RSS Ray interviews David Oates, President of Stalwart Communications, on how to use public relations to build your business and boost profits.
RSS Ray recently sat down with David Oates, President of Stalwart Communications and overall public relations guru for the latest installment of Ray Raps. During the interview they discussed how businesses can implement public relations strategies to boost their profits in any economy. Check it out:
What is Public Relations (PR) and what can it do to help a business?
In short, Public Relations is the art of getting industry influencers to sing a company’s praises. Such people include journalists, industry association members, leaders of local business groups and loyal customers. Engaging such audiences in a strategic, proactive and personal matter will help increase awareness that will shorten sales cycles, increase partnership opportunities, generate investor interest and improve employee recruiting initiatives, regardless of the current economic conditions.
Is PR something only for large companies or can the small local business benefit from a PR program?
Any company of any size can – AND SHOULD – be leveraging PR as part of their marketing mix. For small- to medium-sized organizations, the tactics can be quite different, though. Instead of press releases, these companies will want to focus more on “grass-roots” tactics that include securing speaking opportunities at area business and industry events, applying for local awards and recognition, and offering themselves to trade and local journalists as expert sources on the topics they know best. In doing so, the organization’s “sphere of influence” rises.
Additionally, these companies should leverage the power of the Internet for PR purposes. I don’t care what type of company it is – be it an auto repair shop, a dentist office or a software engineering company – each firm should at the very least have not only a Web site, but a blog and online newsletter. The audience for such initiatives should be customers, suppliers, partners and business acquaintances. Doing so will easily allow these people to become evangelists for the company by forwarding their information along to their contacts, who in turn become leads.
How can small and mid-size businesses use public relations to grow sales and profits?
The online and offline grass roots tactics I mention earlier are the best way for small- to mid-size companies to promote their services and competitive advantages, particularly in uncertain economic times like today. I guarantee that employed properly, organizations will see a rise in both sales and profits. The best way for them to know if such initiatives are succeeding is to ask any new prospect that comes in by phone, e-mail or the Web site how they heard about the company. I’ll bet if all other initiatives remain constant, they will see a sizeable increase in the number of new prospects with a great majority of them coming as a direct result of the PR efforts conducted.
What are the elements of a sound public relations strategy for small and mid-size businesses?
I don’t care what type of company it is – be it an auto repair shop, a dentist office or a software engineering company – each firm should at the very least have not only a Web site, but a blog and online newsletter. To make best use of these tactics, organizations must do the following first:
- Identify three key messages that explain how they are better than their competitors.
- Identify with whom they want to communicate and how they like to receive such information.
- Set up a reasonable schedule to make that happen.
How do they get started?
I’m a firm believer in starting small. If companies understand what they want to say and to whom, they should create a good Web site, blog and e-newsletter to start. There are very inexpensive ways to do it. I personally use Yahoo! Business Services to create and host my Website and blog as well as Constant Contact to create and distribute e-newsletters. They are very easy to use as Microsoft® Word. What’s more, the total combined bill costs me less than $50 each month – far less than what I spend for phone service!
From there, companies can expand to other tactics, such as pitching and securing speaking opportunities at industry organizations and local events as well as introducing themselves to local media outlets. A word of caution here – organizations need to take less of a sales approach and more of an expert source stance. A pitch that sounds too much like a telemarketer will go nowhere fast!
Can small business compete against big business in the internet era?
The Internet was MADE for small businesses. In addition to the Web site and e-newsletter services I mentioned, companies can leverage free social networks to their advantage. I personally am on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, and also started my own social network, http://payonperformance.com, to promote my unique revenue model to small and mid-size organizations. All of these tactics are easy to use, free, and have given me a much greater audience to promote my services than I could ever get offline.
How has the internet changed the field of public relations?
It’s improved it. I know that sounds contrary to what a lot of PR people think, but I believe it has given the small and medium-sized businesses a greater chance of having their message heard. No longer is the city newspaper or local evening news the only place for people to learn about an organization.
The big issue for companies now is to understand how best to use the Internet to improve their bottom line. It also means that organizations must be comfortable with maintaining open dialogue with their audience, who will have more of an immediate and direct impact on its reputation and brand than ever before.
We hear a lot about optimized press releases. What are they and how can they help companies?
Optimized press releases are ones that include key words and phrases that (a) explain what a company does and how they are better than others, and (b) are embedded with hyperlinks to specific pages on the organization’s Web site.
Here’s an example: Say an auto parts dealer puts out a press release about a new line of wheel rims for sale to a trade publication that blasts the news to its subscribers via e-mail. If the announcement uses the specific product names that include embedded links to the dealer’s Web site or product page, Google sees that as a good thing and will move the auto parts dealer’s site higher up in their natural search rankings. The higher the rankings, the more people see it when they conduct a search about the wheel rims. That drives more traffic to the site, and results in more prospective customers for the auto parts dealer.
How can a company determine if something is newsworthy?
The best answer I can give is two fold: (a) Do a gut check – if a company REALLY feels something is a big deal, then it just might be; and (b) ask others besides customers and staff to be the judge. If they saw it in the paper, would they take time to read about it?
Another good sounding board is to look and see what competitors are promoting. If they’re getting media coverage for similar events, it may be a good indicator of what is newsworthy.
What are two or three tips you can share that a business can use to get a media outlet interested in a story?
- Make the story more than about you. Most news organizations want to hear about events that impact a majority of their audience. If the story is just about one company, particularly small ones, they are less apt to consider it of value. That isn’t to say that some announcements, such as a big client win, aren’t newsworthy. However, it will be easier to sell a story that showcases a trend in a particular industry than about one organization.
- Get to the point. When pitching a story, marketers, PR professionals and business owners have about 5 seconds to make their case, either by phone or e-mail. Editors and reporters get literally hundreds – and I do mean HUNDREDS – of pitches every day. Provide the facts and the value in one or two sentences max. When sending the information to a reporter via e-mail, make sure the subject line reads like a headline. As Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, m’am!”
- Promise only what you can deliver. There are times when a reporter or editor jumps at a story idea and needs to conduct interviews with the right people within the next few hours to meet their deadline. This is typical – the 24/7 news cycle demands it. So when pitching a story, be sure you can offer people up for interviews and background data at a moment’s notice. Failure to do so will result in being “black listed” by the editor.
What kinds of results should a business expect from a PR program?
A well-planned, well-executed PR program should shorten sales cycles, increase partnership opportunities, generate investor interest and improve employee recruiting initiatives, regardless of the current economic conditions. Companies should see the time they spend introducing themselves and their value propositions to prospects decrease as more and more folks become aware of them.
What are some common mistakes companies make with public relations programs?
There are lots, but here are a few:
- Companies that can’t explain what they do. Each industry has its own language known only to them. Organizations that can’t clearly articulate their mission and value in plain English will get little attention. Remember – in PR, it’s all about the audience.
- Companies that turn their sales material into press release. It’s important to recognize that sales materials don’t translate well in press releases and other PR material. Words like “revolutionary,” “state-of-the-art,” and “extraordinary” are virtually useless. Media outlets – both print and online – get turned off by the internal boasting, and will put such information in their Spam folder.
- Companies that claim to have no competitors. Telling a media outlet or an industry audience that they have no competition is another way of saying that they have no market. Media outlets and industry influencers will perceive companies that claim such as not relevant to their audience, and ignore them. Everyone has competitors, even if it is simply apathy.
How can you measure the revenue impacts of public relations efforts?
This takes some doing, but is very much worth it. Companies can start by implementing Web analytics to see what the increase in online traffic, leads and sales conversions were as a result of a media hit, e-mail newsletter or speaking event. Google Analytics is a great and easy tool to do this. Best of all, it’s free!
The same type of process should also be done with leads acquired over the phone. Those in charge of fielding inbound queries should be trained to ask how the person heard about the company. Such feedback should be tracked and reported to upper management.
Additionally, organizations can measure the benefits of their PR efforts by how much their sales cycles have been reduced. Over time, good campaigns should shorten the time between acquiring a new prospect to closing a deal. Measuring the ROI of PR efforts is not only possible, but necessary to justify the associated costs.
LYING is the one thing forbidden in your company.
We pride ourselves in our integrity. That means doing what is right – not what is easy.
Is PR something a company should out-source? Why?
That all depends on how much a company is willing to do, and really boils down to a time and money issue. For a start-up or smaller firm, PR efforts may be a role the CEO can play. Often times, however, such people are already doing too many things simultaneously, but don’t want to take on the overhead of hiring someone in house to handle such efforts. For them, hiring a qualified firm may be the answer, but I’d caution anyone against going with a retainer-based agency. Rather, companies should demand PR firms put their money where their mouth is, like we at Stalwart Communications do with our Pay-on-Performance model.
What are some of the more important criteria that should be considered before hiring a PR firm?
Most PR agencies will tout experience in certain markets as the reason to hire them. While that’s important, it’s not enough to go with a firm that is resting on past laurels. I’d recommend any company – but particularly small- to mid-size organizations – ask the following questions of any PR agency before engaging their services:
- How will they be compensated – as a product of producing results or billing hours?
- What do they see as the top priorities for successfully garnering press and awareness for their company?
- How will they go about generating such results?
What quantitative measurements of success will they put in place?
If a company hears the word “retainer” in response, they should run! Furthermore, if the PR firm is unwilling to be held accountable to specific success criteria or can’t articulate in precise terms what their focus will be in creating and executing a successful strategy, the organization should look elsewhere for help.
How do public relations firms charge for their services? How much does one need to spend to be effective?
A good PR campaign will run companies somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 each month. While most agencies operate similar to a law firm by charging a monthly retainer and bill an hourly rate against it, I launched a unique Pay-on-Performance model, which means clients don’t pay our full fees unless we actually produce. I believe it’s a much better way for PR firms to do business – both for clients and the agency, much to my competitors’ objections!
Why do you offer the Pay-on-Performance model and how does it work?
I got tired of working for PR and Marketing agencies that were afraid to put their money where their mouth was. We are hired to help companies shorten the sales cycle, and should be held to the same standard as those who are in charge of bringing in new customers.
Pay-on-Performance is the alignment of at least 50 percent of our revenues to actually delivering marketing and PR results for a client. The "R" word (Retainer) is not in Stalwart Communications’ vocabulary. We also do not track hours, but rather the success of actually producing results, such as securing positive press coverage. In turn, customers understand what they are getting each month for their PR dollar, because there is a guaranteed return on their investment when using us.
What makes Stalwart Communications different from other PR firms?
The Pay-on-Performance model is the biggest differentiator. Unlike most agencies, we’re not afraid to tie the bulk of our fees to results. Additionally, we’re focused in serving the small- to medium-sized businesses that recognize the value of PR, but have been hesitant to sign the $10,000 – $15,000 monthly retainer to engage a firm with no guarantee of results. Most agencies want to target the big players, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. I think that’s a disservice to most businesses.
The most overused business expression is:
“A LEADING PROVIDER OF.” I absolutely HATE that phrase. If a company is the leading provider, they don’t have to state it. If they feel otherwise, then probably (a) their market is too small for others to care about it, or (b) their market doesn’t really exist.
If companies believe as they should that they have a true competitive advantage, then they should explain it in straight terms. Let’s say a company sells gift baskets online. They may tout unique products, a wide variety of offerings and/or exceptional customer service. If true, they should emphasize those instead of saying something like “We’re the leading provider of gift baskets.” That doesn’t say anything.
David Oates is the President of Stalwart Communications and possesses nearly 15 years of extensive experience managing marketing and public relations programs on a tactical and strategic level through a long and successful career that spans both agency and government environments. At Stalwart, his Pay-on-Performance pricing model has allowed many clients to achieve maximum results with little risk.