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Why you need a no-nonsense PR strategy – and how to create one
The role of public relations is to build and maintain your company’s positive reputation so that everyone who interacts with your business forms a good opinion of what you are doing and how you are doing it.
Anyone who may come into contact with you, your employees, your products or services, your website or premises should be treated as a stakeholder. For some firms, the list is virtually endless. You need to think about how you interact with existing and potential customers, employees, investors, suppliers, local MPs, local authorities, regulators, industry organisations, networking groups, influential journalists or influencers and the general public.
Perceptions about a company drive multifarious vital decisions, such as whether people want to work with, buy from and support you.
In this blog, we explain how a carefully thought-out PR strategy is the starting point for essential reputation building, as companies strive to get noticed by their target audience, for positive reasons, so you can turn your attention to perfecting your core product/s or service/s and focus on growing your sales and profits.
Here’s what we will cover:
Why do I need PR?
If you think PR is surplus to the successful running of your business and you can’t see the point of paying for anything outside of your core operations, yet you are not experiencing year on year growth in sales and profits – then it’s probably worth taking time to reflect on why.
Ask yourself, why, in a particular year, sales rocketed and then seemingly for no reason at all, in the next 12 months sales fell off a cliff. There is barely a business in existence that hasn’t experienced ups and downs whether it’s issues around generating interest in a start-up, or a product launch, or maintaining momentum for a company that’s been trading for 20 years or more.
There are numerous examples of where good times turned to bad. Poor management is often blamed and almost always played a role. But businesses that lack a thoughtful, goals-oriented PR strategy – that they respect and act upon – leave themselves wide open to all manner of harm and lost opportunities. There is not an industry sector that is exempt – all would do better with a carefully thought-out PR strategy.
The collapse of Arcadia group, owner of Topshop, Burton, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, is a case in point. The group’s owner, Sir Philip Green, placed the company into administration on 30 November 2020.
Arcadia released a statement blaming the Covid pandemic for having “a material impact on trading across our businesses”.
Up to a point. It is undoubtedly true that 2020 has been one of the worst trading years on record for retailing. But the brands that entered the crisis looking healthy are far more likely to emerge from it intact. Think Zara, H&M, French Connection.
Arcadia’s jewel in the crown, Topshop, lost its sparkle a while ago. And it wasn’t just Topshop: group profits of £144.8 million in 2017 slumped to a £114.4 million loss in 2018, according to accounts filed at Companies House.
Topshop used to be one of the most prominent players at London Fashion Week, with Green rubbing shoulders with the likes of Anna Wintour and Kate Moss and the brand’s catwalk show was one of the most talked-about of the week. You simply couldn’t pay for that kind of positive PR.
But Green’s fatal flaw – his insatiable greed for money, glitz and glamour – is at the heart of Arcadia’s demise. His association with Moss led to the departure of Jane Shepherdson, Topshop’s highly respected brand director, which was the catalyst for the chain’s slow, downward spiral.
Things weren’t helped when Moss moved on, and Topshop stopped exhibiting at London Fashion Week. Strikingly, the group’s brands were slow to get their online operations up to scratch. This left the door wide open for Topshop customers to vote with their feet – and clicks – by shopping with exciting online brands like Boohoo and Missguided that know who their customers are, what they want, and how to communicate with them.
Topshop was far too slow in developing online shopping and it wasn’t communicating with its core customers. And most likely didn’t even know who they were.
Sir Philip’s personal reputation was also problematic.
First, there was the BHS pension scandal, which surfaced after Sir Philip sold the now-defunct department store chain in 2015 to a twice bankrupted businessman for £1.
A year later BHS collapsed, 11,000 people lost their jobs, and the company had a £571m pension deficit.
Sir Philip later reached a deal with the Pensions Regulator and injected £363m into the scheme.
Then in 2018, Sir Philip was accused of sexual and racial harassment, after being named in Parliament after he took legal action to stop the media from publishing the claims.
For a clued-up PR adviser, the key to turning around Arcadia, even during a global pandemic, may have been solved by delving back to the company’s beginnings.
Arcadia’s website states: “Our story began in the early 1900s when 18-year-old Lithuanian émigré Montague Burton arrived in Britain. He borrowed £100 to set up his eponymous menswear business in Chesterfield, and within six years he established a chain of Burton stores selling ready-to-wear and bespoke suits. The thriving business relocated to Leeds in 1910 – we still have a head office there.
“Treating employees fairly was a priority as Montague grew his business. His welfare office provided meals, a dentist and an eye specialist to treat eyestrain brought on by close needlework. In 1931 he received a knighthood for services to industrial relations.”
By advising Sir Philip, who somewhat ironically received his knighthood for services to retailing, to reinvent himself as a modern-day Montague Burton, then a cracking story could have been retold, with Sir Philip as the hero.
The highly regulated food manufacturing sector would benefit from putting PR at the top of its list of ingredients for success. If an issue arises at a food manufacturing plant, such as contamination and the need for a product recall, how a company manages this from a PR perspective could be critical to the company’s survival.
You only have to look at what happened to Cadbury Schweppes, after a rare strain of salmonella was detected in its chocolate.
In January 2006, Cadbury discovered salmonella at a factory in Marlbrook, Herefordshire. But the company’s scientists said the amounts were too small to cause harm. It wasn’t until June that year that it reported the matter to the Food Standards Agency – after learning that the strain of salmonella found in its products matched that contracted by victims of food poisoning.
The FSA then forced Cadbury to recall the affected chocolate, which led to a 14 per cent fall in the company’s share of the UK chocolate market. The saga is estimated to have cost Cadbury £20 million.
These issues contributed to a feeling among British institutional shareholders that Cadbury Schweppes was a company that couldn’t be trusted, and many sold their shares.
On the back of this, two years later, shareholder pressure caused the company to be broken up into Cadbury plc and a North American-headquartered soft drinks company.
By 2010 British investors held only 28 per cent of Cadbury plc stock and the company succumbed to a hostile takeover bid from Kraft.
Cadbury’s actions with regards to the salmonella outbreak went against good PR practice. In a crisis, it is vital when issuing statements to ensure that you don’t say anything that might later be found to be untrue. Best practice PR advice would have been to issue a statement as soon as it knew about the salmonella risk, stating what had happened, what its scientists were saying and then saying it was recalling the products as a precaution. It should also have detailed the actions it was taking to prevent the situation happening in the future.
If advice along these lines had been followed, Cadbury’s eventual takeover by Kraft might not have happened.
In 2019 one of the UK’s best-known regional contractors went into administration with the loss of around 125 jobs. Simons Group was a company with a long history and a long list of blue-chip clients. But they were mostly in the retail sector.
And bricks and mortar retailers were struggling with the rise of online shopping. So projects were delayed or mothballed, leading to unmanageable cash flow issues.
While it would be easy to blame management for Simon Group’s demise, on reading its 2018 report and accounts, it is clear that they were already building good relationships with new clients in health and logistics – the group’s other two areas of specialism.
This is where a strong PR strategy could have helped. PR practitioners are constantly horizon scanning, analysing how their clients are faring compared to rivals, listening to customers and providing advice as to how they can get noticed by new clients.
Given that Simons Group already had an excellent reputation, a good track record of happy repeat clients, a PR campaign targeting potential new customers in the health and logistics sectors may well have prevented the company’s demise.
How PR can help
Of course, we know that excellent PR alone will not guarantee a company’s success. But it is essential to understand how it can help you.
If you find yourself in a situation with falling sales, even though you have updated your research, you know your competitors inside out, and you know there’s demand for your product or service, and you know it (usually) competes well against rivals, then it’s time to think about alternative reasons for the sales drop.
One answer for falling sales could be that people/customers are noticing you less. There may have been a drop-off in any buzz around your company, and perhaps your reputation has sunk a bit as a result.
Even a small dent in a company’s reputation can have huge negative consequences. You may think your product or your service is your company’s biggest asset. But you’d be wrong.
As we have seen in the examples above, it is your reputation, trustworthiness and credibility – and how your stakeholders perceive you – that will make you stand out from the crowd and give you a competitive edge.
To build, retain and keep on improving your reputation, and to be viewed in a positive light, the likelihood is that you need to think about what PR could do for you.
This is important: a company that has a strong reputation and goodwill among customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders is better placed to win tenders, generate demand for its goods or services, secure investment and grow – even in difficult times.
Indeed, it is Cadbury’s strong reputation and accrued goodwill before the salmonella food poisoning scandal, that has contributed to its continuing appeal to consumers today.
Essentially, an excellent reputation equates with financial success. And sometimes, survival.
What is a PR strategy?
When thinking about PR strategy, it’s important not to get muddled with ‘tactics’. The tactics are the steps you’ll need to implement your plan – and we’ll cover these later.
An effective communications strategy should set out a direction for your business that is entirely in line with management goals and objectives. It is the over-arching approach that will be followed to deliver a vision, to change or reinforce your target audience’s opinions about you or to support the launch of a new business or product or service.
Having a PR strategy in place will help you organise your PR activities so that you can make strategic decisions around the best way to communicate. It should also help you to identify and prioritise stories in your business that could be used to draw in your target audience to raise your profile and build brand awareness.
It acts as an umbrella approach that communication tactics should fall under.
How do I create a PR strategy?
Once you’ve established the crucial role that PR can play in making your company a success, you need to think about how you go about creating your PR strategy.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Evaluate past PR activity. If you’ve carried out any PR activity over the previous 12 months, take a careful look at what you achieved. Assess how your competitors performed. Did you get any media attention? Did it impact your business in any way? Did your competitors? Was it a positive or negative coverage? What journalist or blogger wrote favourable articles about you? What about your competitors? In what publication or blog? What journalist or blogger wrote unfavourable articles about you? And your competitors? In what publication or blog? Then you’ll have something to benchmark against.
- Establish your goals and objectives. You must know what you want your PR activity to achieve. Is it to grow sales with existing customers, or reach out to new audiences? Do you need local authorities to have a more positive view of your company’s contribution to the local economy? Or do you need to establish yourself as an employer of choice, a preferred supplier or a thought leader in your industry? Perhaps you have a combination of PR goals – or maybe you need to manage a crisis so that you emerge with your reputation intact. Make sure you set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (also known as SMART). By determining your goals in this way, you will have a clear purpose for your PR strategy and a timeframe to deliver and measure it. This will help you maximise the success of your PR activities.
- Define your target audience. Your target audience is made up of the people, groups and communities that have influence and decision-making power over your products or services. They are the businesses or consumers you want to attract and sell to – they are the people you want to communicate with. You can find your target audience by thinking about who would be interested in hearing about your business, who are the key decision-makers, who will have the most significant impact on the firm’s outcomes and who will take action or purchase your products or services. Once you’ve identified your target audience, research their behaviours, such as the publications they read and how they consume media. By defining your target audience/s, you can tailor your communication to suit their media and communication preferences and therefore increase the effectiveness of your PR strategy.
- Agree your key messages. Key messages are the core messages you want your target audience to hear and remember. They are an essential part of a PR strategy because they will shape your content and communicate a unified message. The best key messages are believable, easy to understand, distinctive, credible, concise and drive your agenda.
- Put simply, PR tactics are the activities you will carry out to achieve your PR objectives. There are many options available. These may include press releases, blogs containing information to help your target customers address their pain points or a letter to the editor of a target publication expressing your stance on an issue of interest to your audience. Other tactical options include podcasts, using Facebook Live, social media posting, newsjacking or securing a place to speak at an important industry event. The important thing here is to get creative as you may not have an obvious news story and ensure you or your PR practitioner have an excellent relationship with the journalists and influencers that matter in your marketplace.
How do you measure the success of PR?
Before we get to ‘how’, we want to assure you that PR performance, or your return on investment, can be measured. But it is not an exact science.
Counting the newspaper cuttings and the mentions on social media is an objective, basic measurement that small companies can easily use. But you can’t tell from a cuttings book whether your coverage is achieving genuine business goals, or merely acting as a vanity exercise.
Another method, which until recently, was considered a more sophisticated measurement is that of Advertising Value Equivalencies (AVE) which calculate what the column inches would have cost to buy as advertising. The problem here is that advertising says what you want it to, whereas editorial may be neutral or negative rather than the positive angle you wanted to promote. However, those using this method then multiplied the AVE – most often by around three – to calculate the ‘true’ value on the basis that editorial is more valuable than advertising because it is a form of third party endorsement.
It is undoubtedly the case that one of the key functions of PR is to persuade influential journalists, broadcasters and bloggers to write favourably about your brand – without paying them as that would be unethical.
However, the use of AVEs is increasingly frowned upon by the PR fraternity, who argue that the funders of PR want a more mathematically reliable way of measuring the return on their expenditure.
Other measurements include attendance rates for an event – online or face to face. This could be particularly useful if there is a previous similar event to compare it to.
Then there are click rates, when a visitor to your website follows a hyperlink from one page to another. Or you could measure download – how many copies of a digital document such as a white paper are downloaded by users.
There has never been a more crucial moment to get your PR and communications strategy fired up and working. The continuing COVID-19 pandemic combined with Britain’s departure from the EU create the perfect storm of economic uncertainty, turbulence in the currency markets, and could put the brakes on growth opportunities for all manner of businesses across all sectors.
Your ability to communicate well with your target audience and to influence potential customers to purchase your goods could be pivotal to your company’s ability to survive. Not only that, an excellent communications strategy, impeccably executed, could be the one thing that ensures your success versus competitors as we enter the most turbulent economic territory in living memory.