What is Public Relations?

February 15, 2012 at 8:17 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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As a sales trainer, I am often asked about the difference between branding, marketing, advertising and public relations. I thought that I’d go straight to an expert, Alan Winnikoff of Sayles & Winnikoff Communications and ask him to weigh in and clarify a couple of key points.

It’s pretty enlightening.

What is Public Relations?

PR is the art of getting you, your product, your service or your company into the media, which is defined as TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs, as well as social media.  It pertains strictly to editorial coverage. It’s not advertising.

How does it differ from marketing and branding?

It’s a great question because the answer is constantly evolving.  Traditionally, PR is one discipline under the marketing umbrella.  Today, however, the line between where PR stops and other branches of marketing begin is much fuzzier than it once was.  Social media is a great example of that fuzzy line.  To be successful in PR today, you have to understand and be able to manage and execute social media campaigns. Many of our clients expect that to be within our scope of services. Yet, many marketing companies fill a similar role.

So there is more overlap than ever between PR and the rest of marketing. Those borders will probably continue to shift as the media landscape keeps changing. With that said, there are a lot of things PR people don’t do and never will. For example, we sometimes are asked to do advertising campaigns for prospective clients.  As noted above, we don’t do advertising and don’t have an expertise in it.  What we do offer are a range of strategic partners. Those partners enable us to offer clients a much broader scope of services.

When I started in PR, our mission was considerably more tactical:  Get your client ink. Period.  Now much of our time is spent helping clients figure out their positioning and branding. This needs to be done – and done well – before we ever make a single call to the press.  This is because just getting the client into the media not enough.  Context is critical. The story has to help drive your client’s business objectives.

PR professionals are much more marketing strategists than we were 20 or even 10 years ago.  That is a huge qualitative difference.  PR has become more sophisticated and complex than it was back in the day.

Can PR be relevant for small businesses or is it really only for large companies?

PR can be a great service for small businesses and start ups.  Editorial coverage is always more credible to the end user than advertising.  However, it’s tricky because, while everyone wants to see their business in the press, there are some hard questions that need to be asked first.  Primary among those is: What is your news hook? You may have a nice business, but just doing well isn’t enough to get that ink you’re looking for.  We live in an extremely competitive and fast paced media environment.  Journalists need news to be able to write about you.

As PR professionals, it’s our job to listen to your story, process all of the information you throw at us and figure out the news hooks.  A good PR person can almost always dig out and articulate that compelling angle.  It’s what we are trained to do.

There have been times (fortunately rare) when we’ve had to walk away from a potential project, just because there’s no there there.  It’s easy for everyone close to a project to drink the Kool-Aid and believe that there is an appealing story to tell.  But journalists are the final arbiter. If it’s not compelling, they will quickly throw cold water on it.

It’s always difficult to turn down business, but experience has taught us that occasionally (with apologies to Charles Dickens) it is a far, far better thing to pass on a project than to have everyone frustrated – the client, the journalist and the agency.

What exactly does a PR firm do?

Our job is both strategic and tactical.  As discussed above, the strategy involves developing positioning, finding the news story and figuring out the best way to articulate it.  Then we put a plan of action into place that is a roadmap for achieving the agreed upon objectives.  Usually we write a press release, a short email pitch and other documents to support our pitch.  At that point we can begin to reach out to the media with the story.

We offer both business-to-business (b-to-b) and business-to-consumer (b-to-c) PR.  The process is similar but the execution can be very different.  In a b-to-b campaign, we focus on additional objectives, such as speaking opportunities and bylined articles.  With b-to-b, we are aiming to reach a specific audience that will help our clients connect to their potential customers, so the messaging is extremely targeted.  If you are going to do b-to-b PR, you need to be able to talk about your client’s business as fluently as the client does.  So you need to be a quick study!

Consumer PR is a bit easier to grasp.  If you have a product for moms, you want to reach moms.  If you have a TV show, you want to go after the TV critics.  Chances are, the pitch is simpler.  On the other hand, the expectations can be higher. One well placed story for a b-to-b client, in The Wall Street Journal, say, can make you a hero. If you are pitching a TV show premiere, you are expected to generate a massive amount of hits.

Clients also often want to see creative ideas, such as events, stunts and email marketing campaigns, to name just a few.  While nuts & bolts PR is still an essential part of any campaign, ‘cookie-cutter’ is a dirty word in our business.  Clients assume that to break through the clutter, you are going to have to come up with some pretty impressive original thinking and you’d better be prepared to show you’ve got the goods.

Then there is the question of return on investment.  In a difficult economy, where every dollar must be accounted for, everyone wants to know ROI.  PR, unfortunately, doesn’t always work that way.  It can be difficult to quantify precisely what success looks like.  We sometimes have clients who want to know exactly how many eyeballs we will reach, the reach and frequency and the dollar value.  PR resists those kinds of benchmarks.  We can provide circulation numbers, for example, but what does that really tell you? So, hiring a PR firm can be a bit of leap of faith. And, even when we get great press coverage, it doesn’t guarantee you are going to see more sales or more viewers or more business.  A well executed PR campaign builds awareness – motivating the end user to move beyond that call to action is not guaranteed.

What’s the best way to start an engagement with a PR firm?

The above should give you a pretty good idea of what to ask for.  Sit down with the firm and tell them your story.  Then listen to how they respond.  Do they really get you, are they able to articulate the news hooks, do they have a sense of where to take this story and how to roll it out?

PR firms are usually averse to writing proposals because a good proposal is hard to do!  It requires significant brainpower, creativity and time, all of which are finite resources, at best, on any given day.  But (and I will probably live to regret saying this), if I were on the other side, I would insist on a proposal. I would particularly want to see that roadmap I referred to earlier. Let’s see what the agency has in mind and how are they going to differentiate what you are selling from everything else out there.

I do strongly advocate that you refrain from asking an agency for a proposal unless you are serious.  It’s very frustrating for a PR firm to spend the time and effort writing a proposal when a prospective client is just kicking tires.  Respect our time and our professionalism.  Too many times, a prospective client is more than happy to take a proposal (“Hey, sure, why not?”), knowing that the request is not really going to go anywhere.

Once you retain a PR firm, keep your expectations realistic.  You probably won’t get onto The Today Show or into The New York Times or People Magazine unless you have something pretty significant to say.  Sometimes, a slow build grassroots campaign, with coverage in a lot of smaller media outlets, blogs and social media, can be as effective as the big ‘home run.’ Also remember that it often takes a while for the stories to actually develop. You aren’t going to see your first press hit on the day you sign the LOA.  So be patient.  You have the right to demand to know the status of things and your agency should be keeping you closely updated as to its progress.  But stories can sometimes percolate for weeks or longer before they see the light of day.

Alan Winnikoff is co-principal of Sayles & Winnikoff Communications, a boutique PR firm with offices in New York City and New Jersey and strategic affiliates in Los Angeles and London.  The firm specializes in arts, media and entertainment clients, as well as non-profits.  The firm has a sub-specialty in content, projects and businesses for kids, families and parents.

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The Not So New Phenomenon Known As Branding

January 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Posted in Branding | 1 Comment
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I’ve been in business for more than 20 years and during that time have worked with hundreds of companies across pretty much every vertical and in organizations large and small.

Back in the day my clients hardly (Mmmm, perhaps never) said the word “brand” but in our sales strategy meetings we talked about:

  • Why do customers buy from you versus your competition?
  • What do people say when they talk about your product/service?
  • What’s the perception of your company?
  • What makes your company different?
  • How do you improve your customer’s situation / experience?

And so on.

The word brand wasn’t mentioned but what I do know is that we drilled down on much of what is discussed in today’s branding sessions.

So what’s my point?  Simple.

It is logical that a strong, well-respected brand should help to increase sales. Yes, should help, but cannot guarantee, greater sales. Why?  Well that’s simple too.

Having a strong brand doesn’t ensure that a tightly aligned sales process is in place or that the folks that are tasked with going out and bringing in the business are even competent to do so.  It doesn’t ensure that sales conversations with potential customers will be done exquisitely and with finesse.

Want to be successful?

Develop your brand but make sure that the folks involved with actually “selling” the products (or services, it hardly makes a difference) are actually ready to perform at the highest level and that the infrastructure is in place to support them.

Really want ROI from your branding efforts? Make sure that you’re paying an equal amount of attention to the sales component as well as to branding and marketing.

Bridge the gap and be more profitable. Really.

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