BusinessQ Roundtable: PR experts put a spin on it

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Jeanette Bennett, BusinessQ: Let’s talk about the state of PR right now. Is that even the term you still use?

Janet Frank, Intermountain Healthcare: When I started, our department was called “Public Relations,” and then we changed to “Communications.” We stayed that way for several years and now we are called “Marketing & Communications.”

Julie Keho, Domo: We diminished the term “PR” because people think it’s just a press release. Now I emphasize the communications piece of it. At the core, we educate and influence third parties to help amplify our brand and reputation. For the past 10 years, everyone has been talking about how the press release is dead. But for our company, it’s another channel to own our narrative and increase search rankings.

Nikki Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: For us, it’s called “Brand Awareness” because it encompasses so many things. You’ve got to get to the media in order to make folks aware of the brand. You’ve got to be out engaging in the community.

Amanda Price, Boostability: It’s so interesting how the industry has changed as the medium has changed. Instead of pitching to the press, now it’s a conversation with the press and creating content which shows how the industry has shifted. It’s no longer a one-way story. It’s this new integrated communication that’s happening in multiple fields — whether that’s branded content, SEO, influencer relations or working with people who are popular on social media to tell stories in different ways. Essentially, it’s content creation.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: Now there is this two-way conversation. But interestingly, when I started in PR that’s what it was — a two-way conversation. At the agency level, it wasn’t about pitching a story. It was about how we can we support the client in getting the message out.

Linda P. Walton, The Walton Group: I changed the subtitle of my business from “PR & Advertising” to “Marketing & Media Relations.” I was tired of people assuming I was going to lie for them.

 

Bennett, BusinessQ: How is your field unique in Utah? What makes communications and media relations different along the Wasatch Front?

Keho, Domo: In tech, it’s a very close knit community here. If we are working with a reporter who is doing a story on the region or a trend in Utah, we’re the ones hooking up the reporter with our PR counterparts at other companies. We really are working together to raise industry awareness here, and it lifts all the boats. I’ve never had that in the other markets I’ve worked in.

Walton, The Walton Group: The demographics are remarkably different — even between Utah Valley and Salt Lake Valley. Unfortunately, a lot of the marketing has become very negative toward the enemy rather than positive about yourself. That’s very unfortunate.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: I’ve had opportunities to make really great relationships with the media here, and that’s partially based on the story we have at Young Living. We continue to tell the story of who we are and where we come from and why we are important to Utah. While we are global, we still stay true to our heritage. Whether it’s with our farm in Mona or our global headquarters in Lehi, local is important to us.

Price, Boostability: Utah businesses are built on integrity, strong business models and work ethic. In other markets, businesses tend to get funded quickly even if they don’t really have a business model. Here, we have the business model and the idea coming together in the right order. The successful companies have a communication strategy on top of their other strengths.

 

Bennett BusinessQ What role should the founder or CEO play in communications?

Keho, Domo: Josh James is very involved with how we talk about the company and the brand, as I think every founder and CEO should be. While he has a very good idea of what he wants, he also listens to counsel. It’s hard to have a good PR strategy when you don’t have a good business strategy. PR is there to amplify it.

Frank, Intermountain Healthcare: I’ve worked with administrators who understood the importance of PR and communications. They have us at the table for just about everything. I’ve also had the opposite experience. The ones who don’t have you at the table run into complications a lot more frequently.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: Because the PR department is laser-focused on the storytelling narrative, a CEO founder has too many other irons in the fire to not have us at the table and listen to our observations and guidance on how to better implement the vision. I think Mary Young has done an incredible job at that. She empowers everyone — PR, sales, marketing.

Price, Boostability: PR and communications sets apart a really successful, growth-oriented business from a business where the founder really believes in their product, but they haven’t thought through a communications strategy to actually get it in the marketplace and tell that story to consumers. From my experience working at an agency, it was the CEOs and founders who understood the value of PR and communications whose companies really took off and had amazing market penetration. They knew that in order to get traction, they needed an amazing story to share.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: When you have a CEO or founder who is very clear about the vision of the company, it certainly helps to motivate and fuel all the programs and all the positionings we are looking to put the company in. Mary has been a guiding light for all things that are coming down the PR pipeline, and she’s positioned folks around her who have incredible skill sets and are able to continue that funnel and make sure there are no hold ups in the way the message is shared with the world.

 

Bennett, BusinessQ: Transparency and authenticity are buzzwords in PR. Do you agree with their importance? And has it become harder or easier with social media?

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: There’s so much noise in the industry. There are fewer journalists and more bloggers. We love bloggers and influencers, but they don’t always have the skill set to tell the story in a strategic way — or in a way that might move a brand forward. When we are dealing with the media, we need this to be a two-way street. We need to continue to be authentic about our stories so people know this is real. We have to set the standards for what everyone else is going to think, say or envision the brand to be. With social media someone can release a story that is not true, positioned maliciously or doesn’t state all of the facts. If you have activated yourself as an ethical and authentic brand, you will have an army of people come out against the detractors. All the pieces of the brand will be the proof that what they’re saying is not true.

Price, Boostability: The power of the story is so incredibly important. That authenticity and that story permeates through every channel — your communications, your billboards, the shirts you have, the environment you have inside your office. Authenticity creates a living brand.

Frank, Intermountain Healthcare: People look at healthcare as a solution to their problem, and our previous mission statement was focused on that. We rebranded and our mission statement is now about helping people live the healthiest life possible. Some people look at a healthcare organization and say, “You don’t want me to be healthy because then I won’t come and see your doctor.” So we really have to show that even though we will be here for you in a health crisis, we will do our best to keep you out of that crisis. And we have to share stories about how we are doing that. We want to create a positive experience for people that will lead them to understand that we want to help them.

Price, Boostability: It’s so complicated for a consumer nowadays. Think about how much information is coming at them all the time — social media, blogs, media outlets, etc. Everyone is telling different stories. As a brand company, if you can bring truth to them, you can really connect and cut through the noise.

Frank, Intermountain Healthcare: Transparency is huge. If they feel like you aren’t laying it all out there, they’re going to doubt you. In the healthcare world, people have been screaming for transparency for a long time, mainly regarding pricing. The more transparent we are, the more they understand we aren’t trying to go around the back door.

Bennett, BusinessQ: What is the role of social media for corporations?

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: We actually have a separate social media team. There’s a director of global social media who works with all our social media platforms. At Young Living, those platforms are all consumer-facing, so we have built this story of Young Living being a wellness lifestyle. We then repurpose beautiful images shot by folks who use the brand — the excitement of a kid when the Young Living box shows up every month, how people are changing the way they treat their skin and their bodies, the diffuser blends and more. We have really taken hold of social media so it can amplify our brand.

Keho, Domo: We think about social media as a 3D channel for us — not just pushing content at people, but also engaging. If someone has something nice to say or has a question, we make sure they are getting responses quickly by the right person. We also use it to showcase our employees who are doing interesting things so the brand doesn’t just become about our product. It’s also about the people who are putting the care and concern into what they build.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: On the flip side, there are also detractors who — for whatever reason — dislike or have a problem with direct sales companies, so we are faced with trolls. We’ve been able to look at social media as this warning to give us the heads up. We have used it both ways, and it’s been really important to our business.

Keho, Domo: It’s a stage and you’ve got a live audience. You may have brand supporters out there, but you also have to watch out for the hecklers and have a strategy on how to deal with them. Do you ignore trolls? Which ones do you ignore? How do you use that channel to be human?

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: Social media has really helped us to create this incredible community to help us build our brand and share our message. It’s also been a security guard for us. We know what’s happening and where consumers are concerned.

Price, Boostability: I’ll talk to it from the B2B perspective because consumers are a whole different ball game. A lot of businesses don’t look at the purpose of the channel they are utilizing. A lot of people just broadcast out, but media companies create content, post it and then get someone to click back to your site. Once you get them on the site, you can either sell a product or have advertising on your site and make money. Yes, social media is for interacting with customers, but it can also be used to generate revenue.

Keho, Domo: Social media has added so much complexity to how we do PR and marketing. Most people trust personal brands more than corporate brands, so we engage our employees and our customers as well.  When our customers are doing great things, we congratulate them. We have also utilized our employees as social ambassadors, and it’s been effective.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: Our company just launched an employee hashtag, #weareYL. When employees do something good for the company or the company has done something good for them, they can share that. We have happily been named two times in a row “Best Company to Work for in Utah Valley,” so we felt like we needed to share why we are the best company. On Earth Day, we instituted an employee holiday which was a service day. We sent 2,000 people to do 57 different service projects in Utah. That day #weareYL started to trend, and it’s exciting to see that. Experience builds connection.

Price, Boostability: If you use social media really well, there are influencers in B2B or consumers who have created amazing platforms providing value for the end user. This can become one of the best ways to generate leads for your business and its organic traffic. Connect that with your SEO strategy, and instead of having to pay for leads, you suddenly have a huge groundswell of inbound consumers coming to your business to buy your product. These consumers are attracted to you because you are providing value through stories and telling them why they should care about your products and how you can enrich their lives.

Walton, The Walton Group: The internet has escalated business because it is international, and it’s also for business and individuals. The problem is when it works against you. If an employee tells what’s really going on in the company, you’ve got a situation. Now you have to fix it globally and locally. Everything is connected.

Price, Boostability: The other danger of social media is that algorithms have become complicated. People can be in echo chambers where they’ve only subscribed to certain brands or certain political views and they consume content in a tunnel. How do you as a consumer break out of that? And how do you as a business understand that’s happening so you can get your message out there?

Bennett, BusinessQ: Let’s analyze the adage “Any publicity is good publicity.” True? Or “fake news?”

Keho, Domo: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” -Warren Buffet

Bennett, BusinessQ: Should PR be handled in-house or outsourced? And what qualities does a good PR person need?

Walton, The Walton Group:  People need to have a team they can count on to do the basics. Businesses, as well as specialists, are finding that’s what they need to do because it is becoming more specialized. That is going to be happening more and more as we go along.

Keho, Domo:  I think a hybrid approach is the best. I appreciate an agency for their ability to bring outside perspective. It’s also really critical to have someone in-house because they understand the nuances of culture. For startups, though, you really can’t afford to grow your employee base, but you can afford “X” amount a month for PR/Marketing support. In my agency days, we would work with startups that had funding and a product that was ready to go to market. That’s where they would bring us in and rely on our expertise. So it depends on your business, where you are and how you treat the resource. If you treat the agency partner like an in-house person, you’re going to get way better results than if you just treat them like a vendor.

Frank, Intermountain Healthcare: I have always been in-house but I think there is some loyalty and dedication that you get with an in-house team that you might not have if you always work with an agency. I know that’s not always possible, but if you are able to have an in-house team, it is worth it. They are part of your team all the time so you can rely on them to understand the mission you are trying to accomplish and they will reflect that in their work.

Bennett, BusinessQ: What suggestions do you have for setting a budget for PR? Is there an industry formula or percentage that should be dedicated to communications?

Keho, Domo: You have to start with a goal. What are you trying to achieve? Before you can budget, you must establish what you need to do. Sometimes it’s just figuring out the message and positioning so that in the recruiting process people can get the vision. So if your goal is just to attract A-listers, you might not be ready for a PR firm. Or maybe you might not have enough of a product yet or enough of the ingredients for a successful communications strategy. You might just need to attract great people, so you need that story to put in the hands of the people who are going out into the recruiting field. Maybe you don’t even have a recruiting team yet, and it’s just you and your founders.  But it all comes down to what you really need.

Walker, Young Living Essential Oils: Cautionary tales come out of people who jump right into it. They say, “I need an agency now because my product is the best and I need everybody to know about it.” It really is about taking a step back and understanding the steps to go to market. A budget is necessary but you need to understand, as a new business owner, what you need and what you can afford. Then you see how you can best use that budget. Maybe it’s not a monthly retainer. Maybe it’s a quarterly strategy session for the first year with a communications and PR team who can help you formulate and refine the message. I would definitely caution startups not to just jump into the ocean with a PR firm just because it’s sexy or because everybody has one. Everyone has to look at their individual circumstances and move from there.

Price, Boostability: PR is not good for all businesses. Sometimes you really just need communication messaging, but PR is not going to work because your business is not optimized for the PR story. When I was at an agency in New York, we had all these different companies that would want representation and we would turn down 95% of them because we wouldn’t be able to do them justice. It either wasn’t the right fit for a big PR launch or it just wasn’t a match at all.

Walton, The Walton Group: As I’ve worked with the Chamber of Commerce over the years, there were some things they would always preach to new businesses. First, to always have an attorney. Whether they were on retainer or not, at the very least have one to call if there is a question. Second, a CPA to help with taxes. Third, Insurance. And fourth, a marketing or PR partner. At the very least, you can have a once-a-year meeting to make sure you’re covering your bases and looking in the right direction.

Bennett, BusinessQ: Thank you for teaching us how PR has evolved and what strategies to keep in mind when utilizing social media and other digital options.

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