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Glen Goldsmith talks about how to start using PR in your business

Clear Books spoke to Glen Goldsmith, founder of 2thefore — a PR consultancy specialising in small business and startups. Glen talks about the fundamentals of PR and how you can start exploring ways to integrate them into your marketing plans. He also looks at some of the key reasons to work with a PR specialist, and shares some of the secrets he has learned about the art of PR.

People talk a lot about PR and how it can be beneficial to businesses, but what exactly is PR?

It’s a good question to start off with because people have different interpretations of what PR is all about. If you look at something like advertising for example, you know that if you’re watching TV or you’re reading a magazine, you’re being presented with something that someone is trying to sell to you.

With PR, which obviously stands for public relations, I guess that’s exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a relationship between a company or any sort of organisation with its publics . And those publics are not just customers necessarily, they can be anything from analysts, to media, to partners, to suppliers, so really anyone who would come into contact with the company. I guess the basic premise of PR, unlike some other forms of promotion is that your reputation exists whether you like it or not. For example, when Tim Fouracre set up Clear Books a few years ago it was him in his bedroom, so he didn’t really have much of a reputation to manage if you like. But now the company has more than 10,000 customers, that’s a much larger management job as far as your reputation is concerned.

I guess one of the other things to say about PR is it’s often talked about in the context of promotion, but the difference between PR and some other forms of promotion is that you’re not actually paying for the advert to be created or the space to be paid for, it’s largely through other non paid forms of communication.

What sort of tools and techniques does PR involve?

It’s quite a wide ranging set of tools, historically it’s really any form of communication where the end result isn’t necessarily being paid for. I’ve mentioned the media - if you’re presenting on a panel, that’s another form of PR. Over the past few years it’s become quite blurred given the increase in social media.

Really I think most PR is associated with media and editorial. Primarily the reason for that is, if you think about the number of magazines, TV shows, radio programmes - even things like this podcast we’re doing now, it’s really extensive, so the view of the world of PR is ‘why not use that to your advantage?’ Rather than paying £3,000 for an ad, or a lot more on a TV or Radio programme, why not try and get in on the editorial route?

If you think about your journey into work this morning, or later on today, you’ll be surrounded by other forms of medium. You might listen to the radio, you might listen to something on your phone or your iPod, you might read a newspaper or you might have even subscribed to a specialist magazine that’s dropped through your letterbox. So it’s really about getting into the media but without paying for it.

Why would anyone consider PR instead of other forms of marketing communications?

I guess really one of the things to say about PR is it’s really powerful because it’s not an overt form of promotion. As I mentioned a moment ago, it could be that you’ve seen something that’s been devised or cooked up by a PR person and you don’t actually realise that it is a form of promotion.

People can often be put off by advertising I think, in fact studies have shown in some respects that too much advertising can have the opposite effect. It’s ok if it’s something with high involvement, in other words if your washing machine packs up or your car goes wrong then all of a sudden you’ll pay a lot more attention to washing machine ads or car ads then perhaps you would have done previously.

With PR it’s about seeding that message over a longer period of time in a much more subtle way.

I’ve heard some startups and small businesses say that they use PR because it’s cheaper than other forms of promotion. Is that necessarily the case?

Yes over the years I’ve worked with quite a few early stage and in fact pre-revenue and proof of concept companies that simply don’t have any money for promotion so they wouldn’t have been able to afford an advert, so PR can be quite an attractive option for them. Not just because it can be cheaper, and also the results can be quite good, but also if you’ve got the requisite skills in-house and by that I mean if you’ve got a good writing capability, if you’ve got an eye for a story, or if the company has particular knowledge, then it’s something that can be quite interesting to editors and journalists so it can be quite effective from that point of view.

There are some simple things you can do. For instance, everyone knows that you can send out a press release to say you’re a specialist in a particular area. There may be certain publications that you target. So there’s no reason why you can’t prepare a press release, send it to the editor or maybe the features editor and it might get covered.

There are some tips also as to what you can do to enhance that story. First of all, it’s pretty obvious but make sure it hasn’t got any typos, that it’s factually accurate, that there isn’t any marketing puffery and that it’s not overtly sales-ey. So if you’re launching a new service then it can be quite an effective way of getting your message out there.

There are all sorts of other ways you can do PR on a low budget as well, if you’ve got the capability to write articles and submit them to editors particularly if they are informative and not sales-ey, then there are all sorts of ways to get into magazines without having to pay the cost of advertising.

It’s worth saying though that with PR there are no guarantees. If you’re paying for an advert then you’re basically getting what you’re putting in there. It could cost you £100, or it could cost you a lot more than that. With PR, you may be submitting a story, but if some other story comes in on that day, your story might be spiked.

Some people associate PR with stunts and spin, what’s your view of that?

It’s like a lot of professions, there is always going to be something that tarnishes. PR, journalists, estate agents - they all come in for a bit of criticism. In my experience over the years, 99% of the campaigns I’ve been involved with and what I’ve seen colleagues work on, have got very little to do with stunts. In fact, a lot of the time the work is really subtle. You can’t get away from the fact that some people will scale gates or climb up towers to get the message across (particularly pressure groups) but for most businesses it’s just not an appropriate or gauged approach.

There are some very good publicists around. I’ve worked with some great publicists over the year but it’s a very different art to what I would regard to as 99% of PR. As far as spin is concerned, it’s a term that was most associated with politicians, the manipulation of the truth, trying to present the story in a different way. Again, really, if you’re going to be promoting a story, try not to put a different edge on it, try not to make it what it isn’t. It’s better to be honest and open and transparent and make sure the message is strong. Especially when you’re dealing with journalists, a lot of the time they are trained to see through the stuff that you’re trying to paper over the cracks so it’s better to be clear and honest with what you’re trying to do.

How does a company typically work with a PR consultant or advisor such as yourself?

People do it for a mixture of reasons to kick off with.

First of all it can take up time, so having a dedicated person to work with you on a campaign can be quite useful and that job can be shared. If we’re talking about doing PR on a relatively limited basis, then it could be that the company itself is doing a chunk of the work. For instance I work with some clients who are very good at producing the ‘hedge’ if you like (the content), then I’ll come in and trim it, add some finesse to it and we’ll work on that basis.

So it can be useful to have someone if you’re trying to concentrate on doing the day job. It may not always be viable to have someone someone in-house, and it’s also very useful to have an external perspective because it’s easy to become blinkered with your own business.

For instance, when I ran Text 100, which at the time was one of the largest tech focused PR agencies in the UK, we took a somewhat unusual decision to hire a PR consultancy to do our own PR and the reason for that was that if you’re so close to something yourself you can’t always see it objectively. That was one of the lessons I learned.

Secondly, a PR professional will generally know what works well and what doesn’t based on their own skillset and knowledge. If you’re choosing a consultant to work with they really should have good communications skills as standard, but also they should know that what they are working on is aligned to the objectives of your business. I’ve seen situations in the past where there have been some great results and great coverage but it hasn’t necessarily been aligned with the objectives of the business. So it may have created brand awareness but it may not have driven sales for example.

It’s also worth explaining that with an external PR consultant they are likely to have very good media contacts. They may specialise in particular areas so if you are looking to choose one, look for one who knows your area quite well. They are also likely to have a range of online PR tools which they can use. Instead of you forking out three or four thousand pounds for a subscription to a particular PR service, they should have them as standard, and they can be really useful when it comes to looking for journalist information, trying to find out what journalists are writing about etc.

Can you give me any insight into some of the PR campaigns you personally have worked on?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some amazing companies, really big brands like Apple, but also really small and quite innovative companies. That’s one of the reasons I set 2thefore up. I really got a kick out of working with small, dynamic companies that had something completely different to offer.

When I was working with Text100 I was fortunate enough to work with some amazing entrepreneurs from people like Sir Richard Branson to others who weren’t as high profile but they went off and did what they needed to do; they made lots of money and their either retired and sold their company, or they went on to do something else.

It’s been great to work with some really fantastic minds. I’ve worked with Dr Larry Roberts who is widely referred to as the godfather of the internet, and you don’t come across those sort of people everyday.

At the other end of the spectrum I’ve worked with some really unique individuals. At the moment I’m working with an autism expert who specialises in children and families with autism. It’s really been less about selling her and her business and more about getting the word out there about autism, the impact it has on families and how families can overcome some of the problems that they have. So I’ve really worked on a wide scope of campaigns over the past few years and I’d say if you are a small company or an entrepreneurial company and you’ve got something to say, then it’s worth saying it. Don’t think you haven’t got a message to put out there. There’s always something with every business. It doesn’t matter if you’re an accountancy firm or baking and selling buns; there’s always something in a business that’s worth hearing about.

What advice would you give to a startup or early stage company thinking about doing some sort of PR?

The first thing is to look at your own skillset. If you haven’t got the cash to fork out on someone like me, then look at what you can do yourself. There’s plenty of information on the internet about PR, hows it’s done, and what you can do and frankly, you don’t need a PR qualification to do PR. So look at what you’ve got in-house, look at what you’re capable of. If you’ve got good writing skills or you’ve got an eye for a story, if you’ve got new things coming out then don’t dismiss them, they may be of interest to your publics.

Also think about that alignment of PR with the business, don’t just do it for the sake of it. Try and make sure you align it with what the business objectives are. Be careful, don’t waste a lot of time on doing things that aren’t going to have any sort of impact from a promotional point of view.

The other thing I would say is really look at your proposition, what stories can you tell? PR is not necessarily about talking about the success of your company, how big you are, how many customers you’ve got or the revenue and profitability, it’s about your mission, what you stand for. It’s about telling stories, as I said a moment ago if you’ve got interesting things to say don’t dismiss them. Try and look at them from different angles and even pick the phone and talk to journalists and find out if they’ve got a perspective on it. It could be that they’ve got something in the pipeline which is very similar to what you’re doing.

If you’d like to speak with Glen from this podcast, then you can email him on glen@2thefore.co.uk.

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