How To Sell PR To The C-Suite

Public relations has come a long way in recent years, but PR budgets are still vulnerable during a downturn, company retrenchment, or change in business focus. That’s why most PR professionals, whether inside the corporation or at a partner agency, are in continuous selling mode. How do we support our clients in presenting PR as an investment rather than an expense, and one that is well worth making?

Here are some tips for “selling” the PR investment to a C-level decision-maker.

Promote outcomes rather than outputs.
The industry has been moving in this direction for some time, but it’s still easy to get caught up in tangibles, like events, article placements, or speaking opportunities secured. A more strategic way to go is with specific outcomes that are aligned with business objectives, like attracting business partners, changing opinion, or developing a reputation for specialized expertise.

Use data wisely.
Use data, yes, but keep it light at the top, with greater granularity available if needed. Always have far more information available than you think you will need; you want to be prepared to back up recommendations or assumptions with detailed evidence, but too much detail at the outset can make you seem lost in the weeds.

Offer insights as well as outcomes.
A C-level exec may not be fully cognizant of the scope and benefits of a strategic PR commitment. It should be as much about assessing perception, identifying vulnerabilities, and creating opportunities as it is about publicity output and results. The PR or Communications Director should be seen as a source of strategic insights for making more informed business decisions, not just the queen of publicity placements or press conferences.

Get around assumptions.
Even when constructing a B-school-style case for PR as a critical business function, it’s often necessary to make assumptions. But assumptions aren’t airtight. You can make them more defensible by offering “best case,” “expected case,” and “worst case” scenarios relative to demand generation or reputation health, for example.

Focus on the pain points.
Yes, the classic pain-based selling strategy can be particularly effective here. A strategic PR program is a defensive as well as a proactive tool. So, it can be a legitimate investment for achieving an improved online reputation, quantifiable visibility for a new product launch; or a commitment to more effective recruitment practices.

Be accountable.
Senior executives are often more likely to approve a budget when accountability is clear. In an agency situation, they know the buck stops with me, unlike a group supervisor at a holding company who could be gone next month. Within the corporation, that translates into the PR or Communications Director staking their performance goals to the achievement of specific outcomes.

Amortize the investment.
This can be tricky when selling to a CMO, where tenures are notoriously short and there’s pressure to deliver dynamic results quickly, but public relations is best viewed as a long-term commitment that pays reputation and brand visibility dividends over time.

For more on this topic, see PRSA’s excellent library on selling PR’s value.