Champions of consumer PR

With consumer habits apt to change at lightning speed, PR thinking must keep pace. Michael Bush profiles a quintet of consumer PR agency pros who are leading the way

With consumer habits apt to change at lightning speed, PR thinking must keep pace. Michael Bush profiles a quintet of consumer PR agency pros who are leading the way

Barby Siegel
Ogilvy PR Worldwide
MD, global consumer marketing practice

Defining moment: While working on the Maxwell House Real Heroes campaign, Siegel says she saw PR's ability to "touch and change people's lives." The effort highlighted everyday people doing things like teaching prisoners to read, bringing medical supplies to low-income families, and delivering food to the hungry.

"We spotlighted the impact these individuals made and how they inspired others," Siegel explains. "For Maxwell House, it was a wonderful manifestation of a brand that has always been part of everyday people's lives with a real cup of coffee. For me, it was a particularly powerful example of PR's enduring ability to strengthen consumer bonds.

Most important, it confirmed our craft's unique ability to truly make a difference in people's lives. What can be more gratifying than that?"

Trends: Siegel believes that co-creation between consumers and brands will continue to grow in importance.

"Consumers want to have a say, and help create content," she says. "We try and approach them as co-brand managers, because they [effectively] are."

The future: "As PR agencies work more closely with the retail channel, this will create a link between PR and point of purchase," she says. "I've been to Wal-Mart with clients to develop programs that not only generate publicity, but also in-store traffic."

The integration of multiple disciplines is something more clients are slowly becoming comfortable with, Siegel says. "To us, 360 is everything. It's finding a big idea and then making sure it comes to life through all the disciplines. We prefer to work with other agency partners because it helps us develop the best ideas and execution."

Lessons learned: Siegel has learned to marry curiosity and creativity as much as possible.
"These are two of the most valuable assets we can bring to our clients," she says.

"Curiosity and creativity [means] listening to clients, hearing their needs, asking these few simple questions: 'What if? Why not? Imagine this...' and pushing the boundaries every day in all we do."

Felischa Marye
Flowers Communications Group
Assistant VP of client cervices

Defining moment: Marye is currently working on an African American-focused campaign for restaurant chain Lawry's. The multifaceted effort involves a celebrity component, a five-city local media tour and SMT, sampling events, and a Web presence.

"It all led to really strong local and national coverage on some major networks," she says. "For me, it was a shining moment. That's where all my communications experience came together."

Trends: "Trends in the African-American market tend to [reflect] those in the general market," Marye says. "I keep my eye on the use of nontraditional media and nontraditional PR because consumers now expect to be reached in different ways."

The future: Marye says more clients are looking for one-stop firms. "It's almost as if clients want fewer agency partners in order to streamline their efforts and speak from one voice," she says. "Because of this, the lines are being blurred among all the disciplines and we have to become savvy with all of it because that's what clients expect."

Marye says PR agencies and their clients must continue to pay attention to the African-American and Hispanic markets.

"I anticipate that this 'browning' of America will lead to more companies developing programs that appeal to both groups," she says.

In response to the trend, Flowers has launched FCG Latino to help clients reach both groups in a more effective, efficient manner.

"We call this model Ethnic Fusion, which leverages the commonalities between African-American and Hispanic consumers to reach both markets," she explains. "For instance, both groups have a propensity to hold family, religion, tradition, music, and heritage close to heart. We develop programs that can reach both groups with one strategic platform, leveraging these commonalities and cultural nuances."

Lessons learned: Marye says one experience taught her that using a third party to speak on behalf of a brand in a crisis makes that brand's messages more credible in the public's and media's eyes because those parties can often be quite skeptical about messages delivered directly from a brand.

"I worked for a client that had ongoing issues with negative publicity," Marye recalls.

"The client tried to combat these messages by distributing product press releases, but the negative publicity continued and the client's positive messages seemed to fall on deaf ears. It wasn't until we hired a knowledgeable, respected third-party spokesperson to speak on the brand's behalf that we began to see the tide change."

Doug Dome
Hill & Knowlton
President, Dome HK and US creative director

Defining moment: In September 2005, Dome helped orchestrate the "Chicago For Everyone" campaign for General Motors in the Windy City. As Toyota shut down Millennium Park for a private staff event, GM had 40 cars ready to take people to other high-profile venues for free. GM also paid for their admission into these venues.

"I was attending a Halloween party the month after in an apartment that overlooks Millennium Park," Dome says. "A former colleague said, 'I saw one of the smartest marketing things I have ever seen when GM spoiled Toyota's party and gave everybody free rides.' I laughed and said, 'That was our agency.' He could not have set that up any better."

Trends: Dome is following the effect diverse populations will have on messaging and packaging, and the impact globalization is having in the online world and on social media. He believes there will continue to be a significant shift from traditional company-amplified communications to a more consumer-pulled or organic communications approach.

"The ideal situation is when both come together in the marketplace," Dome says.

The future: Dome predicts a backlash for PR pros who fail to get on board with integration.

"There's going to be a fallout of PR practitioners that have failed to keep pace with the changes," he says. "You see that a lot on the client side where PR managers play the role of gatekeeper trying to withhold information rather than share it. They become obstacles to integration instead of helping to facilitate true partnerships.

"People talk about integration," Dome continues, "but there are still [such] structural barriers [as] budgets or silos. Companies that are truly responsive to the opportunity to leverage ideas and innovation will realize they have to break down those barriers to foster true integration."

Consumer PR talent on the agency and corporate side will have to evolve in order to be competitive in today's market, he adds.

"They have to be knowledgeable about all marketing disciplines, not just traditional PR," Dome says. "We look for those who have an in-depth knowledge of sales promotion, advertising, direct, and online, and their ability to integrate these activities in developing a PR campaign."

An increased focus on internal communications to enhance the consumer experience and interaction with the brand is something else Dome says will occur.

"The market is recognizing that it really comes down to employee engagement," he says. "If [staff] is engaged, the company's and brand's vision will be delivered in interaction with the consumer."

Lessons learned: "One mistake I've made over the years as the agency grew was focus more on managing the growth rather than creativity and ideas," Dome says.

Gail Heimann
Weber Shandwick New York

Defining moment: Heimann says the power of PR became evident during a campaign she worked on for Project Open House, a nonprofit that makes homes accessible for handicapped individuals. It was early in her career when her firm profiled a paraplegic who had been wounded in a gun battle and was helped by the organization.

"He spent his days and nights painting and mastering techniques he learned from the few books he had," Heimann says.

He was profiled in a local New York daily newspaper and covered by all the major local television networks. The coverage sparked a call and visit from the mayor. He received a full scholarship from a major art school the next week.

"We used a very basic media strategy," Heimann says. "It was the bread-and-butter stuff we all did then and still do today, but it transformed a young man's life."

Though the project was small and local, it stands out for Heimann because it showcased the "power of what we do, beyond traditional metrics and dollars."

Trends: "The biggest trend is not the media itself, but figuring out how to deploy the range of emerging media to reach that new 'public of one,'" says Heimann.

The future: "The notion of community is going to evolve over the next five years to where every consumer wants to feel like part of the brand," Heimann says. "Brands need to become more than the promise they make to consumers. They need to be part of a society. Those brands [will] win out."

Lessons learned: Heimann says she still learns "a lesson a day," but "the one I summon up daily - having learned its value over the years - has to do with when and how to take calculated risks," and how to get the teams she's working with to do the same.

"It may be thinking [in a way] that initially feels 'out there,' or [of] a way of presenting that thinking that seems different," Heimann says. "But I think when we push it a little bit, we're more likely to deliver work that's original and results that stand out."

She says her most monumental "but not transferable" lesson may have been the one she received in trying to move a blimp across the country.

"Know the prevailing wind in Wichita?" she asks.

Mitch Markson
President of consumer brands and global creative director

Defining moment: Markson says the work he and his partners at Edelman did for Microsoft in the 1990s was significant because it helped move the software giant into the consumer space via a number of interactive and multimedia programs.

"You take that for granted now with the advent of Xbox," Markson says. "But at the very beginning you really thought of Office when you thought of Microsoft, and we did a lot of work in helping it embrace the consumer by helping it develop an understanding of consumers and what they wanted. Helping it make that move was very exciting."

Trends: While everyone focuses on youth, Markson is watching the effect of the aging population.

"People are working and living longer, and 60 is the new 40," he says. "So how do you harness the creativity and passion of that aging population and how do we make that work for our clients?"

Markson is also watching the consumers as co-brand managers trend and says the concept will eventually lead to less guessing on the part of marketers.

"Instead of developing a product or brand and then wondering what consumer will be right for it, the practice will allow them to literally look at consumer segmentation, not just in a demographic way, but a psycho-graphic way," he says. "From there, they can say, 'Let's build a product or a brand for that particular audience.'"

The future: "The future is much less about great ideas that we create, [than it is about] empowering consumers to help us come up with ideas," Markson says.

Clients are also showing an interest in a practice he calls "life-moment mapping. "This is where we take a specific moment in a consumer's life, and then create experiences for those particular moments, whether it's getting married, having a baby, or turning 40," he says. "More and more, the clients I'm talking to are interested in developing not only PR campaigns around that, but also new product development around it."

And despite all the research technology available to PR and marketing pros and clients,
Markson strongly believes people will once again start working from gut instinct.

"There will be a return to risk-taking and people working more on gut feeling, and not being so scientific and 100% research-driven," Markson says. "You need a little bit of risk-taking. Everything can't be researched to death because the trends will have passed."

Lessons learned: Markson says underestimating the advertising discipline can be a big mistake.

"Advertising still has a lot of power and budget, and working with and through them sometimes isn't so terrible," he says.

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