Today, PR is often seen as a more effective communications tool than traditional advertising. For a start, it tends to be trusted more by your target audience because your claims are mediated by independent journalists. Moreover, the channels into which any company or organisation needs to get its messages have increased exponentially over the past decade (largely thanks to the internet and the fragmentation of broadcasting), making it more and more costly to reach increasingly diverse groups of potential customers, clients, investors, partners and employees through advertising alone.
Where previously you would have taken out an ad in a key trade publication or national paper, crossed your fingers and hoped for the best, the ad would be gone by the next day and possibly forgotten - unless it was part of an expensive blockbuster campaign. It's different with PR - good campaigns can get widespread coverage and at a much lower cost. They can spread from media to media, from online to broadcasting to print. The best campaigns create 'water cooler' moments when creative ideas are talked about at work, on the bus and in the gym, and people don't even realise that they are promoting brands and companies. That is why, in communications, the talk has been increasingly of 'integrated marketing' in recent years - making sure that every piece of marketing communications works together and adds value.
Clever PR is especially important for SMEs in a media world where the big players never have a problem getting their voice heard. Mega-brands with multi-million-pound marketing budgets attract interest and a media following whether they choose to 'speak' or not. Journalists are inundated with information and when prioritising in terms of interest for their readers, the news and views from relatively unknown firms do not come to the forefront.
SMEs wanting to make their mark must ensure that they 'punch more than their weight', driving themselves towards the top of the news agenda through creative and compelling content and messaging. They need to establish themselves as 'the ones to watch' - thought-leaders and innovators within their field. When readers see a company quoted with authority and credibility in an article, they quickly perceive that company as an expert in its industry. For example, Innocent Drinks was a risky venture undertaken by three university friends, but by taking a proactive approach to the media with an interesting story to tell, they turned it into a leading drinks retailer, showcasing it as an ethical and innovative business in a fast-growing market.
Because of the dramatic growth in media channels, your PR strategy must be based on a targeted, strategic approach to succeed. This means understanding your media environment, aiming at the appropriate audience for your product or service, and understanding the right channels and messages through which to reach them. Examine your audiences; look at what influences them and how they like to be communicated with. Yes, look at the press but also consider events, exhibitions and trade shows, mailers, websites and social media, speaker opportunities at conferences and so on.
It is also increasingly important to have an internal, as well as external, communications strategy, as the best ambassadors for your firm are the people who work for you. You need to make sure that they know what is going on in the company and in what direction it is heading, and how they can support the company's goals.
However, once you've found the correct audience and know in what ways you can reach them, you need to do more than simply tell them your message - in today's world of information overload that is no longer enough. According to the Guardian, the average Londoner is exposed to 3,500 marketing messages a day, with 99% unlikely to have any impact. So it is vital that you construct a message that is meaningful and relevant to your desired audience, as well as newsworthy to the journalists.
When reaching out to your audience, remember that no one individual or group is in total isolation and a company should think about communications on a widespread basis. You may target the regional press to keep your news as a local issue but the trade media may become interested and cover the story in a different light. The story may also be picked up within the blogosphere, where company developments or new products are often praised or criticised.
For example, the City and investors may be delighted to hear that Company A is embarking on a strategy that will move production to a low-cost centre in the Far East. There are short-term costs but the move will transform Company A's competitive position and ensure that it becomes a world leader. However, the same story might be less well received by the 2,000 workers losing their jobs, the local MP or the firms and their employees who rely on Company A as a local customer. Some in the media may be patting you on the back, but others will bemoan the lack of investment and the mismanagement that has resulted in this tragic loss of UK jobs. You have to think media strategy through, not just rush headlong into communication for communication's sake.
With the right audience in mind, use the right media to reach them. If, for example, you want to use the media to 'talk' to customers, employees or other key stakeholders near your Leeds base, you pitch your case at the Yorkshire Post, not the Financial Times. If you have made a great sales breakthrough in China, you will go for both. A feature in a specialist trade magazine, or coverage on a similar website, may attract a thousand times more enquiries about your latest piece of technology than a 15-second slot on TV.
Dealing with journalists is an important skill and many of my colleagues are ex-journalists who provide their clients and me with an ideal insight into the minds of the 'other side'. Like anyone, journalists are keen to be helped in getting their job done well. Try and build a relationship over time - but based on the professional exchange of information, not expense account lunches for which they have less and less time.
One of the greatest challenges is to present your company message in a creative and original manner. The communications arena is a competitive marketplace and you have to justify your position in it by standing out from the crowd. Creativity takes time and dedication. It may be a process you want your whole team to be involved in, or you may feel that the best ideas come from outside, where a slight detachment gives people the opportunity to think freely.
Truly creative ideas tend not to occur among a group of people in suits sitting in a boardroom with white-painted walls, preoccupied by the 15 other things they should be doing instead. They happen when people feel relaxed and able to say what comes into their head without worrying about the reaction. If you want to hear their best ideas, take your staff out of their usual office environment. They will not be able to think without inhibition when they can hear the phone ringing back at their desk. Planning and brainstorming is an art, not a cringe-making scene from The Office.
PR is increasingly seen as a cost-effective tool to drive sales as well as profile and reputation. It is democratic in that success relies on the strength of your strategy and your story, not just the size of your marketing budget. Do it badly and you could end up worse off than if you hadn't bothered at all. Do it well and you will add real value to sales and marketing, profile, reputation and staff motivation.
- Colin Byrne is CEO UK and Ireland, Weber Shandwick
WILL CHASE, TYRELL'S CHIPS - WHY WE DECIDED TO FOLLOW OUR OWN RECIPE FOR MEDIA RELATIONS
I think PR and marketing are the most important parts of any business. I had no experience of either before I started Tyrell's Chips.
The first article that covered us was in The Times and I learned an awful lot from it. There was this whole David and Goliath thing they focused on - us against big business. They didn't want shiny corporate stuff, they wanted personalities and a good story. That taught me an awful lot about PR - mainly that journalists are the best PR agents you can have.
One line of free editorial is worth about 20 paid ads. So luckily for us we got the free PR rolling, our story was interesting, and it came at the time when farming was in the news for being beaten up by the supermarkets.
Our dispute with Tesco's was a big influence on our PR. We had nothing against supermarkets, but we thought Tesco's was immoral in the way it treated us, stocking our product early, against our will. That event taught us that, in general, people do buy into the right story - the customer is not as shallow as many businesses assume. The Telegraph got hold of the Tesco story and the next day we had something like 27 interviews lined up. As a farmer, it was nice to be able to stand up to the supermarkets.
We built the company on PR, but I am very anti PR agencies and consultancies. We spoke to a few, but all they wanted to do was get us into the trade press. It's not your competitors you want to impress, it's your customers. The agencies from town thought we were straw-chewing farmers. PR agencies are not working for you; they're prostituting themselves for a few hours to each of their customers then moving on.
If our customers discover something themselves through good PR then they have brand ownership. Good PR allows them to come to us rather than us pushing a product onto them. It's a better relationship - they come to us on their own terms.
- Interview by Bruno Bayley
ANDREW VALENTINE, STREETCAR - SMALL AGENCY IDENTIFIED OUR BIG TARGET
We initially tried to do our own PR, but learnt quickly that if you are going to do it properly and successfully as a start-up with limited time and experience, you do need to use an agency. I think the initial campaign's success was absolutely central to us getting where we are today. PR strategies are easy enough to work out, but it is how agencies go about building relationships with journalists and know what angles to present the story from that makes them so valuable. Our attempts to do it solo lasted a matter of weeks.
We used a very small agency, Loop Communications. Initially, they took the story, the Streetcar concept, and used its novelty to get coverage in the national print and broadcast media. Phase two was targeting the business press, using our b2b products to get corporate news coverage.
Our standard Streetcar members are doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on from an A or B social group who have the money for a car but make an economic decision not to own one. We looked into what TV that demographic watches, what radio it listens to, and the papers it reads. The agency was instrumental in helping us find the right target market, steering us towards the Telegraph and away from the Sun.
We found that PR was by far the most cost-effective way for us to reach our target market. We were lucky because ours is an interesting story and that allowed us disproportionate media coverage. We couldn't afford any large-scale advertising, but we could afford to get ourselves into the press. The amount of press coverage we got in our first year would probably have cost us £500,000 if it was advertising space, but the PR cost was in the low tens of thousands.
I think it's far better for small companies to work with other small companies; it's a principle we apply to other areas of our business. We find that smaller organisations are hungrier - a large agency with Coca-Cola on its client list, for example, isn't going to give much time to a start-up.
- Interview by Bruno Bayley
FIVE WAYS TO WORK WITH THE MEDIA
1. Be selective in what you target. There's no point in getting coverage in Eurofruit magazine if you sell cars. Take time to read the publications you want to feature in and find out which journalists would be most interested in your company.
2. Take a multi-media approach. Engage with the media in all its forms - print, broadcast, online and social. The online generation rely on each other to be advocates when choosing products and services.
3. Use facts and figures to support your arguments. Claims to be unique or the best are worthless without evidence.
4. Know the messages that you want to get across and convey them clearly - waffle helps nobody.
5. Be ever helpful. Be prepared to run over the background to your story 'yet again': most journalists are generalists or have a range of specialist areas. But don't be surprised if they know more than you expect - they talk to your rivals as well as to you.
FIVE WAYS TO SPOIL YOUR CAMPAIGN
1. Waste a journalist's time. Phoning about a non-newsworthy story just before a deadline could lose you a useful contact.
2. Lie and deliberately mislead. You might just succeed once, but the truth will out and your credibility will be shot.
3. Offer exclusives falsely - ie, when you have no intention of restricting your story to a single outlet.
4. Lose your temper with a journalist and threaten drastic action such as lawyers or a withholding of ad revenue. Robert Maxwell withdrew advertising from the Independent because it supported the arguments of the target company in a battle for a company he wanted to buy. The editorial department immediately became even more hardline against him.
5. Shut up shop. Some entrepreneurs fix meetings with journalists and develop relationships in good times but go into hiding when things get tough. Be prepared for communication to be a two-way street.