12 October 2020
If you’ve come to this post wondering how to write a press release, you’re going to have to wait for it. While that’s usually one of the first questions I hear about public relations, you will see—I hope—that there is a bit more to PR than publicity. Plenty of people answer what is public relations with something that defines it as a communication discipline: As how you or your brand have a conversation with customers, tell your story, etc. The fast-talking publicist or press agent from the movies, or the self-styled political spin doctors are easily accessible and tend to dominate the popular image of what public relations is. They’re the most visible and, let’s face it, those folks like being visible. This perception truly bothers some of my sisters and brothers in the field, who perhaps are missing the irony of public relations professionals complaining about what the public should think. Still, it’s to be expected. That part of the job tends to be the most prominent thing we do, despite all the behind-the-scenes strategy and planning that precedes it. But in truth, answering “what is public relations” would require a deep dive into a number of disciplines. As far as publicity goes, with fewer news outlets at every level—and those remaining media staffed by fewer and fewer reporters and editors—modern public relations requires a much bigger toolbox. So … What Is Public Relations Exactly? Public relations is building and maintaining relationships with the people and groups (those different “publics”) who influence your success. That can include customers, naturally, but also internal audiences like employees and agents or franchisees, outside groups with a special interest in your policies or processes, the communities where you operate, and journalists, reviewers or analysts who follow your industry. Communication is an important part of any relationship, but it never will be the only part. That’s exactly why public relations is more a management discipline than a communications profession. Communication is not shouting all of your virtues at whoever will listen. Nobody likes the guy at the party who only talks about himself, anyway. Always remember that your brand relationships have one important thing in common with your personal relationships: It’s not about what you say. It’s about what you do. Public relations is listening. Public relations is understanding your audience. Public relations is doing. Public relations is demonstrating what you do. What Is Public Relations? Start with Community Engagement One of the reasons you see so much cause marketing in advertising is because it works. People like to spend their money with brands and companies who share the same values, beliefs and passions that they do. That’s not to say that you have to agree with every single opinion every one of your customers holds. It also doesn’t require that your residential HVAC company sponsor an Olympic team to demonstrate your patriotism. But there are common values that most of your current and potential customers likely share and showing a commitment to those values can go a long way to earning their trust. Things like the quality of life in the community you share. You also may demonstrate a commitment to public or specialized education in your town. Supporting park systems or the arts are reliably noncontroversial and can align your company with a broad audience. Likewise, celebrating the history of your community or the contributions of neighborhood organizations is always popular. The actual areas of engagement you settle on for your company or brand will depend on a number of different factors. These include the specific needs in the communities where you want to foster relationships, the personal interests of your owners and leadership, and the investments in time, money and other resources you’re willing to commit. These are important considerations because relationships are not built on a multitude of drive-by interactions but rather on a sustained dialog with the people in the community. Telling Your Story You knew we’d come back to this, right? Because all the good works and engagement that your brand invests in don’t serve a business objective if nobody knows about it. Companies, after all, don’t go to heaven. You will want to reach out to newsrooms, trade journals, bloggers, social influencers and special interest groups to tell them all about what your company does that aligns with their interests. But first, you will want to put it in the context of the bigger story—your brand narrative—about an organization that does more than just sell a product or service that people want. It cares about the same things and the same causes and is an active part of their communities. But more on that later. First, create a story to tell. That’s what public relations is.
28 July 2020
There’s a saying among litigators that goes something like this: If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither is on your side, pound the table. The thing about that maxim is that it works equally well as a mocking review of almost any argument with which you disagree, or as pretty solid career advice for anyone who aspires to persuade people for a living. Like lawyers. Or advertisers. That’s because marketing strategy depends on having a conversation with your customers that is both relevant to them and highlights the specific benefits of your brand. In the late 1960s, major home appliances like washing machines had become harder for advertisers to differentiate. The performance and features offered by the big manufacturers were pretty comparable, particularly when it came to higher-end models. But one copywriter at Leo Burnett found a way to frame the purchasing decision in a way that ensured his client would definitely stand out. The insight pointed out the worst part of owning a major appliance was when it stopped working. Other, larger competitors pointed to their national networks of factory-trained repair technicians, but based on that insight, they were making the wrong case. And so, the Maytag Repairman came to be. With a single idea, Maytag changed the conversation from which machine was bigger or got whites brighter to which one you could actually depend on. Framed that way, Maytag would continue to chip away at the market share of its much larger competitors for another 35 years or so, when one of them finally gave in and bought the company. Combine a new insight with a creative idea and you’ve got a powerful force. These are the proverbial unicorns—those truly revolutionary products that are exactly what everybody wanted or needed and just didn’t know it until a new gizmo came along. This week in particular, air conditioning comes to mind. But if your brand has real competition, and your customers have real options, you’ll likely benefit from framing the discussion to the context that best suits your benefits. Which conversation you decide to have can make all the difference.
19 June 2020
Consumers adapted to COVID-19 restrictions in many different ways—and marketers have had to shift gears with them. It’s more than demand moving to no-contact pickup and delivery options. Buying habits have changed quickly, with people purchasing more of some staples (see: Toilet Paper, Booze), and spending less on other things like hair products … and pants. Some of these changes will disappear as quickly as the social distancing markers on the floor at your grocery store. Others might stick around in different forms. As our Natalie Shawver pointed out a couple of weeks ago, there are more than a few we wouldn’t mind keeping. Our client Holman RV is seeing that play out right now. Families eager to maintain the tradition of summer travel are increasingly seeing travel campers and other recreational vehicles as a way to tour the country in a more controlled environment. Will the market stay this strong forever? Probably not. But a lot of families are having a new experience because of the crisis. They’re trying new things and, as marketers, we’re all on notice to pay attention to their evolving preferences. Because it’s a safe bet that many of them will keep some of those preferences, even when the signs and the masks are gone. http://stgregory.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Jun-20-COVID-RV-sales.mp4 This post is part of a series on marketing during and after the pandemic. To read the others, follow this link.
23 March 2020
There’s no communication playbook for the current public health emergency. Nobody alive has ever faced this particular communication challenge, let alone in the context of worldwide, always-on keyboard commentary. But there are some consistent principles. Make it about them It may be a matter of great professional pride that your IT team has managed to scale up access to the VPN and add remote back-up functionality to your EOS on such short notice, but are these details your customers and vendors actually need right now? Do a quick scan of your inbox folder. How many COVID-19 messages have you gotten in the last week? Or, the last 24 hours, even? How many did you read from beginning to end? Just like we learned to ignore irrelevant online ads, we’ve all trained ourselves to skip over the corporate messages that don’t have meaning or value for us, personally. Skip to the part in your communication where you get to “What This Means to You.” Consider opening with that. And, if your compliance people will go along, consider closing with it, too. Be human We’re communicating in tense times about serious issues. It’s even more tempting than usual to rely on corporate-speak. Utilizing one’s multisyllabic vocabulary when your smaller words will do is not just less clear, it’s exhausting. There’s no reason your news release, customer email, vendor letter or social media post should sound like it was written by a committee of insecure law school applicants. You’re talking to people. Be compassionate Speaking of talking to people, many of them are confused and some are downright scared. The changes you’re announcing or the new process your organization is following might mean anything from a reassurance or an inconvenience to a genuine problem for your audience. Remember, this is about them, so take responsibility for that. To whatever extent you can control, be flexible in individual cases, but mostly, admit that this is an issue and that the people behind your brand are trying their best to minimize the disruption to the people in front of you. Stay in your lane You’re a smart person. You know lots of things about lots of things. But unless you actually are an epidemiologist or a public health expert, don’t sound like you think you are one. Reminding customers and visitors that your organization is following social distancing procedures is fine. But if you want to share best practices, preventative measures or treatment protocols with your employees or outside audiences, direct them to actual experts in those fields. It’s fine if you want to hand out the local health department’s flier or share a link to the CDC website, but shoehorning health tips and other technical information about the wider situation just distracts from what you set out to communicate in the first place. It also risks damaging the credibility of your brand. This post is part of a series on marketing during and after the pandemic. To read the others, follow this link.
26 February 2020
Your business-to-business campaign clearly explains the advantages of your product. Your sales team has demonstrated the ease of operation, heuristic design and how it fits into your customer’s process. You’ve checked every box the decision maker needs to make an informed, rational, solid business decision. Still … nothing. Why does it take so long to make what you know is the obvious choice? Sometimes as marketers we lose sight of who’s making the purchase decision … and how. Our target customer may be an owner, operations manager, a manufacturing VP, a design engineer or some other business decision-maker. These are professionals who can be counted on to evaluate benefits, lifetime cost and ROI, and they surely use these metrics to explain their choices in the board room. But your customers are not just rational economic actors: They’re human beings. And people can’t help but make decisions with their emotions first. In addition to your customers’ business needs, how will going with your offering affect her or him personally? There are some questions that never get asked out loud. Sure, maybe it does everything you say, but am I going to have to fight with shipping to take advantage of all those features? Is my family going to forget what I look like while we’re switching over? Of course, it can be adjusted quickly and easily, but am I going to be taking calls from the production floor all weekend? All the research in the world is no substitute for understanding your audience as real-live people. There’s a good chance your decision makers are worried about more than their business. They’re worried about their jobs. And their lives. If your marketing can answer the questions that never get asked out loud, you can win their hearts. Their minds will follow.
19 February 2020
Despite an era of digital connectivity and easy access to information, there’s still no substitute for real-life experience. We all want to see the elephant for ourselves. Or the dual-outboard 900-horsepower pontoon boat as the case may be. That’s what we saw a couple of weeks ago as our Client Renfro Productions raised the curtain on their new edition of the Ford Cincinnati Travel, Sports & Boat Show. A consumer show for outdoor enthusiasts presents the easy paradox of requiring attendees to be indoors and surrounded by tens of thousands of other people who also prefer solitude and open spaces. And yet they came. For 63 years now, this show has curated the top experts and equipment for fishing, hunting, boating, powersports, adventure travel and more from across North America. But just as important, it brings together enthusiasts, giving them the opportunity to share their knowledge, experiences and secrets. Despite all the technology, people will always want to be around people like them. We are naturally attracted to others with a shared experience (family holiday gatherings excepted). That makes the crowds of other outdoor enthusiasts a feature. Every year around Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, tens of thousands of people who share a different sort of common identity come together to build a city that lasts only eight days. Artists, performers, self-expressionists, individualists and myriad other non-conformists travel hundreds or even thousands of miles just to spend a week with their own tribe. Most (ahem) of what they do in the desert could just as easily be done at home. And yet they come. To belong to something they feel a part of. Like people do.
30 October 2019
As Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg headed to Capitol Hill for his two days of ritual public humiliation over the 737 Max, his company took out full-page ads in several major newspapers. We’ll leave it to others to dissect the executive’s performance and the reaction of his brand, but the situation is a useful reminder that at some point every organization will face an angry, frustrated or just disappointed audience. Obviously, we can’t run around like a bunch of cartoon characters offering a heartfelt apology for every unfortunate circumstance. But when our own action or inaction clearly lead to an unpleasant outcome, an effective apology can help you (a neighbor, a spouse, an anthropomorphized brand) regain trust. Customers in general are open to forgiving a brand that takes responsibility and expresses regret for its own actions or failures—and it certainly beats blaming somebody else on this score. However, it’s only effective when done properly. These are polite norms that we all kinda, sorta know intuitively, but behavioral scientists Steven Martin and Joseph Marks codified them for us in their book Messengers. They state that an effective apology: Must be delivered quickly; Must be expressed sincerely; and Must demonstrate a commitment to change. Most of the public apologies we encounter these days fall down on at least one of these criteria. So, where do these less timely, insincere or noncommittal apologies go wrong? Often, it’s a matter of completeness. For example, the apologies lack any tangible or expressed commitment to change or to prevent the offense from happening again. More often, the person apologizing allows his or her personal pride to get between the expression and the whole point of the exercise. They know they need to apologize, but they don’t want to actually take any blame for anything personally. The result is usually some sort of excuse or qualified apology, which is to say, not an apology at all. I am sorry if my words were misunderstood. I apologize to anyone who may have been offended. I didn’t know you were going in there when I left my shoes in the middle of the room. That sort of thing. Knowing when and how to offer an apology can be the difference between regaining the trust of your customers and the public, or turning disappointment into rage. Or sleeping on the couch, for that matter.
21 August 2019
Social media and other digital channels have given analytical marketers exactly what they’ve always wanted: more numbers to drop in a spreadsheet. I’m not dismissive. Data is very useful and important. It’s how we determine how to invest resources, where to double down, when to cut our losses, switch channels or change messages. But for a discipline that is relatively new, there already seems to be an established orthodoxy for measuring results. In just a decade, entire industry sectors have sprung up to provide real-time analytics on the number of impressions, shares, comments, reactions, new followers, audience attrition … you name it. And all of these measurements can be very helpful if, as my colleague Kyle likes to say, you ask the right questions (subtle boss shout-out). The challenge arises when the metrics themselves become the measure of success. British economist Charles Goodhart described the problem when writing about national economies, but the principal still holds true—whenever one statistical measure becomes a stand-in for evaluating the whole, it will cease to be a useful measure. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are gaming the system. It’s simple human nature to repeat actions that are rewarded—and if moving that “Like” number one percent higher than it was last month makes the boss happy, then that’s what we’ll do. Standby for adorable puppy video in 3 … 2 … 1 … So, your team pumps out some “fresh content.” Some people like it. Some comment on it. Some share it … and all the numbers look great again. But why? And why is that better? There are situations in which the basic metrics are, indeed, solid measurement tools. If you’re marketing a mass-market product, follower and impression counts certainly factor into your evaluation. Grade-A, certified-genius-level content might make you feel good, but it’s not going to move much product if only 17 people see it. Gaining new followers may be in order. Conversely, if you’re marketing a highly specialized product or service with only a dozen or so potential users in the known universe, even a few million fanboys cheering you on in a social space won’t help if you can’t reach those key decision makers. But unless you’re a big-time professional online influencer, audience growth is likely, in and of itself, not a business objective. Most of us are in the business of marketing products and services. That’s the entire point of your brand’s social presence. By all means, keep an eye on your social metrics and pay close attention to when and how your online audience is interacting with your brand. But understand those numbers for what they are: leading indicators, not business objectives. Finding the right audience is more important to your real-world business objectives than reaching the biggest one. And even then, it really only matters when we succeed in motivating some action based on what we’ve shared. Y’know, in the real world. That’s why.