Socratic Public Relations
Walking through questions to solve your PR problems
This is public relations by the Socratic method.
Imagine you have a PR problem to solve. By answering the following questions, you will put yourself in a better position to understand the problem, act on that understanding, or support a PR agency in a campaign to solve it for you.
What do you want from PR?
Can you tell me what your PR problem is? Bad coverage or no coverage?
What do you hope to get from PR that you can't get by telling your own story directly?*
Can you give me an example of the kind of story you want to see reported?
Why is that? What results do you hope to obtain?
If you had to choose one reader whose behavior you want to change, who is it?
What do you want them to do? Why?
Do you know which stories appeal to them or move them to action?
What kind of media do you wish would write this story? Why?
Have you pitched it to them? What did they say?
Why did you think they would care about that story?
What have they published in the past that indicates that?
Who is your story about?
A person trying to reach a goal is the engine that propels most of the best stories and captures the reader's attention.
(These questions are most applicable to human interest/magazine pieces that center on a character. Nevertheless, even with a narrowly focused press release, you will want to understand who the main actor is, what they seek, what they achieved that is newsworthy, which problems they solve and which suffering they alleviate. Every press release should be thought of, even if on some implicit level, as a theater piece in which someone makes something happen in the face of obstacles.)
Who is the protagonist in your story? (The person you want the reader to identify with, the main character. Most tech startups feature their CEO/co-founders early on, and later want stories focused on their buyers and users, who have a very different human interest and narrative arc.)
What do we know about the protagonist that would make the reader care about them? What makes them interesting? What is rare, novel or compelling about them? (What makes a character compelling to you?)
What is the protagonist seeking? What do they want? If it is an abstract noun, can you make it concrete?
What triggered them to seek that? (Ideally, it was a recent event.)
What stands in their way? What are the obstacles?
How will they overcome those obstacles?
Is there is a victim in this story? Is there a hero? Is there a villain? Where do the obstacles come from?
The "so what"
Why should the reader care? What's the "so what"?
The reader, here, is your ideal reader. Not all readers. Your ideal reader should be among the readers of the publication where your story appears. One way to think about how your readers care is to imagine what they would say to themselves as read your story. For example, “Now that I know this, I should write to my congressperson / learn more about this new technology / avoid driving on the highway this Sunday.”
What bearing does the protagonist's story have on the reader? Why does their story matter? What does it make better or worse for them?
Why does this story matter now (this week or this month or this year)?
What makes it actionable? What needs to be shown for the reader to consider action? Does some aspect need to be demonstrated, proven or derisked?
The narrative field
Think of narratives as substitutable goods. The most compelling story wins by dominating the reader's mind and pushing them to action (and by dominating the narrative field shared by groups of readers who make assumptions about each other in order to coordinate collective action; that is, strong narratives are Schelling points as well as selling points ;).
What other stories in your field is this story competing against?
How can you make your story more compelling than those?
What is an example of a compelling story in your field or an adjacent field that you've read recently? What made it compelling? Can you make your story like that?
Is there a prevailing narrative that your story contradicts? If it does, then you have an element of surprise, which is the essence of news. At the same time, that may make some journalists and readers skeptical. So you should think about how to address their skepticism, and find publications that are open to your narrative line.
Doses of surprise
It's difficult to remember what's surprising about the topics and stories we know well, hard to remember what we didn't know once:
What is surprising about your story? If you had to write down a list of surprises, what would they be? What did your protagonist discover that runs counter to the common wisdom?
What were the turning points where they were blocked, or realized the world did not work as they expected?
Some turning points are small and some are large. Which ones do you want to talk about? Are there several? How can you introduce them in order without overwhelming the reader?
What do journalists need?
Now that you have thought about the story you want to see reported, you should start thinking more about reporters, their editors, and their goals and needs, to see if those overlap with your narrative.
There are many different kinds of media organizations and reporters, and their needs differ greatly, so this part will require active research, conversations and pitching organizations. (That is what people generally hire PR firms to do, because it can be time-consuming. Some firms actually do it well.)
Many reporters and media organizations start with an idea or a subject to cover, and then look for material to back it up. Again, good PR firms will be aware of some of the stories reporters are trying to write.
On a high level, your research should answer the following questions (I recommend organizing the answers in a spreadsheet, along with notes about your contacts with those reporters):
Which publications cover your industry and subject regularly?
Do those publications reach your ideal readers? If not, which ones do?
Does the publication accept guest columns? How do you pitch one and what should it look like?
Within those publications, which reporters cover the topics related to your stories?
What exactly do they write stories about? (Name the last six things they've written about. Now look for longer-term trends. Which reporter's beat is closest to your story?)
What form do those stories take? (Day news and company announcements, or longer narratives?)
How long are the stories? (This will give you an idea of how much material they will need to write it.)
How frequently do they write? (Reporters writing many stories per week are generally open to new pitches, because they have a news hole to fill. Reporters writing one story every month or so are much more selective.)
How many sources do they typically quote or cite in a story? (How can you become one of those sources?)
What can you do to make it easier for journalists to tell this story?
Are there people who will object to this story being told? What would they object to? Is there a way to pre-empt their objections in the story?
A final exercise
Write a four-sentence biography for yourself that will establish your credibility on a specific topic that you want to be quoted on.
* One answer is social proof: credibility. When a startup where I led communications was eventually acquired, the company buying us brought a binder three inches thick with everything that had ever been written about us by analysts and the press. Having other, trusted people saying something about you is much more powerful than saying it yourself. Building relationships with those trusted third parties is a long-term investment. A shorter-term goal would be customer acquisition. As much as some startups seek to launch their own media arms, they can never give themselves social proof, by definition. For that, they will need to rely on third parties.
Another answer is that PR will change your luck profile. That is, it will get you the attention of people whose names you don’t know. Many years ago, a startup I worked for was profiled in a national magazine. That article ultimately led to our seed funding, and the attention of some prominent and well-connected business people whose advice and backing was useful.