The Press, June 2005

The news has been in the news lately. From Hollywood to the home nations, people have been in the news for using publicity to support their objectives. Where does seeking publicity, often called public relations (PR), fit into a business' marketing mix?

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are supposed to be playing the media with their romance to promote their latest respective movies, Russell Crowe the same with his phone-throwing incident. Closer to home the role of the British and Irish Lions' media manager and former British political spin master Alastair Campbell has been highlighted in the media.

'Any publicity is good publicity' has always been the Hollywood maxim. But is the same applicable for business? New Zealand liquor producer 42 Below have used publicity cleverly to build their brand cost-effectively in tough overseas markets. They recently gained prominence in New York for a spat with a gay bar owner that made the must-read "Page 6" section of the New York Post. It seems to be working, with 42 Below reported to be moving more cartons of vodka.

Assuming column inches automatically translate into sales is dangerous though. The same kind of public spat that might reinforce 42 Below's 'in-your-face' brand, would be disastrous for a trust-based brand like a bank. For public companies, a mildly negative story in the press can result in a loss of sharemarket wealth.

Businesses usually find PR attractive for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that because the media is a third party view of your brand, it has greater credibility than an advertisement or advertorial you have placed yourself. It also has no direct costs - if your brand was mentioned in The Press' Businessday section it would potentially reach hundreds of thousands of readers, for nothing!

Marketing guru Al Ries wrote in his controversial 2003 book about PR, "Today's major brands are born with publicity, not advertising. An astonishing number of brands, including Palm, Starbucks, the Body-Shop, Wal-Mart and Red Bull have been built with virtually no advertising."

Should you drop all of your marketing communications activity and focus on PR? Of course not, it is simply another way to reach your customer. Just like online promotion, direct marketing or advertising, public relations needs to be one element of a coordinated approach. Timing publicity closely with other tactics such as advertising or trade shows is important because it can help improve the likelihood of potential customers hearing your message.

Gaining media coverage can be a challenge, particularly for technology businesses. As Thomas Nicely, the US man who discovered a flaw in Intel's Pentium chip in 1994, exposing it to international media scrutiny, said, "Usually mathematicians have to shoot somebody to get this much publicity."

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 understand 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 cover 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 no way to 'spin' your way out of trouble. It's best to front up as quickly and clearly as possible. If you don't, in most cases the negative press will carry on longer and more intensively than if you'd come clean.

Although an article in the newspapers might not translate as directly into the bottom line as it does for Hollywood stars, it's still an important aspect of promoting your company. The key to successful PR is having a real story and telling it powerfully.

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