How can PR engage better with radio?

Regional radio has long been underestimated by the British public, who have a newfound admiration thanks to the recent Liz Truss disaster. PR loves to stay ahead of trends, but has it, too, been disregarding radio, or quietly harnessing its power?

Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng during an LBC interview at the Conservative Party Conference (Ian Forsyth/Stringer/Getty Images)

The answer is a complicated one. Whereas Howard Kosky, founder of broadcast PR agency Markettiers, says radio is often left out of comms strategies because “securing quality radio opportunities can be time-consuming”, Greg Double, creative director at MHP Mischief, believes “the ‘advertification’ of PR” means visually striking ideas take precedence.

On the other hand, Lewis Wilkins, client services director at Media Zoo, says: “I think a lot of agencies just chuck a spokesperson at radio when they need a load of coverage on something that’s not flying.”

How often radio is thought of, and the intention behind its use, will vary from business to business, but one thing comms pros can agree on is the untapped potential of the medium. 

As Double puts it, radio is “often overlooked by creative and PR people as old-fashioned or just a bit unsexy. But we’re in the business of getting people talking, and what better medium for that than where people do a load of talking?

“If your campaign is genuinely about sparking conversation, the airwaves can make waves.”

Getting the interview right

It all begins with a good discussion, says Simon Hamer, partner at Portland: “At its heart, the best radio is a conversation.”

While rehearsed scripts are unlikely to hit home, Hamer is quick to add that a casual natter won’t cut it either: “Where radio interviews tend to go wrong is when people just see them as a chat and wander on in front of a microphone.”

Hamer hopes his experience as business editor for BBC Radio 4 means he can construct a strong radio appearance for clients and dispel the “nervousness around broadcast”, all too aware that it can be “a very long three and a half minutes if you’re not properly prepared”.

“It’s one of the very few times when chief executives are genuinely exposed. It is unlikely, but it can be a career-ending interview if it goes horrendously wrong, so there’s always a sense of trepidation.”

Adam Isaacs, associate director at Dentons Global Advisors Interel, says radio is certainly intimidating from a public affairs standpoint, because “even a polished media performer is not immune to a curveball from a skilled journalist”, meaning “the cautious may choose to steer clear”.

He believes most public affairs pros prefer the safety of print or online coverage, where they can “drive the agenda while retaining control of the narrative”.

But for seasoned radio comms experts, editorial control is greater than ever on a live broadcast, argues Keren Haynes, co-managing director of Shout Communications. She explains: “It’s not going to be edited; therefore, while answering the questions, a spokesperson also has the opportunity to weave in key messages and brand mentions.”

From this point of view, Kosky believes “brands absolutely should be considering national radio for profile-raising, agenda-setting, getting the name out there and visibility”.

Of all the factors at play, former BBC editor Hamer says tone is by far the most impactful. “If you sound offensive and aggressive, it’s amplified by the radio. If you sound on top of your brief and confident, audiences will trust you. Tone is the radio equivalent of how you dress for TV.”

Going beyond live audio

Although a polished appearance is vital on TV, you’ll need to meet similar criteria to have a ‘face for radio’ these days.

As LBC clips often make it onto the news, Kosky says: “The PR industry needs to consider offering spokespeople who will be good on camera as well as behind the microphone.”

Social media also creates need for visual appeal, says Isaacs, as “clips of slip-ups, zingers, or salient comments” can attract a lot of attention.

Meme-worthy content or not, Hamer says it is worth taking  the chance to “create content for your digital channels”, something that can also be done in the form of podcasting.

“Podcast listening figures are increasingly huge. They harness loyal, hyper-engaged fanbases and, especially with independent operators, they are less precious about brand inclusion,” says Double. “Got a client bringing out a range of garden sheds? There are nearly 100 gardening podcasts to reach out to, and even a few shed-specific ones.”

However, he warns that “people play to what they know”, making it easy to overestimate the importance of podcasts when you're a tech- and media-savvy professional yourself.

“Podcasts don’t give you the live, real, authentic experience,” says Wilkins, “and I think that generally makes them a harder play. I don’t think many brands do podcasts extremely well.”

Phil Caplin, founder of Broadcast Revolution, says the best podcasts are often by-products of successful radio channels anyway, and succeed by borrowing audiences.

Radio’s hold over the nation

Although radio feels old-school, listening figures suggest it is still surprisingly relevant. RAJAR reports that 88 per cent of the population listen to audio broadcasts weekly, with the average listener tuning into 20.4 hours per week.

“Clients of course love the kudos of a TV appearance,” says Caplin, “but Radio 4’s Today programme secures an audience of around 6.5 million people. Radio remains king at breakfast when people are on the move and don’t have the time to settle in front of the TV.”

Wilkins, however, says it's no longer the case that “everyone listening is in a captive audience on their way to work”, and Haynes agrees that radio has become an increasingly “intimate medium”.

“Online listening, smart speakers and DAB have breathed new life into radio,” observes Caplin.

Don’t underestimate local radio

Many view local radio as “fuddy-duddy and out of touch”, says Hamer, but experts are convinced otherwise, as the medium finds consumers at their most relaxed.

“You don’t think the station has an agenda other than bringing good content to you,” says Kosky, meaning appearances allow brands to “borrow the trust equity that the station has with the listener”.

Wilkins says it helps that local presenters “shop where their audience shops, eat what their audience eats, and they’re known in the local area. They’re not like Chris Evans or Chris Moyles, superstar radio presenters on hundreds of thousands of pounds, they’re just normal people, and so their opinions tend to go a long way.”

Caplin says the reach of multiple local radio appearances can soon add up, and certainly did for Liz Truss, who reached well over a million regular BBC local radio listeners before the rest of the nation followed suit.

“It might not have been the sort of PR attention she sought, but the Liz Truss interviews on BBC local radio show the clout local radio stations can command,” says Haynes. “As well as their significant audience reach, you get the money-can’t-buy credibility of having your brand or product talked about on the BBC.”

Relevance, not size

While some seek comfort in impressive listening figures, Kosky says his 30 years of broadcast knowledge means he doesn't judge the value of a media appearance on audience size.

“In terms of our media consumption, in totality, every media owner subject to your target audience has relevance.”

He demonstrates this by comparing BBC Radio Ulster and Capital London, which have 504,000 and 1.35 million listeners respectively. On the surface, Capital’s London station seems the more impressive choice, but given that it reaches only 11 per cent of the London population, unlike BBC Radio Ulster’s 33 per cent listenership in Northern Ireland, the smaller station proves to be more effective in targeting a specific geographic audience.

Kosky explains that this approach is key in “mobilising behaviour”, and was used to target communities on a hyperlocal level via radio when promoting the COVID-19 vaccination programme during the pandemic.

He suggests that the Prime Minister was trying to achieve this when she made her recent local radio appearances, wishing to engage a loyal, older audience who form an important part of the electorate.

“What she didn’t do too well was plan for the fact that in local radio. Understanding the local local issues is very important to resonate with an audience. So what happened is local BBC stations used it from their own marketing perspective, and went on the attack slightly.

“To maximise and leverage the power of radio, you have to invest the time in the strategy that goes behind it, rather than viewing it as just a media channel output. Tailor the content, tailor the messaging.

“At the moment, local radio needs to lift the nation. People know what’s going on in the world, but we also want some escapism,” says Kosky, who applauds the PR industry for realising this potential during the pandemic, at a time when people were more community-driven.

“What we have absolutely seen is a noticeable shift, where radio is now a greater priority than it was pre-pandemic for an awful lot of brands.”

Wilkins agrees that this tool is increasingly used by influential brands, saying: “I used to do radio-based work for Google at a previous agency, and all they wanted to do was speak to regionals. They used local BBC stations to let people know how Google was helping them directly in their areas.”

“If you’re a brand with responsibility, you can have that on a global level, but individual people need to know what you’re up to and they need to care.”

He warns, however, not to force a regional angle from every story, giving an example: “We work a lot in the financial services sector with big asset managers, and sometimes there just aren’t stories for people in low-income areas, because they don’t want to hear from an asset manager – they want people who are going to help them.”

Versatility of the medium

Haynes neatly summarises the potential of broadcast PR as “broad by name and broad by nature”.

“More important than the sector is the strength of the story,” she says. “A solid top line, a good peg, regional interest and a not-too-commercial spokesperson are the ingredients that most matter.”

She hastens to add: “Don’t think everyone is going to get a grilling like Liz Truss! Yes, there are some excellent journalists working in the regions, but there’s also demand from regional radio for lighter, softer stories. We would always expect positive coverage from a PR-generated radio day.”

Kosky emphasises that radio goes further than regional and public broadcasting, with LBC’s three million listeners demonstrating an equal appetite for commercial channels. 

Haynes offers a final piece of reassurance, saying: “Shout Communications has been in business for nearly 20 years, during which time we’ve heard several predictions of the demise of local radio. They’ve all been wrong."

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