Export News, September 2011

If you were starting a hi-tech exporting venture tomorrow, who would be your first hire after the requisite technical gurus? A patent expert, someone with financial skills, a human resource specialist perhaps?

For me it would be a marketing writer, because the ability to create and publish content is a huge promotional opportunity for Kiwi exporters. This is not just doing traditional ‘public relations’, sending out news stories to various online and offline media in your target markets, but actually creating and publishing content yourself.

Two trends are behind the shift to what is called “content marketing”. Mainstream media organisations have shrunk, with fewer journalists expected to produce more content as news outlets battle the growth of free online media.

The other, connected, trend has been the meteoric rise of social media as a source of content for people. Blogs, social networking sites and wikis have become second nature to us as sources of information.

This is giving companies an ability to build their brand by providing quality content, in written, audio and video formats. That doesn’t mean the tired old PR spin of old, but interesting, customer-focussed information that provides the reader with value and isn’t just trying to shove a message down their throat.

A local example is exporter Pivot Software, who creates a lot of content and publishes it on their website and through various blogs, social media sites and other online channels. This has included resources like a guide for developing remuneration policies in large companies – useful, factual information based on their deep experience in this area.

Pivot sells software to help with managing remuneration, but the guide doesn’t even need to mention the product. It focuses on giving the reader value, and reinforces Pivot’s brand as a credible provider in this area, as well creating an opportunity to interact with the reader and start a sales relationship when they download the document.

Producing compelling content isn’t easy, and requires a good understanding of your market and access to people with good communication skills. But having this in place also allows you to drive a traditional PR programme, which can be very powerful in export markets where you are battling much larger competitors.

Kiwi exporters usually find PR attractive for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that because the media offers a third party view of your brand, it has much greater credibility than an advertisement or advertorial you have placed yourself, or even any content you have published. The other is that it can reach a large audience at minimal cost. When the Kiwi-made YikeBike was featured in Time Magazine last year it was endorsed to millions of readers for no direct cost.

So is getting good publicity about putting a ‘spin’ on what you do? Having a customer-focused story will be far more effective. Customers are not interested in what your product does, but what benefit it brings them. It’s the same with news, it’s what you do for customers that is newsworthy not the cleverness of your product.

For example, a New Zealand biotech company might invent a new microbiological agent – hardly front page news. But if it was a cure for cancer then it would be headlining worldwide. For the media what counts is not what your product is, but what it does for people. The next time a journalist ignores your press release ask yourself whether it’s too introspective.

So how do you get prepared for generating publicity?

As with any marketing activity, the first step is to gain a deep understanding of your customers and their needs. A compelling story aimed at those customer needs will attract the interest of the media. Knowing your market also helps you identify the media that covers that geographic or industry sector.

But what if it all goes wrong? Unlike many other communications techniques, the media’s independence means they’ll cover your newsworthy activities, good or bad. Contrary to popular opinion, there is usually no way to ‘spin’ your way out of trouble.

The power and ubiquity of modern media carries stories like this around the world in seconds, quickly wrecking havoc with the reputations of individuals, companies and products.

What can you do when bad news hits?

The best defence is obviously not to do anything wrong. But given there are so many possibilities for attracting negative publicity – redundancies, a failed project, fraud, environmental incidences, product issues and so on – it is often hard to avoid issues that might make the paper.

The next best defence is to have prepared well. Companies that survive through PR disasters are often those that already have a relationship with their target media i.e. media from their industry, business journalists and media in their geographical area. The better the relationships and level of trust with these reporters the greater the likelihood of a fair hearing when things go bad.

It might be counterintuitive but the ideal response is to be as open as you possibly can and move as fast as you possibly can. Faced with a crisis you need to clarify the situation quickly and then get your story out to as many media as possible. The more you try to hide and obfuscate, the greater likelihood it will turn into a bigger story than ever before.

Companies are always tempted to hide as much as possible, but it doesn’t usually work. There may be valid legal reasons for not disclosing, especially where redundancies are involved. But even in those cases be careful to balance legal advice with other views as disclosure is more likely to minimise damage to your brand.

Don’t let the fear of what could go wrong stop you using the power of PR to help build your brand in offshore markets. With the right skills, and a sensible approach, it can be very cost-effective. As can using those same skills to create and publish your own content.

So go save an unemployed journalist and employ a writer to help improve your export marketing.

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