Public relations veterans remember the old days as if they were yesterday. In fact, they weren’t that long ago.
“Back in the old days in PR, you’d write a press release, be diligent and do your follow-up calls, and you’d get some placements,” says Teresa McFarland, president of GdB Pitch, the recently established public relations business of Minneapolis ad agency Gabriel deGrood Bendt. “It was a little bit easier in that you had a relationship with some of the media you pitched.”
Those old days were five to 10 years ago, and they haven’t exactly passed. News releases haven’t disappeared, as any journalist will tell you. But PR has become a lot less simple. “In the last few years, the business has changed like never before,” says Doug Spong, president emeritus and managing partner of Minneapolis-based Spong PR and a three-decade industry veteran.
What changed should be familiar to most businesses, whether PR firms or not. Though the Internet as a general communications platform has been around for at least 20 years, the explosion of social media—Facebook and Twitter especially, but also LinkedIn, Snapchat, Instagram and numerous others—means that companies now have a bewildering number of possible channels to publicize their products and services. It’s also given rise to the 24/7 news cycle. Businesses have had to respond to critics—well-informed and not so well-informed—who are coming at them from many more directions. And they have to respond quickly.
Just as press releases are still in use, public relations is still in many respects the same business it always has been. “It’s still about telling the story and telling the message” of the brand or organization, says Cindy Leines of Plymouth-based C.E.L. Public Relations, a firm she founded in 1988. Yet how that storytelling and messaging happens has become more complex. Audiences are less centralized around newspapers, radio and television. And these days, businesses can’t simply push out a message—they need to learn how to talk with their customers and their critics.
In the past few years, “there’s more of a blurred line between marketing and PR,” Leines says, with both supporting each other. What’s more, she adds, “the pace we’re expected to deliver [services] has picked up significantly.” While Leines’ firm is still focused on traditional PR, she has added marketing and design capabilities to the services she provides. And that’s largely because different audiences “expect to see [information] in different ways,” Leines says.
“If it’s a younger demographic, it’s expected that you’ll be on some relevant social media, and you’re going to use short snippets to tell the story,” she adds. Some news consumers still prefer print, which can allow for longer articles and text. Others want that same information via another format, such as e-newsletters, which summarize that information and link to longer pieces with more details. And for most age groups, Leines says, “visual elements, like infographics, have become more important in storytelling.”
McFarland had her own public relations agency until this year, when she merged her practice with Gabriel deGrood Bendt. She did so because she was finding that clients were asking for more from her beyond traditional media relations. Website content was one example. Now she and GdB can provide more integration of messages and marketing. “We’ve been able to coordinate messages more clearly and concisely,” McFarland says. Clients also have the advantage of working with a single agency rather than several specialists.
Though PR firms and ad agencies have often collaborated in the past—and international holding companies have brought together PR and ad agencies under their umbrellas—the blending of the marketing and public relations fields has been accelerating with the rise of digital communications. Many traditional ad agencies in the past five to 10 years have started their own PR divisions or partnered with agencies.
Spong, whose agency is a unit of advertising firm Carmichael Lynch, argues that the best PR firms “have to be a hybrid,” combining traditional public relations functions (media relations, event management, investor relations, crisis communications) with “the creativity of an ad agency.” PR shops are often called upon to assist a client in content creation. That term embraces not only traditional work such as ghost-writing editorials for clients and putting together annual reports. It also includes developing e-newsletters, informational videos and specialized websites designed to provide useful information on topics of interest to current and potential customers, with the clients’ products and services staying largely in the background (though by no means absent).
Multiple channels of communications within agencies help to more precisely target the client’s message. In addition to simply distributing a press release, Spong calls for a broader strategy that includes digital-age skills of online analytics and search engine optimization. The “campaign cycle” for ad agencies and PR firms used to last 12 months: “You’d launch the campaign, then measure the results near the end of the campaign to determine how well it worked.” Now, Spong adds, “you can make changes to the campaign along the way, earlier on and over the course of the campaign, almost every day,” so that you can fine-tune the message.
What social media and other digital communication platforms also require is that brands and companies develop a “voice” in order to interact with customers. “Consumers have more direct access to our clients, and they have a far different set of expectations about our clients,” says David Krejci, executive vice president, creative experience, with the Bloomington office of global public relations agency Weber Shandwick. Before social media, consumers had limited access to companies and brands. “When social [media] happened, it really opened the door and increased expectations,” Krejci says.
“What that meant for us: It’s not just about writing content, then handing it over to the media to write stories about our clients,” he adds. “It was helping our clients with their own voice in social media and digital media so that they could start having those conversations with their constituents, their stakeholders, their customers.”
For one thing, Krejci says, Weber Shandwick helps make sure that the client’s voice, both online and off, is a “consistent display of who they are.” To that end, his firm uses many of the same tools deployed in the ad industry to understand what resonates with the audience. It then creates content for the various channels in social media to “exhibit that voice and personality.” Those channels might include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—wherever their clients’ audiences might be.
Last year, Krejci and his team were working with a retailer seeking to reach college students during back-to-school time. They performed a “deep dive” into the “attitudinal behaviors” that drove this audience, and they uncovered which social media channel they use most often. But what makes Krejci’s job challenging and fun is that “the next time, it might be a different platform.”
The public relations business isn’t fun when something goes wrong for the client.
Glenn Karwoski describes his Minneapolis firm, Karwoski & Courage, as “a marketing communications agency whose primary focus is PR.” As such, Karwoski & Courage, which is a part of local ad agency Martin Williams, handles not only traditional public relations functions but also social media monitoring, content creation and even some advertising. (Karwoski regularly writes a column for TCB.)
Crisis communications long has been a part of public relations, and it’s one of Karwoski & Courage’s capabilities. But high-speed broadband has changed how this discipline is practiced. Karwoski remembers when a client and its agency could respond to a business client’s crisis within a leisurely 24 hours. “Now it’s more like 24 minutes,” he says. And that means agencies and their clients need to be ready to jump into the digital fire truck at the first clang of the alarm.
Some time ago, Karwoski’s firm was working on a product recall announcement for a new client. Within a few hours of the news coming out, “there was a blogger that was publishing erroneous information about what was happening,” he recalls. That misinformation could have made a bad situation worse for the business. Once he heard, Karwoski contacted the blogger to ask him to issue a correction, and he inquired about where the blogger had gotten his information. The blogger had picked up some speculative online chatter and was reporting it as fact.
“One of the real dangers with social media [users] versus a reputable journalist is that they just want to get the story out,” Karwoski says. “It doesn’t have to be right, because they think they can always go back and correct it. It’s more important being first than being accurate.” Karwoski responded by contacting the Minneapolis bureau of the Associated Press. He then worked with a reporter there so that an accurate version of the story was distributed nationally and globally.
Weber Shandwick’s Krejci says that crisis management and preparedness, which take up 50 percent of his time, have been affected “hugely” by social and digital media. In this landscape, “everyone is a reporter with an intensely powerful camera in their hands,” he says. As a result, “that makes the potential for negative stories to happen much more quickly.”
Professional journalists and their employers are much more likely to check out the facts behind a story. People who are “reporting” things more casually with their smartphone video cameras or on Internet venues are often less concerned with that. “They’re just hearing something that might be interesting and then they add their opinion and subjectivity to it,” Krejci adds. “Facts and messages can get totally skewed. Then a company has to figure out how to get the message back on track.”
Sometimes, he says, this is a good thing, “because consumers are catching things that brands and organizations should not be doing. But other times, it’s such a biased and polarized world that we live in, one person with a comment on Facebook can start a crisis” based on a discussion of opinion that gets out of hand. “Now it’s about facing an angry mob outside your door as opposed to having an informed conversation with a journalist who really wants to get the facts and find out what happened.” In short, “social is an emotional medium,” and as a result, “facts matter less in a crisis than they used to.”
How should companies respond? Krejci offers a couple of guidelines.
First, “make sure that your monitoring is good. That doesn’t mean just counting the number of likes you get on Facebook or the number of retweets on Twitter,” he says. “It means finding the influencers on social [media] who are talking about your brand or your service or your company or your industry. Make sure that even if they’re not talking about you, you know what they’re talking about.” That can help a business catch “negative comments or conversations early on so you can address them early on.”
Second, recognize that social media is an “emotional game, and you can’t come across as trying to stifle a person’s opinion by telling them that they’re wrong.” Respond gently and attentively. And say something. “Companies don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they tend not to say anything,” Krejci says. But not responding can make a company look cold and indifferent. So “say something very quickly.” It should be a measured response—a business under fire should avoid throwing gasoline on the situation by overreacting. Nor should it offer a knee-jerk apology, “because you may not need to apologize for anything.” But, Krejci advises, make it clear that you’ve heard the concerns and that you are looking into the situation. Then the business should look into it—and apologize for the situation and rectify it if necessary.
For public relations firms and their clients, the world of digital media and communication can become a stressful place. Todd Rapp, president of the Minneapolis-based agency Himle Rapp & Co., observes that “it’s become harder for everybody to turn it off at night.” That doesn’t mean 16-hour days at the office. “But when so much information is flowing from so many different channels, you’re always aware of the conversation.”
That reality is “potentially a negative,” he says. “How do you recharge yourself for the next day?” But at the same time, Rapp says, “it’s also really exciting.”
Gene Rebeck is a Duluth-based freelance journalist who writes monthly for Twin Cities Business.