Would you give the company accounts to someone who couldn’t add up? No? So why would you try and do your own strategic communications?
Consider this. You’re a decent sized SME with a healthy turnover and strong growth. You’re trying to penetrate new areas of your market, increase your brand equity and develop a stronger relationship with your customers and other stakeholders. You’re also trying to reach more people with your story and your product. You need a strategic approach, strong media contacts and an understanding of what gets a run and why. So… you decide to do it yourself.
Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. But this is still a path many business owners take in the mistaken belief that building a profile, gaining the right kind of media coverage (notice I said, RIGHT kind) and building a brand is as simple as pressing “send” on an email or fax. The scenario I’ve put to you is just as ludicrous as suggesting that business owners take a DIY approach to legal, HR or financial strategy. Truth is folks, strategic communication, corporate affairs, whatever badge you want to give it, is as much a speciality as any other. The other truth is, whether it’s a washing machine or advice you’re buying, you will always get what you pay for.
How do I know this? Apart from starting and running a successful national consultancy of my own, I was a working journalist for nearly 15 years before this. I have seen the good, the bad and the downright insane from both sides of the trench. So let me give you a few examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about, perhaps they’ll sound familiar.
This year, we signed a client in the retail sector with a small but growing national presence. It’s a great business, has loyal customers and excellent product. At our first meeting, the owner lamented the fact that when he contacted journalists they fobbed him off and that their media releases never got a run. He also said they were struggling to develop a stronger dialogue with their clients. I sympathised with him, but to be honest I wasn’t surprised. When I got hold of them, his media statements were poorly written, too long and not written to the style of the publications he was targeting. He was (and is) a busy man, but thought that he could achieve what he wanted by doing it himself. What he didn’t see is that he wanted to achieve high end results; increased brand awareness, targeted media coverage which he hoped would translate into more sales, but was hopelessly ill-equipped to do so. Before coming to us, he’d been slogging away on his own, with no strategic approach, no media contacts, no expertise, and no idea. It’s like giving the accounts to someone in the business who can’t add up.
Get the picture? Okay, so let’s look at another example. This client came to us four years ago. He was (and remains) one of the leading lights of the industry he is in, only now his success is no longer a secret. His business consistently outperforms his competitors in accepted industry benchmarks. At that time, he had a staff of around 80 people and a growing number of franchised offices. Problem was, no one had a clue who he was. As business owner, our client is a brilliant strategic thinker, a specialist in his field and a very savvy businessman. He was not however, gifted in the field of strategic communication and PR. To give him credit, he came to this realisation a lot sooner than most. As a result, he went from being the most successful industry nobody in his field, to being a sought after commentator whose business is featured in industry and general news press every other week. Why? He was wise enough to recognise he couldn’t do it himself. Importantly, he was also prepared to put resource the work adequately.
Now before you point out that it’s in my interest to push this barrow, consider this; take a moment to think about how many successful, really successful businesses utilise specialist, external help with their pr and strategic positioning. I’d be willing to wager most of them do. And also consider this. Just because you can’t quantify an immediate return on the balance sheet doesn’t mean the investment in specialist advice isn’t working for you. This kind of work is strategic, in other words, results are typically not overnight.
So now you understand why it’s so important to get specialist help for what is a highly specialised discipline, the next question is obviously what to look for in a consultancy? Here are a few no-brainers that will help you choose the right partner for you.
Choose specialists, not generalists
It’s important that you’re with a consultant or PR team that isn’t trying to be all things to all people. Specialists in any field are going to deliver you better results, hands down, every time.
Size doesn’t matter
I have no strong view on whether it’s better to work with a large team or a smaller one. The important thing is to ask the hard questions about who will be doing the work. One trap we hear from time to time is that after a client signs up, the senior person who wooed them disappears. Put simply, beware the B team. You must know who is doing your work and if they are experienced enough to deliver. This is your right.
Ask your prospective consultant who they’re working with, and to outline similar scopes of work they’ve been able to successfully deliver. Ask for the client’s details and make a phone call. Call it a reference check.
Are they strategic?
Your prospective PR partner must be able to show they can work both strategically and operationally. Put simply, they’ve got to be able to have the right strategic ideas then implement them to make it happen. Their strategy needs to have more than one element to it. After all, PR is just one tool in a very big communications toolbox. Make sure they can prove they have more than one string to their bow.
They need to share your DNA
Your PR consultancy is going to have to get under your skin in order to represent you, so they’ve got to share your DNA. It’s like a new relationship. You’ll either click or you won’t; strategically, culturally and professionally. Don’t underestimate the importance of this kind of connection.
Do they know how to make the journey enjoyable? Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
The right PR consultant or strategic advisory firm will add value to your business. They will support your growth and align themselves to your direction. Oh and one last piece of advice: shop around for the right partner but don’t base your decision on price alone. It was Oscar Wilde who said experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing. He was right.
–Gemma Tognini is founder and director of gtmedia strategic communication (www.gtmedia.com.au) and a former journalist with Seven Network.