Much of what we do in PR lends itself to repeatable tasks. If you have a perception problem in the market, you might need a strategy comprising media relations activities, some thought leadership content, a regular blog series and a social media push. Many of these activities can be run by an existing playbook from another business unit, organization or company.
To save time and avoid reinventing the wheel, there is often a good argument for using a template or leveraging your last playbook as a starting point for the work.
Templates are great for more rudimentary tasks. They can save time, as well as help us to break through writers’ block when we find ourselves face-to-face with a blank page. For example, media lists. If you just scored a project with one enterprise software company and you already have a media list from another enterprise software company, then why not use that existing list as a template to start your work for the second company? You will need to do some additional research to make it perfectly relevant to the new client, but certainly a baseline makes sense here.
Another situation where you might use a template is when you are asked to create a plan or proposal, but this one comes with a major caveat.
One thing that must be done at PR agencies is to manage current client demands while, at the same time, spend the time needed to respond to a request for proposal (RFP). To gain economies of scale and meet the often aggressive deadlines set by prospects, agencies have to rely on some existing material. This is fine. The big caveat: you cannot do a simple search for the previously pitched company’s name, replace it with the new company and call it a day.
First, the budgets could be totally different. Additionally, it is highly unlikely that the situational analysis for one company is the exact same as the second company. There could be similarities but it’s doubtful that it’s a direct one to one. Plus, no one running an RFP process wants to feel like agencies are giving them cookie cutter ideas and strategies. Make sure that while some block and tackle tactics like media relations, reporting and list building are the same, others, like thought leadership platforms, social strategies and creative program initiatives, are custom to that company.
One of the “gotchas” when wanting to source templates or past plans is that it often establishes a low bar for performance. Put another way, it encourages laziness. Start with an outline for your plan or proposal rather than going straight to a prior example. If, once you have completed the research, identified the specific strategy and related tactics for this company, you find that tactics you have documented in the past worked well and might apply to this plan, then go to that document to refresh your memory. But use caution when doing a blatant cut and paste of each tactic. Think through and augment the previous recommendation for the current client or prospective client so that it is tailored and well thought out.
Something else to consider: Relying too heavily on previous work can stifle original thinking. When a project or proposal requires creative ideas, it’s better to start with tailored ideas. When writing even short-form pieces, like news releases, using a press release template can create a situation where the writing becomes mechanical. We end up focusing on checking boxes—how many words are contained in the headline and the subhead—rather than focusing on making sure the final document can stand up to the scrutiny of third-party sources, like editors at The New York Times or USA Today.
In general, reading and referencing other plans and content for inspiration is great. Just be wary of falling into a habit of always looking for a shortcut. By definition, using a template means you are recycling information, and your work product could become mediocre instead of exceptional.
After all, every content piece you deliver should contain some level of strategy, and if strategy is all about choice yet you borrow from your previous work, or from the work of others, then you are automatically calling into question the strategy and choices you make.
In conclusion, use templates for fundamental baseline and repeatable work, like lists and reports, but disregard the template approach for original work like strategy, plans, proposals and creative, as well as other forms of content like press releases and bylines. Your work will be stronger, and your colleagues and friends will thank you for the extra attention and commitment to making the work product better.