What does a PDF have to do with Public Relations?

PDFs: Good or evil? Like most media, neither, when used properly. 

PDFs: Good or evil? Like most media, neither, when used properly. 

In the first class of Public Relations and Digital Media at MacEwan University, I spend 90 minutes showing students how to create and optimize a PDF from a Word document. Why? What does this have to do with PR? Quite a bit:  

1. Know your audience.

For some reason, when I ask students if they like getting, using, or opening PDFs, they almost all say no, except in special circumstances—long documents and things meant to be printed or read offline, for instance.

Yet, when I was client-side, the communications department often relied on PDFs to communicate. "Please see the attached memo from the CEO" was one of my "favourite" emails to receive. Another great tactic was the brochure with "for more information, go to URL" and then the URL led to a PDF of the brochure online. 

PDFs have their place, but that place must be determined primarily by what the audience wants, not what's most convenient for the business. 

Remember, your PDF is representing your organization, and your public is relating to it. If that interaction is "too big; didn't download/open" or "thanks for nothing," you've damaged your reputation. 

2. Know your tools to save your time.

Despite today's students using Word pretty much since birth, typically less than 15% of those I do this exercise with know how to use the program at an advanced level. The exercise shows students that they don't know as much as they think they know about tech, and that spending 5 minutes to watch a YouTube video will save hours of word processing time down the road.  If you have 8 hours to cut down a tree, spend 4 hours sharpening the saw. Take the time to learn. 

3. Your intervening audience is the Internet. 

The intervening audience is what an organization relies on to convey the message to its audiences. This used to be journalists. Now, it's the internet. 

Just as PR professionals used to heavily rely on media relations strategies to cultivate the intervening journalist audience, today's PR professionals need to know "technology relations" so that they don't piss off the Internet. How do you do this? By understanding basic how HTML, metadata, and search engines work, and how to put those things to work for you.

This will help ensure that your content and messages are found by your audience online when they're looking for the stuff you put out there. It will also ensure that the interaction with your content will also be more successful. 

By adding style sheets and a table of contents to a Word document, then adding keywords and a description to the document properties, and then exporting the PDF properly, you end up with a PDF where the headings are machine-readable, the document works like a web page, with quick links to various sections, and search engines can actually find it. 

And that's why we spend 90 minutes making a PDF. Because it makes the audience happy, it makes you happy, and it makes the technology happy.