The Crenshaw team is excited to welcome new client ActiveViam, a leading provider of in-memory data analytics software solutions. Founded in 2005, the provider of precision analytics platforms helps finance and retail organizations like HSBC, Freddie Mac, and ING make faster and better decisions – whether those decisions relate to detecting deviations, measuring risk, responding to unplanned events, or selecting the best course of action after simulating alternatives. The privately owned company has offices in London, New York, Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Eighty-five percent of agencies say they do a good job of setting client expectations during the sales process, yet 77% say they have difficulty during the relationship. Where does the disparity come from, and how can agencies correct it?
The stat above is from a survey of ad agencies, but mismanaged expectations can happen in public relations, digital marketing, or other creative services. If anything, PR firms and their clients may be more prone to an expectations gap, because PR isn’t always well understood.
With that in mind, here are some ways for PR teams to set expectations with clients and maintain a healthy, long-term relationship.
Well before the LOA (Letter of Agency) is signed, it’s best to be straight with the client. This applies not only to outcomes, but to expectations about service and frequency of communication. Teams should be precise about how and when the client will receive deliverables, the team’s work process, and cadence. It’s up to the agencies to offer a roadmap for the work and educate their clients on how their expectations will be met. A new client may want top-tier earned media coverage right off the bat, and it may be achievable if the business has a good enough story. Often, however, PR professionals are tasked with building a foundation that opens doors for A-list coverage down the road. If it’s a marathon, not a sprint to the finish, then say so.
Quality vs. quantity
Nothing in PR is guaranteed and clients should be aware of this from day one of a partnership. Promising a certain amount of coverage can put immense pressure on the agency and setting the proper expectations is important not only for the client’s success, but for the sanity of the agency team. PR is an overall qualitative field of work, with the goal of supporting business by expanding the client’s share of voice and improving company recognition. Counting hits is one way to measure, but context matters. A mad shuffle to secure as many articles as possible (as in pay-for-placement arrangements) may not always help the client, because quality varies. What we’re after is impact. Aligning client and agency on both deliverables and goals will set the bar for a long lasting relationship.
Set communication levels
Some clients require constant attention, while others think the agency team can run without their involvement. Neither is a sign of a healthy relationship. Establishing how the agency will communicate and coordinate opportunities with the client must be set early in the engagement so everyone knows how the relationship will work. Setting boundaries is a key factor as well, particularly when it comes to emails. Are weekends okay, or only in an emergency? What about texting? Does the client expect a response within minutes or hours? Set the protocols early so everyone knows what’s reasonable.
Convey what you expect of clients, too
PR is very collaborativ,e and agencies can only do so much without a client’s involvement. Things like reactive commentary, schedules, media assets and data must be accessible to the agency team, and it’s essential that the client contact understands what’s needed from them so that members of the agency team don’t spin their wheels.
Beware of ‘scope creep’
As time goes on, the client’s requirements may change. In their eager to please, an agency team may start to perform tasks outside the strict scope of their brief, and the client may take it for granted. Or, if the agency is exceeding expectations for results month after month, that’s fantastic for all involved, but it sets the bar higher than at the campaign’s start. It’s up to the agency to course-correct if the original proposal isn’t being honored, or to propose changes to its scope and role where warranted.
The past five years or so have seen drastic changes in the media and cultural landscape that impact PR and marketing. Challenges for PR practitioners include a faster-than-ever news cycle and what seems like constant political and cultural controversy. Combine that with an erosion of faith in government and private institutions, and it can make for a difficult environment. How to navigate the media landscape when “fake news” accusations are thrown around and the very business of media is under siege?
Yet the business of public relations is thriving. One reason is that PR is more relevant – and valuable – than ever. Here’s why.
According to the Cision State of the Media Report 59 percent of U.S. consumers say they are suspicious of news content. And on social platforms, skepticism is far greater, as it should be. This is bad news, but it means that the credibility of media and information sources is more important than in the past.
The good news is that the public seems to value the role of journalism, and people are moving to media channels they trust. Traditional news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported double-digit increases, and cable news ad revenue is up a whopping 25%. PR practitioners understand that a brand or personal reputation built through bylined content, executive speeches, legitimate user reviews, and media profiles will earn the credibility that comes from implied endorsement by recognized third parties. That beats self-promotion every time.
PR drives SEO
PR’s role goes beyond earned media coverage, but it’s still an essential piece of many PR campaigns. Established publications that link to a brand will boost search listings due to their domain authority, and ever since Google determined that brand mentions are “implied links,” they work harder to drive SEO. Anyone who has managed a content marketing program understands high-quality, “evergreen” content can live for years, pushing up page rank and attracting traffic for a brand or business.
PR generates influence
Beyond earned media, typical PR tactics build relationships, engage influencers, and even help change public perception and behavior. PR skills once used exclusively in media relations are easily transferred to social community management, influencer relations, and content marketing. Word-of-mouth PR spread on social media platforms is not only cost-effective, but highly trackable and persuasive.
PR is (nearly) immune to ad-blocking
Publisher panic over ad blocking has largely receded, but the number of blocked impressions on mobile is growing as browsing migrates more and more to mobile devices. I’m not among those who think the trend is good for PR people — it doesn’t take much to realize that what’s bad for digital content providers is also bad for our industry. Ad-blocking cuts revenue for digital publishers at a time when they need it most. Yet PR programs that generate visibility through earned and owned content are more valuable than ever during times of digital marketing disruption.
PR is more measurable than ever
Today, the outcomes of a PR program are more measurable than they’ve ever been, thanks to a concerted effort by the industry, but also to digital tools. Of course, metrics will always vary by program, but even with simple (and free) tools like Google trends and access to web analytics, we can often pinpoint the impact of earned and owned content and social sharing with a fair degree of accuracy. We have one client, a digital business service, who has found that their business profitability coincides almost perfectly with peaks in web analytics driven by earned media.
Good will has value
What is more valuable than a brand (or personal) reputation? Many PR deliverables are powerful in building reputation over time, and their impact is accelerated and amplified by social media. A glowing review (or unfortunate video interview) can blow up on social platforms in the time it takes to say, “call the PR firm.” It’s hard to put a price tag on customer loyalty or positive perception, but in today’s unpredictable media environment, it’s like money in the bank.
But does it scale?
What we do to generate earned media is not always efficient, and it has traditionally been hard to scale. But many agencies have added capabilities in content marketing, digital content creation, and brand journalism that can amplify earned media or add to its impact through shareable content. Automation has changed intelligence-gathering and data analysis, which often informs a PR program’s messaging and content.
It’s not just the U.S. government that’s feeling the brunt (and the public relations cost) of digital warfare. Cyber attacks are on the rise across the globe. There’s never been a greater demand for security services than today – and those services have to market themselves in a digital world.
From major corporations, to airlines and hospitals, data protection is paramount. In March, the health-care-related debt collector American Medical Collection Agency discovered it had been breached for over a year!
Data for millions of customers across multiple AMCA contractors like LabCorp had their information compromised. We’ve seen companies like British Airways and T-Mobile fall victim to extreme ransomware and cyber breaches in the past year, and the worst thing about it is that most companies are woefully unprepared to deal with the threat.
The prevalence of such attacks places a premium on cyber security, and those who provide critical security services can take advantage of the market’s growing demand. Building better public relations will impact that bottom line. When properly designed and executed a PR program can not only build awareness, but develop a lead flow. Everyone from KPMG to startup firms need to invest in digital advertising and smart public relations.
PR tips for cybersecurity companies
Have a media rapid-response bureau
CEOs and industry leaders can position themselves as experts through a proactive response team. Having a protocol to respond quickly to breaking news and industry trends is key to gaining traction in a digital world. Executives can easily get their names and insights in the news by simply commenting on data breaches or other major stories. Soon they will start speaking at conferences, and opining on cyber sec topics in major publications. Having a team ready to scan the news and look for reactive opportunities is vital. Yet the window for responding to news opportunities is short — possibly as little as four hours — so, nimble companies will benefit most from a rapid-response program.
Create marketable quarterly/weekly reports
Creating a deck of accomplishments, attacks prevented and other easily marketable wins is a great way to build awareness. Trade reports and other wonky publications are eager to showcase specific case studies. Highlighting tangible benefits of your service will prove your customers are happy. The media benefit of such studies is invaluable to a tech-specific business, but do not get lost in the weeds. Focus on the bottom line and the result of your product. Most security companies know to be ultra-cautious when it comes to mentioning clients; unfortunately, most of the case histories in this category are “blind,” which limits their usefulness.
Focus on the benefit, not the tech
Technical media and category analysts may be interested in drilling down into all aspects of your offering, but beware getting lost in the technology features. For most audiences it’s best to present your product in a “big picture” way that focuses on benefits rather than merely a collection of features. Scare tactics aren’t welcome, but it’s powerful to tell a story of why you’ve been successful, and what you can do to safeguard critical assets.
Place a price tag on the risk
Security risks exist on many levels. The investment will be seen in context, and the benefits made more meaningful to those who sign the contracts when they understand how cyberrisk impacts the bottom line. It’s not just a matter of the disruption of operations, of course; there’s often a reputational impact that can linger for years.
Invest in user customization
Not all users are the same, so why should a cyber sec package be tailored to a one-size fits all approach? It’s important that companies offer multiple packages for customers to choose from – whether its for an individual, small business looking to scale or an already large company. Our client SecureAge has done this, offering three different versions of its APEX software. It also helps to adopt a more consultative relationship, because the risk of a breach or intrusion is always changing.
As a profession, public relations evokes images of media pitching or crisis management. But according to the 2018 USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations Global Communications Report, writing is the skill most valued by PR recruiters. That makes sense; persuasion is fueled by artful storytelling, and despite the growth of video, many stories are still told through the written word. Successful PR people tend to be good writers; yet even more impressive than the quality of good PR writing is its versatility. From blog posts to media pitches, we shift gears constantly, adapting to many different kinds of written content.
Less is more
Media pitches and social posts require writers to pack the most punch into the lowest word count. We must convince a reporter that our story is relevant, important, and entertaining enough to publish – often in no more than three sentences. More accurately, we have to convince them in one short sentence: as most PRs know, the email subject line is critical. For more fundamentals on how to pitch the media, see this earlier post.
One of the most effective engines of executive visibility is the bylined article, which B2B PR experts routinely help craft. When penning a byline, the writer must simultaneously capture the voice of the executive and adhere to journalistic style. It can come down to a compelling, non-promotional point of view in 500-700 words, with both editors and readers in mind. On top of that we must keep SEO and PR messaging in mind while trying to write entertaining prose that dazzles the reader. Bylines are harder than they look; if you want to know the secrets of byline best practices, see this earlier post.
Am I boring you?
There’s an ongoing debate about the role of the press release, which is pronounced dead every few years. It’s not the most creative PR product, but the news release is still essential for announcements – and don’t forget the power of SEO. One of the first documents PR people learn to write, press releases are ideally a single page, written in sound journalistic style (give ‘em the 5 Ws), peppered with an executive quote or two, and ending with a company boilerplate. Clearly they aren’t designed for home runs, but they’re PR’s utility player, useful for building a record of company progress. See this earlier post for more on uses for the modern press release.
The long game
The white paper has its own specific audience and purpose that separates it from other PR content. White papers offer insights in a long format and they’re generally written in a more academic style than a press release or byline. White papers are key collateral in the B2B world, as they can enjoy a long life as educational documents designed to move sales prospects toward buying decisions – while remaining overtly non-self-promotional. PR writers can afford to get further into the weeds in white papers, since they aim for an educated and narrow audience. Although often used to develop sales and marketing leads, white papers can also boost credibility and the perception of expertise or authority for company executives.
Making your case to hoist the trophy
Winning industry awards demands one of the more highly specialized type of PR writing. Most tech industry award competitions like those put on by the Drum, Digiday, and many other trade publications require entrants to compose 500-1000-word essays that persuade judges you have the best product, service, team, or software. PR pros must pivot from journalistic or academic styles, instead writing with a storyteller’s hat, detailing how the product or service solved a customer’s problem – otherwise known as a case study. See this earlier post for tips on winning business awards. PR writers often help write case studies used on the company’s website, and if the customers or accomplishments are high profile enough, can be pitched to reporters as a success story.
A blog-eat-blog world
PR people can relax the journalistic muscles when writing blog or LinkedIn posts for clients’ owned media channels. While blogs can fulfill lots of different of objectives, some formats allow PR writers to add a little flair, be more opinionated, and even a bit self-promotional. Blog posts can be key thought leadership assets and even help reflect the personality of the executive and the brand. Further, many companies use blogs content to communicate directly with both internal and external stakeholders, requiring more carefully measured tones.
At one point or another, PR pros must write like reporters, professors, salespeople, teenagers (social media), and novelists. When not working on the types of assets above, PR pros are busy writing emails and slack messages – requiring another whole brand of finesse. Do you know a professional that demands more versatile writing chops? For some simple tips on improving your PR writing, see our earlier post.
As the national holiday approaches, it’s a fitting time to consider the importance of independence in the world of PR agencies. For years, advertising and PR firms have touted their “independent” status. But what does that really mean?
One thing might be faster growth. In our industry independent agencies have grown at a brisk clip when compared to publicly-held PR firms for the past few years, although the larger agencies had a nice rally in 2019. But according to The Holmes Report, “the divide between independent and public PR agencies is seen more clearly seen when analysing the performance of the Big 4 holding groups, whose PR operations grew by just 3.3% to $4.8bn.”
In other words, for larger agency networks and holding companies, growth is far more sluggish than within substantial midsize firms.
For PR agency clients, “independent” can be a code word for small or affordable. It can mean a smaller minimum fee as well as greater speed to market. Or, it can signal flexibility, given that indie firms are less hierarchical than mega-firms, and thus free to partner with a multitude of marketing agencies. They’re likely to be open to working with early-stage companies as well.
There’s also a cultural impact, at least in theory. For agency staff, independence can mean greater mobility and responsibility. Yet most of the time independent status doesn’t translate into a tangible benefit or differentiator inside the agency. You can argue that it’s only in rare cases that it becomes a meaningful selling proposition or internal cultural statement.
But maybe it should. Here’s what “independent “means to me in the PR or creative services world, with bias acknowledged.
Advice that truly serves the client
Objective counsel isn’t guaranteed in a politicized corporate environment. Any recommendation that leverages client dollars from one sector to another is likely to be influenced by international considerations, and it’s subject to multiple approvals. Sometimes a large agency’s infrastructure dictates its advice to clients — there’s always a need to feed the beast. But undiluted and objective feedback is, above all, what clients ask of their agencies, and it shouldn’t be compromised by internal politics or bureaucracy.
A willingness to take risks
In an “integrated marketing” environment, the highest-margin service can dominate the client relationship or even the creative product. That happens far less often at an independent agency, where they are more likely to take creative risks. There may be no bigger risk than starting your own company, after all; it’s in the DNA of most independent firms.
Value for the investment
Good value shouldn’t mean cheap, but it’s true that the trappings of global status and marketing integration, like multiple brick-and-mortar offices, can undermine client service. You can’t ignore the differences in profit margins among different types of PR agencies. Whereas a 15% profit may be fine for an independent firm, a holding company will demand a 25% margin. That translates to a far higher toll on the team, leading to greater turnover and often a fractured culture.
No matter what they say, it’s unavoidable. Agency networks are by nature large and bureaucratic, and bureaucracy means layers of approval and slower execution. If speed to market is a priority, your best bet is an independent agency, where the levels of approval are lean and the bias is toward action.
The most client-friendly agency culture will reward staff behavior that shows accountability and a bias in favor of action.
Having worked at a midsize owner-operated agency, the largest independent firm, and an integrated ad and marketing agency, I favor simplicity, a minimum of bureaucracy, and fewer deciders. An owner-operated organization is better positioned to create a truly entrepreneurial environment that rewards proactivity, accountability, and, even risk.