by Val Mumby, Joint Managing Director ofClareville Communications

“Why is he always in the press? Why are they always writing about his products not ours? Why do they ask him for his opinions and quote him in features when our business is bigger and my views are more interesting? Why is he asked to speak at conferences? Why is his business better known in the trade than ours even though we spend just as much on advertising?

Many business people have asked either me or themselves at least one of these questions. It is fascinating how the competitive nature of business comes out when they regularly see one of their competitors’ names in a promotions or marketing industry magazine!

I often find that, when business people think in this way, they are starting to appreciate the power and benefits of PR. In particular, they are beginning to realise what PR can do that advertising or promotions can not. But there is more to PR than that.

The Public Relations Consultants Association, the leading UK PR body says “Public relations is about reputation - the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.

“Public relations aims to earn understanding and support, and influence opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

No matter whether it is the responsibility of the marketing director, a dedicated PR manager or outsourced to a PR consultancy, managing the reputation of an organisation is essential to a business. The image and reputation of a company has a key role, influencing the decisions of potential customers, employees and investors in their dealings with the organisation.

What do potential employees think before they apply? What would possible purchasers think? What impression do the buildings and the corporate image make? What does the website say about the company?

What do callers think of the way the phone is answered and how are sales enquiries and customer complaints handled? How well do the management handle press contact? If there was a crisis, how would the management respond or cope with public interest? Has the company thought about potential problems and prepared for them?

Although these are all ingredients of a public relations programme, it is easy to take them for granted. But it is vital for someone with a breadth of vision, preferably from an objective viewpoint, to look at the company regularly from the outside, to audit the company’s image and reputation and to recommend action as necessary. If not, reputations gradually slide down hill, or dramatically if an unexpected incident; remember how jeweller Gerald Ratner’s brief unfavourable comparison of his company’s products to prawn sandwiches rapidly destroyed the brand’s reputation and ultimately the company!

While regular review of reputation and image are essential aspects of PR management, for most companies it is ongoing positive media coverage aimed at trade and customers and staff that comprises the central element of their PR activities.

A typical campaign will include gaining coverage on the news pages and quotes within features, negotiating and writing opinion columns and letters, even profiles where they occur, producing newsletters, and arranging public speaking opportunities.

Editorial coverage is the essential core of most PR campaigns, the element that gives a company or individual a higher profile in its market. But can’t advertising do just the same? What is the difference?

While both PR and advertising can, through the pages of the press, increase awareness and understanding of what a company and product has to offer, PR can also provide “third party endorsement,” which can be highly valuable.

The best way to explain this is by examples.

i]“Our spaghetti bolognaise is the best in town”[/i]; — any Italian restaurant can say this in an advertisement. But because it is clear that the restaurant has bought the space and is making this claim about its own food, we are all instinctively sceptical and wary about believing it.

“Go to Antonio’s for the best spaghetti in town”; — if a restaurant critic writes this, without being paid by the restaurant, the newspaper is giving its powerful independent objective endorsement of the food, and we are far more likely to believe it.

Whether it is the announcement of a new product on the news pages or a quote from a managing director in a feature, the fact that it appears in the editorial written by journalists gives it an extra credibility that advertising can never achieve.

Good media relations enhances the reputation of both the company and its management to the extent that the they can appear to be market leaders even when they are much smaller than many of their competitors.

A few years ago we started working with a company that was not among the top five in market share terms, was competing against well known brands with massive PR, advertising and other marketing budgets, yet it was spending nothing on trade or consumer advertising,

Through a strategy of behaving like the market leader, and working with a managing director who impressed journalists by providing authoritative, colourful insightful views, we have achieved regular prominent media coverage in most features in the trade and marketing media, including powerful case studies and client testimonials. This has created a momentum such that the directors are regularly welcomed and asked to provide opinion columns for the media and presentations for industry conferences and seminars. Overall it has enabled this company to be perceived as one of the biggest in the field and, in doing so, to frustrate its larger, bigger spending competitors as well as impress customers, employees and investors.

So I tell this when I am asked those questions like “Why do they ask him for his opinions and quote him in features?” or “Why is his business better known in the trade than ours even though we spend just as much on advertising?”

Whether making a positive impact upon audiences or in preventing a negative reputation from developing, managing a reputation and image is vital; and only PR can provide the expertise and endorsement to achieve this.