One of the advantages of using an external agency to manage a company’s public relations is the market intelligence the agency obtains on their clients’ behalf. It’s human nature to be more comfortable talking to a third party so an agency routinely gathers opinion about its clients and their rivals from journalist and industry contacts in its day-to-day activities. Whilst this ad-hoc news is useful it is not analysis of market perception and not part of an overall PR strategy.
For opinion, or rather, perception to be incorporated into a PR strategy a more detailed and disciplined study should be undertaken. The first step of any research would be to identify what the business objectives of a client would be and which are the priority audiences that the company needs to communicate with to help achieve those targets. The next step is to understand how a brand is perceived by theses audiences.
As the communications environment evolves to include even more channels; digital, social and traditional media, understanding how and where your brand is encountered by customers or influencers is of great importance. I have sat in meetings where a company describes its key messages and selling points on the experience of the senior management team rather than evidence on why their customers engaged with them and surprise surprise, the two can be very different.
When preparing a PR campaign it seems sensible to include some form of internal and external market research. The problem for clients is that they sometimes only realise the benefits of the research when it is presented rather than being debated as an option to improve communications. The value that a customer, or ‘stakeholder’ audit adds is to articulate and prove the public profile of a company. As the old PR saying goes, creating coverage in the media is easy, but creating coverage that works for a business and helps achieve the business objective is more difficult.
Stakeholder audits are by no means new and nor is the idea of documenting audiences and mapping the most effective way to influence them. The challenge that we face as an agency is that there is sometimes an unwillingness to accept power of such audits or the results. Part of this is because there is historically a greater degree of focus on product rather than brand.
Yes, customers buy products (be they physical or service based) but competing firms produce similar products for the same customers. Other than price based decisions how many companies understand what consumers of their products or services think of them?– do they understand how they communicate their brand and describe their product or service with the decision makers in their target markets?
When Tetley launched round tea bags it was to differentiate its product from its competitors, since its teabags were the only ones that were round and therefore better – understanding how to position a company in its market to create a significant business advantage.
None of Four Broadgate’s clients make tea bags, but they do operate in highly competitive markets and clearly need to understand their differentiation points. When companies are offering similar products they become less important than brand. If a company wants to develop its brand, it needs to benchmark it with its stakeholders – both internally and externally – to be able to understand and address perception gaps between the desired and the actual.
In public affairs mapping audiences and undertaking stakeholder audits before engaging is accepted as essential. It’s my hope that this spreads to more straightforward communications briefs. If a PR campaign can align itself with a business plan, not in terms of issuing a press release on the same day as an email shot, but by strategically developing an approach and tactics, then it can actually produce change in brand perception. I believe that companies that adopt this approach will be more successful not only in creating brand understanding, but also in generating more revenue.