Heather Astbury, MD of The Reputation People, says that to view Public Relations (PR) as just another marketing tool is to limit the scope of PR activities to lead generation, customer acquisition and sales. Of course, these things are important, but PR can do so much more.
When times are tough, businesses often cut the PR budget first – and small businesses may not have one at all. After all, PR is just one part of the marketing mix, right? Wrong!
I have seen a number of examples of where short-term sales-driven marketing has damaged the long-term reputation of a business. And once your reputation has been damaged it is time consuming, difficult and costly to recover it – it may even be impossible.
One such example was during the Arab Spring, when I was based in Dubai and working across the region. As the protests in Egypt reached their zenith and people were congregating in Tahrir Square to protest, one well-known American fashion brand decided this was too good a trending social media event to miss. The company rushed in and tweeted that people were flocking to Tahrir Square because of their sale.
To equate a very serious political movement in a country that was essentially on lockdown – it took me three worrisome days to confirm my colleagues in Cairo were safe – with something as trivial as a clothing sale, showed a lack of understanding of the market and the situation that was staggering.
As you might imagine, the tweet caused an uproar and for weeks any online search for that company revealed nothing but negative comments. The insensitivity and opportunism of this brand is what I will always associate with it. I had been a customer of this company before, but I haven’t bought from them since. I am sure I’m not the only one.
This is a clear example of social media channels being run by marketers, whose only thought was about driving short-term sales. They didn’t consider the long-term reputation of the business. Had their social media feed been run by a PR team, this wouldn’t have happened. Why?
PR teams are used to thinking about numerous audiences and messaging that will work for them all. Those audiences encompass everything from investors to shareholders, media to politicians, clients to suppliers, and employees, as well as customers and potential customers. Marketing tends to take a much narrower view and concentrates mainly on existing and potential customers.
I have worked in businesses where PR reported through Marketing, through the CFO, through HR and directly to the CEO. In my experience, the direct reporting line to the CEO is by far the most effective. Perhaps this is because the CEO is the only other role that takes a holistic view of the business and its stakeholders.
The other parts of the business are measured by a narrower set of criteria – for marketing it is usually sales performance, for HR it is often employee engagement scores and in the case of the CFO it is financial performance – but how can you monetise a well written letter to a politician or a slick crisis communications plan? How do you directly compare a positive article in a key media outlet with achieving your sales targets? Employee engagement scores are unlikely to be good without good internal communications. And how do you prove that winning an award translates into more customers?
We all know that these things make a huge difference to a business, but if you only measure success by sales volumes, profitability or employee churn, then you are forgetting the value of your reputation. It is difficult to measure the impact of a good reputation, but it is easy to see the impact of a bad one.
PR is a tool that will help your business communicate the right messages to the right audiences. Good PR should ensure your business is more profitable, but it will also ensure lasting and positive relationships with a whole host of stakeholders – and that could be the difference between real success or the failure of your business. While marketing is important, don’t forget the importance of PR.