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The value of reactive, responsive PR… and how to do it

There are many ways to get your business in the press, some more effective than others.

Yes, I know, that’s some razor-sharp insight, honed by many years working in PR. But keep reading — there are lessons here for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

At one end of the spectrum sits the mass distribution of an adjective-laden press release shouting about how great your business is. This is the bad end of the spectrum — it’s an approach that will, in my experience, be met with silence, indifference or a polite response of “piss off”.

At the other end sits the more effective PR: a business offering genuine opinion, advice or insight regarding pertinent topics or breaking news stories.

Why is it effective?

For two main reasons.

Firstly, those topics or events are already going to be written about by journalists, so you have the opportunity to align your business with the existing news agenda.

Put another way, it makes ‘the pitch’ a lot easier. You do not have to convince a journalist that you have a newsworthy story — the story is already there, you are just reacting to it.

Secondly, those topics or stories are actually of interest to the readers, hence journalists are writing about them. So, as a business you are discussing subjects that will resonate with a particular audience, be it consumers or businesspeople, rather than simply talking about yourself.

How to plan reactive PR

The easiest way to be successful through a reactive, responsive PR strategy is to plan as much as you can in advance, even if that sounds contradictory. Some may say “PR must be proactive, not reactive”… nonsense, it has to be both.

There is a huge number of events, announcements, anniversaries and awareness days that we know are going to dominate the news agenda well before they actually take place. Take some obvious examples in March:

  • 3 March, the Chancellor’s Spring Budget
  • 8 March, International Women’s Day
  • 23 March, one-year anniversary of the UK’s first Covid lockdown

There are more niche ones, too. Did you know, the 15 to 22 March is Compost Week UK? Slap bang in the middle of it, today in fact (19 March), is National Poultry Day. Two big hitters competing for column inches.

The point being that with a little research, using free online calendars or more sophisticated media planning tools, businesses can create a week-by-week diary of key events that will be of relevance to their customers. That’s step one; then comes the harder part.

Getting in the media

So, you know a major event is around the corner and that it is something your customers will be thinking about, talking about, reading about. But what can you do as a business to use that as a platform to get your name — or that of your CEO, for instance — in the media?

There are several options. You could conduct research into a specific topic relating to the event, using an anniversary or announcement as a news hook so journalists are more likely to write about your research. Could you, perhaps, conduct a survey delving into major issues brought about by the pandemic, using the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown as a timely moment to share the findings with the media?

Alternatively, in the build-up to or aftermath of the event, you could pitch to relevant publications — national newspapers, trade magazines and websites, local press — offering a guest article (op-ed) delving further into its importance or consequences.

For example, following the Spring Budget at the start of March, we had a client (a mortgage lender) featured in Bloomberg discussing the implications of the Chancellor’s decision to extend the stamp duty holiday and freeze various tax rates.

Another option: on the specific day of an event or announcement, or if there is a breaking news story, your business could share a quote reacting to the latest developments. This need only be a few sentences long — journalists are often hungry for business leaders’ reactions, particularly if they offer a clear-cut opinion on whether it is good or bad news.

Again, take the Spring Budget: on the day of the Chancellor’s announcement, we had three clients featured in the Daily Mail (along with many industry trade publications), while another had quotes included in articles from The TimesDaily Express and The Sun.

The trick was for us to work with the clients to create quotes the day before, given much of Rishi Sunak’s speech was known in advance, and then get those quotes to journalists likely to be covering the Budget as the announcement began. The speed and punchiness of the comments were the critical factors.

Build your brand and your journalist relationships

There are many ways to use the existing media agenda — and specific events you can plan around — to get your business in the press. The important thing is to engage with what journalists are actually writing about (or going to be writing about); offering useful opinion and insight around those topics is more likely to be of value than a generic press release about yourself.

Getting your brand in the media commenting on the day’s news might not be an overt promotion of your business — it will not be a direct sales pitch for your product or service. But it’s a great strategy for getting your name seen, developing a reputation as a respected voice within a particular market, and building strong relationships with journalists who will be responsive to your emails in the future.

Dominic Pollard

Director of Communications

About the author

With a history degree, journalism Master’s, and several years’ experience writing about business and technology for both the national and trade press, Dominic moved into the world of content marketing and comms in 2014. He joined City Road Comms in 2016, becoming the agency’s director of comms two years later. Dominic now oversees clients’ strategies and the overall operations of the agency.

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COVID-19: Why PR and comms are more important than ever

The world as we knew it no longer exists. How long will it be before something resembling normality returns? Will the way we work and live ever go back to what we had before? It would seem that not even leading virologists and politicians can answer these questions.

For businesses, the challenges that have ensued from the COVID-19 pandemic are too many to list. Supply chains have been disrupted, market demand is fluctuating massively from sector to sector, and products and services have to be pivoted.

Pete Flint, a managing partner at NFX, a seed-stage venture firm based in San Francisco, wrote the below in an article about how to overcome the current situation:

I’ve found there are three distinct but equally critical elements of how you manage a crisis:

1. The first is managing losses. This will be the most difficult and painful thing you do as a CEO because it involves people, but it’s often not so much about the what as it is the how. Your empathy and speed are key here.

2. The second is gaining ground. These are the ways you will reorient your focus, your tactics, and your team so you come out ahead after a crisis.

3. The third is managing psychology. It is crucial you keep yourself, your team, and those around you healthy, sane and productive.

The first of those points comes down to making difficult but empathetic decisions as a business leader. When it comes to the second and third points, though, the value of a coherent PR and communications strategy is huge.

In fact, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, it is more important than ever to ensure a business has a carefully calculated PR and comms strategy in place.

PR and comms during crisis

First and foremost, timely and well-managed communications are at the heart of successfully managing any crisis. That is, of course, why there is a specialist field dedicated to it: crisis comms.

However, when the going is smooth, some businesses take their communications with external and internal stakeholders for granted. Many of these are quickly learning the danger of doing so.

Business leaders must find ways to effectively relay information to current or prospective customers; they must not just inform them of their own actions at this challenging time, but also provide insight into how their market is responding (you should want to be seen as an expert, after all, so people should look to you for expertise); they must try to answer people’s questions and reassure them.

At the same time, internal staff, the supply chain, business partners and investors — should your business have them or work with them — must also be kept abreast of how you are handling the situation. A business must show all these different audiences that it is taking swift, positive, decisive action.

Silence breeds suspicion in the current climate. A fatal error is to pretend it’s “business as normal” when everyone can clearly see that it isn’t. It causes staff, customers and partners to fear the worst and question your approach.

Blogs, social media platforms, newsletters, email marketing, webinars — these are just a few of the ways that businesses can communicate with relevant audiences about what is happening and why they should stick with them. Better yet, reports and infographics can provide genuine insight into what is happening right now.

Content is king, or so the cliché goes. And right now, well written content and thorough communications can go a long, long way to steadying the ship.

Businesses must have a clear handle on:

  • What is the message, or messages, they want to promote at this time
  • How will they carefully construct that message so it has the desired effect
  • And where will they distribute that message to ensure it is actually seen

Thriving not surviving

Steadying the ship is only half of the battle, though. Crisis comms will be vital for virtually every business if they want to survive the coronavirus lockdown, but many businesses will also need to find ways to pivot and break new ground while their competitors falter. Indeed, there are some businesses who will emerge from the other side of this pandemic with a far greater market share and larger customer-base than before it.

The global financial crisis 12 or so years ago offers a good example. While many businesses suffered, some seized on new opportunities. Many have written about the bigger firms — the likes of Netflix and Groupon — which grew at pace, but many SMEs also thrived by being responsive. It kickstarted the alternative finance and fintech revolutions, for example.

At City Road Comms we have already seen many of our clients pivot. They have used their products, services, infrastructure or networks to create a business model that better fits with the current social and economic landscape.

For those that are shifting their focus, targeting new customers or delivering a different product, they need potential customers, clients and investors to hear about it. And this is where PR comes in.

Due to self-isolation and social distancing, people around the world are consuming more media than ever. They are inside more. They are watching and reading more news. They are seeking ways to stay informed or be distracted. And already we are seeing a slight fatigue in the media from coronavirus content — journalists have been telling us that they are on the hunt for interesting (and ideally ‘feel-good’) stories to write about, rather than the contents of the Government’s daily briefings.

Be bullish

Now is the perfect time for businesses to take a bullish approach to PR. Creating the right narrative and sharing it with the right journalists will enable a business to raise its profile, boost its reputation, get in front of potential customers, and shout about what it is doing.

There are undoubtedly ways of adapting products or services to better serve consumers and businesses in the current climate. The business leaders best able to spot these opportunities have the best chances of not just surviving but thriving. But all that work risks being done in vain should they not find ways to communicate their message through their own channels and with the wider world.

That is why both crisis comms and PR are more important than ever. They could be the different between life and death for a business.

Dominic Pollard

Director of Communications

About the author

With a history degree, journalism Master’s, and several years’ experience writing about business and technology for both the national and trade press, Dominic moved into the world of content marketing and comms in 2014. He joined City Road Comms in 2016, becoming the agency’s director of comms two years later. Dominic now oversees clients’ strategies and the overall operations of the agency.

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PR and Brexit: How not to manage external communications

Last month, in an interview with ITV, former Prime Minister David Cameron admitted his decision to call for an EU referendum still haunts him. And given the sheer, unadulterated chaos that has ensued since the vote in June 2016, such regret is easy to understand; after all, the decision not only cost Cameron his job (even though he had said he would remain in power regardless of the outcome), but it’s also turned UK politics on its head.

To put some of the political mayhem into perspective, here are a couple of interesting stats. The first: since Theresa May was elected with a minority government in 2017, more than 70 MPs have changed party affiliation — including becoming independent or joining a new party. This is the same number as in the entire preceding two decades.

The second: between 1979 and 2017, only once did three ministers resign in the same 24-hour period (Humphrey Atkins, Lord Carrington, and Richard Luce, over the Falkland conflict). Between June 2018 and July 2019, it happened four times.

David Cameron, like the rest of the country, could not have predicted the torrent of shocks and surprises that would be thrown up by Brexit. It has seldom strayed from the front pages over the past three-and-a-half years; yet despite the volume of media coverage it has received, the UK public has often been left scratching its proverbial head wondering exactly what is happening.

Putting aside one’s personal views on Brexit (as much as is possible), it is hard to dispute that the whole event has been something of a PR disaster. Heads have metaphorically rolled, political parties have been divided into countless factions, and many reputations have been tarnished, some beyond repair.

At City Road Comms, we have been pondering over what PR lessons, then, can be learnt from the Brexit saga? And more specifically, based on what we’ve seen from the government’s communications strategy over the past three years (or lack thereof), what can businesses learn what it comes to maintaining support and trust during times of intense scrutiny?

Be clear, honest and transparent

If one thing has become apparent in the government’s handling of Brexit, it is the need for honesty and transparency when delivering external communications. This becomes all the more important when dealing with complicated or potentially unpopular matters.

In fact, this is a golden rule for virtually any effective PR and comms strategy. Audiences will not sit open-mouthed and swallow whatever lines you give them. Whether it is a newspaper quote, radio interview or press release, organisations must state their points clearly, but also offer information or opinions that are genuine and honest.

A failure to be truthful about events that are taking place, or relying too heavily on rhetoric and hyperbole, is an easy way for organisations to alienate an audience.

This is a point many people would relate to, with much of the frustration regarding Brexit stemming from a lack of understanding about what is happening. And in truth, even if there is bad news — or no news at all — the most effective option is often for organisations to be honest and say just that.

The same is true in any form of crisis communications; experience teaches us that people will be far more forgiving and, thereby, a brand’s reputation can be protected if an organisation is proactive in communicating the latest developments. What’s more, it must ensure when it does so that it is clear, honest and transparent in the message it delivers.

Avoid jargon

The goal of almost any PR and communications strategy is to effectively bridge the gap between an organisation and a particular audience (typically its customers). To achieve this, the language used within external comms must be as accessible as possible.

When it comes to Brexit, the government — and Westminster more generally — has failed. Most MPs have frequently used jargon within their political speeches, TV interviews and newspaper columns.

Backstop, no deal, transition period, WTO rules, divorce bill, withdrawal agreement — these new terms have entered our everyday lexicon since the EU referendum. So much so, in fact, that the BBC and many other media outlets have their very own “Brexit jargon buster” on their websites to help readers.

However, while admittedly hard to avoid, this jargon can hurt an organisation’s chances of winning trust and support from an audience. And again, this comes back to clarity in communications. If a person or group cannot easily understand what a person is saying and why they are saying it then it becomes difficult for them to offer their support.

Organisations and their spokespeople must try, as best they can, to remove themselves from the bubble in which they operate and ensure certain terms are either avoided or clarified.

Create a united front

Regardless of there being too little honesty and too much jargon, the most obvious flaw in the government’s Brexit communications strategy has been its inability to create a united front. Indeed, this has proved almost impossible due to the lack of consensus within the Conservative Party — let alone the House of Commons — regarding the desired Brexit outcome.

Nonetheless, there is a clear lesson to be learnt here: when there is a lack of a uniform “party line”, the scope for negative news is greatly increased.

From charity to startup, multinational business to government department, it is vital an organisation’s spokespeople are seen to be championing the same values. Not only will this ensure a particular message is clearly conveyed to an audience, but it also prevents contradictory statements appearing in the media — something that is certain to damage the reputation of a brand or company.

Even when people’s opinions or perspectives vary, a party line can still be achieved by making sure there is a core set of points — ideals, if you will — that unite the people within an organisation.

The government’s failure to create anything like a united front has fuelled the media’s portrayal of Brexit chaos. While such divisive events may not ever impact other businesses to the same degree, the need for a strong brand identity that is supported through a proactive, consistent PR strategy remains hugely important.

Considered, coherent PR strategies

It is all too easy to criticise the government’s handling of Brexit as an armchair pundit. It’s also unfair to take cheap shots at bestiality-related stories involving a former PM.

Ultimately, uniting a country divided (almost) down the middle while also negotiating a deal with Brussels and getting a majority of MPs to agree to it is perhaps the hardest task any Prime Minister has been faced with in recent times. Nevertheless, there is no question that businesses can learn some valuable lessons about PR and communications from the way political leaders have struggled with Brexit.

Businesses can be thankful that they will never face such scrutiny as Cameron, May and Johnson have. Yet the challenges involved in connecting with particular audiences, building trust and handling potentially negative news are ones that many leaders will face.

To overcome such challenges, businesses require a well-considered, coherent PR strategy. Moreover, as has hopefully been stressed here, clarity and uniformity in both the language and messaging they use are absolutely essential. Adopting such an approach will maximise the chances of a business’ communications being effective, in turn ensuring its overarching PR strategy is successful.

Dominic Pollard

Director of Communications

About the author

With a history degree, journalism Master’s, and several years’ experience writing about business and technology for both the national and trade press, Dominic moved into the world of content marketing and comms in 2014. He joined City Road Comms in 2016, becoming the agency’s director of comms two years later. Dominic now oversees clients’ strategies and the overall operations of the agency.

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The Ship of Theseus and PR: How can startups maintain a strong brand as they evolve?

Greek philosophy and public relations: two subjects that rarely inform the same discussion. But here we go (please bear with me).

In his biographical works Plutarch’s Lives, the eponymous Greek historian and writer questions our understanding of ‘identity’. He uses the example of The Ship of Theseus — a legendary king and war hero who purportedly founded the city of Athens.

According to the allegory, having returned from its nautical adventures, Theseus’ mythical ship sits in a harbour as a memorial to the king’s military achievements. However, over the course of a hundred years its rotting planks are replaced one by one. Plutarch asks, therefore, whether or not we should still consider the vessel to be the ship of Theseus if all its original parts have been replaced?

In different guises, this question has debated for the best part of two thousand years. Seldom, though, when talking about PR.

Yet there is relevance between the two, particularly for startups. Specifically, as businesses age, pivot and evolve into different entities, PR can play an important role in enabling a startup’s brand — its identity, if you will — to weather those changes and stand the test of time.

The evolution of a business

It’s almost inevitable that many elements of a startup will evolve over time. We see it persistently with the startups we work with at City Road Comms, even over the course of just two or three months.

For example, the personnel typically change dramatically over the course of several years — even co-founders fall-out and part ways. Business models and specialisms constantly adapt to market demands, and in some instances the company’s revenue streams end up being entirely different from those originally sought after.

And so we return to Theseus’ ship… albeit in a modern, commercial context.
When, several years into its journey, a startup looks back at its inception, it will often see that many of its component parts have changed from those when it was founded. What remains, more often than not, is the core premise of the business and the problem it’s attempting to solve — the actual service or product may be different, and the staff delivering it may not have been there from day one, but what’s left are the core values or propositions underpinning the business.

As with the proverbial Greek ship, conceptually the entity remains largely the same, even if its physical makeup has changed. Which brings us back to the matter of public relations and, in particular, how an effective PR strategy can help to develop and maintain a startup’s brand identity while things around it change.

PR and brand building

Public relations is often over-simplified as media relations — as a means of getting an organisation and its spokespeople into the press. In reality, while this is invariably a key element of a PR strategy, the aim ought to be far bigger.

As the art of maintaining an organisation’s public image, PR is essentially a brand-building exercise. It’s about creating an identity and presenting it to an audience — either in a B2B or B2C environment — so people are able to better understand who you are, what you do and the qualities you offer.

When done successfully, PR focuses on the conceptual or the ideological more than the specific practicalities of a business; this is particularly true for startups, which will struggle to get much airtime if they are only seen to be talking about their “brand new product”.

Indeed, one of the most common mistakes we see startups make in their PR strategies (before we begin working with them, of course) is to focus solely on selling themselves — to shamelessly shout about their supposed outstanding and unique qualities. Journalists often do not wish to promote such material, while readers will glean little value from it. Rather, effective PR is built around addressing pertinent issues that an audience can relate to and, ideally, offering insight into how people can overcome them.

Startup PR is, therefore, usually a matter of relating what the business does to the challenges of its potential clients. In doing so, the young company can build its brand around a core set of values; it will demonstrate the specialist knowledge of the business and develop trust within a marketplace.

Business identity and longevity

Effective brand building, which goes far beyond a logo and a name, is hugely important to the longevity of a startup.

As companies grow their parts change. For startups that wish to remain in the public eye — even if that is within niche B2B circles — the brand must be strong enough to withstand the constant process of evolution.

A business’ identity is not — or should not be — a CEO, nor the product, office or colour scheme on its website. It’s the brand.

And developing a strong, consistent brand requires a PR strategy that focuses on more than the component parts; one that is not preoccupied just with the here and now or a sales message but is instead centred on the core values of the business. In turn, this ought to ensure a startup’s client-facing image and the coverage it receives in the media is consistent and relevant, even if each of its planks (rotten or not) is replaced one by one.

This article is based on a piece that was originally written for Consultancy.uk.

Dominic Pollard

Director of Communications

About the author

With a history degree, journalism Master’s, and several years’ experience writing about business and technology for both the national and trade press, Dominic moved into the world of content marketing and comms in 2014. He joined City Road Comms in 2016, becoming the agency’s director of comms two years later. Dominic now oversees clients’ strategies and the overall operations of the agency.

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