The Public Relations Makeover
You just finished the job of your life, or at least that’s what it felt like. Months upon months of selling, sizing and soldering the new town hall has left you with a swelling sense of pride and accomplishment. But what about in a month or two when the swelling subsides and the new town hall garners as much notice as the local McDonald’s? Where will those feelings be and how can you convey your past glory to new customers?
Wouldn’t it be nice to pop a video in the VCR detailing your professional office staff and experienced technicians at work on that high-profile job? Or to show off a scrapbook complete with published news stories capturing your team in action? Walk into any DIY and you’re sure to find such samples of what they consider a DIY job well done exhibited for every customer to experience. And while they watch a video or read a promotional poster, over the intercom plays the theme song, “You save big money, you save big money, when you shop...”
Recently, at one outlet they’ve started printing “newsworthy” stories on their bags. Two and three paragraphs announcing the store’s donations of materials to neighborhood parks and low-income housing projects are easily read by customers from the store exit to their cars and a personal, community connection is established.
Even though home centers deserve to spend eternity in the eighth circle of hell for a variety of reasons, you can’t deny that they know how to sell. They are professional retailers. But the truth is, anyone who sells goods or commodities to consumers is a retailer, at least according to Webster’s. So by definition, no matter what the size, all shops are really shops — all contractors are retailers.
And just like at any store that doesn’t have “discount” or “warehouse” in the title, consumers are wary of putting down hard-earned money on something they fear is not a bargain. Unfortunately, technicians in our industry have a false reputation for being expensive and overpaid. In order to compete, many have mistakenly lowered their prices and have agreed to install inferior home center products purchased by customers. Instead of selling your services at a lower cost, do what the big boys do and hire someone to sell you. A public relations specialist can establish your name and identity as a quality contractor faster than any paid ad ever could.
The Wal-Mart Way: For all of its advertisements calling it “America’s Store” and inviting me to “Come on Home,” nothing so endeared me to Wal-Mart as when I read about their “mommy parking” policy on the front page of the Metro Section in the Chicago Tribune. My sister, five months pregnant at the time, was ensured a front row parking space as a mommy to be. If you’ve ever experienced a Chicago winter, this is a pretty big deal. At the same time the store implemented this policy nationwide, in another state the company was battling to put up a branch next to George Washington’s birth place. While that battle still goes on, ever since the heartwarming and six o’clock news-friendly story about the store helping expectant mothers, very little notice of the less than attractive fight has been covered in the media. The baby story not only quieted talk of the store’s defamation of our founding father’s birthplace, it promoted the store’s community spirit and the care it has for its customers — pure genius on the part of their public relations department.
While you may not have the large-scale headaches of a Wal-Mart, a public relations consultant can help you organize a plan to create the image you want. You may say you already have an image under way with your trucks and uniforms, but in this competitive market what is often needed is a full force campaign to establish your business in the community. Enter the public relations specialist.
Outsourcing: Hiring a consultant of any kind can be terrifying. Will they know my business? Can I trust them? How do I know if they’re any good? If you have someone in your business who can handle the job and understands the parameters, and who you can reassign to the position permanently, then by all means hire from within. But in most shops this is not the case.
“Oftentimes a lot of firms wind up with someone who doesn’t have the experience for the job — or worse, a good employee who is overloaded with work he wasn’t trained to do in the first place,” said Rose Szwed, Szwed Marketing, Inc., Bloomfield Hills, MI., a public relations specialist for several large Detroit contractors. According to Szwed, there are many advantages to hiring an outside source:
- You don’t have to pull a valued employee of his regular work to do the actual nuts-and-bolts PR.
- You don’t have to make any investment to find out how good the candidate is. After listening carefully to the presentation, you simply make a few phone calls to references. That costs nothing but a little time — nothing out of pocket.
- Once hired, you pay only for what you need from your PR source.
- The consultant comes already trained and experienced in the whole gamut of preparing public relations — you don’t have to pay a “learner.”
- Acting as an objective outsider, the consultant is trained in analyzing and reaching the public that is important to you. That means a knowledge of audiences, a knowledge of media and personal relationships with editors, writers, broadcasters and media VIPs.
If you decide to try an outside consultant, Cheryl McPhilimy of McPhilimy Associates, Chicago, IL, advises to go to a firm where you won’t be the smallest fish who is passed on to interns and lower-level employees. “Invest in a firm that knows how to market your trade,” McPhilimy said, “make sure they understand your market and are realistic in their goals.” Quite frankly, no one can promise you the cover of Time, but they can help you establish your business in community circles. “A good thing to look for is if they are familiar with your local newspapers and this industry’s trade publications and has a sense of what gets written about. Topics such as safety records, community involvement and vocational programs are all hot areas.”
Your Commitment: Working on public relations for one of the largest mechanical contractors in the country, McPhilimy stresses that the owner must be committed to the entire PR project. “Owners must be willing to spend time with the consultant. This means time in the office and on the jobsite explaining what is important and what others will find exciting.” When the consultant sets up an interview with reporters, this is doubly important. McPhilimy advises her clients to pick out three specific things about the project they want the reporter to know “You only get one chance in the interview to get your message across — that you’re doing something innovative. Owners, or the company spokespeople need to be familiar with the jobs and able to communicate their significance to the press.”
One of the most important things that the consultant can teach and that the company must be committed to is spokesperson training. There must be one person in the company trained to respond to the press and the public and who will be available to the press at all times. This spokesperson would also be the individual appearing at public events such as career days and town parades — anything where there is the potential to expose the company to the community.
McPhilimy instructs this person to read the trade and local publications and be familiar with what they are looking for. If the company has something that applies, they need to tell her immediately. “Businesses must make PR a priority and react quickly,” McPhilimy said. “I’ve had clients who sit on a story for weeks until it becomes stale. In order for me to do my job, I need to know about everything.” Szwed adds, “Your counsel belongs in your marketing meeting. You must take your PR counsel into your confidence — and yes, you are entitled to ask for a confidentiality agreement in writing.”
Two ways to aid the consultant in learning about your company is to first create a company fact sheet describing the business, key officers and areas of expertise. “Both the PR agency and the contractor should keep a ready supply,” McPhilimy notes. “The creation of the fact sheet also provides an excellent way to determine whether the agency understands the client company well enough to be contacting media on its behalf.” Businesses should also conduct an introductory meeting with the consultant and the entire staff. “Having the new PR counsel make a presentation to key managers and support staff, explaining the purpose and goals of the PR program will go a long way in getting the program off to a good start,” McPhilimy said. “The meeting should include a discussion of what is newsworthy and should convey to everyone the importance of keeping an eye out for new or innovative happenings.” This is also a good time to instruct all employees to refer all press inquiries to the designated spokesperson.
Reaping the Benefits: Whether you hire a consultant or work on PR internally, you put too much time into the product not to reap the benefits. In other words, once the story is printed or the show is aired, your work is just beginning. Reprints must be ordered immediately and sent to prospects while the story is still fresh. A clip-book featuring all your coverage must be kept up to date for use when getting that hard-to-convince sale. Just think of how the big retailers publicize themselves and translate it to your business. A good PR plan can change the tide, making it a lot easier to swim with the big fish.