Earlier this week I hit the 15th anniversary of my PR consulting business. When I left my job as vice president of an advertising agency to strike out on my own in 2002, I wanted to test the waters, see how well I liked consulting and find out if I could make a comfortable living as a PR consultant.
It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed, and that during that time I’ve served nearly a hundred clients from a variety of industries, including ad agencies in need of PR services. Some of my clients have been with me for many years.
Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs I’ve known, I never had a burning desire to be self-employed. But once I got a taste of running my own business, I discovered it was exciting to have my own clients and energizing to handle their PR/communications needs.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned from running a consulting business that specializes in ad agency PR:
Technology makes it possible to work from just about anywhere and still provide top-notch service to clients. With a laptop, e-mail account and a mobile phone, you can connect with clients, prospects, reporters and colleagues throughout the world. This is something I knew before venturing out on my own, but it was driven home to me within days of going into business for myself. I was blessed to land a huge piece of business immediately—an energy company that covered fours states in the northeast. From my home office, I was able to service this client effectively and generate extensive publicity regionally on its behalf.
Social media and blogging can make you “discoverable” by people you want to reach. Providing great content is important in establishing one’s expertise, but it takes work to promote that content and get in front of decision makers. Still, it’s worth the effort because the entire conversation changes when a prospect approaches you rather than you approaching the prospect.
A niche is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Having an area of specialization enables you to speak to a specific audience and establish a foothold in a particular industry. In my case, I’ve focused on ad agency PR, which involves providing public relations services to small- and medium-sized advertising, digital and media agencies. That doesn’t mean I turn away business in other industries, but with my corporate communications, journalism and agency background, I can speak to the specific needs these firms have when it comes to using PR strategically to increase awareness of their agency and drive new business.
A blog is the best way to showcase your expertise. I know, I know. There are a gazillion blogs out there all competing for attention. That’s why having a niche is so important—it positions you as a subject matter expert in a specific area and makes you easier to be found by prospective clients searching for the solutions and expertise you offer. Being seen as a credible and knowledgeable thought leader who offers useful (as opposed to self-serving) content can have big payoffs down the road. When done right, your blog will become a magnet for search engines, bringing business to you when a prospect is ready to engage your services and usually has a budget to do so.
Being a trusted source for reporters is a great way to gain credibility as an expert and expand your reach. That’s because publicity allows an objective secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you most want to impress. The bottom line is that strategic use of PR, especially publicity, can help small- to mid-sized agencies level the playing field with larger agencies.
Cold calling for new business is unproductive. With only a couple of exceptions, over the past 15 years all my business has all come from repeat business, referrals, someone finding me while doing an Internet search or from having one division of a company see what I’d done for another division and contact me. Cold calling is annoying to prospects and makes you look desperate.
Trust is at the core of any partnership. A lot of consultants have expertise in PR and good technical skills, but not all of them are trustworthy or provide the kind of service that is conducive to long-term relationships. If you do all of the things listed above well but fail to keep your word or deliver on your promises, you’ll have a hard time keeping clients. While many things go into a successful client-agency relationship, trust and character are at the top of my list.