All the absolutely awesome PR tools for communications professionals is a bold claim and this is an article that has been 80% written for more than two years. I kept adding more tools to the list. Then it had too many so I deleted some. Then I regretted it so added them back in. Then I discovered a totally new tool that I just had to include. Then an old tool added a new feature that made it good again. You get the idea. It might not be ‘all’ the best tools, but it’s certainly some of them. I’m finally publishing it because there is lots of talk and advice at the moment on how to start a PR agency or become a PR freelancer so now seems like an opportune time as people will be looking for new tools.
This is deliberately a list of free and low cost tools that are great for start-up or small PR agencies, freelance PR consultants and other independents. It doesn’t look at any of the more expensive enterprise level PRtech tools where I’m working on a ‘similar’ much bigger project that I’ll be able to talk about more soon. Many of the tools I recommend here would also be suitable for PR or communication practitioners working in larger PR agencies or in-house who want to use them to improve their own personal productivity or workflow.
Before I start I need to tell you about AppSumo, which is a website that offers lifetime deals on tools. I’ve explained it more as the last ‘tool’ on my list where I also do a slightly more complicated explanation than is usually needed as to why there is a mix of normal and affiliate links in this blog post.
I don’t understand how public relations or communication professionals can operate without using a news reader app as one of their essential PR tools. There are lots to choose from and I use several, but the primary one is Feedly. It lets you subscribe to news sites and blogs to stay on top of news, issues and trends in relevant subject areas. It’s the main way I am able to keep on top of new trends and best practice in PR and communication. We don’t hear much about RSS any more these days and many people assume it died when Google pulled the plug on its Google Reader news reader app. It didn’t as it is still the technology that makes many news apps function.
One benefit of Feedly is that there is a great choice of third party apps that will sync with it. This means you can read a story on one device and it will show as read on another. Some other news reader apps I use are Nextgen Reader (on my Surface Go), Newsfold and Palabre on my Android mobile and Newsify on my iPad. Feedly is free for the basic version with a paid version that offers more features. My Feedly account is an old one so it has features that aren’t available any more in the free version.
Airtable is a hybrid between a database and a spreadsheet. If you currently use either Excel or Google Sheets as a database to store lists of any sort then you’re being foolish. They are excellent spreadsheets for calculating stuff with numbers, but they are not databases and you’re making life needlessly difficult for yourself. What makes Airtable great is that it’s so easy to use when you start (if you can do lists in Excel than you’ve cracked it already), but so powerful as you begin to use it more.
Two of the features that make it easy to use are its templates and the ‘Universe’ of examples of how other people and organisations are using it. You can use templates or explore case studies on everything from editorial schedules and product launches to lightweight CRMs (contact relationship management systems) and project management. Trust me, once you start using Airtable it will become one of your trusted PR tools.
I’ve only been using Shooglebox for a few weeks and am already finding it really useful as one of my PR tools. It’s a Leeds-based start-up that was introduced to me by Dom Burch. Its basic premise is a place to put all that interesting stuff you stumble across as you are browsing the internet or flicking through social media. It has a myriad of potential uses and at the moment I’m using it to ‘squirrel away’ interesting stuff to share in my That Was The Week That Was newsletter I publish using Substack. Shooglebox has free and paid versions. I’m currently using the free version. One of the main benefits of the paid version is it is designed for teams so is fantastic for remote collaboration and brainstorming.
I’ve been a OneNote user for years. At one time Evernote looked like it might steal OneNote’s crown as the best note taking app, but while it has faded OneNote has gone from strength to strength. It’s Microsoft’s unsung hero and is an incredibly powerful way to make sense of ideas, thoughts, research and generally just organising my life. And the best thing is it’s free so you don’t even need a Microsoft 365 subscription to use it.
My notebooks are a mix of professional, personal, private and shared. I have a knowledge notebook where I keep all my thoughts on the latest best practice and research in PR, communication and public affairs, which I can later incorporate into training courses or use to advise clients.
I use several notebooks to record meetings, quite literally in some cases as you can record video and audio within OneNote. The best ‘meeting’ feature is you can tag anything to instantly turn it into an Outlook task so it appears in To-Do and doesn’t get forgotten.
I also use OneNote to record my CPD (continuous professional development). The old CIPR CPD system was clunky and wasn’t any use other than logging activity to prove you’d done it. My OneNote notebook is where my real CPD happens. I can create internal links to connect my CPD notes with the actual learning content in my knowledge notebook. One benefit of keeping the CPD notes in OneNote is I can do proper memories and reflection. “That webinar was rubbish, I thought YYYY YYYY would be much better, but her/his point about XXXX was excellent” or “That book was brilliant, I didn’t learn anything new, but it gave me loads of ideas how to do it” or “Wow! I learnt so much and I’ve now got to work out how to use it”.
Some of my personal uses of OneNote include a shared family notebook with sections such as holidays, ideas for days out, recipes, Christmas and birthday ideas (both to give and receive!).
I’ve searched for years to find the ‘perfect’ to-do or tasks app to help make my life easier and improve my productivity. It doesn’t exist. Over the years I’ve tried or used Todoist, Any.do, Asana, Trello (not really a to-do app), OneNote, Remember The Milk, Wunderlist and probably more I’ve forgotten. Microsoft To-Do is far from perfect, but it comes the closest to doing what a good to-do list needs to do. Like OneNote it is also free so you don’t need a paid Microsoft 365 subscription to use it.
The most important feature for me is it has to be the single source of truth. I want to see all my tasks in one place. There is only one me who has to do the things I have to do. The best thing about To-Do is it doesn’t just show its own tasks, but it also syncs in real time all my tasks from Outlook, Planner and OneNote. Emails I tick in Outlook also show up as tasks
The other great feature is it starts each day with a blank sheet and ‘intelligently’ prompts you with what it thinks you need to do that day, based on the data and past activity.
Quite how you are meant to achieve ‘work/life balance’ if your work tasks are in one place and personal ones in another is beyond me. There are only about 16 waking hours in a day for you to fit in work and life. You need to be able to see everything in one place to stand any chance of intelligently planning your day to do what you need to do for work and life.
Now appears to be a good time to explain why I haven’t listed a CRM here as a CRM should be one of your essential PR tools. As much as I’d love to love a CRM system I can’t as I’ve never seen a wonderful one. I’ve tried loads, and even used some for extended periods, but always end up rejecting them. It’s a bit like the to-do apps. They all have some great individual features, but are weak or bad elsewhere.
The other fundamental problem is integration. They all make attempts to integrate with other systems, but there are always issues. Sometimes you can work round it using automations such as Zapier or Power Automate but they don’t fully solve the issues. I will talk about Zapier, Power Automate and IFTT in another article as they deserve more space than I can give them here.
The biggest problem for me is that CRM tasks and activities sit in the silo of the CRM. For my workflow it is fairly pointless to have my CRM tasks sitting in a silo when the rest of my tasks are elsewhere. It makes it impossible to plan my day. None of the CRM systems will sync tasks, although some provide one way ‘push’ or can be made to push by using Zapier or Power Automate.
My understanding is that it isn’t actually the fault of the various CRMs, but that Microsoft’s task API is still too restrictive to enable true two-way sync of tasks. Until then I can help clients to implement CRM systems for PR and communication, but I’ll not be using one as a primary part of my own workflow.
I’m not using Pocket as much as I used to as some of what I used it for I’m now doing in Shooglebox and OneNote. There are a couple of uses where Pocket is still indispensable. The first is that I used it when I was travelling (hence why since lockdown I’m not finding it as useful) as I can save articles I want to read later as it stores then in the app. This means I can read them while offline on the underground or while flying with no internet connection. The second is it integrates with SocialBee and Publer (social media publishing tools) so I can use it to curate content I discover and want to share on my social media channels. I use the free version of Pocket.
TweetDeck and Twitter lists
I doubt I’d be able to use Twitter without lists and TweetDeck so for me it is one of my most used PR tools. I hardly ever look at my main Twitter feed (maybe if I’m on the train and really bored). I have lots of Twitter lists that I’ve created over the years, so I can follow the people that I’m really interested in. Nearly all of my Twitter use is reading and interacting with tweets on those lists or search columns I’ve set up.
I’m planning to do another article on how to get the most out of Twitter lists and TweetDeck. Unfortunately there isn’t a decent mobile or tablet equivalent to TweetDeck any more. There used to be lots of fantastic alternatives, but Twitter tried to murder them by restricting its APIs (the way websites share data with each other). It means using lists on a smart phone isn’t as easy as the Twitter app is rubbish as it only lets you pin five lists (which is still better than it used to be).
Note that I’ve deliberately cropped the names of the Twitter lists off the image for two reasons as the names are currently misleading and I’m in the process of trying to reorganise the thousands of Twitter accounts on my lists.
SocialBee is one of the social media publishing tools I use. There are probably hundreds of similar social media scheduling and publishing apps on the market that you could use as PR tools. SocialBee isn’t the best, but it is good enough and does the job. I bought it ages ago on an AppSumo deal so it means I don’t have to use a restricted free tool or pay a monthly fee. It has a browser extension to make it easy to share content, can take RSS feeds to automatically collect content and has good previews to show what a post is going to look like on Twitter, LinkedIn or a Facebook page.
It makes it easy to create variants of each post so each channel is customised. It also has lots of integrations so can be connected to custom short domains like Bitly, Rebrandly or RocketLink, as well as Pocket for content curation and Zapier for other automations.
Publer is another social media publishing and scheduling tool I am experimenting with. One of its advantages is it has quite a clean user interface so isn’t too ‘scary’ to share with clients if I make them part of a team. It also lets you schedule a comment on a post you’ve published.
Answer The Public
Answer The Public is one of the smartest PR tools around. It enables PR practitioners to do exactly what it says on the tin — answer the public. Every day millions of people search Google or Bing to ask questions. It’s a goldmine of insight into what people want to know. Once you know what people want to know you can then answer their questions by creating, repurposing or curating the content they want.
Google Trends is another treasure trove of insight that once used becomes one of your go-to PR tools. You can use it to track trends in what people are searching for. It has so many potential uses for PR and communications that I could write several articles on it. One is that you can use it as a proxy measure for awareness or interest. Another use is to show how interest changes over time.
Social Animal and BuzzSumo
Social Animal and BuzzSumo are similar PR tools that help you to understand content. They both show you the most shared content for keywords and phrases. This helps you to understand what sort of content is most likely to be shared, sites where it will be shared from and where it will be shared. You can also find the most shared content on specific websites to see how competitors or peers are performing.
PeakMetrics is one of many PR tools that provide a cost effective media and social media monitoring system. It also helps you to research journalists writing about particular topics and issues.
For some years I’ve been explaining to delegates on training courses that the ability to produce video is now a hygiene skill for PR and communication professionals. It’s as essential and simple as the ability to write. This means you need to be able to shoot and edit videos. This is so much easier today than it was when I first started talking about it. PR tools like InVideo make it incredibly easy to edit short videos you can then publish on YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or TikTok.
Kapwing is another interesting content creation tool that does let you create video, but what sets it apart are its other PR tools. It has tools to: crop, rotate and resize GIFs; a stop motion maker; to remove background from images; to create subtitles and many more. It has a generous free plan where all of its main features are available. The main restriction in the free plan is that your projects are public, although I couldn’t actually see other projects I can’t mark mine as private without a professional account.
The free plan also only lets you edit and store content for seven days. Upgrading to the $20 a month plan gets you storage and other features such as longer 40-minute videos and ability to download SRT files (subtitle data). It’s worth noting Kapwing also has a great blog with lots of how-to articles such as how to add captions to TikTok videos and how to add music to your Byte videos (if you’re falling for Trump’s conspiracy theories about Chinese apps and want to switch).
Otter is an AI powered transcription service. You can use the Android, iOS or web app to record a meeting or conversation and see it being transcribed live in real time. You can also upload recordings you’ve made. The first 600 minutes per month are free. The paid account gives you more minutes per month, more uploads and lots of extra team collaboration features.
Keywords Everywhere is a browser extension that fixes a big problem with the Google Keyword Planner tool. The Google tool used to give you the average monthly search volumes for keywords, but a few years ago Google restricted this feature so only accounts that spend enough on Google advertising see it. The extension basically gives you access to the data again. It also provides enhanced data with other tools such as Answer the Public, YouTube and Amazon. It’s not free, but credits are just $10 for 100,000 credits (keywords).
MailerLite is my preferred choice of email newsletter platform instead of MailChimp. It is easy to use and the free plan offers enough powerful features that you probably don’t need to upgrade to a paid plan until you get to the 1,000 email address limit (when you could always cull some inactive addresses). I use MailerLite for my ‘personal’ newsletter that I use to send out occasional updates about what I’m up to so is a mix of friends, business contacts and people who’ve signed up via my website or email signature. It is an old, established list that started on MailChimp more than 15 years ago and migrated to MailerLite.
Substack and Revue
I’m actually running two newsletters at the moment as I’ve recently started That Was The Week That Was which is a weekly round-up of news, articles and opinion that caught me eye in relation to public relations, communication and public affairs. This one runs on Substack. I chose Substack for a couple of reasons. One is that it provides an RSS feed so people can subscribe without needing to use email (I always prefer to do that). The other is that I’ve been asked to evaluate it.
I originally devised the idea for TWTWTW early this year, inspired mainly by Richard Bailey’s excellent work publishing the weekly PR Academy round-up. I was originally going to do it as a blog post, but then started thinking about some of the new ‘publisher’ email tools such as Substack or Revue. It’s interesting that Stephen Waddington also chose Substack for his weekly round-up of activity in his marketing, media and PR Facebook group. One of the key features of SubStack is it makes it easy to ‘monetise’ your newsletter by introducing paid options. Matt Navara chose Revue for his excellent Geekout newsletter,
You can sign-up for my That Was The Week That Was newsletter here or if you prefer RSS then Feedly will autodiscover the feed when you try to add it from the browser extension or within the app or website.
RocketLink is three PR tools in one with lots of other features and functions (which I’m still experimenting with). The three main features are: it lets you use custom branded short domains (e.g. sbpr.co); create CTAs (call to actions) on links; and use retargeting pixels. If you share a link to some earned media editorial about your company then the CTA will create an overlay that can be used to drive people back to your own website. You could then use retargeting pixes to target them with social media advertising. It’s a great way to maximise the value of media coverage and from sharing relevant curated content.
Linguix is similar to Grammarly and once you’ve installed the browser extension it checks your grammar, punctuation and style as you write. I am using it to help write this article. I’m lucky as my wife and business partner is brilliant at checking my work, but that’s not her job so often there isn’t time for her to do it, which is a problem when I work on my own.
Linguix is currently missing some Grammarly features such as Android/iOS keyboards, and integrations for Windows and Microsoft Office. However, both are on the roadmap for release this year as is a plagiarism checker. Linguix is currently a steal as the AppSumo lifetime deal is $49 for three premium licences which are usually $8 a month. It’s different to the usual deals as these are three individual licences so the other two could be used by family, friends or colleagues. I’m currently just using two of my three codes.
The snippets function is interesting as it lets you pre-draft snippets (which can actually be quite long) of text to insert into your copy using a hot key.
Linguix appears to be about the same ‘quality’ as Grammarly as neither are perfect, but still help, especially if you work on your own without anyone to check your copy.
AppSumo isn’t actually a tool, but a website that offers lifetime deals for apps that make great PR tools. One of the challenges of running a small consultancy or being independent is that costs for tools can rapidly spiral. Many tools aren’t as cost effective because although you need them, you don’t need them all the time and you don’t have colleagues who can use them so you get more value out of them. At one time I discovered I was spending several thousand pounds a year on tools that cost between £5-£25 per month.
A lifetime deal means you pay once and get access to one of the premium monthly subscription plans for the lifetime of the product. It is usually between $39-$99 with $49 being the most common. This usually equates to about 2-3 months of the monthly fee. The only ‘gamble’ is the deal is for the lifetime of the product as because they are often early stage start-ups then there is a risk they won’t survive. Over the last three years I’ve bought about 20 deals to use as PR tools and only one company has failed. Some companies that have gone on to great success offered AppSumo lifetime deals when they were still start-ups. The best known are probably Zapier, Planable and PieSync (since acquired by Hubspot and the deal still stands).
The deals constantly change, but at the time of writing (16 August 2020) the most interesting (that I’m not already using) appear to be:
Brandox – is designed to manage and organise brand assets and collateral such as photos, graphics and videos. You can use Brandox internally, but more usefully you can use it to share assets with clients, journalists and influencers. It looks good, but isn’t one that I need.
Frase – I can’t quite get my head round what Frase does. It says it uses AI to help you “create SEO-focused content that answers visitor’s questions”. I’ve had a quick play and can see it has potential. There are three main parts. The first tells you what questions people are asking, the second helps you create content, but it’s the third that’s most interesting. It takes existing content from your website and uses it to create a chat bot you can embed on the site. People can then ask questions and it automatically provides answers from your site. I might spend $69 just for that function.
Happy Scribe – is yet another text-to-speech tool. Its two main uses for PR and communication professionals are to repurpose content and generate subtitles for videos. Despite the fact I make videos and podcasts and help clients to make videos and podcasts, I’m not a big fan of videos and podcasts. The reason is they are too slow and linear. I’m a fast reader and remember what I read so reading is a much better way for me to learn. The most valuable thing about any ‘content’ is the ideas and information within it. Happy Scribe makes it really easy and quick to create a transcript of your video or podcast. It can automatically add the subtitles to your video (you can edit and correct) and creates subtitle files in all the common formats. This is another tool that I’m probably going to buy.
The AppSumo links are ‘affiliate’ links which means if you buy a deal then you get $10 off and I also get $10.
Finally, this isn’t a PR or communications tool, but is definitely a useful one for frugal freelancers who want to make every penny count. Just sign up for an account and install the TopCashBack browser extension and it will alert you when you’re on a website where you can get cashback. You can see I’ve earned £475, which I really must get round to cashing in as I hadn’t realised it was so much until I wrote this! The TopCashBack link is an affiliate link so you get a sign-up bonus and I get a credit if you use it.
Disclaimer regarding affiliate links which definitely aren’t #ad
Some links in this article are affiliate links which means I get a credit or even a tiny payment if someone signs-up and buys using it.
According to the new CIPR ‘influencer’ guidance this means I am meant to label this blog post #ad which means advert. This is obviously a lie, as this is an independent article and only an absolute fool could possibly confuse it with an advert. Morally I feel extremely uncomfortable deliberately misleading people by putting a fake #ad label on something that isn’t. But there isn’t much I can do about it. All the product links on here are a random mix of affiliate links and ordinary links and every tool I’ve listed is only here because I use it.
I mentioned at the start that there is a lot of discussion at the moment about how to start a PR agency or become a freelancer. A couple of good ones are Nigel Sarbutts, the founder of PR Cavalry, who has worked with the PRCA to put together a great virtual event called The Business of Freelancing. Stephen Waddington, who has recently quit big agency life to become an independent, has published a list of “25 things to think about if you’re thinking of going freelance or starting an agency“.
I’ve had a PR tools page on my blog for ages now and as well as the tools in this article there are more listed on the page. At some point I’ll consolidate this article and the page so all the tools are listed in one place.
Do you need help?
It’s not enough to just pick a few PR tools and try to start using them. If you need help with choosing, buying and implementing PRtech so you can do better work then get in touch by calling, messaging, emailing or use the contact form.
This post originally appeared on stuartbruce.biz.