There's a temptation among some companies to see PR as an opportunistic and reactive discipline rather than something planned and methodical. Too often it's seen as a bolt-on nicety offering a bit of cheap publicity to supplement the "serious" business of advertising, online marketing and direct mail.
But well thought-out and carefully planned PR can actually be a guiding force for businesses, rather than something ad hoc and dispensable. Getting your messaging right and then applying these principles to all aspects of your offer can really transform your business.
So where do you start with planning your PR?
First of all, establish your objectives. What do you want to achieve? Put simply, you need to establish who you want to talk to, what you want to say, and when is the most effective time to be saying it.
The first element is probably the easiest. Most hoteliers have a clear grasp of what their target audience needs to be, and with a bit of research this can easily be converted into a list of target media.
Next is the interesting bit. What do you want to say to these audiences? What is it about your offer that sets you apart from the crowd?
A useful tactic is to establish a framework of key messages, a handful of short statements - certainly no more than four - that will provide a reference point for your ongoing communications.
They can be quite broad, but should get across those aspects that really encapsulate what you are and how you differ from your competitors.
Initially, you'll probably come up with lots of statements. Jot them all down, and then see whether you can consolidate them into a few essential messages. It helps to do this as a group exercise, or even get a consultancy in for the day to facilitate the process.
It's important to get these right as they will be central to planning your PR tactics. As a rule you should promote only those aspects of your service that fulfil at least one of these statements in the subsequent campaign.
The next stage is to delve deeper into these statements to draw out newsworthy elements of your business that demonstrate them. Brainstorm what you do already that matches these key messages.
Then think about what you could do in the future, by way of special promotions, late deals, sponsorship, charitable donations and people development, to prove the point further.
Once you've come up with a bank of ideas, select the ones that are the most newsworthy for your target media.
At this point be realistic about how many of these you can commit sufficient time and resource to PR effectively. It's better to do a few things thoroughly than all of them half-baked.
Think carefully about timing of activity. Ideally you'll want media coverage to support marketing activity such as promotions and mail-outs. It's also sensible to consider calendar dates that will make certain stories more topical (eg, Mother's Day deals, family offers for bank holidays, etc).
Scope out a clear calendar of PR activity, which should sit alongside your marketing plan - and then make sure you stick to it.
Finally, try to capture data that enables you to measure the effectiveness of your PR campaign. This could involve tracking media coverage, or simply asking guests how they heard about your hotel. We'll look at evaluation more fully later in the series.
At the end of the year, you can then use these results to gauge what activity was most successful - bang on time to begin the planning process for the following year!
SUMMARY: Check list for successful PR planning
Set realistic objectives for the PR campaign.
Establish your target audience, and translate this into a list of key media.
Develop a framework of key messages - what two or three statements about yourself do you want to communicate to potential customers?
Brainstorm potential newsworthy angles that communicate these key messages.
Create a schedule of PR activity, preferably linked to your marketing programme and in line with key calendar events.
Take time to evaluate the results - and use this analysis to plan for next year.
TIP: Media targeting
For a top-end luxury hotel, the target audience is the AB demographic, so the target media will be broadsheet newspapers (both national and regional) and glossy consumer titles like Cosmopolitan and Harpers & Queen. You may even consider business magazines with travel sections like Management Today and The Director - though competition is fierce for space.
A mid-market hotel group will be more interested in tabloid newspapers and consumer magazines aimed at a broader audience.
Hotels with a strong corporate offer will want to target business travel and conference and incentive magazines.
You may also want to consider whether your primary target is local - in which case regional will be high on your hit list - or global, which will involve investigating international media.
Television is another key media form. and success here can yield fantastic results. But it's fiercely competitive, especially since the number of credible outlets has decreased in recent years as the emphasis has turned to shock-value reality TV programmes like Holidays from Hell. Also remember that TV has much longer lead times - it can take over a year for a media visit to finally be broadcast.
TIP: Developing tactics from key messages
As an example, if one of your key messages centred on your outstanding spa facilities, potential activity to communicate this might include:
Late deals or promotional offers involving spa treatments.
Press releases introducing innovative new treatments.
Competitions in the regional press offering spa weekends as a prize.
Events or stunts, eg, getting spa masseurs to visit local businesses to give them a free treatment.
Conduct consumer research and publish the findings, eg, on stress levels.
Neil Coffey is a consultant with travel PR experts BANC Communications. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org