Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM President & CEO Rhino PR
Public relations (PR) is an under-appreciated art, especially in the AEC marketplace. In a world based on concrete concepts, acute precision, physical execution, and data-driven results, many architects, engineers, and contractors seem to have difficulty wrapping their heads around the concept of PR.
Trust us, we get it. PR is not a data-driven, ROI-evident endeavor. But, it is an integral part of the marketing mix that often gets overlooked. Public relations lends visibility to a firm’s core services. It generates thought leadership and subject matter expertise in areas seldom reached by word of mouth. It transcends the idea that a project should speak for itself, and instead places emphasis on the firm or firms performing the work. Public relations should never be boastful. Instead, it should inform the public of a company’s specialties, highlight new trends or innovative technologies, and help move the profession forward by communicating the great work being done within our space.
Small, medium and large firms can all benefit from the power of PR. Smaller firms have the opportunities to get creative with their resources, while larger firms can create a PR engine that regularly doles out relevant information. The effects are powerful no matter how the program is executed. To do so, the devil, they say, is in the details:
Step One: Identify Clear Goals and Milestones
When you submit a proposal, you identify your audience – the person or committee making the decision to hire you based on qualifications, fee, or both. Public relations is no different. Before starting a program, ask yourself the following questions – and answer them. Knowing exactly who you are targeting will keep your program focused, and will serve as a place to return when things start to get off-task.
- Who are you trying to reach?
- What are you trying to accomplish?
- What are your key messages?
- What are your internal challenges?
- Who will be your internal champion?
It’s a good idea to follow up this exercise with a firm-wide, or service-specific analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) to help identify key areas on which to focus.
Step Two: Build a Team Dedicated to PR
In order to lend value and weight to your PR program, you’ll want to assign someone whose mission is to advance the program internally and externally. To do so, assemble a core PR team. This can be one person or a group of people dedicated to PR. It can also be an in-house staffer, an outside agency, or a combination of the two. Once the team is assembled, assign clear roles and responsibilities. Decide whose strengths are best spent on writing, pitching or tracking opportunities, and outline tasks that speak to those strengths.
Step Three: Find Internal Champion(s)
You may find it easy to identify PR cynics among your troops. It happens, and we make converting them a challenge. But, the real goal is to find an internal champion, especially among your technical staff, who understands, values, and most importantly advocates for the PR program. Ideally, this person should be a member of the management team, and should have a seat at the table. To maintain support from this champion, the PR team will need to show demonstrated value that supports the firm’s investment of time and resources towards the PR effort. PR does work.
Step Four: Work with your Company Culture
The most important part of a PR program is establishing the firm voice. Together with visual branding and content messaging, the firm’s voice establishes a tone within the market, and provides a foundation upon which all communications and social platforms are based. Things to consider include:
- Find a process that works for your firm
- Start small and build momentum
- Share the wealth – engage all groups within the firm
- Do a PR 101 to get everyone on the same page
- Have consultants work on site, if appropriate
- Get to know contributors, in and out of the company
Knowing how to speak to your audience can work wonders.
Step Five: Overcome Resistance
Buildings can’t speak. That’s why there are marketers. Many technical professionals prefer to “let their work speak for itself.” Unfortunately, unless done by a ‘starchitect’ or other famous guru, the value of specific design can’t cut through the clutter of everything else we deal with in our modern world. Common objections we often hear include:
- “I don’t have enough time!”
- “I’m too busy with billable work.”
- “I don’t want to brag.”
To which you can reply:
- Public relations will bring greater visibility to your projects.
- Public relations increases brand awareness.
- Public relations positions your staff as experts in their field.
Step Six: Consistency is Key
In a crowded landscape where it’s hard to stand out, it’s important to keep your name out there. A commonly held belief is that it takes seven ‘touches’ to leave an impression. Therefore, a steady flow of news should be your goal. We recommend:
- One or two press releases per month
- One or two byline articles per quarter
- As many mentions in local news stories or references in industry trade publications as you can feasibly handle.
Step Seven: Leverage Your Website
Use your website wisely to increase search engine optimization rankings, and generate more site visits. Determine which keywords your audience will search on to find you, and build that language in to the content on your pages. Use these keywords in your title tags and meta descriptions, and back link everything reasonable to increase spider channels. HTML and XML site maps help boost higher rankings in Google. In addition to the static information on your site, posting and updating a blog will deliver valuable and useful content at regular intervals without sounding like a marketing brochure.
Step Eight: Consider E-Marketing
Another valuable and often underutilized tool is e-marketing. Although controversial due to the fact that so many people send newsletters nowadays, e-marketing can have a big impact if done thoughtfully and consistently. Content should be brief, relevant and easy to understand. You want to provide information to your audience that proves you are a valuable and trustworthy resource. To be relevant, you will want to educate, not brag; promote upcoming conference presentations and article placements of interest to your audience; introduce key personnel to potential clients; and link to videos or online client testimonials on your website. A good rule of thumb is to schedule one e-blast a month or one newsletter a quarter so you remain top of mind, but not intrusive.
Step Nine: Add Social Media to the Mix
Social networks are far surpassing traditional publications as a way to get news out quickly, and in bite-size snippets that quickly engage your audience. Social media should definitely be a part of your marketing mix, and it’s important to figure out which channels best support your culture, brand and voice. Start slowly with LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook at first, and over time, consider adding in blogs, Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine and others that provide value to your audience. As with everything else, consistency and relevance is of the upmost importance to maintain the image that you are a trusted resource to your colleagues.
Step Ten: Track Metrics
Remember when we said PR isn’t data-driven? We kind of lied. It can be, if the metrics are set up in advance, and closely and consistently monitored. Metrics will go a long way towards converting your nay-sayers. There are several types of metric analysis tools available that will monitor coverage, social media hits, website visits, and news mentions. The trick is finding the data that speaks to your audience, setting up baselines and measuring against those data points on a regular basis. It’s not a bad idea to monitor some of these things for your competitors too, just to see where you measure up, and where you may need to take a closer look at what is, or may not be, working in your program.
As part of your overall communications strategy, public relations is an invaluable marketing tool that creates visibility and brand recognition, and builds credibility and third-party validation through editorial placement. With luck and a lot of hard work, it can also sometimes generate new business leads. Firms of all sizes will benefit from a thoughtful and well-planned public relations program. When done correctly, it integrates well into the marketing plan, that then rolls up into the firm’s strategic business plan. When your firm’s management supports and values all components, thought leaders discuss their expertise, and your target audience is reached, the value of PR and marketing becomes self-evident.