Being “Human” is Cool Again. What Does That Mean for Public Relations?

Telling the world how “human” your business, product, or process is: so hot right now. More UX professionals are embracing human-centered design, and companies proudly advertise that you will speak to an actual human when you call their customer service number. Some believe that in the near future, interacting with real human doctors or teachers will become a luxury for the wealthy. The general consensus seems to be that we’ve gone a little too far down the automated technology rabbit-hole, and people are re-discovering the value of human connection for their bottom line.

But what does being “human” in business actually mean, and what does public relations have to do with it?

That question was top of mind for me when, in February 2018, I officially launched SLH Communications, LLC. (Yes, I’ve been in business for a year and a half, and I’m just now writing my “introducing SLH Communications” post. Starting a business is hard.)

SLH stands for “sound like a human,” and that is exactly what I aim to help my clients do. Rather than run through a laundry list of SLH Communications’ services (those are on the website anyway), I thought it might be better to introduce my business to the world by summarizing my thoughts on exactly what “human” PR means to me. Here they are.

  1. Ban the buzzwords. It goes without saying, but words matter. If you’re using inside-baseball language that makes complete sense for your industry and no one else, it will simply confuse and alienate potential new audiences. Same goes for vague, overused terms that sound very professional but say nothing about your actual services. Looking at you, “synergy,” “solutions,” “agility,” “results,” “core competencies,” and “robust.”
  2. Get nerdy to get real. I’ve worked with a lot of public agency, academic, research, nonprofit, and startup clients who are really, really into something. That something is often a niche, nerdy, or otherwise hard-to-understand topic, system, or idea. I love that kind of energy, and I want to get their audiences as excited about it as they are—so I dive in. I never assume that I know exactly what these clients need before reading everything relevant to them. My “research” phase continues throughout the entire project. I need to get as nerdy about their “something” as they are before I can truly translate it into “human” speak.
  3. There’s more to PR than press releases. Good PR uses a variety of tactics to get an audience’s attention and tell a story. To be fair, though, many of those tactics (like blog posts and those well-edited videos you see all over social media) often cross over with marketing and advertising. The only tactic many people have ever heard identified as strictly “PR” is the good old-fashioned press release. Whenever a client says “we need a press release,” I start a conversation about what they want to achieve. Nine times out of ten that means we do something else, such as drafting an op-ed or holding a media availability (where someone on their team holds time for an on-site interview or TV taping)—but when they truly do need a press release, my philosophy is “think like a journalist, not a board member.”

Over the past year and a half, I’ve also been thinking about what I believe is a good, “human” definition of PR, and how it differs from marketing and advertising. Here’s what I’ve come up with: PR is about building relationships and trust so that other people will eventually do your marketing for you for free—and you can only do that if you sound like a human.

I didn’t come up with that on my own, by the way. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a number of people, including my former journalist coworkers at Atlantic Media who would point out examples in their inbox of exactly how not to get a reporter’s attention; my advertising agency clients who have curiously asked what I would say I do here; and an old colleague who, after multiple drafts of a CEO statement, congratulated me for “making [him] sound like a human, instead of a robot.”

So world, meet SLH Communications. Maybe someday sounding like a human won’t be as much of a priority for organizations—but we’re here as long as it is, and well beyond.

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