DIY public relations could be a winning formula for small firms as the credit crunch deepens and budgets are trimmed. But what's the best way to send an eye-catching message about your brand without breaking the bank?
When IT solutions specialist SAS UK started to handle its own public relations, rather than using an agency, it boosted the media coverage it was receiving by 182 per cent within two years—and lopped £65,000 a year off its PR bill.
Boutique hotel-guide company Mr & Mrs Smith spends £100,000 a year doing its own publicity, but reckons it would have to part with three times as much to get the same results from an outside consultant. And Mamas & Papas, the baby goods retailer, has cut the number of marketing staff from 12 to seven, but increased its media coverage by at least 50 per cent.
These companies have found that it's possible to get good results from public relations without overspending. It's a formula that more businesses, especially SMEs, will be seeking as the credit crunch bites deeper and marketing budgets are cut. Some will organise their own PR while others may seek help from a consultancy, or even adopt a hybrid approach.
"Many consultants will work alongside an organisation helping to empower existing staff and support as appropriate," says Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
But whatever the approach, when cash is short the emphasis should be on value for money. SAS UK has employed just two PR people since it took the job in-house two years ago. Sheila Parry, head of corporate communications, says having PR people on the inside means the company knows more about what works and what doesn't (see below).
"We understand far better what we are doing. We measure everything precisely and are able to do that because we have control." Parry says that it's been easier to make good contacts with the journalists who matter. "I think the fact that they can get hold of us quickly and we don't mess them around is important," she says. Parry agrees that as well as delivering results, keeping a lid on costs is important. "We have to cost-justify everything we do and we don't spend unnecessarily," she adds.
At Mr & Mrs Smith, the key brand name for Spy Publishing, managing director James Lohan admits that winning press coverage for top-quality boutique hotels in appealing locations is a lot easier than garnering column inches for, say, light bulbs. "Sometimes you'll have a product that simply doesn't have the legs to get into the papers," he warns.
But even when the product and the brand are strong, Lohan says that it's still important to focus on PR basics, such as contacting journalists with relevant information, to try to win that all-important media exposure. And as the slowdown worsens, the company's media activity is becoming more selective. "We're concentrating on strategies that deliver results," he explains.
Gill Kingston-Warren, the head of PR at Mamas & Papas, has seen the company ascend from a top-20 to a top-five brand in its class over the past three years. Its share of media coverage has also grown, and she reckons that every pound spent on PR now delivers £10 of value. Any business handling its own PR, warns Kingston-Warren, must do more than "just provide a phone and computer and expect miracles to happen". She says: "Your team needs to see what the media wants and when it wants it." One of the secrets at Mamas & Papas is efficiently handling the 2,000-plus media requests it receives every month.
The first step for any company going it alone is to clarify the key messages it wants the media to write about, says Lizz Clarke, managing director of Logical Creative Marketing and an expert on handling PR for medium-sized firms. "Next, you should look at your business plan and decide who the people are that you need to influence with your messages. Get to know the newspapers and magazines your audience read and become familiar with them yourself," she adds. "When you know what kind of coverage they carry, you're in a position to develop ideas for articles that could well appeal to them."
Clarke says that it's crucial to decide on the best way to send out an idea. A business may want to issue press releases, offer written articles, good-quality photos, or provide access to expert knowledge through documents such as white papers. "You need to get on the keyboard and phone and start building relationships with journalists," she adds. "The best way is to offer them information they're interested in rather than thinly disguised sales messages."
But who should do all this? "Look for someone who is a confident communicator, able to write fluently and concisely, and liaise with people from all parts of the organisation," says Lewis-Jones at the
CIPR. "They need to be a person who is passionate about your products, service and organisation—someone who you feel represents you and conveys the messages you want to get across. Above all, I believe that a good person is always slightly nosey, able to hunt down a good news story."
There is no "magic PR bullet", but for people handling their company's publicity, the financial crisis could be more of an opportunity, rather than a threat. There will be plenty of media looking for good-news tales to relieve the gloom.
Good publicity?What works in public relations and what doesn't work so well? Three companies handling PR campaigns tell Director about their triumphs and (not quite) disasters
Who Sheila Parry, head of corporate communications.
Business Computer software.
What worked Managed to get a senior manager interviewed on BBC TV in connection with the banking crisis. Was able to move fast, clear the executive's diary and get him to the studio in time.
The lesson Seize the moment.
What didn't work Press releases that managers insisted on issuing even though there was no story that would interest the press.
The lesson Public relations can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.
Mamas & Papas
Who Gill Kingston-Warren, head of
Business A leading provider of baby goods and nursery furniture.
What worked Placing a gold-coloured pushchair with singer Gwen Stefani. She's a consummate media professional and paparazzi pictures of her wheeling it circled the globe.
The lesson Great personalities are good at grabbing headlines.
What didn't work Working on a campaign with Emma Bunton was a "delightful experience" and produced some publicity nuggets, but she announced her pregnancy just as the Spice Girls were re-forming, so the tabloids were dominated by "salacious gossip" about other group members.
The lesson A big story always overshadows a smaller story.
Who Jon White, PR and marketing manager.
Business Web design and development.
What worked Pitched launch of
T-Mobile G1 Google phone to relevant journalists and received great coverage, including national press.
The lesson Move fast to grab headlines before rivals.
What didn't work Sent out press releases about new training courses that failed to gain coverage because there was no real story.
The lesson In press releases, no news is... well, bad news.
Peter Bartram is a presenter at a one-day course in London on February 3 for companies that want to handle their own public relations. Visit www.howtodoyourownpr.co.uk for more details