Sometimes I wonder what makes a successful public relations program tick. I''ve been in the trenches for nearly 15 years as a practitioner and another 10 years as a hard news journalist, but what we do can still be a bit mysterious. Sometimes the initiatives that I am certain will be a huge success end up dying. Other times, something we throw together not expecting the media to bite end up being enormous successes.

A great example was the root beer float party we staged on behalf of Saint Arnold Brewing Company (which makes Saint Arnold Root Beer) to commemorate the anniversary of the invention of the concoction. We reached out to the good folks at MD Anderson Cancer  Center''s Children''s Hospital to see if they would be interested in having us come over.

It was a nice charitable event, but not much of a news hook: kids enjoying root beer floats in the midst of Houston''s swealtering summer. Or so we thought. With the okay of the hospital, we issued a media advisory and did some follow up, getting the usual, "We''ll see if we can spare a crew," from the TV stations.

Wouldn''t you know it, we ended up with more journalists than kids. That''s a bit of an exageration (I''m entitled, I''m a PR guy!) but not much. When late-arriving TV crews begged for visuals long after the last of the kids enjoyed their treat, we had to scramble to find children willing to indulge in their second or third float. Note to self: everyone loves one root beer float but nobody likes more than one.

Afterward, the brewery heard from people who had never known they made root beer (from all natural ingredients, I might add). I don''t suppose you can credit this event and the resulting publicity with the brewery''s booming year-over-year growth, but it was a good illustration of how promoting a relatively overlooked brand can reflect positively on the rest of the family.

Another good example of an unexpected home run was the recent announcement from the SHAPE Task Force of new screening guidelines to help identify people without symptoms who are at risk of a heart attack. It was important news, but we anticipated it would primarily be of interest to journalists who cover cardiology issues and cardiologists themselves. Nonetheless, we developed a consumer-focused news release and issued it under embargo to healthcare journalists.

Our thought was, let''s put it out there and see what happens. In the meantime, we did a highly targeted outreach to bloggers and Web portals, such as

An independent analysis estimates that this simple effort (okay, I''ve over-simplified it a bit, but not much) generated more than 150 million impressions. That means that that virtually every American adult heard, read or watched our information at least once. Gulp.

In every case, we examine the strengths of the stories our clients seek to promote and the areas that need tweaking. Sometimes, we recommend that the client not move forward with media outreach. Other times, we manage expectations by emphasizing how important it is to reach people other than journalists -- directly through online distribution or face-to-face communications, for example. We''re big believers that while it is terrific when traditional journalists take note of your story, the focus needs to be on seeding word of mouth through all means -- media relations being just one.

After thinking about the common elements of a surprisingly successful public relations effort, we''ve identified the following five public relations essentials. Use them to formulate the important messages that need to be communicated:

1. Prominence. How big is this really? Is this part of a larger trend or will it have a lasting impact?

2. Timeliness. Remember, the first three letters in "news" spell "NEW!" Did it just happen or is it about to happen? Does it tie in with a current public interest?

3. Punch. What impact will your story have on your company and your audiences, and how many people will be effected?

4. Proximity. Is this a good local story only, or will it be of interest to a regional, national or global audience?

5. Personal. Is there a human interest element? Who is helping to make your story news?

If your story doesn''t score high on these elements, you may want to adjust course. Perhaps trade publications would be better to approach than the business page of your daily newspaper. Perhaps you should flesh out the personal side of your story, recognizing that an emotional element will be more interesting to many journalists.

Or maybe you should forge ahead and give it a shot -- all the while focusing on broader objectives than simply attracting media attention. I don''t know why this is the case, but a simple truth I''ve learned over the years is that if you can consider your initiative a success without getting publicity, you''ll be more likely to get the attention of journalists. Go figure.