| Public Relations: The Grand Dame of Marketing
Last year, hardly a week went by where Microsoft wasn't on the front pages of the nation's news media. Judiciously sprinkled between news of the government's anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft were headlines exclaiming million-dollar donations to education programs, and appearances by Bill Gates as philosopher-king on PBS' Charlie Rose program, as techno-guru at tradeshows, and as generous benefactor to the homeless, hapless and digitally divided on the evening news. In case you hadn't guessed, these good-news items were not happenstance; they were all part of a carefully crafted public relations strategy designed to counter bad news events. It's a perfect example of the power of public relations.
Advantages And Disadvantages
Unlike advertising and direct marketing campaigns in which specific offers can be made and monitored via response mechanisms, the benefits of public relations is difficult to measure. Because much of the value of public relations is in image and credibility, it is also a long-term commitment-a minimum of a year-in order for a strategy's effectiveness to be realized. Whereas advertising and direct marketing may be thought of as campaigns, public relations should be regarded as a key component to a company's on-going marketing efforts, year in and year out.
In addition to PR's crucial role in building credibility with customers, employees, new recruits and the media, the great advantage of PR over both advertising and direct marketing is its relative low cost. While PR programs for marquee clients such as Microsoft will cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars per month in agency fees, most companies can implement an effective PR strategy with far less.
What exactly is public relations? A PR program may involve a number of activities, ranging from publicity, speakers bureaus and media training to crisis management, lobbying and analyst tours. Selection of the right combination of PR activities depends on a company's objectives.
For instance, a company entering a new market may choose to focus on raising its visibility prior to launching sales efforts, for which publicity alone may suffice. On the other hand, a pre-IPO dot-com is more likely to need a broader-base program, consisting of publicity, media and analyst tours and tradeshow engagements. One of my company's clients-a large European-based CRM company wishing to establish a presence in the U.S.-is a good example of the latter. Working with the company's PR firm in Belgium, we edit and distribute press releases for the U.S. market, arrange analyst and media tours, and pitch U.S. trade and business press for feature coverage.
Critical to every successful PR effort is the development of a clear, concise and resonant positioning statement. To build an effective message, a PR firm will research the company and its competition. Sometimes several positioning messages are required, as in the case of companies with multiple sales channels. Used primarily as an internal document, the positioning statement provides the foundation from which all PR messages are crafted.
Once the positioning statement is agreed upon, a PR firm will design a strategy for implementation, typically beginning with publicity pitches to trade media. The reason for starting with the trades is simple: Trade publication editors welcome industry news. They are more likely to give more "ink" to an industry story. And feature articles in reputable trade publications lend credence to an organization's pitches to other media outlets, such as the business press.
By-lined columns are another effective public relations tool, particularly as a positioning and brand-building tactic. My company ghost-writes monthly columns in several customer-specific publications on behalf of key printing executives. Positioning themselves and their companies as industry authorities, the columnists range from printing company presidents and production managers to vice presidents of sales and marketing.
Regular distribution of press releases is another important component of effective PR, particularly for developing media relationships. Dot-coms, not to mention the Microsofts of the world, have become master press release machines, routinely churning out releases on news about everything from software updates and negotiations with a new affiliate to the president of a company buying a new home and announcing the birth of a baby.
While it shouldn't be expected that the media will use every (or any) release, their value is in keeping the media aware of a company's name and activities. In many cases, editors will file releases as background for larger stories. The CRM client I mentioned earlier was recently written up in a high-profile trade publication story about CRM sales in the global marketplace, simply because we'd sent out a release quoting our client on the subject.
The Business Press
As one would imagine, editors of major daily newspapers and leading online and print business magazines are inundated with press releases and feature pitch ideas from PR agents. To be successful, a PR effort involves lots of research and daily monitoring of stories in targeted publications. The feature story pitch most likely to be heard will be one that:
In short, the more targeted your pitch to a publication's editor and subject matter, the better your chances of getting notice.
One important difference to keep in mind when dealing with trade and business media is in the writing. Trades typically have fewer resources and, thus, will rely more on outsourced writers, including PR agents. If a PR firm is well-known and respected by a trade publication editor, it may be asked to write the story, which gives a company more control over content. On the other hand, leading business publications generally have on-staff writers who are assigned stories by editors, a situation which sometimes can result in unflattering or inaccurate coverage. One such incident occurred recently when my firm landed a feature for a client in a major Bay Area business journal. Not only was our client's name misspelled, the story's headline was totally misleading and out of context. In my next column, I'll talk more about dealing with the press and other public relations tools that can play a vital role in marketing efforts.
Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.
© 2000 Charlotte Mills Seligman
January 24, 2000