Joe Zappa is the founder and CEO of Sharp Pen Media, an agency that helps b2b tech companies with marketing strategy, content and PR.
The PR agency world is infamously full of churn. Behind the scenes, agency professionals commonly regard relationships as successful if they last two years. Like CMOs, many agencies don’t even make it that long. What does the high level of agency churn say about how companies hire PR agencies and how agencies approach their work? And how can both parties foster longer-term relationships with a bigger impact?
The main culprit for churn is that PR agencies are working on a purely tactical level. They never set clear business goals and develop a strategy with KPIs to meet those goals. Even if the agency claims to help with strategy, they often end up being a glorified bandwidth extension tool, churning out bylines or press releases instead of repositioning the business in the marketplace or greatly improving pipeline. And if an agency is merely a bandwidth tool, why wouldn’t the CEO cut it and ask the in-house team to make up the difference after a soft quarter?
To achieve and prove an impact on revenue — which is the ultimate metric the CEO and board care about — PR teams need to master three elements of communications strategy: narrative differentiation, go-to-market, and measurement.
The most common weakness of a communications strategy is that it doesn’t actually succeed at one of brand marketing’s core objectives: differentiation. This is especially pronounced in B2B marketing, where just about any category has five to 10 competitors who are trying to stand out on the basis of subtle product differences.
PR teams need to transcend this commoditization problem by kicking off engagements with a focus on differentiated narrative building. Interview the company’s marketing leaders, business leaders and customers, and figure out two things. First, what is the core story that differentiates this company from all its competitors and accentuates its strengths? Second, how does that story differ for each of its personas?
Why don’t most companies do this when hiring agencies? Because it’s expensive and time-consuming, and it’s tempting to jump right into tactics. (“Why don’t we just get to the work?”) But this is precisely why so many PR agency relationships end prematurely — the agency was never set up to make the strategic impact on the client that would justify a long-term relationship.
By taking the time to interview the company’s leaders and, perhaps more importantly, its customers, PR agencies can define what the brand story should be. This in turn informs future content and outreach, ensuring that, when the team lands media coverage or places content in desirable publications, it delivers a competitive edge and doesn’t just get lost in the noise of commoditization.
Going to market via PR
PR agencies and in-house teams need to align on where they want to appear, why and what they hope to attain from boosting awareness on a given channel.
With PR especially, it’s important to remember that the job of marketing is not to bathe the company or its leaders in the glory of the widest-reach publications possible. (Most companies won’t get and don’t need the much-coveted Wall Street Journal feature.) Rather, the task is, as Seth Godin says, to make the company “the best in the world” — for the potentially very narrow world the company’s ideal customers occupy.
So, once you’ve built a differentiated story, the goal should be to saturate your ideal customers’ world with that story — to determine where customers spend time and take the paths of least resistance to making the customer feel like you’re everywhere.
If you saturate the customer’s world with your story and the story is designed to accentuate your competitive edge in a way that aligns with your customers’ needs, PR will achieve its core goal: boosting awareness and reputation to earn immediate outreach from the small percentage of customers who are ready to buy and get you in the consideration set for everyone else when their time to buy arrives.
The challenge of the “Saturate your customer’s world” strategy is that some parts of it are harder to measure than others, and not all of it ties directly to revenue. There are two solutions.
First, deploy a mix of tactics and channels, some of which will more clearly generate demand, while others will quietly usher prospects into the funnel. For example, through directing podcast listeners to a webpage where they download an asset or can be retargeted, you record a touchpoint that can be linked to eventual sales opportunities. Whereas, if you’re relying on articles on a media site with no backlink, the team will have to align on leading indicators, such as share of voice, brand recall and sentiment, that indicate whether PR is generating business impact.
Second, the PR team and business leaders need to align on how PR’s impact will be measured. This should be a combination of marketing’s end goal — sales opportunities — and the leading indicators that show PR is working before it materializes in pipeline.
The ultimate truth of PR is the same as that of marketing in general: the board and CEO will only keep it if it’s having an impact on revenue. The failure to align on this, create a strategy to produce that outcome, and measure its success over time is at the root of frequent PR agency churn.
Many teams will be afraid to tackle the revenue problem because PR measurement is not so simple, and owning KPIs is tougher than creating the great content or securing the media coverage that allows you to hit them. But the PR leaders, both at agencies and in-house, who solve the strategy and measurement problem will earn their spot in the leadership circle and transcend typical PR churn.