TopLine began as a PR agency, and PR is still a big part of our offering. Accordingly, this may seem like a bizarre post for me to write. It can often seem like transparency and comms are strange, sexually incompatible bedfellows. Bing Crosby summed up the point of PR pretty neatly: “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative”. Not much in there about crisis comms or securing coverage in Tier-1 media, but he’s got most of it covered.
The question “Does PR work?” might seem like a dangerous one for me to pose, but in the name of transparency, it needs to be asked. It also needs to be asked in the name of pragmatic self-interest, because taking on a client that you can’t help can be bad for an agency’s reputation: they won’t be happy, they’ll spread the word, and when prospects ask for referrals, you’ll be stuck. A PR company with poor PR is unlikely to attract much new business.
Why businesses think they need PR
Do you know what it feels like to spend months on a meticulously-crafted, award-winning campaign – something you’ve poured blood, sweat, tears, and the vestigial fragments of your sanity into – only to get dumped by the customer anyway? We do, and it sucks like nothing else.
When you’ve done everything right and everything still goes wrong, the temptation to gnash teeth and curse the heavens can be overwhelming, but it’s best resisted. A little quiet self-reflection goes a long way – and in one of these moments of clarity, I realised something profound: there are some situations in which PR simply won’t do the trick. For some businesses, PR on its own will never make a serious difference.
When someone rings up and is ready to sign a contract, it can be fairly tempting to figuratively bite their hands off: gotta get that sweet, sweet paper, after all, and if they’ve got the budget, who am I to tell them how to spend it? But what I’ve learned is that this isn’t always a fast move or a smart move: either way you’ll do the job well and get paid, but if PR won’t have a meaningful impact on their business, you won’t be sticky, the client won’t be retained, and nobody’s business is going to grow.
When I’m asked about these services, I’ve taken to asking the caller one simple question: “What do you expect from your PR?
They’ll say something along the lines of “we want it to generate leads”, “we want it to boost awareness”, or “we want it to boost awareness to generate leads”, and in fairness, sometimes those are viable objectives that can easily be achieved by good PR. But it’s always worth probing a little deeper into their motives and expectations, because sometimes they’re a little untethered from reality.
They’ll think if they get an article in the FT, more people will be aware of them, and then they’ll call them, and then they’ll never worry about anything ever again because they’ll have enough new business that they can buy Faberge eggs just for the sheer decadent joy of smashing them to pieces.
In these circumstances, it’s always worth asking when the last time they rang up a company they saw featured in a newspaper was. It does happen, but usually not in a predictable or sustainable way.
In what situations does PR work?
There are some instances where all you need is good PR. For example, if you’re targeting a very specific niche sector, PR can help you dominate quickly. – there are some niche industries, such as recruitment or hedge funds, where you can reliably reach most of the market with your messaging every month by cleverly targeting just a handful of media outlets.
If your strategy places high emphasis on SEO, good PR will quickly give you the lead by generating followed links from prominent online outlets, demonstrating to Google that your site needs to be pushed up the search rankings.
Startups looking to raise investment often benefit from appearing in relevant outlets: being in The Economist, The Financial Times, or The Wall Street Journal is an excellent way to get the right people to sit up and take note. If your company is featured in highly respectable media such as the BBC (incidentally, we know a thing or two about making that happen), you appear less risky by association.
“As featured in/on X publication/site” isn’t just a nice ego boost: it suggests that yours is a credible, established company, assuring potential investors that they’re not throwing tens/hundreds of thousands on what might as well be a glorified falafel stand.
Finally, while PR on its own might not move the needle, it can be the missing piece in a clever integrated strategy. It can support SEO, give great content excellent reach, and help generate awareness.
How do you make PR work for you?
If you want to make PR work for you, the first piece of advice I can give is don’t commit to PR. First, figure out if PR will work for you. How do you do this? Answer the following questions
- Who are we trying to reach?
- What pain do we fix for them?
- How do they figure out how to solve this problem?
- Based on the above, how likely is it that we can reach them via the media?
- What volume of media coverage and what level of message control is required to reach them via the media in a way that will make them act?
- Is it possible to control our messages to this level?
- Do we have the budget required to achieve this volume?
These questions should guide your thinking and help you make an informed decision about whether PR will work for you. And if it won’t, that’s okay – as long as you have a proven product or service and a proven market then you still have options. These options might not be what you had in mind when you set out to find a PR agency, but at least you haven’t wasted money and six months of PR coming to that conclusions. Your options could include:
In fact, we’ve found that an integrated approach is usually most effective. This doesn’t mean throwing the kitchen sink, the dining table, the microwave, and the set of luxury steak knives at it; it’s not about doing “everything” as much as using specific methods that – when deployed at the same time– are most likely to get results.
For example, PR and content are often complementary, as are content and SEO; being able to write well makes it much easier to use high-traffic keywords in a natural way and much easier to keep visitors on your site once they have landed. PR can augment SEO efforts with followed links, which make a website easier to find in search rankings – which increases its ability to attract inbound leads. A video and search-led approach might seem unintuitive, given that video content usually lacks text, but the two disciplines can flourish together in certain conditions.
Does PR work? It’s a question without a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer. Depending on the company, it can be a poor fit or a godsend, and if you don’t know which category your company falls into, then all you have to do is ask. I can usually make a good guess based on a 15-minute chat, and I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to sell you PR if it’s not going to work, because I only want clients that we can work with for years.
PR can be a great way to generate leads or boost visibility, but it’s not the only way. To discuss our integrated comms services, talk to TopLine founder Heather Baker.