you stand out.
For PR professionals who work at B2B companies, we can take some cues from the way PR is handled for B2C. When you work in a B2C space there is a lot of freedom to try out ideas that will get a reaction such as PR stunts and events. B2B companies would benefit from using these strategies as a way to show they are different from the competition and worth paying attention to.
A common B2C strategy is sending “surprise and delight” style packages or mailers to select media and social influencers. The packages may not be for any particular occasion, but help to establish some brownie points for the brand and may even encourage these journalists or social influencers to write about your company and/or feature them on their social media.
From a B2B perspective, brands might consider sending similar packages to businesses they want to target or work with as a way to establish a connection with them and open the door to conversation. For example, you could send a care package to a new marketing director that you want to build a relationship.
In B2C PR, brands also use media events as a way to showcase new products or services and create opportunities for journalists to experience the brand first-hand. In B2B, instead of hosting a media event, you could invite prospective business partners to participate in a conference or webinar that shows off your company’s expertise on a particular topic.
While there are a million and one ways you could fail and you will, one thing is certain: failure is an option. More importantly, it is necessary if we are to progress both as individuals and as an industry collectively.
As someone who has failed a lot in their career, I can tell you that once I learned to accept failure as an option, I gained the confidence needed to take on challenges and opportunities that at once I may have shied away from or didn’t think I was experienced enough to take on.
Instead of holding myself back from doing something new or trying different strategies just because I was afraid to fail, I take on new projects with the understanding that if something goes wrong and I do fail, I can always learn from the experience and do better next time.