The Art of Selling in Public Relations


By Low Sieu Ping, Senior Account Executive, The Hoffman Agency Singapore

Public relations (PR) is very much about reputation management. Most PR consultants can associate themselves with building and/or shaping opinion for a win-win scenario between their clients and the clients’ stakeholders. But in this course of seeking that attention and receiving favourable sentiments is an essential hidden art of selling that is often overlooked and not articulated.

Unlike advertising agencies, PR agencies promote companies or individuals via earned media (i.e., editorial coverage on newspapers, magazines, TV programmes), as compared to paid media (i.e., advertisements). Whether these companies or individuals eventually come across as “powerful” is founded on the exchange of ideas and opinions between the PR person and the journalist. (If you can assume that the PR consultant is like your average fishmonger, then this is where the neighbourhood granny comes along with five reasons not to buy your freshest fish.)

Typically, PR agencies construct their business around writing strategies, positioning their bread and butter as the pen and paper, drafting and scripting content that includes advertorials, media releases and statements. But, try bringing that down one notch. If you were to strip the role of the PR consultant to its most basic function, we are the ones whose job it is to offer a creative, engaging and relevant (yes, to currency and timeliness) pitch of our client’s products and/or services. In other words, the PR consultant is a salesperson.

Selling an intent

Like our peers in the advertising industry, we share that same goal of making our clients appear successful, exciting and relevant. But that itself requires a delicate balance of push and pull. A broadly skilled PR consultant will serve as the communication strategist in the middle of each party, dishing out solid advice while also charting a creative direction for storytelling. Harmonizing the intricate three-way relationship (journalist, PR agency, client) is a remarkable trait of a good PR person. It all boils down to a PR consultant’s expertise being the ability to articulate thoughts (promoting the product) to the journalist (buyer), and then bringing in the revenue to the client (cashier). Media relations is close to naught if PR consultants do not think with a sales hat on.

Is that all? Probably not.

Convinced that PR drives positive outcomes, clients appoint agencies to take charge of their reputation, and leave it to the agencies to (fortunately or unfortunately) manage their bosses. Be it with the CEO or CFO, clients demand that PR be quantified in an appealing manner to make business sense. It has become a norm for PR professionals to navigate the C-suite level to present a clear perspective on what PR is all about, and why it absolutely deserves a place in their agenda alongside operations, marketing and finance. Talk about selling the elusive and qualitative value of PR right here!

As we now move into the digital age, the PR industry is experiencing a shift in function and identity. For PR agencies to survive in this cut-throat industry, many have gone down the route of creating a communications difference with digital media, including social media. Which begs the question, what exactly are we selling? A product? Nah. An idea? Not really. An intent. Bingo.

To meet demands, PR agencies have jumped on the bandwagon in providing capabilities to create a difference with their customers via digital media. As PR consultants edge their way up the marketing spectrum and have the C-suite view PR as a powerful and motivating force for long-term revenue and brand awareness, an established ability in the digital space will greatly help increase the channels for the industry to create that extra bit of difference. My peers in PR would agree probably that an intent to raise our importance and legitimise PR’s existence is part of what this trade entails, and it can be a daily struggle waiting for people to validate our abilities.

Selling out, not

Amidst all the fervent selling that exists within the PR trade, all’s not lost for consultants to be top performers. Needless to say, knowing exactly what you’re selling and to whom you are speaking makes all that work easier. But beneath the surface, here is what I think is also important for clinching that successful deal:

  • With the journalists — Our pitches and stories are the products here. The best media sell-in is a combination of team effort and ongoing interaction with the editorial team to build a trusted relationship. Moving away from the narrative of how PR and journalists should depend on each other, good salespeople (and therefore, PR consultants) know that every relationship is valuable. Soft skills such as giving each party that basic respect and courtesy becomes the crux. Even if one or two of them might not buy into your story for various reasons, respecting their decisions can go a long way. For one, they might introduce you to a more appropriate outlet, and that gives you borrowed credibility when reaching out to the next, and possibly real decision maker. And never forget those “Thank you(s)” too, for they might make them a repeat customer the next day with an opportunity.
  • With my clients — A client-agency relationship takes commitment, chemistry, honesty and passion. Understanding every client’s business and appreciating their differences is vital in a productive and enjoyable working relationship. Turn PR into more than just a transactional process. Clients know that PR agencies are good at what they do, but they appreciate it if we consistently communicate that trust. Work hard to sell that strategic consult and provide constructive solutions, but also listen to your clients to work out the perfect partnership. Know what the end goal is (i.e., increased recognition and reputation), and that will pave the way for proactivity on both sides.

While mastering the art of selling in PR is not easy, it isn’t impossible.


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