Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM, President and CEO of Rhino PR
Why public relations should be included – with marketing and business development – as part of every AEC firm’s communications mix
When you walk into a room filled with industry colleagues at a conference or event, do you get the reception that you’d like? Does it seem like everyone has heard of your firm, knows what projects you’re working on, and all about your most recent big success? If your answer is yes, then you are doing a lot right. Your firm’s communications mix probably combines marketing, business development and public relations equally in a way that supports your firm’s strategic plans. But for many firms, this may not be the case. A big reason for this is the underappreciated contribution that public relations can provide for professional services firms.
Marketing for professional services firms is an understood requirement. Proposals must be assembled and delivered, and websites, project sheets and brochures are needed to present a firm’s strengths and experience. However, public relations is often disregarded as an unnecessary cost. However, when executed in a strategic way, PR is a powerful tool for building brand awareness, establishing thought leadership, promoting niche expertise, and keeping your firm top-of-mind among clients and colleagues alike.
To understand the crucial role PR plays in a successful communications strategy, we should first start at the beginning.
What Really Is PR?
Is it press releases? Yes, often. Is it securing coverage in key publications? Yes, but only if your firm has a good story and the patience to build a relationship with reporters and the publication over time. So, what else is PR?
Public relations helps a firm to develop its key corporate messages, based on a core business strategy, and deliver those messages in a manner and medium to reach key target audiences. Above all, PR is about getting the word out. This will take many forms, and often requires a long-term view of investing in the firm’s future success. However, consistent and ongoing PR activity will successfully:
- Showcase the firm’s work
- Increase name recognition
- Influence public opinion
- Reinforce/support branding
PR also is a key support for business development efforts. When pitching new clients or networking a crowded room, it helps immensely if the target already knows your firm by reputation. The introduction is already warm, and you have less work to do to educate your audience about your capabilities and experience.
Why is PR Ideal for professional services firms?
Firms in the architecture, engineering, construction and real estate industries often rely on their reputation and relationships to win new business. The sales process is long and slow when it comes to the big projects, and there’s no way to know in advance what may tip the scales in your favor. Public relations can help promote your firm brand and identity, gain the third-party validation of respected media outlets, and keep your firm in front of potential clients on a regular basis.
In comparison to advertising, direct mail and paid marketing, public relations is also relatively inexpensive. There are no ads to buy, no sponsorships to shell out for, and no printing costs. And even better, people who read about a new product or service put more credence in an article than a paid advertisement.
Additionally, for the many small and mid-sized firms that make up a large part of the industry landscape, PR can help create a bigger competitive impression. PR can help these firms’ work go toe-to-toe with big business in the pages of the press.
Tools of the Trade
We’ve touched on many of the tools in the PR arsenal already in this article (and will be expanding on the strategies and strengths of each of these in an upcoming article). But to put them all in one place, the basics of a PR program usually include:
- Press (or News) Releases: These short documents communicate information about a news-worthy event or development and are distributed via email or a delivery service to publications that would be interested in the topic.
- Media Relations: This is the process of building relationships with relevant reporters and editors, and often includes pitching article ideas to present a company as a thought-leader.
- Byline Articles: The goal of these articles is to present the firm or the author as an expert on a specific topic, and to share useful information and tools with the readers.
- Speaking Opportunities: When people attend trade shows and conferences, they often look forward to learning opportunities such as speaker sessions, roundtable events, and workshops. A company can propose a relevant topic for one of these sessions, and send an experienced employee to present.
- Industry Awards: Awards may recognize a company for excellence in a completed project, collaborative team success, or may recognize an individual for a specific achievement.
While successful PR programs may include some or all of these tools, the most important consideration is how these pieces can be used to support your firm’s strategic business goals.
Just One Piece of the Puzzle
PR is a powerful player in any communications strategy, however to be truly effective, it should be incorporated with marketing and business development activities as well. It is commonly accepted that it takes seven “touches” to make an impression on someone, and you never know where people may see or hear about your firm. By combining PR with an online presence, social media, networking, and traditional marketing, you can be confident that your firm will have the strongest communications plan possible. And when you walk into that next crowded room, it should feel pretty warm indeed.