By Pete Hendrick, Managing Director, Rocket Communications

Leading industry analysts and the media believe that the UK’s economy is improving at last and that 2012 will be a key year for businesses across the UK. So with the next twelve months vital for the SME community – many are asking themselves how best to invest their money to ensure they capitalise on this potential up turn. With so many options available including recruitment, website design, sales, marketing and Public Relations (PR), it can sometimes be difficult to know where to invest. For instance, PR can have an immediate impact on a brand but investing in sales could help secure more customer orders in the short-term. The permutations are endless. Put simply, for most Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) it’s impossible to invest in everything. If you are toying with the idea of investing in PR here are ten things to consider:

1) Is PR just a luxury for cash-rich SMEs?

One of the most common clichés I hear is that PR is an activity for large established organisations. This is simply not true. Many SMEs start with a modest retainer (around £2-3k a month) and then scale up once they see the benefits of receiving awareness in the press and potential customer base. It is true that the more money that is invested the more impact a programme will have - as an agency can invest more hours and use multiple tactics to reach prospects.

2) In house or an agency?

Hiring an agency provides an SME with access to a team of people who will have experience in the chosen market sector. This means that overnight an SME can gain 20-30 years of experience regarding which activities will create the best Return on Investment (ROI) and drive brand awareness.

3) Traditional media driven PRor social media?

Social media is everywhere at the moment. It’s a powerful tool that can provide an SME with hundreds of overnight followers – but are those people your customer base? If your customer base is in traditional non-digital fields such as manufacturing then a more traditional print based campaign will be a better option to reach customers. Customer analysis is the key to making the right decision – taking time out to review your customers could be hugely beneficial in the long term.

4) National, regional or international?

It can be a very easy trap to expect PR to help open up new markets overnight or be the driving force behind an international expansion programme. The first stop should always be to review where customers are currently based and then focus the PR around developing them. As new opportunities in the market arise a PR programme can help raise awareness and support a sales push. If an organisation has strong local support I would advise implementing a campaign that leverages local and regional media. If it’s international, then national broadcasters or a programme that uses a network of agencies may be required.

5) Is demand for your product/service low?

If an SME has a good product, which has some traction in the market but limited awareness – PR could be critical. PR is the perfect tool for creating cost effective awareness quickly. A well worded press release or press tour, can secure an organisation positive third party endorsement for a product/service overnight. Remember your customers are much more likely to take the unbiased advice of a respected journalist than your sales team.

6) Is it worth investing in broadcasters?

Broadcasting messages via outlets such as the BBC or Sky is coming down in price but it is still an extremely expensive process. If the customer base is the general public it may well make sense - but to be successful it cannot be used as a one-off. Studies have shown that for consumers to remember a brand via a TV advert often takes countless repetitions. The Go-Compare adverts are a good example of how with the correct investment TV can make a big difference to a brand.

7) How do your customers consume their information or advice?

A good thing to do before committing any spend is to ask customers what information they rely on to make decisions. Normally it will be a handful of key: people, magazines or forums. Focusing the PR on these targets should form the core to any programme. Additional media such as national newspapers or broadcasters can be added once the programme has gained momentum.

8) Do you have a problem with your product/service?

I would always advise organisations wanting to use PR to improve the market perception of a product that is failing/in decline – to instead try to address the problem. Spending money on Research and Development (R&D) or developing new products that can better address the needs of a customer base, is a much better idea than papering over the cracks with media announcements.

9) Do you need to influence a new market?

If an SME needs to influence a new market my advice would be to use an integrated agency that can offer a range of tactics. Using a mix of advertising, PR and electronic marketing communications (such as targeted email offers) can be extremely effective. This practice of communicating with customers in multiple ways can speed up the sales process and help drive awareness. Obviously leveraging multiple tactics at the same time does increase the cost of a programme.

10) Should I invest in analyst relations as part of a PR programme?

My advice to organisations that are new to PR or have minimum awareness in the market is always to concentrate on traditional press-related PR programmes. Once an SME has this in place investing in an analyst programme can be a good choice as it allows an organisation to influence customers using a respected third party.

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