CLOSING THE GAP: Selling a strategy

PR's messaging muscle can help sales staff, but internal barriers must be overcome.

PR's messaging muscle can help sales staff, but internal barriers must be overcome.

Over the past year, PRWeek and Peppercom have held a series of panel discussions to explore how in-house communications teams can build bridges between their departments and other key corporate functions, including procurement, legal, sales, and internal/external PR. Many of the panelists are featured in this supplement (which includes one additional discipline - marketing), and the discussions proved to be an effective way to identify the core issues. This supplement aims to provide professionals with tools to help them forge better relationships outside PR. Using corporate communications' messaging muscle to bolster a sales force's marketplace presence would seem to be a natural organizational strategy. But too often the different priorities of each group create collaboration barriers. While a sales team's goals often are short term and involve growing revenues to meet earnings targets, the PR focus is generally long range and centers on enhancing the reputation of an organization or brand, explains Charles Smith, VP and director of market transformation communication for Rochester, NY-based Eastman Kodak's Digital and Film Imaging Systems Business. Yet PR still can support sales by creating awareness or buzz for new products. And bringing together the members of each group to discuss the advantages of an integrated strategy can help erase operational barricades, Smith says. Kodak strives for cohesion among its units by including representatives from sales, PR, marketing, and advertising in management meetings, and by having PR leaders meet with sales personnel at industry gatherings. Keeping the units aligned, however, can be difficult. Because corporate communications usually is based at company headquarters and sales personnel are scattered around the country, there is a natural separation between the areas. And because many salespeople often jump from company to company, ensuring that all personnel remain educated on the benefits of liaising with PR is tricky. Jeep Bryant, managing director and global head of corporate communications for Bank of New York, says communications personnel also can be perceived by sales as being too academic in their planning. And because sales leaders often first approach PR for assistance during a crisis, forging a trusting relationship in a high-pressure environment is challenging. "Those are the moments that enable PR to show its value by helping sales succeed under difficult circumstances," he notes. "They allow us to demonstrate how we can help protect a company's reputation and safeguard a client relationship." Spirit of collaboration Because "education comes through action," Bryant says one of the best ways PR can illustrate its abilities to sales is by collaborating on projects that require each side to discuss and debate courses of action. Such situations also give PR a better understanding of a sales team's obstacles. Bryant adds that because corporate communications staffers often are pigeonholed as publicity specialists, it is especially important for PR to erase that image by presenting sales with broader strategies for enhancing both the long-term reputation of an organization and the short-term need for product promotions. Bank of New York, a b-to-b institution, collaborates with its sales force in developing press releases, industry surveys, and case studies to illustrate the capabilities of products and services. "The communications group is often viewed as a cost sector that is not contributing to the bottom line, while sales is seen as a revenue generator," Bryant says. "That puts unnecessary distance between the units. So PR needs to strengthen its relationship with the sales team so that our interest in reputation building and their desire to make sales will benefit one another." Yet even though corporate communications and sales personnel can take steps to collaborate more effectively, a "natural tension" usually will exist between the groups, says Larry Cohen, senior strategist and team leader for Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, MI-based provider of interior architectural products and services, including furniture and lighting systems. Cohen, who works with a sales team in the New York office, says it is difficult for the priorities of the units to be truly aligned because the sales team deals with customers on a daily basis, while PR typically is situated at company headquarters and is removed from the "front lines." He notes that in many instances the corporate office will push PR and other groups to promote a specific product. Yet the salespeople who typically are paid by commission will eventually emphasize other goods to potential customers if they find the market resistant to the original items because of pricing or other reasons. "The system is out of whack if the communications and sales development processes are not aligned," says Cohen. "Often the product literature and PR messaging are in place to support sales, but those tools are not always aimed at what we think are the right audiences. Sales will move quickly to push a new item if it will generate more money for us." Indeed, because corporate communications is not in constant contact with customers, Cohen says PR staffers don't have the same sense of urgency to switch gears, particularly since PR salaries usually are not directly tied to sales revenues. "Someone in corporate who has the ultimate say in public relations and marketing matters may not be seeing or hearing about the situation of the sales force, or is concentrating on his own campaigns," he notes. "Ultimately the groups become out of sync and adjustments may not be made until a crisis develops." To keep PR cognizant of changing marketplace conditions, Steelcase has corporate communications personnel accompany its salespeople on sales calls every six months, while marketing goes into the field every two months, Cohen notes. "Having individuals from the different groups see and feel the pain of a client or salesperson may help to force corporate to address the issue," he says. "There is good tension going back and forth to create such change." Supporting role In addition to providing sales with collateral materials, the corporate communications team is often charged with increasing the visibility of salespeople in local markets. For instance, Wilmington, DE-based AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals - which this year established regional business centers in six major cities - uses PR to position sales personnel as community spokespeople, says Steve Lampert, AstraZeneca's executive director of external relations and communications. Corporate communications often will hook the individuals up with local organizations and support their activities, which include delivering speeches and staging health-awareness programs. One of PR's major initiatives is the support of AstraZeneca's "Crestor Charity Challenge." In conjunction with the Professional Golfers Association, AstraZeneca makes a $100,000 donation to the local charity selected by the golfer who is in the lead at the end of the third round of a PGA tournament. A regional AstraZeneca sales director attends each event and often runs a company-sponsored health awareness booth at the sites. With half of the company's 12,000 US employees functioning as salespeople, Lampert says AstraZeneca has a significant number of potential ambassadors, and PR is helping to create more of a presence for salespeople in the different markets. "We want sales to be involved in the community, and the only way to do that is to make sure they are visible," Lampert says. "Corporate communications makes introductions for them locally and works to create a community involvement and relationship platform. There was a need to establish a much stronger link with communications." Working with...sales PR pros and corporate sales teams should have the same interests at heart - building their company's business. But sometimes it's hard to find common ground between these two functions. Some tactics for improving the relationship are: 1. Communications must understand the real world of sales. "We need to get PR out with us in the field to see on a day-to-day basis the types of situations we encounter and what the clients expect of us," says Larry Cohen, a salesperson, senior strategist and team leader for Steelcase. "Having PR go along on sales calls and meet with customers over dinner ensures that communications will not be created in a vacuum." 2. The sales force does not always know that PR can be a helpful resource to them. "We need to be more effective in describing and demonstrating how PR can open the doors to create new opportunities for the sales force," says Jeep Bryant, managing director and global head of corporate communications for Bank of New York. Bryant says communications should stress its ability to generate collateral materials such as articles, case studies, and white papers that salespeople can leverage when calling on clients. "Too often we have materials that sales can use, but they end up just gathering dust." 3. Materials created to support the sales function must speak the language that will resonate with customers, not just the media. Finding opportunities to hear directly from customers about why they bought or rejected company products will enable communicators to better reposition or fine-tune literature or PR campaigns, Cohen says. "We need corporate communications to introduce or position products in ways that are needed by sales," Cohen says. 4. Sales personnel are generally scattered across the country and deeply involved in their local territories. Educate the sales force on how the PR team can help them raise their profiles in their various markets - whether through involvement with local nonprofits and business groups or through a relationship with local media outlets. 5. Finding ways to motivate PR staffers to connect more effectively with the sales team is important. PR staff's bonuses are not typically connected with sales results, for obvious reasons, but companies should look for ways to prompt communicators to reach out to the sales force.

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