OP-ED: PR must focus on selling the fact that it can help sales

Public relations budgets will continue to get slashed and agencies will continue to lose business if, in tough economic times, clients continue to see PR as a practice that doesn't support their primary objective. And during difficult economic times, that primary objective is to make sales. If clients are not convinced that PR can help them accomplish this objective, if they are not convinced that PR will deliver a demonstrable return on investment, they won't hesitate to cut their PR budgets - period.

Public relations budgets will continue to get slashed and agencies will continue to lose business if, in tough economic times, clients continue to see PR as a practice that doesn't support their primary objective. And during difficult economic times, that primary objective is to make sales. If clients are not convinced that PR can help them accomplish this objective, if they are not convinced that PR will deliver a demonstrable return on investment, they won't hesitate to cut their PR budgets - period.

PR strategy can and must help clients get sales. Unfortunately, too many PR pros have forgotten this. I recently expressed my thoughts on the failure of most PR strategies to Al Ries, co-author of The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. He suggested I write this piece. I attribute the failure of most PR efforts to too much emphasis on media impressions and not enough on clients' sales. A million impressions and hundreds of articles mean nothing if sales are unaffected and the client is not positioned properly. As PR professionals, we miss the true power of our discipline when, as in advertising, we use reach and frequency as measurements of success, and then say that PR is cheaper than advertising. The true power in PR lies in its ability to influence buying behavior. PR strategy must help clients either attract new customers or retain a greater number of current customers. Clients would much rather have a handful of impressions with the right messaging seen by the right decision-makers than millions of impressions that don't lead to sales. I've seen this verified time and time again in my vast experience in the sales world. Previously, I was a regional sales manager for a software firm. I have delivered hundreds of sales presentations and I know that when salespeople sit down face-to-face with a prospect who is also considering their competition, they quickly learn what matters in a sales situation and what doesn't. PR must matter. It must matter to those salespeople who need every tool they can get to close deals in a tough market. If PR has not helped pave the way for the sales troops to close deals or has not enabled them to retain accounts, then it is perceived as irrelevant and will subsequently get cut. Focusing on PR's impact on sales is not something that we should be afraid of. We should embrace it because improving sales was one of PR's original functions. In 1932 (during the infancy of PR), General Motors turned to Edward L. Bernays, the "father of public relations," to help the automaker improve its sales number after it had a 46.6% drop. Many PR professionals today would quiver at the thought of facing this challenge. However, after Bernays' campaign, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., president and CEO of General Motors, was so convinced of PR's ability to support his company's goals that he openly endorsed the practice and hired Bernays as GM counsel. Six decades later, despite this example, many PR executives still have difficulty showing clients how their strategy will improve sales. In the 1950s, another PR "founding father," Moss H. Kendrix, submitted a proposal to Coca-Cola outlining how he could help the company reach the African-American consumer. In that proposal, he boldly appealed to the company's bottom line by stating that the profits to Coca-Cola and its bottlers would be "immeasurable." Kendrix, who became the first African American to get a major corporate account, worked for Coca-Cola until the 1970s. The history of the PR profession is replete with examples of the practice's ability to increase sales. Yet today, "sales" is a word that causes many of us to squirm - especially when clients want to use it to measure our success. How will this increase sales? How will this help me keep customers? How will this help me increase my market share? Today, these are the questions that clients truly want answered when evaluating PR strategy. We cannot be satisfied with media impressions. We cannot be satisfied with seeing our clients' names in print or their faces on television. To be perceived as necessary, PR must impact sales, which is ultimately the only thing that matters to clients because without sales there is no shareholder value. In tough times, clients simply don't want to hear how PR will help them manage their reputations, create an understanding between them and their publics, or help them adapt to their publics. They only want to hear about how PR will help them get or increase sales.
  • Wayne Pollard, a former marketing director and regional sales manager, is a PR consultant and freelance writer. His work has been published in The New York Times, Writer's Digest, and CIO.

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