Viewing posts in "Public Relations"

The Value of Public Relations in a Softening Economy

By Pat McNamara

Marketers are once again feeling the squeeze of another economic hiccup as the convergence of the global credit crunch, inflation and the soaring dollar are hurting their pocket books.  As every marketing specialist knows, the corporate marketing budget is often the first casualty of a slumbering economy.

While this compulsion to halt the momentum of high times appears counterproductive, it is a reality many marketers must face.  Moreover, they are still expected to meet or exceed last year’s benchmarks despite a dwindling budget  There is an affordable and effective solution to weather this pressure — public relations.

I will be the first to admit the most powerful form of marketing and communications involves an integrated advertising and public relations strategy.  The former is unparalleled in building mass awareness and the latter is unmatched in bringing credibility and third party endorsements.  However, money is money and when it’s scarce and scattered over four quarters, public relations is a sensible solution.

So what is the value that public relations can bring to the table?

•    PR delivers:  Consumers’ reluctance and skepticism in a softening economy often translates to a need for more in-depth information.  PR can deliver a credible message through media relations, bylined articles, social media and even going directly to consumers through street campaigns.

•    Traditional is still effective:  Though it may appear old-fashioned, traditional means of getting out the message are actually some of the most effective. In fact the results of an independent research study, the APEX Influencer Report, indicate traditional media remain the most accessed and credible.  Carefully placed opinion pieces, bylined articles and press releases are just some of the cost-effective options available.

•    Time is on your side:  PR can turn on a dime.  A press release can be drafted within hours and a podcast can be produced virtually overnight. With public relations, an opportunity can be seized upon very quickly, which is crucial in a competitive business environment.

•    Getting online: With the proliferation of digital media, PR can now build mass marketing/media campaigns that transcend multiple channels, while maintaining the editorial integrity sought by consumers.

•    No worries about head count:  You can use experienced practitioners that you might not have in house, such as writers, designers or media trainers.  This also gives you access to their relationships with the media, government, special interest groups and other influencers.

•    Thinking in or outside the box: Public relations can provide the added creative kick you need. From placing a recruitment ad for hiring William Shatner as the new receptionist for Kellogg’s All Bran, to creating a series of coaching podcasts for BMO small business customers, PR can leverage your own internal creative ideas!

•     Make it measurable: As an industry, public relations has often been stigmatized for being unmeasurable. There is a new industry standard in town called Media Relations Points (MRP), a method that has been endorsed by both industry societies.

•    And most importantly, the cost: A public relations budget is typically 10 to15 per cent of a marketing budget. The great value of PR is that you can have a year-long campaign, or you can come in and out of the market at key times.

While at first blush a marketing budget cut might appear negative, think of it as an opportunity to get creative.  You can extend the advertising you do have and tie it into promotions and online contests; consider training your spokespeople to be not only experts on your products and services, but on the industry; send your products to influencers; try experimenting with your own blog.

A slower economy isn’t necessarily synonymous with an end to company positioning. By using public relations strategically, businesses can continue to deliver their messages while still reaching their target audiences.

Pat McNamara is the founder and President of APEX Public Relations Inc. and Chair of the Canadian Council of PR Firms.   For details of the APEX Influencer Report, go to www.apexpr.com

The Perils of RFP’s

By Patrick Gossage

They come in various forms and in various guises: requests for proposals, expressions of interest, requests for capabilities presentations, or in the case of some offshore corporations: “We’re coming to town on such and such a date and someone recommended your firm and we want to meet you.”

PR agencies are particularly vulnerable to putting a lot of effort out, only to find out that in fact the fix was in for another firm, that the company actually wanted to keep the incumbent, or worse they didn’t really need outside PR at all and were just on an idea shopping expedition.

Take this example from a well-known PR agency, which shall remain anonymous!

“About three years ago one of the world’s most opulent luxury airlines decided to bid out its business in Canada.  They were not flying here at the time – with no plans for the future.  There was no creative brief.

Nevertheless, we, like so many other Canadian agencies were up to the challenge of competing for the business and spent considerable time developing a comprehensive presentation to the airline’s spec — including a list of key media influencers and how to approach them.

In the end, no agency was hired, but the airline was fully equipped with all the inside knowledge of who and how to pitch their story; and not surprisingly took the work in-house and to its US agency”.

Worse still, many of us have gruesome examples of ideas we have presented in these beauty contests being outright stolen by the company, or the winning bidder. There is often little justice in the free-for-all of RFP’s.

With some exceptions. And they are very instructive and should be taken to heart by Canadian corporations.

The Ontario Provincial Government’s Advertising Review Board which doles out work to qualified PR firms for all outsourced government communications business over $25,000, has over the years, become an absolute model of fairness to our industry.

Not only does it discourage those participating in a competition from actually proposing strategic solutions or ideas relevant to the assignment (this solves the problem of stealing ideas), but it has a rigorous marking system to evaluate the agency’s capabilities related to the assignment. It is fair to a fault.

In addition their helpful staff is happy to tell you why you failed to win the assignment, where you scored lower than others. This is unprecedented in the world of RFP’s.

Even to be in the “pool” so that your agency is considered for Ontario Government assignments requires presenting and being marked on such relevant categories as Strategic Thinking/Problem solving.

Here you have to: Demonstrate how you solved a public relations problem with a strategic approach that made a measurable contribution to a client’s business.

If only private sector clients would make it a routine to rate us with such rigor!

Patrick Gossage, a veteran commentator, political strategist and PR practitioner is founder and Chairman of Media Profile and a  member of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms.

Dan Tisch, President of Argyle Communications

Dan Tisch is President of Argyle Communications in Toronto. Recently, we had a conversation about how Argyle focuses its business and prepares for an economic downturn, the importance of measurement to public relations, the career path that Dan followed to the Presidency of Argyle, and the advice that Dan offers to young people attempting to land their first job in PR.

Argyle was established in 1979, making it one of Canada’s oldest independent PR firms. Noting that many of his current consultants weren’t even born when the firm was established, Dan observes, “There’s something about being associated with a firm that has this level of longevity that makes you think about communications and client relationships as a long-term process.”

Argyle focuses on “sectors of the economy that have a lot of growth and promise.” The firm’s areas of practice include consumer marketing (Nestle, Enterprise Rent a Car), corporate communications for public companies, technology communications and consumer health communications. Argyle is also one of the firms qualified in the Ontario government’s PR pool.

The team at Argyle takes award programs seriously, seeing that as a way to benchmark themselves against the industry. (We conducted our interview in front of a wall bearing numerous industry awards won by Argyle. Clearly, they’ve done well in pursuing this strategy.)

Dan sees an opening for PR firms in an economic downturn. Tough times drive marketers and corporations to examine their budgets and pare back activities that offer the lowest return on investment (ROI). Public relations firms can that public relations offers greater value for the marketing dollar than other forms of communication. Dan suggests that the demonstration of PR’s value should be an industry-wide initiative. (It’s worth noting that this is one of the primary objectives that the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms has defined for itself this year.)

Measurement is essential to demonstrating the value of public relations. And it has traditionally been public relations’ weakness. Dan feels that the Canadian PR industry is making good progress turning this situation around. He points to the Media Relations Rating Points (MRP) standard that has been defined in Canada. As this system evolves and is adopted by a broader range of users, it is providing not only a means of measuring audience, but also a means of measuring cost per contact, cost per impression and the ROI of public relations.

Politics and government have proven fertile ground for developing PR industry leaders. Dan comes out of this tradition. He started his career working for Canadian Cabinet Ministers and government departments. From there, he moved to Environics Communications. He became a partner in Argyle when Environics acquired the company in 2002 and the next year, he became Argyle’s President.

What advice does he offer to young people who want to break into the PR industry? “Get an academic grounding in PR. It is a differentiator that shows you know the basics” when you are seeking your first job. Secondly, research, learn and know the business you aspire to work in. Finally, have the right attitude. In the early part of your career, you’ll be asked to do many things, not just the things you may have set out to do. “You have to be versatile. You have to be adaptable. You have to be receptive to change.”

You can watch the complete video of our interview here.

Who says PR doesn’t have a sense of humour?

For most of the past 20 years, Terry Fallis has been my business partner – first at Hill and Knowlton and since 1995, at Thornley Fallis.

So it was big news today that Terry‘s novel The Best Laid Plans has been short-listed for the 2007 Steven Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

Terry and his novel are keeping some pretty impressive company. The other short-listed novels and authors are: Douglas Coupland The Gum Thief, Will Ferguson (Spanish Fly), Scott Gardiner (King John of Canada) and Ron Wood (And God Created Manyberries.) Past winners of the award include: Robertson Davies, Earle Birney, Pierre Berton, Harry Boyle, George Bain, Richard J. Needham, Max Ferguson, Farley Mowat, Mordecai Richler, Stuart McLean, and W.O. Mitchell.

The Best Laid PlansTerry originally launched the novel through a podcast reading.

I read the book when Terry published it and I have to say it kept me chuckling well into the evening.

It just goes to show that you will meet some of the most interesting (and funny) people at a public relations firm.

Pat Gossage, Chairman of Media Profile

Pat Gossage founded independent Canadian PR firm Media Profile in 1985. Recently, he initiated a succession process to pass the firm’s ownership into the hands of Media Profile’s employees.

Pat talked with me recently about why he founded the firm, the kind of place he tried to make it, the succession process and the advice he would offer to young people considering a career in public relations.

Some of the highlights:

What makes Media Profile a special place?

“I wanted a firm I enjoyed coming to work at every day. And I wanted a firm that had a pleasant, accepting and respectful atmosphere amongst its workers. A lot of teamwork. Bringing people up from within rather than parachuting from above. I was much more interested in creating a culture than creating a big, successful firm. The culture is here and the success followed.”

On client relations:

“The other thing we stress is being incredibly attentive to clients. We’re good listeners. Somebody once told me that when you are listening to the client your are winning. That’s been a theory we’ve put into practice and it’s been an important aspect of us winning and keeping clients.”

Advice to young people considering a career in public relations:

“The atmosphere in an office is very important. … It’s whether you want to come to work at a firm and whether the senior people are accessible, whether there’s a mentoring program, all the things that will allow you to build on your skills over time. And stay with one firm, which is very important to all of us in public relations, so that we have continuity with our people. That’s what the client respects. The client doesn’t want to be dealing with different people every couple of years.”

You can watch the complete interview here:

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What education helps you get a job in PR?

Kerri Birtch posted a comment in response to the video interview with Porter Novelli Canada President Trevor Campbell in which she asked, “what level of education is necessary or valued in the industry?”

Good question.

If you are responsible for hiring new employees at a PR firm, please leave a comment to let us know what education you value or look for in a new employee.

Profiles of Canada’s public relations firms

Canada's top PR professionalsWho leads Canada’s public relations firms? How did they get to where they are? What do they think makes each of their firms special? What advice would they give to young people who would like to pursue a career in public relations?

Next week, we’ll start a new series of video interviews in which I pose these questions to the leaders of Canada’s top public relations firms. We hope that these interviews will be of interest to anyone considering a career in public relations or just about anyone who wants to get a sense of who the key decision makers are in Canada’s public relations industry.

So, if you’re curious about Canada’s public relations industry and the people who head up the country’s major PR firms, subscribe to our feed and you’ll receive a stream of biweekly interviews.

Social media means opportunity for public relations practitioners

I frequently am asked the question, “Where does social media belong – with advertising or public relations?” My answer invariably is that it resides with those people who have the imagination and intelligence to explore and understand social media’s potential.

Joseph ThornleySome of those people may come from advertising backgrounds, some from public relations, some from journalism, some from technology, some from other places. My own social media community reflects this blend. My feedreader includes social media opinion leaders who started out in advertising, public relations, journalism, design, marketing, government, and other diverse places. Their backgrounds are disparate. But they all share in common an intellectual curiosity and willingness to take risks.

Having said this, I do feel that social media presents an unprecedented opportunity for public relations practitioners who embrace it.

The driving force of social media is people’s desire to connect with others. Public relations’ focus on conversation and relationships attunes PR practitioners to social media and its potential for community building and long term relationships between organizations and communities of interest.

Social media require skills that public relations practitioners have – listening, analysis, clear writing and speaking and, above all, a sensitivity to the interests and needs of the community. Defining and understanding the interests and predispositions of “target audiences” has long been a mainstay of public relations.We should be able to master the shift in perspective from “audience” to “community of interest” and from mediated communication to conversational communications.

Off the gridThe new realm of public relations is in defining and understanding communities of interest. Who are they? What brings them together? How can you contribute? What do you have that they might value, want and appreciate? What is their culture? This requires the skills we’ve always had – to listen, to frame content in a way that is meaningful and responds to the interests of the person at the other end of the line; to communicate clearly; to respect others’ time and attention.

The rewards will be great for PR pros who embrace social media.

We will expand the scope of our practice, escaping the shackles of media relations by joining and contributing to communities of interest, without intermediaries, in our own voices. Let me say that again – in our own voices. No ghost writing wanted.

We will gain attention from key decision makers looking for strategic insight about what these new media mean for their organizations.The need for authenticity presents the opportunity to build a practice on the provision of solid strategic advice to forward looking clients who see the potential but seek expert guidance. No arms and legs work here.

52 facesOf course, we must do it right. Success in social media will come only if we open ourselves to new possibilities and explore them with energy and patience. And above all, if public relations professionals are to fully realize the potential that social media has for our practice, we must be open about sharing our experience and knowledge with one another.

The advantage of proprietary information is ephemeral in a world of open sourcing and peer creation. The successful practitioner will realize that we all rise on a common tide of understanding and expertise.

The true winners will be those who are seen to give more than they receive, who truly understand the gift economy and the culture of generosity. Success in social media starts with this understanding.

This post is cross-posted from ProPR.ca.

PR in a Web 2.0 World

The 35 years I have spent as a public relations professional have provided me with a healthy dose of experience and good judgment – enough to guide me through challenging and often complex cases. But who says that an old dog can’t learn a new trick or two? This “old dog” has actually found it thrilling to wade into the brave new world of social media with a vocabulary that sounds like a sci-fi dictionary. My younger colleagues seem to find humour in the fact that I actually understand the meaning of wikis, vlogs, aggregators, metadata and ajax (a scripting language. not the household cleaner)!

As I see it, social media is probably one of the most exciting phenomena to impact the communications industry and I dare say that public relations professionals are ideally suited to embrace the potential of Web 2.0. It is not hard to understand why.

In the simplest sense, we are in the business of helping to build relationships between an organization and its varied publics. And this is where the world has changed. Communication is no longer about persuasion; it’s about conversation, and this conversation is happening online. It’s happening in increments of seconds and minutes. As a result, public relations professionals have had to completely rethink such tools as media kits, news conferences, editorial tours and press releases.

The launch of the U.S. Democratic Party’s presidential campaign was a striking example of the power of social media, as was the CNN-YouTube Democratic Debate. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama chose to speak to voters directly, in their own homes, via the internet. Imagine the impact this event had on the supply chain, including rentals of campaign buses, accommodations, media services and staffing?

As a result, we need to dramatically transform the way we think, the strategic counsel we provide and the tactics we recommend.

Consider the facts: More than 70 per cent of Canadians are online; there are currently over 55 million blogs, with the blogosphere doubling every six months; podcasts outnumber radio stations and online social networks are outpopulating cities, provinces and countries. Stakeholders are now able to hunt for information 24 hours a day, seven days a week and they have unparalleled access to information.

By definition, social media describes the online tools and platforms that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences and perspectives with each other. The web has opened the floodgates to citizen journalism, whereby volunteer journalists contribute to the news effort, often much faster than mainstream print and broadcast media. Access and dissemination of news no longer belongs to a select few who determine what is or isn’t important. Virtual communities, made up of those sharing common interests in cyberspace rather than in physical space, are able to exercise considerable influence through discussion groups, chat rooms, listserves and newsgroups. For the PR industry, this represents a real opportunity to apply our intrinsic skills in developing content and engaging publics using new and improved technologies. Press releases need to be short and concise and contain hyperlinks and smart keyword placement to optimize searches.

The inherent integrity characteristic of social media communication fits beautifully with the notion of third-party endorsement and credibility, which remain hallmarks of the practice of public relations. Online communities can spot a fraud from a mile away and if they are not certain about the validity of a claim, they will collaborate to verify the information. Now more than ever, transparency is a must.

Carol Levine APR
Communications MECA,
Public Relations

Lack of PR Coverage in Marketing Magazine

This is a letter that I sent to Marketing Magazine regarding their coverage of the PR industry.  Since they did not run it and I think it is of interest to everyone in the PR industry, I’m posting it here.

As an accredited PR professional, president of APEX Public Relations and Chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms I would like to state my dissatisfaction with your coverage of our industry.  PR is an essential and growing part of the marketing mix, yet Marketing Magazine has done little to recognize the increasing importance of this discipline. 
The redesign of your magazine provided a portent of hope for improvement.  With an expanded editorial format and a stated interest to “re-think everything,” what a perfect time to put more focus on PR.  While your increased attention on social media issues is encouraging, the continued lack of focus on our industry is disappointing.
What is even more discouraging is that your “special issue” Public Relations Resource Book provides absolutely no unbiased editorial content, and is ultimately a collection of advertorials funded by the mandatory purchase of an accompanying advertisement.  While many of us have protested this approach in the past, it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
The nature of our business is to earn the trust of journalists and provide them with background information and spokespeople in the development of their stories.  In other words, we earn coverage, not pay for it. Your PR Resource guide’s departure from a journalistic approach and coverage of our industry is very disappointing. While advertorials are a legitimate method of promotion, and one often used by PR professionals, it should not be the sole vehicle for coverage of our industry in Marketing.
According to your marketing materials, your advertorial approach is actually “a unique opportunity to highlight what sets your business apart from the rest of the pack.”  In other words, it’s okay for PR professionals and groups to pay for and write our own articles (even though it compromises our professional ethics), while you’re busy providing free, journalistic coverage to the rest of the marketing industry.  
Like many marketing disciplines, PR is going through a transformation.  While it is a rising star amongst marketers around the world, there are best practices, challenges and key learnings accompanying any PR initiative.  Open dialogue, discussion and consultation with PR experts and reviews of user experiences are what should be incorporated into your PR guide and general coverage; not unedited, paid-for advertorial content.
While I know this will have little impact on your business, for the first time in our eight year history we have decided to withdraw our listing ad.  I hope others in our industry follow suit.

Pat McNamara, APR

President, APEX Public Relations