At LinkedIn’s CommsConnect event in New York, CEO Jeff Weiner said something that won the hearts and minds of every communications person in the audience:
“I don’t understand how communications can’t report into the CEO. It IS the brand.”
Public relations is a beaten down industry, and we feel it—it is consistently ranked one of the most stressful jobs. Although I am biased, the work that our teams do for our clients is strategic, impactful and honestly pretty awesome. That makes it even more frustrating to watch my industry get criticized and cyber-bullied. Does anyone question if you need sales? No. Marketing might get the occasional jab, but most acknowledge that it’s a crucial business function. But PR? Not on the same plane in many people’s minds. Even though it’s proven to be the most effective and cost-efficient marketing function, PR is just not given the same amount of respect as channel marketing, advertising or even search.
If you work in PR, you might be shaking your head in agreement. A strategic PR program shapes a company’s narrative and defines how it is positioned in the market. It builds and amplifies executive platforms to help companies stand out in crowded spaces. It can attract leads, move sales prospects along the pipeline, attract investors, mitigate crisis and shift perceptions from negative to positive. But yet, the overall brand perception of PR is in the dumps.
At the same conference, I got to listen to Judy Smith, the “real Olivia Pope” from the hit show Scandal, talk about crisis. Leaving the show, I thought of what Jeff said, and then asked myself “What would Olivia Pope do” about the PR crisis?
I took some of Judy’s advice on “handling” situations and came up with my own crisis plan for PR’s reputation:
1) Know your facts…the true facts
In this case, it is important to understand and measure the impact PR has on a client so you can prove it with data. For this to really shift how PR is seen, though, you need to evolve how you measure—reporting activity and impressions will keep you in the dark ages. There are better tools to measure business impact—taking share of voice from competitors, message penetration, brand sentiment, increasing web traffic, driving sales leads or downloads.
Much will need to be done in partnership with your client, but you need that information to prove the value of your work.
2) Eat your own dog food
We promote case studies and thought leadership all the time. Who better to turn that lens inward? You need to treat your agency like a client: promote your case studies and have your execs do their own thought leadership.
Lots of agencies market themselves, but it is usually more geared toward agency rankings and awards. Instead, widen the aperture. Develop and promote case studies that measure business impact. Contribute content to the industry publications you spend all day pitching; a huge part of our job is monitoring the competitive landscape and identifying industry trends. Develop your own articles that add to or evolve the conversations that are already happening.
3) Be smart
There is already a lot of negative press about PR; don’t add to it. There is a lot of good work being done in PR, yet all we hear about are the off-target pitches or flaky flacks. We can do our part by being thoughtful and deliberate in our strategies and outreach, but I think the media could help turn the tides.
Can we issue a call to action to journalists, VCs and influencers to also highlight the GOOD PR work being done?
4) Make regular deposits in your “trust” bank
Judy talks about constantly cultivating a network of 3rd-party friends so when the time comes, you have someone that can publicly support you. The same goes for our industry—we view our relationships with clients as partnerships, and work to establish trust and business value so we are not seen as a disposable vendor but rather a crucial business function.
Bill Gates has been quoted as saying “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” He didn’t make this assessment based on activity; he made it on impact. PR companies that involve executives in the process, and measure not only activity and reach, but impact, will create these advocates and evangelists in their clients executives.
So where does that leave us?
One of the biggest things that Smith talked about in crisis situations is to know what’s your end game. For me, the end game is shifting how companies view PR as part of their business strategy. It is not a nice to have, but a strategic business function to survive and thrive in a noisy market.
When will we reach this?
There are some macro trends that serve as accelerants—PR, marketing and advertising continues to converge; and the increasing importance of storytelling as a way for brands to connect with their audiences. But the end game will not be achieved until more agencies and PR whizzes shift how they view their own work, and adjust how they measure and market it.