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Online Public Relations

How to increase your marketing message reach

Public Relations, or PR, means creating and maintaining relations with your various "publics." It is something that you can, and should, control.

Your publics are not just your customers – they can include shareholders, suppliers, local communities, employees, etc. In other words, your publics are any group of people that you influence, affect or trade with.

Why bother with PR?

PR offers you an opportunity to secure third party endorsement and recommendation of your products, services or business. This often carries more weight than a traditional advertisement, as it's perceived to be independent and objective.

Some PR is, of course, wholly independent and, to a degree, uncontrollable – you need to manage your press relations to avoid bad press too. It's much easier for disgruntled customers to voice their opinions to a worldwide market via the Internet now – as Nike, MacDonalds, and others have found (see nikesucks.com, macdonaldssucks.com, etc, for examples).

In previous articles I have stressed the importance of developing brand trust – this will help you control PR and avoid negative press, so there's another reason to include consumer trust as part of your marketing plan!

What are the options for online PR?

The key online PR channels are:

Web Logs (Blogs)

Anybody can create a web log. It is essentially a public diary, where a person can deliver their opinions and comments on any subject they like. My own Blog (www.technothom.com) allows me to share my opinions on e-Marketing and business issues (and have a bit of a rant at what I see around me, if I feel like it!)

These independent Blogs can build or destroy brands (or at least do some serious damage). However, they have been discovered by businesses as a means to get marketing messages across. If well written, or covering an interest subject, a Blog can attract a huge audience. Take a look at Rick Brunner's website (www.businessblogconsulting.com) or for marketing Blogs (www.wordbiz.com) for some inspiration.

However, Blogs rely on people "discovering" your message on the Internet (although good use of search engine optimisation techniques can help you with this). But there are more proactive ways of achieving your PR objectives.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) Feeds

Many online writers allow their work to be published as an RSS feed. This means other website owners can use the news generated on other sites for their own website visitors. Good examples can be found from the BBC newsdesk (news.bbc.co.uk).

Put your newsworthy stories on your own website (e.g. new client wins, product developments, community activity, etc) and make them available as an RSS feed (your webmaster can help you with this). It's a bit hit and miss, but you might find the message gets used in other websites and online forums.

Podcasting

iPod, the portable music player from Apple, now plays newsfeeds, commonly termed Podcasts. Podcasts can be reruns ("Listen/Watch Again") of radio or TV shows (the BBC are investing heavily in this), or the recorded thoughts and opinions of experts, or anyone who wants to spread a message. In this way, they are very similar to Blogs, but with the benefit of mobility, rather than having to be read on a computer screen.

Podcasts are relatively easy to develop – if you are a good narrator, you can record a podcast using cheap software and publish it quickly – reacting to potentially damaging news authoritatively and timely. Alternatively you can hire an actor and a recording studio if you want a more professional approach.

Video webcasting and video e-zines

The latest version of the iPod, along with devices like the PSP2 (Sony Playstation) also allow for video alongside the audio webcast, providing even more interactivity and entertainment. Think of it as a dowloadable video.

This is an excellent medium for messages such as product demonstrations, but requires some investment in recording, as you would for a traditional video. It is possible to produce reasonable quality video using consumer products – camera and editing suites. Many professional operations now exist to help provide video communications. I am currently developing a business plan for a video production company in this space.

An extension of the video webcast is the video e-zine (electronic magazine or newsletter). This is a newsletter that includes video excerpts, including adverts, interviews and product usage advice. This is still a new area, but watch out for it as this is a growing sector – for advertising, product support and PR. Any forms of e-zine, whether they include video or not, provide a useful medium to build the relationships with your publics.

Getting started with online PR

PR (online and offline) helps build brand awareness, reputation and customer trust. In this way, it protects the brand from negative PR. Any PR needs to follow a few simple guidelines:

If you have a Customer Relationship Marketing (CRM) system (even if it's a basic tracking programme), use it to track responses to your PR messages. You can then refine your approach and minimise the channels you need to maintain.

Using "relational" messages, based on this learned knowledge about how customers react and how they want to receive information, means you nurture, build and maintain these critical customer relationships.

About the author

Thom Poole is a Chartered Marketer with the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and a member of the Marketing Society. A marketer with over 19 years experience in online marketing and web strategy, Thom is strategic marketing consultant for Jack Marketing Solutions, working with SMEs. He also teaches people web design from beginners to professionals, as well as CRM, eCommerce, etc. A regular speaker on the CRM and e-marketing event circuit, Thom has also written a book on ethical e-marketing, called "Play It By Trust". The book is available at the publishers as a hardback or download.

Article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph Business Club, June 2006

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