Across centuries, classes and geographical divides, Pope Gregory XV, Oscar Wilde and Princess Diana all understood the power of public opinion. Even if for entirely different reasons, that understanding was driven by the realisation immortalised in Wilde's famous witticism: `There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.'
Anyone who has given thought to the commercial reality of the late 20th century knows that being talked about, being seen, heard and stumbled upon - in other words having a public profile, is as crucial to the success of a business as having quality products and services. Indeed, in a world that is so overcrowded by images, names, messages and other elements of what we like to call information, the distinction between having a public profile and being unknown often translates into walking the fine line between survival and expiry.
These days, businesses trade, rise, fall and even list on a stock exchange based on their public image (think of Amazon.com). Corporate battles are being fought in the realm of newspaper ink and radio and TV airwaves and elections are won through public campaigns.
But the world described thus is not a chaotic place that cannot be controlled. On the contrary, the space of public knowledge is carefully constructed through an intricate web woven by the disciplinarians of public relations - the people who understand that being talked about is an art, rather than an accident.
Some say that public relations professionals can make an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan and make everyone forget that such miracles occur only in Hans Christian Andersen tales. Yet - and more importantly, depending on the skill with which this tool is used, public relations can make or break your business. Such is the reality of the information age and the power of the `art' that most of us know under the acronym of PR.
It comes as no surprise, then, that PR is a multimillion-dollar industry that employs countless strategists, publicity specialists and pen soldiers in the interest of getting the desired messages out. However, its role in leveraging companies and their business activities is often misunderstood and even overlooked, especially at the lower end of town inhabited by the increasing number of technology startups that are looking to build their names and position their brands next to the IBMs and Microsofts of this world.
`People don't really understand what they can expect from public relations, because, unlike a manufacturing process, the results [of a PR process] are not guaranteed,' Andrew McGregor, managing director of Sydney-based technology PR specialist Text 100, explained.
Demand and awareness
Asserting that in the realm of IT, PR tends to play the role of the second cousin to technology development, McGregor noted that a lot of technology companies fail to realise that the demand and awareness of their product needs to be generated before they go out into the marketplace.
`Technology companies need to look at and structure their communication strategies early on,' he said, warning that business cannot afford the lag between sending out their message and the day business opens. `[The process of building] the infrastructure needs to coincide with building a marketing strategy. Take Internet service providers (ISPs), for example. There are more than 700 of them in Australia and, in order to get noticed, they need to have a very compelling message and communicate that message early on in their business development.'
As a discipline that is quite distinct from (yet related to) marketing, PR uses specific strategies in crafting and communicating the key messages a business wants to send out in an attempt to manage and influence public opinion. However, the PR practice is less glamorous and (more often than not) quite removed from the Hollywoodesque magic of making over ugly ducklings. In the commercial world, it mostly concerns itself with communicating messages about products/services and organisations through a plethora of activities that include press contact, advertising, promotional events and other forms of publicity conducive to generating public awareness and possibly consumer/customer interest.
While creating awareness can be a relatively inexpensive process that might seem easy to those who have spent considerable amounts of time and energy getting their products/services developed and their businesses up and running, choosing the right way to do it is crucial to the outcomes of any PR campaign.
`New and aspiring entrepreneurs need to define their objective, they need to come up with a clear message that defines what they do and what their unique selling proposition (USP) is and good marketing advice is important in determining that,' believes Text 100's McGregor.
The objective-defining process, according to McGregor, is really all about answering some basic questions (such as which customers want to use your services, where these customers are and which ones want to spend money), and about choosing the appropriate tool of marketing to reach your target.
One of the most crucial dilemmas that needs to be solved in this process is whether a company's publicity needs are better served by a professional PR outsourcer or through a hands-on in-house approach.
Often, businesses assume that hiring a profess-ional represents the most cost-effective way of doing PR, even though the cost of outsourcing can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars (though an initial launch with a larger PR company is more likely to cost anywhere between $10,000Ð$25,000). This assumption is certainly justified when one takes into consideration that the right professional advice can stop a company from wasting scarce promotional dollars on ineffective campaigns.
Richard Lazar, managing director of Sydney PR consultancy Professional Public Relations (PPR), recalls an example of a business that was launching its product on the Australian market and came to PPR with its mind set on spending $150,000 for an advertising campaign in a major business publication. However, PPR's strategic analysis indicated that their client would be better off doing a focused, six month direct marketing program targeting 200 potential customers PPR had identified through research. The client agreed and after spending around $4000 on 200 gift packs and $18,000 on PPR's services, Lazar claimed it picked up 18 serious possible customers, each worth around $120,000 in potential business.
Yet, whilst PPR saved this client almost $130,000 of its marketing budget, smaller organisations (including one- and two-person PR bands) consider an expense of $22,000 not only excessive but often out of reach.
`I could not spend that much money on behalf of a client - I just can't think of a way to do it,' veteran PR practitioner Shuna Boyd says. Estimating that, on average, a launch campaign with her one-person operated company, Shuna Boyd Public Relations, would cost around $4500 and setting $10,000 as the upper limit, Boyd believes startups with limited marketing budgets could get a lot more value for money by commissioning smaller PR practitioners like herself.
`In larger companies, clients often pay more due to the more complex infrastructure. For instance, they pay for a senior person to map out a strategy, a junior person to do research and so on,' she explains. `Any duplication that arises from such an infrastructure is then charged to the client.'
Having smaller overheads and no infrastructure to support, Boyd claims smaller PR operations are therefore certain to be cheaper. In addition, she believes that smaller PR companies tend to provide better `customer care'.
`A startup is not very important in [a large PR company's] scheme of things,' she explains.
Yet most PR professionals are adamant that, for many smaller companies, embarking on a do-it-yourself public relations campaign aimed directly at a target audience makes even more financial sense and some PR professionals recommend bypassing the outsourcing process all together.
`We often advise smaller companies not to use us because we will be too expensive for them,' Martha Raupp, business development manager of Sydney-based consultancy Recognition Public Relations that specialises in IT, reveals. `We are happy to talk to smaller companies and direct them, because a lot of them are not aware of the fact that if they know their target audience, they might be better off approaching their potential customers directly.'
Instead of paying a professional, Raupp advises technology startups - and especially those with a longer sales cycle - to `spend their money on direct sales' and handle their publicity in-house. `Smaller companies are often looking to gain credibility through publicity, yet they can use the media without going to a PR company, as long as they can rely on a good spokesperson from within the company and hire a good freelancer to write their marketing material,' she said.
Explaining that there are many resources companies can use as do-it-yourself PR guides, Raupp mentions that, for instance, it is customary for Recognition to give startups its IT media poster, listing publications they should establish media contacts with.
Similarly, talking to professional organisations about a company's PR needs often translates into free advice on the type of strategy that best suits the company's aims and, contrary to common belief, most PR agencies are happy to provide this initial service in order to determine whether taking someone on as a client is a viable proposition.
However, while working out a suitable strategy for an in-house PR approach might look financially inviting to startups strapped for cash, Kay Nicol, principal of Brisbane-based PR company Kay Nicol Media, cautions businesses against doing their PR superficially or `on the run'.
`While you are working without a PR company, it would be wise to nominate a particular person who can take on public relations activity,' Nicol advised. `Bear in mind that public relations is a specialist area and one that can take considerable time and expertise to do well [and] depending on the level of expertise and time the nominated person has, a number of items can be implemented [as part of a company's PR strategy].'
Nicol recommends that once the company's unique selling proposition (or `the key components that differentiate the company from others') has been identified, there are various additional tasks to be undertaken, such as: preparing a concise company profile and media backgrounder on flagship product/service; organising interesting photography of key management and staff to accompany press releases; preparing a number of case studies to show how the company's product/services are being successfully used and starting a quarterly newsletter for clients and staff.
Given a significant increase in the democratisation of multimedia and publishing tools, Nicol says companies should also build and use their Web sites as a PR tool.
But, both Nicol and PPR's Lazar advise against relying on Web sites alone, for although widely available and used, the Internet is still a relatively new way of reaching people and the process of migrating and implementing public relations on the World Wide Web is only in its early, experimental stages.
`The whole concept of marketing in the new media is new and a learning process,' Lazar said. This means that the marketing and PR value of the Internet are thus yet to be determined as businesses and marketing strategists try to `think of ways to drive customers to designated Web sites', he explained.
Instead of relying on one medium of communication, Nicol and Lazar believe DIY-PR practitioners, like their professional counterparts, should take a `holistic, integrated approach. It means getting up in a helicopter, figuratively speaking, and taking a good look around. [It means considering] goals and objectives, people, products and corporate positioning and [aligning] these factors into a program that will attract core target groups,' Nicol clarified.
Most importantly, technology startups should realise that, as Lazar points out, in the shifting media space of the late 20th century, the opportunity has been created for them to be listened to in the 21st. `What they need to be is extremely focused on what their objective is and learn to craft and communicate their message in a general way,' he concluded.
How to find the right PR agency
Team up with people you like working withGo to one place that offers you everything you need under one roofGo to the company that can give you a clear indication of outputs and resultsAssess how accountable they are with their client's moneyAssess how open their relationships with clients areCheck the company's reputation (eg call journalists, editors, clients to get references)Assess whether the company's billing structure suits your budgetDecide what type of service you want and choose a small/local, medium/national or large/multinational PR organisation that meets your needsCheck the skill set of the particular consultant that will work on your accountShort-list two-to-five companies and ask them to prepare proposals outlining how they would approach achieving your objectivesThe 10 Commandments of do-it-yourself PRDefine your unique selling proposition (USP)Identify, understand and communicate to your target audienceHave a clear message that you want to send to the marketFind the right mix of marketing and communicationDetermine what tools and media will best serve your PR needsRemember that relationships remain the key to successStart working on your PR and your infrastructure at the same timeUnderstand market trendsMake an effort to understand the media you use for your PRBe crediblePUBLIC RELATIONS COMPANIES SPECIALISING IN TECHNOLOGYCompanyAddressTelephoneConsultantsStarted in AusOfficesMajor clientsAugust.One Communications5/55 Lavender Street Milsons Point NSW 2061(02) 9955 1866121999Sydney, LondonMicrosoft, Navision Software, CBA, GE Information Systems, Accent Technologies Burson-Marsteller16/65 Berry StreetNorth Sydney NSW 2060(02) 9928 1500351980Sydney & Melbourne.
Affiliations in Auckland & Wellington.
2/1 Gurrigal Street
(02) 9960 6000
Work with independent consultancies throughout AustraliaPictureTel, James Marcian & Co, Hallmark, Integrated VisionCommunicationSolutionsAustralia9/98 Arthur StreetNorth SydneyNSW 2060(02) 9956 883341985SydneyWould not revealEdelman Public Relations24/111 Pacific HwyNorth Sydney NSW 2060(02) 9936 5500301987Sydney & Melbourne.
Affiliations in Canberra, Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.
GCI Group Australia
8/55 Lavender Street
(02) 9936 2823
Hill & Knowlton
7/15 Blue Street
(02) 9966 1255
Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, Wellington.
Horizon Public Relations
79A Nelson Street
(02) 9517 9200
Work with independent consultancies throughout Australia.
214-216 Condamine Street Manly Vale
(02) 9948 7443
Has affiliations in Asia-Pacific.
55 Falcon Street
(02) 9968 0999
Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and WellingtonNot available at press timeKay Nicol MediaPO Box 6156Brisbane QLD 4103(07) 3848 503711994BrisbaneTechnology OneMitre 10Macro Communication7 Myrtle StreetCrows Nest NSW 2065(02) 9923 1800101985Works with other independent consultancies in Australia and Asia-Pacific.
Business Software Association;
6 Ribbenluke Ave
Duffy's Forrest NSW 2084
(02) 9450 0582
Check Point Software, InterBiz,
47 Reservoir Street
(02) 9212 3888
Sydney, Bathurst. Works with independent consultancies throughout Australia.
Professional Public Relations
118 Victoria Road
(02) 9818 4044
Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, Auckland.
Toshiba, Imation, Solomon Software
Recognition Public Relations
208 Victoria Road
(02) 9719 8855
Lotus, Hitachi Data Systems;
The Rowland Company
7/207 Kent Street
Sydney NSW 2000
(02) 9241 3131
Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Shuna Boyd Public Relations
10A Seville Street
(02) 9418 8100
Progress Software, SPL World Group, Newbridge NetworksSpectrum Communications Australia1/261 Pacific HwyNorth SydneyNSW 2060(02) 9954 3299121996SydneyDell Computer,PeopleSoft, InpriseQuicken, Dingo Blue, Sun NetscapeStratcom CommuniquAustralia11/53 Walker StreetNorth Sydney NSW 2060(02) 9956 8000101991Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne.
Affiliates in other capital cities.
Would not reveal
28/100 Miller Street
North Sydney NSW 2060
(02) 9956 5733
Affiliates in Brisbane and Auckland.
Getronics, Visio, APC, Seagate
Sources: Directory of Registered Public Relations Consultancies by Public Relations Institute of Australia & ARN Research