Today, PR is often seen as a more effective communications tool than traditional paid-for 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 organisation needs to get its messages have increased exponentially over the past decade, thanks largely to the internet and the fragmentation of broadcasting. It is becoming ever more costly to reach increasingly diverse groups of potential customers, clients, investors, partners and employees through advertising alone.
Good PR campaigns can get widespread coverage and at a much lower cost. They should be able to 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.
Because of the dramatic growth in media channels, your PR strategy must be based on a targeted, strategic approach if it is to succeed. This means understanding your media environment, aiming at the appropriate audience for your product or service, and identifying 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 the social media, and opportunities for speakers at conferences.
A key challenge for companies today is that consumers grappling with the recession are investing more time in researching products and services before purchase. Weber Shandwick's research into how people are influenced revealed online advocacy as being the most influential source of product/service information for UK consumers. So having a positive presence online is essential. With this in mind, you must never underestimate the power of individual online activity.
Employee blogs, Twitter pages and Facebook groups are just as important as corporate websites and are powerful shapers of opinion. The internet makes information readily available and can permanently enhance - or tarnish - a company's reputation.
It's increasingly important to have an internal communications strategy as well as an external one, as the best ambassadors for your firm are the people who work for you. Make sure they know what is going on in the company and in which direction it is heading, and how they can support company goals. Good internal comms, especially in hard economic times, is a key tool in minimising staff unrest. They reduce the risk of active 'badvocates' - disgruntled employees who send out rogue emails, post adverse comments online or leak confidential information.
When reaching out to an external audience, remember that no one individual or group is in total isolation and a company should think about communications in a wide context. You may target the regional press to keep your news as a local issue, but the trade media may become interested in your story and cover it in a different light. For example, the City and investors may be delighted to hear that Company A is embarking on a strategy to move production to a low-cost centre in the Far East: there may be short-term costs, but the move will transform its competitive position and turn it into a world leader. But the story might be less well received by the 2,000 workers losing their jobs. Some in the media may pat you on the back, while others will bemoan the mismanagement and lack of investment that brought about this tragic loss of UK jobs. You have to think in terms of a complete media strategy, rather than rushing headlong into communication for its own 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, pitch your case to the Yorkshire Post, not the Financial Times. If you've made a sales breakthrough in China, you'll go for both. A feature in a specialist trade magazine or coverage on a similar website can attract a thousand times more enquiries about your latest piece of kit than a 15-second TV slot.
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 multimillion-pound marketing budgets attract interest and a media following whether they choose to 'speak' or not. Journalists are inundated with information and when prioritising stories for reader interest, the news and views from lesser-known firms don't come to the forefront. SMEs must punch above 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 organisation as an expert in its industry. For example, Innocent Drinks was a risky venture undertaken by three university friends, but by taking an active approach in telling their story, showcasing the firm as an ethical and innovative business in a fast-growing market, they turned it into a leading drinks retailer.
Dealing with journalists is an important skill and many of my colleagues are ex-reporters who provide their clients with an ideal insight into the thinking of the 'other side'. Journalists are as keen as anyone to be helped in getting their job done well. Try to build a relationship with them 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 and noisy 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, preoccupied by the 17 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.
James Lohan and Tamara Heber-Percy, Mr & Mrs Smith: 'Why we chose to bring it in-house'
We worked with an agency for the first year. Rather than going to a book or travel specialist, we went to a lifestyle agency. We didn't want to be up against all the big travel firms, but with one that would get us in front of people reading Wallpaper or Esquire magazine. Using an external agency to begin with gives you the connections with journalists. There's also a bit of correlation - if you go to a fantastic PR you're saying: 'We're a brand you should listen to.'
After that, we brought it in-house. Our marketing team are experts on our business. Their knowledge of boutique hotels is far greater than that of a PR company executive working on various accounts. We both have a PR or marketing background, so we weren't too worried about doing it ourselves. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in marketing, but it's not that complicated. Good PR is based on good connections and a good product, well delivered to the press.
All our publicity is done with an irreverent twist. In the first year, we put a scantily clad couple in Foyles' window on Tottenham Court Road, London, lounging around on a bed for three days. We're lucky, because our 'tastemakers', the people who review our hotels, are often people in the public eye - from Dita Von Teese to Philip Treacy - so that generates some press.
The worst thing that can happen is for someone to come back from their weekend and say 'we had a terrible time'. The hot topic these days is how to deal with people slagging off your company online on sites like Twitter. We've got a clear policy of going straight back to them, and if they are public with their complaints, we'll be public back. We're thorough in checking the hotels we feature. We can't fix relationships though: if something's gone wrong with your husband or wife, we can't help.
James Watt, Brewdog: 'We're not scared of bad publicity'
The advertising budgets of big beer companies are phenomenal and trying to compete with that would be silly - we'd just get lost. Instead, we have a small PR and marketing budget to do things that are a bit edgy, a bit provocative, and we use that to drive the debate to show people there's an alternative to mainstream beer.
We spend a lot of time on the online and social media that we've produced ourselves. We then employ agencies intermittently to leverage their contacts and tell journalists about what we're up to. Being online levels the playing field - it's not about budgets, it's about content.
We make videos that involve people dressing up as penguins to tell the public in an informative but entertaining way how our beer is made. We also destroy rival beers for our videos: we've played golf with bottles of Heineken and Budweiser, done ten-pin bowling with a bottle of Becks, and we've been clay pigeon shooting with cans of Tennent's. People seem to like them too: our videos get up to 250,000 hits.
Our beers also attract media attention, as some of them are extremely strong. The most recent, 'End of History', was 55% proof, which raised some eyebrows, as did the packaging - the bottles were inside a stuffed squirrel or a stuffed stoat. Beer has been around for 10,000 years, and 'End of History' was the strongest that has ever been made, and we wanted to do something epic - so we chose to fuse beer and taxidermy.
All the animals we used were roadkill, so we didn't actually kill any, but it was still highly controversial. We're not scared of getting negative publicity, though - you can't keep everybody happy.
The media pick-up we got for that one was insane. Not only were we on TV and in the papers in the UK and Europe, we even made it onto Fox and CNN in the States. As a result, we've got a ton of new customers in export markets: we've sold beer to people in places like Mexico and China. And they only found out about us because of the publicity we generated with the 55% beer.
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. Read the publications you want to feature in and find out which journalists might be interested in your company.
2. Take a multimedia 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. Without evidence, claims to be unique or the best are worthless.
4. Know the messages that you want to get across and convey them clearly - waffle helps nobody.
5. Be ever helpful. Be ready to run over the background to your story 'yet again': most journalists are non-specialists. 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 in about a non-newsworthy story just before a deadline could lose you a useful contact.
2. Lie and 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 and threaten a journalist with drastic action, such as a lawsuit or an advertising boycott. Robert Maxwell withdrew ads from the Independent because it supported the arguments of the target company in his bidding battle. The editorial department immediately adopted a hardline attitude 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.