6 Tips for Brand Communications on a Budget

We are facing a bleak global economic outlook due to the spread of COVID-19. For many brands, recovery will take time. However, an economic downturn is not a reason to halt all brand communications and public relations activities. There are many things that brands can do to raise their visibility with limited investment and strategic allocation of resources.

We are facing a bleak global economic outlook due to the spread of COVID-19. For many brands, recovery will take time. However, an economic downturn is not a reason to halt all brand communications and public relations activities. There are many things that brands can do to raise their visibility with limited investment and strategic allocation of resources.

Take Advantage of Free Content Platforms

If your business is not able to invest in paid advertising or promotional content, there are great platforms to share thought leadership and increase visibility with current and potential followers. Medium and LinkedIn are sites that provide an opportunity to build reach with your audience, as well as the chance for compelling content to become viral.

Find Passionate Writers Within Your Organization

It can be challenging to lean on your most senior executives to serve as subject matter experts for brand communications when these leaders are focused on keeping the business afloat. However, there are typically many other SMEs that are untapped who can be a valuable asset when you’re developing content. Ideally, these folks are looking for professional development and advancement opportunities, and you can increase their visibility in the organization and industry. In all pockets of the companies I’ve worked for, I’ve found former journalists and passionate writers. To identify these individuals, consider an internal poll or leverage LinkedIn and Twitter to see which employees are actively blogging or sharing insightful articles.

Use Social Media to Find and Engage Reporters

There are many PR tools available today that help you identify reporters, contact them, and track stories and coverage. However, if you don’t have thousands of dollars to spend, Twitter is a great free resource. Reporters are very active, and many include their contact information, or you can reach them via direct message. Through reporters’ social media accounts, you can easily see what they cover as well as what interests them on a personal level to help build your relationship with them.

Lean on Corporate Partners, Clients, and Industry Organizations

Your business partners are likely facing similar circumstances and are trying to do more with less. Consider collaborating with like-minded clients, industry organizations, and vendors on communications and PR activities. Together you can make your resources go farther and tap into each other’s reach.

Look for Hungry Consultants

PR agencies carry a hefty price tag and may not be right for your needs or your budget. A consultant can be a cost-effective alternative and a way to get traction quickly. Agree upon goals, the scope of work, and metrics for success to make sure your investment aligns with your strategy.

Revisit Past Successes

Look back on your past brand communications and PR successes. Often there’s an opportunity to update and refresh successful content and PR strategies, especially thought leadership, research, and pitch angles.

Brand communications and PR belong in the marketing mix during economic ups and downs. There are plenty of ways to build and protect your reputation without a hefty investment.

 

Indecent Exposure: A Brand Nightmare of Reputation Proportions

Into every marketer’s life, a brand nightmare must come. It starts with an old tale about a PR executive explaining to a client that the client has to make some more public and press appearances to get more exposure. “If I had any more exposure,” says the frustrated client, “I’d be arrested for indecency.”

Into every marketer’s life, a brand nightmare must come. It starts with an old tale about a PR executive explaining to a client that the client has to make some more public and press appearances to get more exposure. “If I had any more exposure,” says the frustrated client, “I’d be arrested for indecency.”

“Indecency” is about the mildest thing you can say about the events of the past few weeks, as the media has overflowed with stories about the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Turkey. Reports are that a hit squad of Saudis apparently flew in on private jets for their grisly purpose and then rapidly out again, perhaps with Khashoggi’s dismembered body in their hand luggage. For Saudi Arabia, a nation expensively trying to change its worldwide repressive image, and for the agencies serving it, it is a public relations nightmare. Crisis communications can hardly encounter a deeper brand reputation challenge.

If the business of public relations is to establish and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public on whom their success or failure depends, the good news for the Saudis was that the exposure they were gaining pre-Khashoggi appeared to be effectively promoting positive change in the perception of the kingdom.

The bad news is that classic PR problem: If the client demonstrates he is not what he has been expensively pictured to be, the backlash can destroy all of the previous goodwill, and then some. The image management crusade becomes a shambles.

When the young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in 2017 and announced his mission to modernize the country and make it an important part of the international community, no longer only recognized for its petroleum output, not surprisingly, voracious, business-hungry PR firms grabbed the next flight to the kingdom to share in what was certain to be a bonanza of fees.

The Financial Times reported in September that the kingdom’s information ministry was seeking “to promote the changing face of KSA to the rest of the world and to improve international perception of the kingdom.”

Although the world’s largest PR agency, Burson-Marsteller, already had a big contract with the Saudis, according to Media Group RT, other companies including The Harbour Group, Hill & Knowlton, King & Spalding, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Fleishman-Hillard Inc. and Hogan & Hartson, all managed to get a piece of what was a lot of action. Some have already ended the relationship.

The resulting effort was a generally successful zillion-dollar “charm” campaign earlier this year. The brand reputation effort’s star attraction, Prince Mohammed, visited the U.K. and then extensively toured the U.S., meeting with President Donald Trump,  government and business leaders, dot.com and showbiz celebrities, and pitched the benefits of investment in his new liberalizing country. There were some anti-Saudi demonstrations. But generally, the reception was surprisingly good.

In addition to promising giant business contracts, the prince handed out invitations to the Oct. 23-25 Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert” and intended to be, as Khashoggi’s Washington Post commented; “a magnet for financiers, corporate titans, technology executives, government leaders and media bigwigs. It once boasted a list of attendees that resembled the crowd that converges each year at the Alpine playground for the global elite.” The PR companies must have been jubilant at the success of their efforts and all the positive media coverage.

Until the Khashoggi disaster, that was.

Suddenly, Prince Salman and his cronies have become toxic. With the tsunami of withdrawals by speakers and participants from the Future Investment Initiative, it looked to be a very lonely conference, anything but a Davos look-alike.

How now for the PR firms (if they are still willing to serve the Saudis) to unscramble these eggs? How are they to manage the reputation of the Saudi brand and of themselves? The PR textbook teaches us that crisis management is built on taking quick, honest, transparent and direct action. Admittedly, this is an exceptional circumstance. But by all accounts, the Saudis have been anything but quick, honest, transparent or direct. Feeling the blowback, they will now have to keep their heads down, find a believable narrative of accountability and take appropriate action.

At this point in time, the PR agencies, which generated lots of exposure for the kingdom and no doubt formerly wished for a long and profitable relationship with the country, are now having to deal with indecency and some at least are having second thoughts.

Capital Communicator reports that as a result of the Khashoggi incident, “The Harbour Group has ended its $80K per month contract with Saudi Arabia” and “WPP’s Glover Park Group and BGR Government Affairs have also severed ties with Saudi Arabia.” All who so recently had visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads should be reminded of the wise adage: Be careful what you wish for.

Living With (and Working Against) Fake News

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

Second, there’s been a lot of media attention around “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “bad ads” this past week, and in this digital age, it’s not surprising to see these phenomena come forward. These are not political manifestations — I believe they happen because of human nature, unchanged over time, and in the digital realm, there are new opportunities for bad behavior.

My point here is that we’ve allowed this to happen.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: decades past have had their days of yellow journalism and snake-oil salesman. While I may long for the days of fair and impartial voices in journalism — a la, Walter Cronkite — there’s always been an element in media that’s sponsored by one interest or another, perhaps for entertainment, even if the veneer is authoritative, informative and educational. For years, “feel good” stories are inserted in evening newscasts. And product placements appear in morning television. In cable television news, is there any news at all or is it mostly commentary and entertainment? So, I continue to worry about who pays the freight for U.S. journalism, even as I recognize and welcome the fact that advertising foots the bill.

We need, perhaps desperately, in American democracy the check and balance of a well-financed, vibrant Fourth Estate. The “Media Opposition Party” is hardly monolithic — and that’s why I still care about the practice of journalism that takes time to fact check and to keep its editorial opinions on the Editorial Page. That’s why I also watch public television and listen to public radio — no interest there, except to the public (or at least the members of the public that is its donor base). News versus analysis versus commentary — there needs to be a distinction.

Once again, we’re in a new age where there’s a slush — not a firewall — between church and state (publishing and editorial). The rise of “Native Advertising,” social influencers, “clickbait content,” brand journalism, pay-to-play speaking gigs, even who’s sitting next to you in a bar, muddies the distinction between editorial and paid content — particularly on a digital or mobile device. One from the other is a click away to an untrained eye. It is true that there is value, immense value, in paid content, but it’s also wise to know — as a citizen, as a consumer — when you’re engaged with paid media, from earned media, from editorial opinion, from entertainment.

Sometimes, when a PR practitioner is pitching an editor, reporter or conference organizer for earned media, he or she is presented with a paid media option instead. My client may well opt for the paid media option, but I make sure that my editorial pitch is really about editorial content. I’ll let my client know the availability of a paid media option, should they wish to pursue this.

Now, all that being said, I’m happy accepting earned media assignments (my bread and butter), as well as paid media assignments (content marketing). Let’s simply make sure they are distinct and differentiated when and where they appear. It’s not just the Federal Trade Commission who cares about this, I do, too! Hence, my blog today — and it is not a soap box.