14/07/2011

By Lucy Saunders, Owner of Mahseer Ltd

- PR, that’s press releases, isn’t it?

- PR, that’s about the social media, twittering, LinkedIn, blogging …

- PR, that’s advertising really …

That’s what everyone thinks. There is another dimension to PR, genuinely public relations – how your company and everyone in it, including yourself connect with the outside world. Every company has a social role in its community, even if it doesn’t use it to its advantage. It is one of the things I learnt from watching my father, who ran a physical engineering company he had co-founded. He was always very conscious of the company’s connection and duties with regard to its neighbourhood, which helped the business through rough times and good times.

These days, it is easy to think that your company’s sole connection to the locality is to the economy, paying people’s wages and buying services from nearby businesses. Public relations is creating direct connections and dialogue, rather than just expecting the written word in all its forms to present your company and its products to the outside world.

Your customers also have a public face, with different levels of public. Public isn’t just about the media, which, in some ways, is the official ‘public’. Public is every contact with the outside world, whether it’s membership of a professional or industry body, sponsorship of a local football team or a race at the local races, the schools which relentlessly provide endless work experience candidates, specific departments at particular universities, the nearest Accident and Emergency (A&E) department that fixes anyone who falls ill at work or has an accident.

All this, and the political environment too, from your MP to your local planning councillors, even your parish councillors, because at one time or another, you may need to ask these people for help or to grant a request or to accept some change in your business, from shutting down to moving to growing bigger.

Very few business people ever work out, how many ways their customers are involved in public activities. The key is to look at what your current customers do, because your future customers may well do the same. If your current customers are members of a particular professional organisation, whether that is Institute of Directors (IOD) or the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) (that’s for electrical engineering amongst other things, for anyone who was perplexed by the Es) or are involved in an obviously public organisation like the council or a local sporting club, then other potential customers might well be there too.

Get involved – and not just by expecting your marketing director or CEO to stand up and speak at every opportunity. If you need graduates from a particular discipline for your workforce, then encourage your current crop of graduates to carry on being connected with their universities and their peer group. Let them go and speak to their fellow undergraduates about work and your company, to encourage others to want to work for you in the future.

Look at the alumni associations that your senior employees and directors are members of, these could be a rich source of relevant connections for your business. Everyone in your company has some public connections that could be doing good for your business, whether that is about finding prospects or maintaining good relations with current customers or attracting possible recruits. It may be by giving every employee 1 or 2 days a year that are not holiday days to be involved in professional development, public activities or even activities they just enjoy. Encourage them to use those days, without browbeating them into making it just a company praise fest or to prove direct benefit to the business.

How much business is done on the golf course is a truism. Shaking up your view of your business and its public connections is one way of adding depth to your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programmes and improving the resilience of your business. If your company is known to behave positively towards its workforce, then it will be all the more acceptable if you have to do something drastic, like make a significant number of people redundant or move manufacturing. It will also help you attract customers who want to buy from a trustworthy business.

As an organisation, you’ve got to be real, have personality which is always the basis of brand, and public relations is a key way of developing and maintaining your brand.

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