Ad Agency PR: A Key Driver of New Business

One of the most effective ways to build your agency’s your brand and attract new business is through a targeted public relations initiative that includes a heavy dose of publicity. That’s because publicity enables objective secondary sources—the news media and bloggers—to tell your story and build your brand for you.

It also gives your brand something no other marketing tool can replicate: credibility. Although you lack control of the content, that’s precisely why such coverage is so much more credible than an advertisement.

When it comes to cost, PR is an inexpensive way to generate awareness quickly among important audiences—including decision makers you may otherwise not be able to reach—which can ultimately drive sales.

In the past, PR coverage came primarily from traditional media outlets—such as print, radio and TV—but today the Internet offers ways to not only spread media coverage, but to supplement it through social media. It also enables you to go directly to your audiences, which has enormous benefits not the least of which is building brand ambassadors.

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Ad agencies that use publicity strategically have a competitive advantage, especially when it comes to new business development, because it gives them a consistent presence in the marketplace.

Rather than reactively trying to create coverage out of things that are not genuinely newsworthy, a strategic, proactive approach promotes your agency in a way that is compelling to prospects and distinguishes your agency from competitors.

There also are a number of creative ways to expand the reach and benefits of media coverage to aid new business development not only by reaching new customers, but also helping you retain current ones.

The key to successful ad agency PR is to have a strategy in place that compliments your new business development initiatives with a clear focus, target and purpose.

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Why a Niche Blog Is Essential for Ad Agency PR

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear “public relations” is publicity in the form of radio, TV or print media coverage. That still is an important part of ad agency PR, but with so many media outlets either shrinking or going out of business—and the increasing influence of content marketing and social media—a niche blog that showcases your agency’s expertise is essential.

Here’s why. When you have an immediate need (i.e. a “problem to solve”), chances are your first step is to begin searching on the Internet for a solution. If you’re like me, you don’t appreciate the spam emails, junk mail and unsolicited sales calls that interrupt me on a daily basis for products or services that don’t interest me.

Outbound marketing—which involves cold calling, direct mail and other forms of chasing business—is becoming less and less effective, and agencies that rely on it for new business are more likely to be perceived as an annoyance than an expert. To put it bluntly, salespeople selling ad agency services smack of desperation. They also put the emphasis on your agency rather than providing value to a prospect.

Inbound marketing, on the other hand, draws customers to your agency by providing them with valuable content.

You want to attract clients who need and can afford your services, and the best way for that to happen is for them to find you when they are looking for a solution.

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A niche blog positions your agency as a subject matter expert in a particular area, and makes you easier to be found by prospective clients searching for the solutions and expertise you offer. When done right, your blog will become a magnet for search engines.

The entire conversation changes when a prospect approaches you rather than you approaching the prospect, who may or may not be interested in what your agency has to offer at the time of the contact.

One of the most important reasons for having a blog is to establish or enhance your ad agency as an expert in a particular niche. Being seen as a credible, trustworthy and knowledgeable thought leader that provides useful (as opposed to self-serving) content can have big payoffs down the road.

Once you reach expert status in a niche, the news media covering that niche will come to you for insight and commentary—and your target audience will see you that way as well.

A niche blog gives your agency continuous opportunities to demonstrate that it:

  • Communicates effectively
  • Has the ability to solve problems
  • Is well connected within your industry niche
  • Knows about important industry developments and trends

Just as publicity tends to beget publicity, as your blog becomes a repository of relevant content, it will rise in search engine rankings and draw targeted readers to your doorstep, making your agency increasingly “discoverable” by decision makers you could only dream of reaching through sales calls.

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Ad Agencies: Your Client’s Smoldering PR Issue May be an Opportunity in Disguise

One of the best ways an ad agency’s PR team can earn its keep (and impress clients) is by identifying issues that could have an adverse effect on an organization and then getting in front of them with a proactive plan of action.

These situations are sometimes referred to as a “smoldering” crisis, meaning that a potentially damaging condition is known to one or more individuals. Most crises start out as smoldering issues that could have been anticipated and minimized—or headed off altogether—had appropriate action been taken in the early stages. Smoldering Issues Mgt Blog Post 5073940305_aa2ab32fc7_n

For example, if you have alligators roaming around parts of a theme park in areas frequented by guests, as was the case with Disney, you can foresee the potential for problems and do something preventative before tragedy strikes.

“A problem ignored is a crisis invited,” as Henry Kissinger once put it.

A crisis not only can damage an organization’s image, but also impede its ability to function because so many resources get diverted to dealing with the crisis. Issues management is the best solution because it proactively addresses a problem before it gets out of hand and wreaks havoc.

Some of my best PR successes are those that never saw the light of day—they had potential to turn into a crisis but were averted by dealing with them in the smoldering stage.

Such PR “saves” don’t show up in an agency’s “stats sheet,” but they can save a client millions of dollars in bad publicity and untold damage to a brand.

Sometimes, they can open the door to new opportunities and revenue for a company.

A number of years ago one of my clients—a regional energy company in the northeast called Agway Energy Products—was facing a smoldering issue, as was its competitors. High energy prices had been one of the most significant events in the news the previous winter, with the wholesale cost of natural gas having risen more than 400% in the past year.

Through a series of carefully timed news releases and media contacts, we were able to turn the negative issue of rising energy costs into a positive story for consumers by (1) explaining why these costs were rising so dramatically and (2) providing tips on ways to save on their energy bills without making great sacrifices to their comfort.

By taking the initiative to address this issue head-on, the company gained credibility and goodwill—and, likely lots of new customers. In just eight months we generated more than 200 interviews, appearances and information sessions with print, TV and radio media.

As far as I know, none of the company’s competitors made a similar effort to address rising energy costs in the region.Michael Meath AEP Photo - Copy

Commenting on the PR campaign, the company’s spokesman wrote, “In almost every instance, we were able to turn any negative angle around to a positive story which would help consumers find ways to increase the efficiency of their energy equipment, reduce the amount of energy they used, and focus on how they could increase their comfort by expanding their relationship with Agway.”

If something is smoldering at your agency or with one of your clients, deal with it now because chances are it won’t go away or improve through neglect. You’ll not only keep the situation from getting worse, but you may also find there’s an opportunity to turn those lemons into lemonade.

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My Ad Agency PR New Business Basics are Now Online

Audio of my “How to Craft an Agency PR Plan that Drives New Business” presentation from Michael Gass’s inaugural Fuel Lines New Business Conference is available at the Fuel Lines website.

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Michael Gass

My session walks through the building blocks of creating a performance-based public relations plan for advertising, digital, media and PR agencies.

It also explains how the strategic use of PR can enhance awareness and credibility; distinguish your agency from competitors; and make it easier for decision makers to find you.

Key takeaways:

  • How PR helps prospects discover you
  • What PR can do for your agency that no other marketing tool can replicate
  • How a small- or mid-sized agency’s strategic use of PR can level the playing field with larger competitors
  • What your agency’s PR plan should include, and how to integrate PR into your new business development strategy
  • Cost-effective resources that can help you generate publicity
  • Why not having PR capabilities can cause your agency to miss out on new business opportunities

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My podcast interview with the Agency Management Institute’s Drew McClellan about what goes into a successful in-house ad agency PR program also is online.

Key takeaways:

  • The dramatic changes PR has seen over the years
  • How agencies can use PR as a strategic tool to drive new business
  • How to determine what stories to pitch
  • Ways you can become discoverable so that reporters can find you
  • The kind of news that is truly newsworthy for agencies
  • Why you shouldn’t think about using PR with the expectation that people will write stories about your agency
  • How agencies can get the right kind of attention
  • Incorporating PR into your business plan
  • How to correctly use PR in relation to speaking engagements
  • How to use Google Alerts to capitalize on PR opportunities
  • The steps to take right away to boost your PR

PR Stunt with Fake Military Commandos Generates Awareness but Tarnishes Brand

Sometimes a PR stunt may seem like a clever idea when it’s first being kicked around, but upon further reflection it becomes apparent that the idea should never see the light of day.

Such was the case with a French Internet company’s spark of genius in using fake military commandos near the Cannes Film Festival. This one apparently skipped the further reflection phase and went directly to implementation, followed by disaster.

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According to a FOX News story, a group of six men in ISIS militia-style gear approached a historic celebrity-filled hotel near the festival. One of the men reportedly stormed the stairs leading up to the resort. Panic ensued as “someone screamed and people jumped out of their chairs and started moving quickly.” Surprise, surprise. Who would ever have anticipated a reaction that like?

When the dust cleared it was disclosed that the incident was a publicity ploy to promote Oraxy, a French start-up tech company’s Internet site, which the company says is “reserved exclusively for Ultra High Net Worth Individuals.”

Did it get attention? Oh yeah.

Did it build awareness of Oraxy? Definitely. No telling how many zillions it would cost in advertising to equal the publicity garnered by using fake terrorists to scare the daylights out of wealthy hotel guests at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.

Will amused “Ultra High Net Worth Individuals” flock to Oraxy’s “global marketplace” site after this incident? I have my doubts.

Gaining attention does not necessarily gain market share, and adverse publicity like this can cause enormous long-term damage to a brand.

An Oraxy spokesperson confirmed the incident was a publicity stunt and said it was coordinated with maritime authorities. “The spokesperson said the unidentified owners feel ‘really bad’ about scaring people on the hotel property.”

Given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, and the authentic look of these fake commandos, could anyone really think there would be any other reaction than fear? If the Oraxy folks couldn’t foresee the panic that was likely to take place, wouldn’t you think the maritime authorities would have raised a red flag and put the kibosh on this?

A little common sense and what-if questioning could have saved  a lot of grief.

For more years than I can remember, I’ve had a sign in my office that some insightful unknown person created to outline the six phases of a project (in this case a stunt):

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honors for the non-participants

I suspect Oraxy followed the first five steps but will skip number six altogether, because no one will want to take credit for this fiasco.

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Citizen Journalism & What It Means for Ad Agency PR

As newsrooms continue to cut back on staff, citizen journalism continues to grow. Starting this month, Fox Television Stations has begun employing citizen journalists and is the first major media outlet to do so, according to an article in the New York Post.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a citizen journalist is someone outside of the news business who does the kind of reporting that was traditionally done by professionals. Some citizen journalists analyze, report and disseminate news through their own online outlets.

Fox has partnered with Fresco News, a crowd-sourced news startup that has signed up hundreds of citizen journalists in cities across the country. Once you sign up, Fresco says it “notifies you about nearby breaking news events when news outlets need photos and videos for their coverage. When a news outlet downloads or uses your photo or video, you get paid instantly!”

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This is quite a change from the “old days” of traditional journalism, and I believe it is a positive one. Audiences that in the past only received information increasingly have opportunities to engage and participate. While a letter to the editor used to be the primary way to agree with or challenge something written in the local paper, today articles that appear online as well as in print often give readers a chance to add comments.

There also are more ways for readers or viewers with expertise on a particular topic to be available as a source to answer questions and/or provide insight. Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is one example of a resource that connects journalists looking for sources with people who are interested in sharing expertise in exchange for publicity. (Bringing qualified leads from reporters seeking sources directly to one’s inbox is every PR person’s dream.)

But citizen contributions are different than having citizens reporting news. With social media, blogs have made such reporting possible—and empowered average people in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. Now, if the news media ignore a story, one or more bloggers can cover it and create a buzz online. Sometimes they can even shame reporters into covering stories that otherwise would have gone unreported. Or, if the reporting is biased, social media can quickly get out corrective facts and documentation.

In other cases, citizen journalists can get to the scene quicker than a news crew, or add extra arms and legs to the reporting team.

“News consumers generally receive a single angle to a story, because news outlets almost always assign one camera or one reporter to any one news scene,” said John Meyer, the 21-year-old founder of Fresco. “But we’re already seeing video on TV from three or four Fresco contributors who are covering the same protest, which adds a new dimension to how stories are presented.”

One example cited in the Post article was a March 7 pre-dawn fire. “Fox 29 sent out a Fresco alert about a fire in Moorestown, Pa. — a 20-minute ride from the station. The station instantly received ‘great video of a huge fire’ . . . whereas crews dispatched by its competitors were lucky to get ‘smoking embers’ by the time they arrived.”

This naturally raises some questions:

  • Will citizen journalists be perceived to have the same level of credibility as traditional journalists?
  • With surveys showing a decrease in trust in the news media, could citizen journalists actually be seen as being more fair and objective?
  • How will busy news outlets verify the authenticity of photos and videos?
  • Who will bear the brunt of legal actions brought against a citizen journalist?
  • What will this trend mean for public relations professionals?

To this last question, for the purpose of this post, I will refine it even further to ask how the trend toward citizen journalism will impact ad agency PR.

The short answer is I believe it will broaden opportunities for agencies and their clients to become sources for stories. As newsroom staff shrink in size, being available to provide expertise and credible information to reporters who are already stretched will become increasingly valuable. Agencies also need to expand their relationships to include citizen journalists who regularly contribute content to media outlets.

Today there are more opportunities than ever to not only have your voice heard, but also to engage and even shape news coverage.

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Ad Agencies: Divide Critics into Two Groups for PR Success

Whenever your agency represents a company that has even a hint of controversy attached to it, you can be sure that critics are just around the corner waiting to pounce. Or, maybe the company is hiring your agency because critics have already declared a full-scale war, and it needs help fending off attacks.

Sometimes even a handful of vocal and motivated critics can give companies a headache, especially if they are adept at using social media and know how make themselves appear to be greater in number than they really are.

Early in my public relations career, I attended a seminar where the vice president of corporate communications for a company that routinely was the target of critics discussed how he handled his job in such an environment. He explained that he divided the company’s critics into two groups: the reasonable and the unreasonable.

“Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.”
― Benjamin Franklin

The reasonable critics are people who have legitimate concerns and make constructive criticism in an effort to bring about improvement. These are individuals an organization can and should work with whenever possible. Sometimes, reasonable critics can even be won over to become allies. They can make us better if we listen to them and work with them to find common ground and win-win solutions.

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
― Elbert Hubbard

The unreasonable critics are never going to be happy, no matter what you do.  They will be suspicious of your motives if you try to work with them, and any action you take will be found to be deficient in some way. Regardless of what they might say, they have no interest in having a dialogue about the issues and working with you. In their eyes, the company is Darth Vader in corporate form. These critics thrive on attention and the thrill of the battle.

You can waste a lot of time and energy dealing with unreasonable critics, and at the end of the day nothing will have changed. Plus, by trying to dialogue with them, you risk elevating their profile and giving them more credibility than they deserve. This is especially true in the age of social media, where critics can be relentless and exceedingly nasty online. They tie up company time and resources with endless debates and accusations, and no matter what you say or do, they’ll still hate your client or cause.

What to do with unreasonable critics? I suggest an initial response to a complaint or inquiry, especially if it is made through social media where anyone online can see what is being said. Being unresponsive makes a company look bad and uncaring, but at the same time there are advocacy groups and bloggers who relish yanking corporate chains and putting companies in a spin.

Part of the challenge of dealing with critics is not knowing whether a first-time complainer belongs in the reasonable or unreasonable camp.

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Divide critics into two groups: reasonable and unreasonable.

To be on the safe side, assume the critic is reasonable and will be satisfied with corrective facts, a valid explanation or a sincere apology if you’ve messed up. If the critic belongs in the unreasonable camp, you’ll know soon enough by the follow-up responses you get.

Once you have identified an unreasonable critic and you’ve attempted to engage the critic—without success—the best thing to do is simply ignore future criticism from that person. Not only will you save a lot of time and grief, but posting a rational response that is rebuffed by an irrational person may actually help you. Your response will satisfy the majority of rational people, give them a favorable impression of your company and help them see the unreasonable critic for what he/she really is—unreasonable.

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