It’s all about getting yourself a reputation

PR is often a tricky business. Martin Brown suggests that, done properly, it can play a role in helping your consultancy’s name be on the tip of a client’s tongue

OK, we know that your consultancy does fantastic work. Of course it does. It’s just that some people are too lazy to notice. What fools they are not to include you on the pitch list. Ah yes, the pitch list. Winning the business once you know about the prospect is one thing. But how on earth do you get invited in the first place?

That, as we all know, is a lottery and the only way of improving your chances is to buy more tickets. PR is a term that can strike fear and loathing into the uninitiated, but, done right, it can help to get your name ‘out there’ – in front of those who need to know about your work.

So who are they? In many areas of design, clients are not experienced (let alone trained) design managers. A search of our database throws up hardly anyone with design in their job title. Marketing managers, communication directors, company secretaries, employee relations managers – they all commission design, perhaps with great expertise in their specialist areas. But few have the time to study the risers and fallers of the design world.

They might use the Design Business Association or British Design Institute listings services, look through design and marketing press or ask colleagues for recommendations.

More often, the pitch list will be a motley collection of groups that someone recalls doing roughly the right kind of work. The challenge is to keep your name in the frame when that haphazard list is being assembled.

One obvious way of achieving this is through the media and, whether you are dealing with a national daily or a monthly magazine, there are some basic rules.

In this field, as in many others, you will not go far before feeling the need for professional help. A designer or even a new business manager simply cannot be expected to be expert in PR any more than you would expect a PR manager to create a good piece of design. How you resource this will depend on your circumstances.

An in-house person will almost certainly be cheaper than an agency, but an agency gives you more flexibility. The key rule is to use someone who really knows your audience and the media who can reach them. You are the expert on your business, you don’t need another one.

The media is not the only option. Direct mail, telemarketing and speaking at or arranging events all have their place. The art is knowing how and when to use them so they complement each other and engage the right people.

Which brings us back to one of the golden rules of design: think user. It is just as relevant in marketing and PR.

One of the lessons I learnt at the Design Council is that if you open a conversation with ‘I’d like to talk to you about design’, most senior managers will politely find a reason to be elsewhere. Offer to help solve a pressing problem and you’re in with a chance.

For example, at this time of year few people at board level are thinking about the design of their next annual report. But, after Enron and Worldcom and – in this country – the Company Law Review, company reporting in general certainly should be on their agenda.

Promoting your business, however you do it, does of course mean being able to talk about your work convincingly. Superlatives won’t do. Prospective clients want to see what you have done for others and, just as importantly, want to be confident that your consultancy is used by companies and organisations they respect.

Clients aren’t always as keen on publicity as you are, sometimes for sound commercial reasons. More likely, the client simply sees no advantage in telling the world about your appointment. And who can blame them with the likes of Consignia fresh in their minds? Indignation from the DBA is not going to change that view. A professional approach to PR that brings benefit to both client and consultancy just might.

Finally, is all the time and money worth it? Measuring the return on investment in PR is as hard as measuring that in design. So maybe you shouldn’t bother after all. If you’re one of my competitors that will suit me fine. No, really, please, just don’t trouble yourself.

Media basics

Understand the audience. Find out who the publication or programme is aiming at and what interests them, then make sure what you are offering meets that agenda

Provide a ‘hook’. Stories are events-driven, so something has to be announced, completed, unveiled or awarded. Even feature-type pieces are more likely at a time of heightened interest in the issue

Be reliable. When you first speak to a journalist find out exactly what is needed by when. If you don’t know something or might not be able to deliver to the deadline, say so

Don’t try to be a ‘spin doctor’. Be as open as you can and never knowingly mislead a journalist. If you wouldn’t be happy to see it in print with your name next to it, don’t say it, not even ‘off the record’

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