If months of "fake news" and Brexit have taught us anything, it's that all publicity is definitely not good publicity. In fact, Trump's ascension to US President and Britain's shock referendum result just go to demonstrate how powerful the media can be.
Particularly when it comes to influencing public opinion.
It's one of the many arguments in favour of B2B companies today entrusting their PR activity to a trained media engagement professional. One that can invest the time and energy needed to make in-roads with key publications and leverage those relationships to influence the story that gets printed about their clients in the media.
So do PR agencies tell journalists what to write?
Not exactly, no.
One of the jobs of a PR agency is to get their client positively represented in the media consumed by their target audience – be that newspapers, magazines, online, television or radio. And by target audience, we mean the customer base their client wants to engage.
Sometimes PR is about pushing a particular product, with the objective to drive sales. At other times it can simply be about raising the profile of a client to drive awareness of their existence and generate new business leads. No matter what the intended outcome, the media is a proven vehicle for PR agencies to successfully get their client’s message out there.
That's why establishing strong relationships with their clients' top-tier media is such an important aspect of a public relations officer's job. In a way, the journalist is the middleman that bridges the gap between the PR professional and the audience they want to engage. And they need to give the journalist a relevant and interesting story which they feel compelled to share with their readership, for free.
Media relations' value isn't just in its cost effectiveness; although you only have to look at the coverage achieved in terms of equivalent advertising spend to appreciate the incredible ROI it can deliver. The real value of media relations is the exposure generated for a client in influential titles, respected by their target demographic. All of which can have an overwhelmingly positive effect on brand perception, sales and business growth.
As a B2B company, why invest in PR?
Today, news generation is faster and more immediate than ever before with fresh stories appearing across digital news outlets every minute of the day. Not to mention, gaining more longevity through shares and interaction on social media channels like LinkedIn and Facebook, which can keep a story alive in the public consciousness for longer and increase its reach to millions of users.
That's the potential to engage millions of people, each one of whom represents a potential adopter of your product or service, without having to invest a penny in advertising spend. The right product placement, in the right publication, has been known to transform a brand's fortunes overnight, which is why it’s not only established B2B businesses that are investing in professional PR to grow their brands, but also ambitious startups with success in their sights.
How B2B PR is changing in the 21st century
While a fundamental part of public relations involves securing exposure by traditional means, namely in relevant geographical and industry news outlets in the ways we've described above, B2B PR in the 21st century now extends far beyond this.
Today, endorsement by a respected social influencer with a huge Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram following can generate as much positive publicity for brands as a mention in a magazine or newspaper. Giving PR agencies operating in the digital marketing age another powerful string to their bow. One that leverages the popularity of industry experts, company stakeholders, and online influencers to create positive associations with the brand they're representing.
It's an approach that's commonplace in B2C PR, and we've seen its success countless times, most recently through the influence of the young Royals on sales of fashion brands. It's no coincidence that designs worn by either of the Duchesses sell out in minutes, and it's this type of powerful third-party association B2B businesses can also capitalise on to boost their brand engagement and raise their credibility in the eyes of their target audience.
American Express is one such global brand to increase its B2B PR activity and use of influencers in the digital marketing age, through campaigns such as #AmexAmbassador. The successful campaign recruited influential public figures and social influencers to help Amex attract executives and B2B businesses to its premium services, via a mix of celebrity ambassadors and digital influencers. In a similar vein, Microsoft partnered with National Geographic and 30 women scientists and adventurers in an influencer campaign designed to encourage women to get involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The campaign launched on International Women's Day and was successful in reaching an audience of 91 million social media users, receiving over 3.5 million likes in one single day.
The reason endorsement by an individual is considered to be so credible is because it seems genuinely authentic, and that's where its power truly lies. It's simply human nature to seek out opinions before investing in a product, or service. It's the reason word-of-mouth recommendations carry so much weight, and review websites such as TripAdvisor, Trustpilot and Checkatrade attract so much traffic.
That's the third-party endorsement effect and it's what PR is all about. Aligning a brand with credible media outlets and influencers consumed and trusted by its target audience can help businesses reap the awards.
But, as history has proven, not all brand ambassadors turn out to be good brand fits. Helena Bonham Carter for instance saw her endorsement with Yardley cosmetics come to an abrupt end when the actress went on record saying she never wore makeup. David Beckham, a world-renowned football legend and internationally respected icon, was similarly caught out using an iPhone while publicly endorsing Motorola.
The key with brand endorsement is to audit your target ambassador carefully, and ensure their values and beliefs align with that of the product or service being promoted. Do your research, including reading their social posts, and invest time digging up old media coverage to see what's been written about them in the past. There's nothing worse than an unsavoury old tweet coming back to haunt you, and as they say, better the devil you know.
While these slip-ups can cause a brand minor embarrassment and a temporarily bruised ego, some situations that crop-up in business are infinitely more serious in nature, and when these occur, often nothing short of a full-scale PR response is required.
How PR can protect your brand in a crisis
A crisis in business can be any number of things, from a work-place death on company premises, to a top-level executive being accused of a crime. In short, a crisis is anything that has the potential to negatively damage your brand’s public image, integrity or its reputation in the eyes of its stakeholders.
Often a PR crisis is a situation nobody saw coming, and it's one that can strike a business at any time, throwing normal operations into chaos, and with the potential to cause catastrophic damage to sales and share prices if not properly managed.
That's why, in situations such as this, it pays to have the support of a trained PR professional on hand, who can manage the media, and minimise negative publicity resulting in reputational damage. This type of reactive response is an intrinsic part of a PR agency's remit, commonly referred to as Crisis Management, and when a crisis does strike, there's no substitute for a person who can maintain professionalism and remain calm in the face of overwhelming pressure.
In fact, a business's media response in the wake of a crisis is often the key to the brand coming out of the storm unscathed and can have a critical bearing on reputation, share price, and consumer confidence.
That's why the best public relations professionals, like those we employ at Merchant, know precisely how to react and what's called for in a crisis situation. From confirming all the facts, before engaging with journalists, to composing a succinct comment or press release for immediate distribution, fielding enquiries for interview requests, and briefing any media-facing members of your leadership team who might have to go on record or on-camera to make a statement.
This type of incident response is just another way that our professional PR support at Merchant adds value to our clients' businesses, protecting their equity and their market value at critical times, when nothing but an appropriate and timely response can diffuse a situation from escalating.
How we harness the power of positive publicity for our B2B clients
At Merchant, public relations is just one of many reputation management services we offer to our business-to-business clients as part of our professional digital marketing and brand transformation capabilities. Understanding, as we do, that what the public read about your product, stakeholders, or service can leave a lasting impression and naturally, where our clients are concerned, we want that impression to be positive.
In fact, because we know that the media can make a brand, just as easily as it can break it, we work hard to ensure we get our clients' target publications on side. Developing newsworthy story angles that translate into coverage and elevate our clients' brands in the eyes of their key stakeholders - for all the right reasons.
For those B2B organisations that invest in PR as part of their marketing spend, it's not long before the value it brings begins to present itself. One such client who's seen a direct benefit from our PR services is Hampshire-based groundworks and civil engineering company Mackoy, who has enjoyed increased brand awareness following the positive coverage we secured in regional and construction trade press.
After approaching us with no brand identity, no marketing activity, and a website that was seriously underperforming for SEO, we managed to totally transform Mackoy in the eyes of the industry and its stakeholders. Radically repositioning the brand in terms of its look and feel, completely building the company a new and vastly improved B2B website, and applying our digital marketing expertise to gain Mackoy page one Google placement for all its key search terms.
We also took creative control of several of the business’s critical operational assets and B2B marketing tools, including its Good Practice Guide, and a corporate brochure, giving each of these documents a high-quality treatment that surpassed industry norms. Since our intervention, Mackoy has repeatedly tendered and won contracts to provide its groundworks services to leading British house builders in the UK.
You can see our full digital transformation of Mackoy on our Case Studies page, along with other examples of the ways our PR and digital marketing services have added value for clients in the gas, oil, commodities, logistics, travel, and healthcare sectors.