Thank you so much to the The Channels Network for inviting me to give a webinar about PR to their other members this month. Channels is a free and voluntary grassroots network for communications practitioners working in social impact fields. If you missed the session, don't worry. They also interviewed me for their August newsletter. If you're interested in how Public Relations can be a tool for making a positive social impact, check out my Q&A with them below. We chatted about all things PR and getting a career in social impact public relations.
Channels: Can you tell us the story about what you currently do and how you got here in your career?
Melissa: I'm a marine science, conservation and sustainability writer and PR consultant. That means I write articles, blogs, press releases, whitepapers and more for organisations that are working to protect the ocean. I also provide PR consultancy to help them improve their communications strategy. I spent around 10 years working in London in PR agencies and at Cancer Research UK. I had a wide range of clients: from coffee, ice cream and travel companies to corporate businesses and charities. This extensive experience taught me a lot about media relations and I also started writing for magazines on the side which helped me improve my writing skills.
But agency life can be hectic and stressful. Eventually, I burned out. I quit my job as Associate Director at an independent PR agency and moved to Mozambique to help a brilliant marine conservation charity (Marine Megafauna Foundation) with their comms. While many people thought I was taking a huge risk, that decision was a game-changer for me. It led to me bringing together my writing and PR expertise with my passion for the ocean. It's why I now specialise in marine conservation and sustainability. I've been a certified scuba diver for longer than I've been working in PR so it's brilliant to be able to combine the two!
What does a normal day in your work life look like?
One of the reasons I love being freelance is that there is no 'normal' day as such. Being my own boss, I can be flexible with my schedule in a way that works for me. One day I might be up early to send a press release to the news desks for a client. Another I might switch my phone off and focus on researching and writing an article for one of my editors. Usually, I take a long lunch break to go to the gym or do some exercise. For me, getting away from the computer is often when I have some of my best inspiration so I try to prioritise this every day.
Do you consider Public Relations as a part of Communications? How are they similar or different?
Yes - public relations is an important part of the wider communications picture. If you look up 'public relations' you'll probably find a definition saying something like: PR is the management of how an organisation or brand is perceived by the public. But what does this mean?
A nice analogy I've heard before is to imagine you're at a party. I come up to you and say "hey, I'm Mel and I'm a brilliant copywriter" - that's advertising. My friend then comes up to you and says "Have you met Mel, she's a great copywriter" - that's marketing. And PR? That's when someone who doesn't even know me is chatting to you and says "Oh, have you heard about Mel? She's a fantastic copywriter!". PR usually involves a high level of media relations to encourage journalists to write stories about your organisation. But, there can be a blurry line between other communications skills, such as social media, SEO, and digital marketing.
How does PR in the social impact sector differ from other PR work?
An obvious one is the budget. Often, working in the social impact sector means you have much tighter budgets and smaller teams than a big organisation. But that doesn't mean you can't do great PR. Another difference is the passion you find within NGOs and social impact teams. While people working in corporate companies can, of course, love their jobs, there's a drive and a passion that's unrivalled in this sector. We're doing this because we really care about the cause - which is so motivating. I come across inspiring people in my work almost every day.
What are the most common skills and competencies you use on a regular basis for your PR work?
An important skill for my PR work is being able to think from a journalist's point of view (being a writer myself really helps this) and thinking about how to join the dots. A common mistake PR people want to make is thinking too much about the story they want to tell and not enough about the things a journalist needs to do their job - if you can combine the two, you're going to have a much better chance of getting great results. It also helps to be a strong writer, organised and able to juggle various things at once. Having thick skin helps too.
If someone was just getting started in Public Relations, what advice would you give them?
Persevere. PR can be a hard gig and you'll get lots of rejections (or non-responses) from journalists. I heard somewhere recently that journalists ignore around 97% of pitches. While I think this is partly to do with lots of people 'blasting' out a press release far and wide rather than focusing on the most relevant journalists (a strategy I believe has a much higher success rate), so you can't take a 'no' to heart. If a journalist responds to decline your pitch, think of it as a good opportunity to learn what they do want, adapt your story or build a relationship with them that might help you with a future story.