Changing Communications Channels

Changing Communications Channels

Public relations and marketing practices have blended. Now, businesses looking for a communications agency must be clear about their needs to find a good match.

Dale Klein wants you to know: His company is doing something that could save your company money and allow it to run more efficiently. But how should Klein communicate with the marketplace to let potential clients know that his business exists?

Klein’s firm, Eden Prairie-based Parallel Technologies Inc., isn’t large, but it’s growing. And it has a couple of specialties. One is data center consulting and management—a hot field, as businesses of many kinds and sizes wrestle with large amounts of digitally driven information. The other is “smart buildings.” Parallel provides and manages technologies to automate buildings’ energy, security and other functions to maximize efficiency and lower costs. Klein’s company serves mostly larger clients.

Klein thought that too few potential clients knew about what his company does, and what makes it distinctive. He needed some help to get the word out.

In November 2015, Klein chose the Plural I, a small Minneapolis-based public relations agency led by PR veteran Eva Keiser. Keiser’s agency, which specializes in business-to-business (B2B) communications, has written magazine articles, white papers and case studies that discuss the company’s technologies and capabilities. These types of materials fall under the category of “thought leadership”—communication channels that position a company or its managers as forward-thinking and thought-provoking.

“We’re doing a lot of innovative things, and thought leadership is a key part of what we’re trying to do,” Klein says. “We really didn’t have the skills in-house. It was more cost-effective to outsource it. With Eva, we’re getting things done faster and better.”

Public relations or marketing?

Is the work that the Plural I does for its client public relations or marketing? The reality is that the lines between public relations and other forms of marketing have been blurring for some time. In recent years, those lines have all but disappeared.

In the not-so-old days, the media that PR pros connected with included newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. They still do. But the media market has fragmented, thanks to the rise of smartphones, mobile tablets, online video, TV on demand, social media and more. There are more channels to choose from. And it takes creativity, industry knowledge and strategic thinking to determine which ones are the most effective in reaching a company’s target audience.

One thing that hasn’t changed: Today’s businesses need to communicate with customers and potential customers. But with all the channels available, many companies like Parallel Technologies are contracting with marketing, public relations, digital media, social media and content marketing firms.

If you’re a small to midsize business looking to reach a wider audience, you may be in the same boat. How do you choose the agency you want to work with?

Historically, public relations was considered a separate discipline from marketing. Public relations included a group of practices including writing press releases about new products and hires, planning and conducting publicity events, and addressing a crisis when a complaint or scandal hit the morning newspapers or the evening news.

Those PR practices still exist. But “public relations is so much different than when I started, because it’s all integrated,” says Paul Omodt, a Minnesota PR veteran who now runs his eponymous firm, based in St. Louis Park. His practice includes traditional PR work, including crisis management, labor issues and government relations. His clients include Bloomington-based hair-care franchisor Great Clips and several Minnesota hospital systems.

But more of his work integrates marketing practices. “You don’t look at it separately between a media person, a social media person and advertising person,” Omodt says. Some of his clients are small businesses that want to grow their footprint in the marketplace, he says. That need translates into more visually oriented communications. “We’re growing the footprint fastest by getting away from text-heavy [communications] and going more towards word pictures and images,” he says.

In describing his PR practice, Omodt says that media relations is “now a piece of it,” but not the biggest piece, as it would have been 20 to 30 years ago.

“Media relations isn’t as effective as it once was,” says Tom Lindell, managing director of Minneapolis-based Exponent PR, a division of Minneapolis-based ad agency Colle + McVoy. “That’s a reflection on how we all consume media today.” While traditional media hasn’t disappeared, Lindell notes that “we’re increasingly finding that it’s the nontraditional news source that people are getting information from first.”

Social media clout

Those digital sources have altered the paths that companies follow to contact their target audiences. Five years ago, Lindell adds, “we used to be much more focused on the website as the ultimate destination.” These days, successful companies are talking to their customers in the channel where their customers are engaged. That can include familiar platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, but also more-visual media—YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and so on.

As a result, PR people need to be more than just writers. “PR agencies are using and accessing creative [people] in a way they never had in the past,” Lindell says. “In many cases, they’re using media planning services to make sure that their content is being seen by the right people at the right time and the right place. [It] is very much what advertising agencies do.”

“We do an increasing amount of branded content,” Lindell says. “That could be infographics or photos, or just a post written on Facebook or a short video.” For these types of creative needs, Exponent can tap comrades at Colle + McVoy.

More content creators

The word “content” is where PR and marketing typically overlap. “Content is a huge buzzword in PR and marketing in general,” says Jason Sprenger, president of Apple Valley-based Game Changer Communications. Sprenger is also the 2016 president of the Minnesota chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. The proliferation of content is a direct result of the increase in channels. “If you have more channels, you have more opportunities to communicate,” Sprenger says. “And you need more content.”

Content involves more than messages and images. It also opens two-way communication between a company and its customers. That’s why social media has become crucial for many businesses. As Sprenger notes, businesses need “to keep the dialogue going” between the company and the audience, as opposed to hit-or-miss or intermittent dialogue. Otherwise, he adds, “you lose people.”

In many cases, the kinds of content that engage customers incorporate information that those customers find useful—information that they can use in their businesses and their lives. A business typically includes discussions about its own products or services in these types of communications, whether digital or analog.

“You want to be not only good at putting out a product,” says Josh Kohnstamm, founder and CEO of St. Paul-based Kohnstamm Communications. “You want to be seen as a thought leader who has a following, and who attracts the best talent to your company.” His company helps position clients by producing videos, webinars and other forms of content. It specializes in work for food companies locally and nationwide.

The blend of PR and marketing demonstrates that digital technology has become an established part of the communications landscape. “Digital as a platform isn’t new anymore—it’s no longer new media,” notes Lisa Hannum, president and CEO of St. Paul-based Beehive Strategic Communication. Earlier this year, her agency was called Beehive PR. The name change, Hannum says, reflects how the public relations game has changed.

Beehive’s clients include consumer, health care, education and financial services companies. Rather than pursuing what’s new and hot in the digital realm, Hannum says that these clients are now focused on the choices they have to reach their audiences, and what the best media strategies are. Traditional PR is “one of the tools in the box,” she says. But her agency has a different focus, with specialties including market research, positioning for corporations and brands, and high-level communications strategy.

Given all the possible channels that businesses can use to communicate with customers, the public and its own employees, ambitious companies need to take a thoughtful, strategic approach to communications. And that’s a key reason why many companies are turning to outside help.

Choosing an outside firm

Let’s say you run a small to midsize company. You have a good communications person on staff, but you want to expand your market, or introduce a different type of product to the market. You realize that the old days of sending out a press release to the local newspaper’s business section or a brochure to a trade publication might not be the best way—or at least the only way—to reach the right people. There are a bewildering number of outside agencies you can call, each with its own strengths and strategies. How do you choose? Whom do you choose?

There are plenty of large, well-known agencies in Minnesota, such as Bloomington-based Weber Shandwick and Minneapolis-based PadillaCRT, which can easily access a wide variety of services and reach a worldwide audience.

Smaller agencies often have specialties, such as crisis communications, investor relations or government relations. Others focus on digital disciplines such as email marketing and search engine optimization. These can be useful services, if they’re precisely what you need.

A small agency is not necessarily less diverse in the capabilities it can offer. As Sprenger notes, there has been a rise in small agencies, solopreneurs and niche consultants. “You can get really qualified expertise without having to spend the money on all the overhead,” he says. Those small shops also can plug into a network of other small shops and solo players that can provide specialty services, such as paid search marketing or highly technical white papers.

Pascha Apter, CEO of Duluth-based marketing communications agency Giant Voices, which specializes in B2B work for manufacturing, energy and technology clients, suggests that companies contact some vendors recommended by others. Then have those vendors make their pitch. “You’ll really be able to hear their story and understand the values of the people that you might be in a long-term business relationship with,” she says. You want to ascertain whether you and the agency are on the same wavelength, and could work together as a team.

In addition, always ask in the pitch for results, Apter says. Agencies typically will show their best creative work—snappy designs, imagery and headlines, for instance. “But they often leave out the results part,” she says. “Have them show work that they’ve performed in your industry.”

Giant Voices president Lisa Bodine emphasizes that as a company vets potential agencies, the business should be clear about what its goals are. What kinds of measurable results do you want to achieve? What communications platforms are your audience using? What gaps in your communications capabilities do you need to fill? Addressing these questions can help a business and an agency determine which platforms to use.

The choice of platforms might not be obvious. A case in point is Giant Voices client GPM Inc., a Duluth-based manufacturer of specialty pumps for the mining industry. GPM didn’t think social media was necessary for its communications strategy. But Giant Voices strategists showed that social media could be an effective way to reach new leads. “You can do some pretty specific target marketing” on social media platforms, Bodine says.

That kind of targeting is what PR agencies can accomplish with all the channels that are now available. Thanks to its work with the Plural I, Parallel Technologies can reach the audience Klein wants to reach. And that’s the advantage of what can sometimes appear to be a confusing media landscape.

Gene Rebeck is a Duluth-based freelance journalist who writes monthly for Twin Cities Business.