3 PR Lessons from the Direct Response World

Direct response marketing and public relations traditionally work in different parts of the marketing funnel. Public relations is supposed to attract new audiences to your brand, while direct response marketing is supposed to convince your existing audience to respond to an offer and do business with you. That said, there are still behavioral lessons that public relations can take from direct response marketers to make your PR more effective.

There’s a simple framework first pioneered by direct marketing expert Bob Stone back in 1967 that explains three core ingredients needed in order to make a direct response campaign work. Without these three ingredients, a direct response campaign will elicit no responses at all.

The framework is elegantly simple: List, Offer, Creative. Buy the right list, create the right offer to send to that list, and make sure the offer looks appealing with an attractive creative piece.

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Bob Stone’s framework also brilliantly applies to public relations as well; without these three factors, a PR campaign will not generate the audience that direct response marketing needs to power its efforts.

Let’s tackle each of these areas briefly.


Do you have the right audience? In the direct response marketing world, this means having the right mailing list (for things like email and postal mail), but more broadly and strategically, do you have the right audience in general? If you’re pitching publications that are 55+ but your audience is 25-34, it doesn’t matter how good your PR is – you won’t attract the right people to your brand. If you’re working Facebook 16 hours a day but your audience is really on Twitter, you won’t get the results you want.

Make sure you know your audience first. Collect better or more information on intake forms. Use your CRM, use your marketing automation tools, use research, use your web analytics software, use every tool available at your disposal to find out who your audience is, and create your PR strategy from there. No amount of clever PR will resonate with the wrong audience in a way that will generate business results.


In direct marketing, the offer is key. If the audience doesn’t want what you’re selling, they won’t take action. If the offer isn’t good enough, they won’t bite. In public relations, the offer is what you’re pitching, the story that you’re sharing. If it’s uninteresting, if it’s not compelling to the audience, neither they nor the publications and media outlets they read will be interested in sharing it.

One of the cardinal sins of PR is sender-centric thinking, in which you share information and content that’s exciting to you but not to your audience, from press releases filled with corporate jargon to stories about corporate anniversaries. Your audience has limited time and attention, so anything that doesn’t serve them first and foremost will largely be ignored by the public and the media. Think about the problems that your audience has and whether what you’re pitching will help them solve those problems. Audience-centric content will always perform better, be more likely to be shared, and ultimately attract the right kind of audience to your brand.


In direct response marketing, the creative is the content, whether it’s a flyer, newsletter, ad, mailer, or email. Many direct marketers obsess over the creative, from font size to colors, in order to maximize response. Public relations is creative, but in a more abstract way. Do you have the right idea, the right angle, the right content presented in a way that people, media, and influencers would want to share? Sharing a spreadsheet isn’t likely to be as impactful as sharing a pretty infographic.


What’s most important about Bob Stone’s framework isn’t the individual areas, but the priorities in them. Stone emphasizes to direct marketers that you solve in the order presented – list first, then offer, and finally creative. The challenge is that many direct marketers expend energy in reverse. Direct marketers tend to obsess over the creative but invest very little time in audience targeting or making sure the offer is sound.

The same is true of PR – obsessing over how pretty a graphic looks must be secondary to ensuring that the pitch is audience-centric, and presented to the right audience. A story with the most beautiful writing behind it that doesn’t address an audience problem or is send to an audience that doesn’t have the problem will not generate results, but PR professionals tend to obsess most strongly about the details. This is understandable in some sense; it’s much easier to tune up the language in a pitch than it is to tell the product marketing manager that the product is awful, but ultimately, no amount of finessing can fix bigger problems with audience targeting or offer construction.

Apply the direct response marketing framework to your PR efforts and see if you can make impactful changes to what and how you pitch.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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