Managing Marketing: Public Relations and its role in marketing

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Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Elizabeth Heusler is a media maverick, communications warrior and strategy zealot. Here she talks with Darren on the changing role and face of public relations and the opportunities marketers may overlook or misuse in the way they engage public relations into the communications mix.

Elizabeth-Heusler

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing and today I’ve got the opportunity of sitting down and having a chat with the most interesting public relations person I know, Elizabeth Heusler, from Heusler Public Relations. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth:

Thanks, Darren. It’s very kind and very good PR, thank you.

Darren:

I say interesting because I really enjoy reading your emails; there are just great little anecdotes and observations and things which are really, really interesting. It must be a very successful way of promoting what you do.

Elizabeth:

They are always about words and public relations is fundamentally all about the words you use, and the choice of words you use.

Darren:

I love words as well and I love the power of words and selecting the right words. I find it so interesting when that email pops up in my inbox; it’s one of those ones that I love to read so thank you for that.

But today I’m really interested in talking to you about the fact that I find marketers have quite a limited view in many cases about the role of public relations. And I’m not sure exactly why that is.

But they only recently seem to have been thinking about PR because there are PR companies that are saying things like we can do you social media management, organise your events, and they’re the things they can relate to whereas they don’t seem to be able to relate to public relations.

Do you ever come across that with marketing?

Elizabeth:

I think there are as many types of marketers as there are public relations consultants. The sophisticated marketer understands, embraces public relations.

There are some marketing groups I have worked with, and I have gone through three or four different companies with them; every time they move to a new organisation they just take me along with them and we pick up and roll along and finish each other’s sentences.

It depends on the size of the company, the need of the company. Some companies have very small marketing departments or marketing budgets, or even only one or two people; they might focus more on public relations and that’s not unusual.

Some companies just have a sales department and they’ll add the PR in with the sales department. Some companies, the PR is just working with the Board or the Chairman or in the C-Suite. So, it depends on the level of sophistication of the marketer in how they’re using public relations and what they’re using it for.

Quite often I work with marketing departments who only use me for a fraction of my services and they only use a very small amount of what we can bring to the table.

Conversely, there are other marketing organisations or departments that use a wide breadth of services from what you’re alluding to; from reputation management, issues management, I might write all their marketing collateral, I might be looking after their videos or their social media channels.

So, it really depends on the marketing consultant and how sophisticated they are and how aware they are and indeed how aware they even want to be.

Darren:

I think it’s because it’s so broad, that there are so many ways that a great PR practitioner can actually do their thing that they perhaps have trouble working out how to slot that in because when you think of the rest of marketing communications; you’ve got your media agency, creative agency (who are the creative ones apparently), and then you’ve got your digital agency (the digital people), and then you’ve got your shopper activation.

Everyone else seems to fit into a slot whereas you get to public relations and, from what you’ve just said, it could work across all of those areas or even beyond those areas to a whole new level of influence and reputation management.

Elizabeth:

Well, that is the beauty of working in the PR industry and it’s a great thing, not only for us, but it’s also a great opportunity for the client as well because there is so much that we can bring to the table. And years ago (talking about changes in the industry) we were often engaged just for media relations or just an event or a promotion.

That’s changed now where you’re engaged to bring a broad perspective to everything to do with communications.

Darren:

When you listen to the journalists that work in marketing, the BNTs and the Mumbrellas, and AdNews, when they write stories about public relations they’re always complaining about the press release that got emailed through or being sent things that are not relevant or upset PR practitioners because they didn’t write the story exactly.

The trade press itself seems to relate to public relations from that dimension because that’s their main interface I guess.

Elizabeth:

They are right to keep PR consultants on their toes and they’re right about those things and I applaud them. But from a PR consultant’s point of view it’s very difficult to write a press release about media relations and give that to a media relations organisation to run.

Darren:

That’s true.

Elizabeth:

It’s a little bit like the cobbler being poorly shod so it’s a little bit tricky to write a story about media for media.

Darren:

And in fact, media relations itself is not just about press releases is it in the broadest context? The best advice I’ve been given is ‘don’t send a press release; build a relationship.’

Elizabeth:

I suppose that’s in some sort of Nirvana that you would do that. Let me tell you that in 99.999% of the time it’s still the press release no matter what anyone tells you. First of all, take a simple exercise; try and get hold of a journo on the phone. Once you’ve cracked that some weeks will probably have passed. Then try and get that journo to listen to your tale–more weeks have passed.

A good journalist wants to see it written down with facts and context and research to back up what you’re saying.

Darren:

Sure, I understand that, but I think it’s also if you’re looking at influencing the story then it’s not just about a press release. To me a press release is trying to get your point of view into the media whereas media relations (and that’s what it’s called) is more about influencing the media coverage not just getting your story.

If you want to get your story into the media there is a thing called paid media. You can buy a whole page in any daily newspaper and write exactly what you want there. But the reason you want a journalist or someone to write about you and say what you want them to say is because it comes with the credibility of that 3rd party.

And to do that takes more than just telling them what you want them to write. It actually comes from building a reciprocal relationship; they’ve got to get something from you. The cost of the relationship is you understanding their needs and finding a way that your needs and theirs are actually joined.

Elizabeth:

Precisely but all good PR consultants know how to build that relationship. If you have something interesting to say you can build a relationship in 30 seconds. You’d be surprised how good a relationship you can get if you’ve got an interesting news story.

We who have worked in the industry for a long time obviously have good relations with the media. It doesn’t matter what you call it in the email, a press release, information sheet or a backgrounder. Recently, for a very sensitive case, I sent out three or four pages of frequently asked questions to the journalists.

In this particular issue I was working on I sent them all the questions I knew would be asked and all the answers so that was a lengthy piece of work.

Darren:

But that’s because you understand what their requirements are so you’re making life easier for them.

Elizabeth:

That’s the goal and hence I go back to call it a press release or whatever you like but you have to impart some information. My only point is that you impart that in writing rather than ringing.

The relationship, the coffee, all that is a very nice thing to have, which you have just by being in the industry and being aware. And if you want to do your own media relations sure drop a journo a line.

Darren:

Sorry, I’m not recommending that people do their own.

Elizabeth:

But if you want to build that relationship yourself then media are generally quite available—send them a note.

Darren:

I think though the paid media/ earned media is an interesting paradigm because there is a perception that if you earn the space in the media it does have more value.

Elizabeth:

A thousand times more value. With respect, anyone can buy time or air.

Darren:

You just need deep pockets.

Elizabeth:

Well anyone can buy time or air it’s just how much time or space you buy.

Darren:

There used to be a formula didn’t there, trying to put a value against this earnt media time? It was called the media equivalencies. And if I got a full page written up in lets’ say the Sydney Morning Herald, we’d measure up that space, we’d work out what the paid equivalent was and then we’d multiply it by a factor like three.

Elizabeth:

I can remember doing that in my junior years as a consultant and that’s probably where it stayed. It’s not about the space. You’d rather have one paragraph where they say something useful and relevant about you than a full page of nonsense.

Darren:

Exactly. But also, it comes down to what’s more valuable; having a profile piece on an individual in the organisation or the product or brand or having a full page where your brand is referred to along with other brands that positions it in quite a positive way?

Elizabeth:

Precisely. I had a client who wanted a position in a certain area and during the course of our campaign the client was quoted by government ministers–only lines here and there.

Darren:

But still how influential is that because of the context of the person.

Elizabeth:

Precisely. Game won.

Darren:

It’s funny they’re still floating around. We’ve seen PR companies recently that do things like the number of likes on Facebook or the number of followers on Instagram.

The ones that have moved into social media are still finding these very superficial, shallow metrics, which for me is media equivalency (the old PR measure), just like counting the likes in social media isn’t it?

Elizabeth:

You’ve hit on a very good point, Darren. It really comes back to how your client likes to measure and what they see the value in. If your client sees value in likes to me that’s like Monopoly money and if they think that’s great—fine.

But good PR consultants have many different ways of measuring; it’s not just one measurement and that’s it. There are milestones and measurements, and projects are linked to ROI. Every client of mine has a different way of measuring. Some it’s just on awareness. I started a campaign for a medical company and their awareness was .01% or something.

And after 5 years with nothing else but PR (no paid or above or below the line or anything) it was over 60%–there’s your measurement.

Darren:

Amazing. You couldn’t even begin to calculate how much paid media it would take to deliver that same sort of growth. But it’s the fact that they’ve achieved their objective, which is getting that 60% awareness from next to nothing with the target audience.

Elizabeth:

With their target audience which would potentially purchase this product. But as I said each client that I work with has a different way or measuring.

Darren:

Exactly right—the measurement has to go to the strategy. What is it we’re wanting to achieve and how are we actually going to measure that we have achieved that?

Just to change topics a little bit. You mentioned before that within very large organisations we’ve often got the C-Suite, the CEO who will have corporate affairs and their PR advisers and consultants and you’ll have your government relations advisers and consultants and you might have your sales and product team.

I can see why it’s segmented but you end up often with different groups of public relations people talking to those different categories and being specialists in that. But is that the ideal way to do it do you think?

Elizabeth:

It varies from client to client. And again, it goes back to what their appetite is and if they want a consultancy that can work across all areas. In some very large organisations I’m slotted in as a very tiny piece of that wheel and that’s great.

In other organisations we are the big communications wheel within that organisation. Perhaps some of the other segments are smaller and come off the PR wheel. So, it varies too much from organisation to organisation.

It depends, they might have a big emphasis on investor relations or they might have a small emphasis on sales so the beauty about PR is that it’s so flexible. We are flexible enough to work across all those different areas.

Darren:

You are right. I think probably what I’m more interested in is when I see examples from a single organisation and we could pick on the banks because they’re going through a Royal Commission at the moment.

And let’s pick Bank X, Y, Z because that could be any bank and they’ve obviously got crisis management consultants in to help them with how they’re going to present their story to the Royal Commission.

Then they’ll have some other consultants who will be working on investor relations because how will we continue to support our share price as we go through this? And down here we’ve got the marketing department and they’ll have a component of public relations doing consumer based.

And you often see different messages in the same media being generated by three areas within the business and it just ends up contradictory.

Elizabeth:

It’s a really good example of what not to do and as we’re talking about banks X, Y and Z, only last week one of the ABC banks were contradicting each other in what they were saying. You would hope that doesn’t happen. Whilst as a PR adviser you can only advise, at the end of the day you can’t make anyone do anything, you can just advise.

There have been many incidences in the media where they didn’t have a very good PR adviser. You never really know what’s going on behind the scenes and I’ve been in situations where we’ve tried to rescue it as best we could, but they weren’t taking our advice. Had they taken our advice it would have been a different situation.

Quite often there is a lot more going on. In a couple of the high-profile issues that have gone on at the moment (not so much the banks—I’m thinking the sporting arena) they’ll be getting so much advice from so many different people they often don’t know what advice to take and they’ll act on some of their own instinct.

We often get clients who have advice from an outside party like a lawyer and they’ll have our advice and their accountant’s advice. And they’ll be confused; who do I listen to, my accountant, my lawyer or my media adviser?

Darren:

Yeah, that’s true; everyone’s got an opinion. What do they say? Opinions are like arseholes; everyone’s got one. It’s only because I’ve heard you articulate that public relations, in its fullest form, has the ability to influence so many areas of a business and their stakeholders.

It would seem to me more than marketing (because marketing is often about building brands and customers) the whole PR is that ability to take singular management of corporate reputation.

And it seems to me that this has to be, if you’re a publicly listed company, the board and the CEO should have a focus on this and be very careful about sending out mixed messages across these different areas.

Does that happen very often? Have you seen that in large organisations?

Elizabeth:

The mixed messages?

Darren:

Avoiding the mixed messages because they’ve got a singular strategy across the whole business.

Elizabeth:

Generally, there is a singular strategy and we always focus on issues because they’re probably high profile, but you have a lot of things that happen within a company that if you told the story outside the company would not be a big deal, but they are a big deal within the company. So, they’re issues that happen every day.

It’s only the really high-profile ones like the banks which are of course massive behemoths so they’re a different institution because they are proving now how poor their communications are.

Darren:

But even airlines for instance. You’ll have airlines talking to investors saying, ‘we’re cutting costs and we’re going to trim them to the bone and offshore services to get those costs down’ and then plough millions of dollars into marketing that says, ‘no expense spared in delivering you the best possible service and safety’.

The two are going out to the main media and yet they are very superficially diametrically opposed. We’ve got two separate messages: cost-cutting and we won’t cut costs when it comes to your safety.

Elizabeth:

How frustrating that is for the consumer no matter where you come into it from the consumer point of view. I was at a conference last week in the hotel industry where all the major players in the hotel industry were talking about customer service. And I was staying at a hotel for the conference where they weren’t answering their desk.

Darren:

The sweet irony.

Elizabeth:

The sweet irony indeed. But it’s just immensely frustrating and ultimately really stupid because all you do is just enrage the customer and lose confidence and trust. And again, going back to our favourite topic of the banks, that’s why no one believes anything they say.

Darren:

There’s a loss of trust because there is a loss of authenticity and empathy that you stop believing that they’re actually there for you. And yet at the same time they’ve all got campaigns out there that say we’re here for you. But clearly what’s coming out is that they’re not here for us; they’re actually here for the shareholders and their personal bonuses.

Elizabeth:

Many of us have experienced that with the banks. We are listening to them say one thing and most recently Matt Comyn from the Commonwealth Bank was saying one thing, they were all saying different messages. But the consumer who is actually using that bank isn’t getting that experience.

Darren:

I know that public relations should be about managing reputation. You mentioned earlier (before we started chatting), what was the first PR company listed as?

Elizabeth:

In the Pink Pages—it was before the Yellow Pages. George Fitzpatrick was the first public relations company listed in the 1930s and it was under Public Persuasion, Propaganda and Publicity.

Darren:

What I love about that is it just reeks of authenticity.

Elizabeth:

Yes.

Darren:

He says exactly what he does; we persuade, we’re propaganda and we’re publicity. Now we come up with euphemisms for all those because to say the word propaganda scares the hell out of people—mind control, mind control.

Is it a fact that either organisations take a very fragmented approach to their PR or do very few actually see marketing as part of the overall public perception of a brand?

The reason I say that is I’ve had a number of conversations with corporate affairs people who when I suggest that marketing should be included in the loop say ‘but that’s just marketing. That’s just advertising—no one cares’.

Elizabeth:

It’s a strange reaction, a strange comment from public affairs but I think it comes down to their own sophistication and their own awareness. And you will find that varies from company to company. Most sophisticated marketers and public affairs people embrace PR because they know what it can do.

But on the other hand, sometimes they just don’t want to use those services. And again, when we’re talking about the large behemoths that have a lot of different messages going on, they’re employing a lot of people as well—100s of 1,000s of people.

Most companies will pretty much stick to messaging and be consistent. It’s really not that much of an issue within most companies because they’re not that fragmented.

Darren:

The smaller the company—

Elizabeth:

The tighter the message.

Darren:

And also, companies that still have a founder. I love it when people still talk about Steve Jobs in Apple. Where was the founder? He was the epitome of that brand because it was built in his vision. It was his vision that made it happen.

It’s interesting now because when management is brought in and the CEO is appointed, you often wonder how the selection process is even based around them buying into the strategy, brand, and reputation of the company or whether they’re just brought in to make it perform financially.

Suzie Shaw from WeareSocial came and we had a conversation here and she was saying so many CEOs are not engaging in social media to talk to their customers. They’re busy talking to their shareholders but they don’t actually take the time to talk to their customers. In the U.S. apparently it’s less common but especially in Australia CEOs are not engaging with customers.

Elizabeth:

I think that’s one of those things that will gradually change. To some, social media is still untried, untested, and unproven.

Darren:

Sorry, I’m laughing.

Elizabeth:

But there again a lot of consultants selling social media aren’t able to sell it to a C-Suite who wants to have confidence and wants metrics, measurements and outcomes.

And rather than risking the passive words of ‘we will endeavour’ and ‘we will try’ and ‘we will aim’ and ‘we will test it and if that doesn’t work ‘–all of this language is an anathema to serious companies.

We will test out the social media and if that doesn’t work we will try something else and if that’s no good we’ll give it another shot. All the C-Suite is hearing is that sounds like a big mistake, bit risky. And someone else comes in and says, ‘it’s good to fail; we fail fast’.

You’ve got to listen to what they’re hearing and on top of that there are a lot of dollars attached to it. So that’s not a good thing to buy into.

Darren:

But, Elizabeth, we’ve got the CEO let’s say of the world’s largest economy tweeting out policy every night.

Elizabeth:

Do you want to go there?

Darren:

To say that social media is untested but if it’s good enough for the president of the United States of America it’s possibly good enough for the CEO of a publicly listed company in Australia.

Elizabeth:

I think that comes back to your measurements, but I will say, if you’re measuring against the president of the United States, we would all know what that brand is, and we would all be very clear on what that brand stands for.

So, if we’re looking in those terms then you’ve got to say that’s success. I would say there would be very few people on the planet that didn’t know what that brand stood for.

Darren:

Exactly. And it’s interesting the longer he’s in the job the more polarised but also the more locked in that people seem to be plus or minus. If you can polarise the population 50/50 or even 60/40 that would have to be better than a business that gets 5 or 10% market share.

Better to have 50% of the marketplace absolutely detest you as long as the other 50% are absolutely wedded to you and your brand than be nothing, that scratches away at single digits.

Elizabeth:

You’ve got 100% awareness; you can’t argue with that.

Darren:

Exactly. It would be an interesting job to be a PR adviser to Donald Trump.

Elizabeth:

It’s always interesting giving PR advice to people at that level and again how much advice they take.

Darren:

Well, I know you wouldn’t last long. It’d be a short-term thing.

Elizabeth:

Yes, yes, I think you’re right.

Darren:

Getting back to marketing; there are lots and lots of PR companies in the marketplace and there are specialists and some that are generalists and there are the big multinational PR companies and the small independents. Where would anyone start working out where to find the right PR company for them?

Elizabeth:

Fortunately, PR people are highly engaged and social and you’d just start by inviting PR people to lunch and seeing how you get on with them. But I’d also suggest you take out to lunch the person that is going to be doing the work, not the person who is going to be pitching for the business because often the twain will never meet.

And then find someone that you can be confident that you can trust. You have a very close relationship with your PR consultant and it isn’t always a bed of roses. It does occasionally hit the fan and you want to know that your PR consultant is going to be there for you at 6 o’clock on a Saturday night and 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning because issues always occur at that time of day and they don’t occur 9 to 5.

Darren:

How inconvenient of them.

Elizabeth:

Yes, it’s part of the gig so you want to find out how committed they are to you and how available they are and things like service level agreements (even notionally). What’s their turnaround time for getting back to you?

I was with a client on the weekend and I was at a conference, so I was in the basement because I couldn’t get phone calls and he’d send out almost like an APB on me because you always answer your phone on the 2nd ring.

So, he said the fact that I had to leave messages for you I thought there was something wrong. That’s why I like working with you. I have other consultants; I know they’ll phone me back in 2 or 3 days. I have you in a different category because you answer the phone on the 2nd ring.

That’s what makes or breaks your PR relationships.

Darren:

You’re there when they need you.

Elizabeth:

Yes, and what that translates into.

Darren:

It’s interesting from my perspective because we do a lot of work where we help people select advertising agencies, media agencies. PR is a totally different professional relationship in that there is not a marketer alive who would engage an agency that is working with a competitor.

And yet often I will get a brief from a client that will say we need a specialist PR company (and they might be in the food category) and here are the 5 people that work in food and they’re specialists. And they’re specialists because they’re working with all their competitors.

That competitive consideration doesn’t seem to be as big an issue in public relations. Why do you think that is?

Elizabeth:

I don’t know. We just don’t care about it. We just work hard for the client. I was referred by a client and he referred me to his competitor. And I said but this is your direct competition, why are you referring? He said ‘better that you do it than someone else’.

Darren:

That’s the highest praise you can possibly get.

Elizabeth:

I think so and it worked out great because I was getting media for one and I was able to join the other one, so they were piggybacking off each other’s media.

Darren:

Wow, O.K.

Elizabeth:

So, I got two lots of work for the one.

Darren:

I completely get it if it’s about media buying because potentially you could both be buying the same inventory and destroying competition in that you’re both competing, so you end up paying more.

Or one of the ones that I love is search engine marketing because they’re actually bidding for particular keywords at a time, so they could be bidding each other up for making Google reach.

I understand it because every company even if they’re competitors they still have different strategic requirements. I couldn’t imagine that you would take a strategy with that one client and apply exactly the same strategy to the competitor because they would have different needs wouldn’t they?

Elizabeth:

In all the decades I’ve been in business I’ve never repeated a strategy ever.

Darren:

There are so many variables, how could it possibly happen?

Elizabeth:

Exactly and all my clients get my client list and everyone I’ve ever worked with so if they have an issue about we don’t want to work with someone who’s working with them you get that out on the table immediately.

Darren:

And what about conflicts about the topics you won’t work on? A lot of agencies now are saying things like tobacco but even anti-gambling and things like that—is that an issue for public relations?

Elizabeth:

I think it’s very much that water finds its own level. There are obviously some clients that don’t come to me because I’m not what they’re looking for and they’ll go to a different agency.

You pretty much know what area the agency is in when you’re talking to them or it’s quickly found in that conversational breakfast or lunch you’ve gone out to.

Darren:

And what would you say to people that call PR people spin doctors?

Elizabeth:

I don’t mind what we’re called.

Darren:

As long as you’re paid on time it doesn’t matter.

Elizabeth:

It’s exactly as you’re saying, it’s normally said with a smile.

Darren:

That’s true. It’s when the angry clients are shouting at you you’re nothing but a spin doctor. Yes, that’s right, thank you.

Elizabeth:

I think it’s all about context. I was representing a client and there was an article in the paper about the project and their public relations consultancy contacted us and I thought ‘and your point would be?’

Darren:

So, yes. All you’ve just said is that this is a very professional operation that has an expert advising them.

Elizabeth:

The person that contacts the media contacted them. I think they were trying to infer that the client wouldn’t talk to them. But that’s what we do.

Darren:

It’s interesting when journalists become PR consultants—the working journalists call them hacks. There’s an interesting dynamic there isn’t there?

Elizabeth:

I often sign off to journalists ‘your humble hack’ Dear flack, your humble hack.

Darren:

That’s owning it.

Elizabeth:

Absolutely.

Darren:

Look we’ve run out of time but I really appreciate you dropping by for a chat.

Elizabeth:

I was in the neighbourhood and it was my pleasure.

Darren:

And just one last thing. Who do you think has been the worst client you’ve ever had?

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About Darren Woolley

Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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