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posted by Kelly Davis Nov 11,2015 @ 02:32PM

The Role of Public Relations in Brand and Reputation Management

I have a story I tell college students when I am trying to illustrate the point of how far technology has come, just over the course of my own career, in helping public relations practitioners do their jobs.

I share with them that when I first started working in public relations in the mid-1990s, I would often stand in front of a fax machine for hours at a time, sending news releases to media outlets around the state.

At this point in the story, their eyes glaze over because most of them have never seen a fax machine.

Then, I tell them how our practices changed when we got email and started communicating with reporters that way. This often generates a raised eyebrow, because they can’t imagine a time when people didn’t have email.

Finally, I talk about social media and how it has changed not only the way that public relations professionals communicate with journalists, but also in the way that online communications opened the doors to enable us to take our messages directly to consumers and constituents. While we continue to work with traditional media outlets, and greatly value those relationships, we also have new vehicles, avenues and devices through which to speak directly to our intended audiences.

At this point in the story, the students often perk up a little bit, because now I am speaking their language.

As a profession, public relations has evolved significantly over the course of my 20-year career – most substantially in just the past five years. While media relations remains an important component of our work, it is but one tool in a very broad toolbox of communications strategies and tactics that we use to develop effective programs and campaigns for the organizations that we represent.

It is important to note that it’s not only the tools themselves that have changed. Indeed, we live in a fast-paced and “always-on” world in which a photo, a video or a story can be seen by thousands of people in a matter of seconds. While that may be a positive step when one is proactively promoting a brand or organization, it also creates challenge and anxiety when an organization is thrown into a negative spotlight.

It is incumbent upon public relations professionals to manage brands, issues and reputations using a wide variety of strategies and tactics. Whether online or offline, brand communicators must constantly monitor conversations and issues, and evaluate all of the ways that their marketing messages could be construed. As the traditional gatekeepers of organizational reputation, public relations practitioners must be deeply involved in the development of brand and message strategy as well as ongoing, day-to-day reputation management both online and off.

One doesn’t have to look far to find very recent examples of brands that have been thrust into the spotlight either through their own actions or the actions of others. With their reputations on the line, the manner in which they responded to these crises, and whether or not the response considered and incorporated all facets of their communications and marketing, will ultimately determine whether or not the brand’s image will recover.

It is not unusual for clients – and even communications professionals themselves – to view public relations as a “traditional” and “offline” discipline. However, public relations must be viewed and practiced as a fully integrated brand and reputation management function. This begins with strategic planning that underpins the brand’s core identity and messaging, followed by continuous brand monitoring and management across multiple marketing disciplines using a variety of online tools.

Companies must anticipate, plan and rehearse every imaginable scenario that could cause damage or undue attention, and they must ensure that multi-disciplinary teams are represented when communications plans and tools are developed. Public relations practitioners are key players at the table when those decisions are made.

Even if they still rely on the good old fax machine.

posted by Apprentices Sep 03,2015 @ 04:34PM

What Public Relations Professionals Actually Do

I declared my major as public relations during my sophomore year of college. Admittedly, at the time I wasn’t quite sure what exactly public relations entailed. Well, surely it involves dealing with people, right? I’m outgoing. I can do that, I thought. Three years, hundreds of writing assignments and a post-grad apprenticeship later, I’m realizing that a lot of people may not understand what public relations is—I know I didn’t. When I say that I work in public relations, I usually get responses like, “So you’re an event planner?” or “That’s cool, my aunt is also in marketing!”

Yes, part of my job is event planning, and digital marketing can go hand-in-hand with public relations to create an integrated campaign. But neither of those things fully describes what public relations professionals do. From the outside, the profession seems confusing. I experienced that confusion myself. I am now in the third month of my public relations apprenticeship at Riggs Partners, and I just finished planning and managing two huge events in two weeks alongside Kelly Davis, our public relations director. Together, these events have given me firsthand insight into what public relations professionals actually do.

1)   Planning – A crucial part of public relations is strategic planning. Planning encompasses almost every other aspect of public relations within itself. Planning for public relations includes research, establishing goals, formulating outreach and response strategies, implementing communications tactics, and evaluation. Public relations professionals must plan for what will happen and what probably won’t happen. In the words of one of my favorite professors, “Nothing just happens—if you are at all related to it, you are responsible for it.”

2)   Writing – In college, my professors always stressed the importance of writing in public relations. It is imperative to be an effective communicator in this profession. A large portion of my time is spent writing news releases, media advisories, story pitches, and social media posts. Proofreading is essential.

3)   Educating – One responsibility of public relations professionals is to educate and engage the public. From an agency perspective, this task varies greatly from client to client. In my experience, educating the public has meant spreading the word about a free service that people may be eligible for, informing people about an upcoming industry conference and encouraging them to register, or simply raising awareness about an important issue in the community. Another quote from that same professor, “In public relations, information is power.”

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4)   Media Relations – One way to educate the public is to engage media participation in spreading the word about different issues and events. Part of our job as public relations professionals is to help the media do their jobs well. Media relations is much more than writing a fill-in-the-blank press release and distributing it to as many media outlets as possible. Instead, you must consider the audience you are trying to engage and focus on the media outlets that would be the most in-line with their needs. It is important to provide media with all necessary information and to connect them with the appropriate people for interviews to best tell your story. If you leave media hanging, they’re left to draw their own conclusions—which isn’t beneficial for anyone.

5)   Monitoring – Another large part of public relations is monitoring media coverage. If you sought media coverage of an event or story about your organization, it is important to check the coverage you earned for accuracy. Monitoring allows you to see which aspects were conveyed well and which aspects may not have been, and may teach you what to avoid for next time.

So yes, public relations professionals are event planners. And yes, they can be involved with marketing. But they’re also storytellers, crisis managers, media contacts, writers, researchers, educators, and so much more. As we wrap up a hectic summer, I feel incredibly thankful for the knowledge I’ve gained so far here at Riggs. These three months as a public relations apprentice have given me hands-on experience that has changed how I see public relations as a profession.

And perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned the importance of coffee (for those 4 a.m. news shots).

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Kelly and me meeting the TV stations before Dental Access Days at 4 a.m.

posted by Kelly Davis Mar 27,2015 @ 11:50AM

Lend Your Voice to Change Public Policy

StatehouseOn March 25, more than 100 South Carolinians who are passionate about women's health issues convened at the SC State House for Tell Them's annual Bee Day, a grassroots lobby day event.

Bee Day enables Tell Them's statewide network of advocates to come together to discuss issues, share resources and meet with their state Representatives and Senators to ask them to provide leadership and support on a wide variety of issues.

This year, Tell Them's key messages focused on the issues of reforming the state's 27 year-old sex education laws, protecting birth control and in vitro fertilization from legislation that could potentially make them illegal; cervical cancer prevention through expanding the availability of HPV vaccinations; and prevention of domestic violence.

Tell Them is just one of dozens of organizations that hold lobby day events each year at the South Carolina State House. What kind of impact do these events really have on public policy decisions?

A cynic might say that they don't have any effect at all - that legislators make decisions based on their personal beliefs, pressure from their political party or influence from paid lobbyists. However, grassroots advocacy remains a key tool in the toolbox of public relations strategies. Why?

Effective two-way communications models state that information flows both ways - that both parties have an opportunity to receive information, adjust and distribute information back to one another. This concept is truly at the heart of grassroots advocacy. Constituents meet with their legislators to share their perspectives on issues. Legislators listen, share their own perspectives and discuss possible outcomes. Hopefully, both parties leave the meeting feeling that their voice has been heard and that mutual understanding of one another's opinions has been achieved. From there, it's up to the legislator to determine if they will vote based on the desires of those who put them into office, or on the basis of their own opinions and the "party line."

Consider that in any given legislative session, legislators could have hundreds of bills cross their desks. While they have dedicated staff members who help navigate them through the process, surely they don’t have the time to read every word of every bill. Education and advocacy could make the difference in a legislator understanding the intent of a bill or even becoming the person to champion and shepherd it through the legislative process.

(Just in case you need a refresher on the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFroMQlKiag)

The next time that an organization you follow asks you to take action by calling, writing or visiting with an elected official, keep in mind that these opportunities might enable a significant increase in the official's understanding of issues of importance to the communities he or she serves. The voice that changes their opinion – and that helps legislation get passed – just might be yours.

posted by Kelly Davis Sep 25,2014 @ 11:43AM

The Power of a Smile

“Thank you,” she said to me as she sat on the steps, caressing her sore jaw.

“Me?” I said, turning to be sure she wasn’t talking to someone behind me, someone far more worthy of appreciation. “Oh, I’m just here to work with the media today.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. “Every person here made this possible. I can’t thank you enough.”

This was the unexpected exchange I had with a woman at the South Carolina Dental Association’s Dental Access Days, a two-day free dental clinic that was held last month in Rock Hill, SC and sponsored by our client, Delta Dental.

Dental Access Days brought together 300 dental professionals from all over South Carolina, aided by more than 700 volunteers from the Rock Hill area, to deliver more than $1.2 million in dental services to more than 1,400 adults.

When I arrived at First Baptist Church Rock Hill that morning at 5:00 a.m., there was already a long line of people waiting outside. This line of 250 individuals had been pre-screened the day before and had already obtained a color-coded wristband that designated the type of dental procedure they were to receive.

Working with reporters on this side of the building for more than an hour, it wasn’t until mid-morning that I realized the “bigger” line was on the opposite side of the building. That line contained more than 750 people who had just shown up that morning, hoping to have a long-awaited dental procedure performed.

Many of these folks have been in pain for years. None of them have dental insurance. Many of them are out of work, or between jobs, or retired. Or their job doesn’t pay enough, and they have to decide between putting food on the table or getting a tooth pulled.

 

Dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina perform professional cleanings on patients. Dental students from the Medical University of South Carolina perform professional cleanings on patients.

Whether they needed an extraction, a filling or a professional cleaning, it was worth it to them to wait in the dark, and eventually into the heat of the day, and in the rain, in the hopes of receiving care that they currently can’t afford.

It was a powerful scene, and one that became even more so as I moved inside to observe the church sanctuary/multipurpose room that had been converted into a full surgical theater. Rows and rows of dental chairs and equipment waited for the hundreds of patients, many of whom had driven long distances with high hopes that they would be able to get through the line before it was cut off.

The best vantage point was the stage at the front of the room, from which TV reporters and photographers set up their equipment to try and capture the sheer magnitude of the event. Everywhere you looked, you saw dentists, periodontists, oral surgeons, endodontists, dental hygienists, assistants and dental students as they worked patiently but swiftly to treat each patient, and then quickly move to the next one.

 

The view of Dental Access Days from the stage. The view of Dental Access Days from the stage.

And here I was, the PR person whose job was to greet and escort members of the media and local dignitaries. I felt an incredible responsibility to tell the story of the dental professionals who so selflessly gave of their time and expertise to help so many strangers, as well as preserving the dignity of patients while capturing and sharing their powerful personal stories.

In addition to the woman who greeted me on the steps, throughout the day I observed patients crying tears of gratitude, hugging “their” dentist as they completed their procedures, and even taking photos with the person who had pulled their teeth!

Most people probably underestimate the value of a smile, but as one of the event organizers pointed out to me, a healthy smile can greatly increase someone’s self esteem, giving them the added confidence they need to go on a job interview or to otherwise get involved in their community.

“It’s not just about the dental work,” he said to me. “It’s about giving people their smile back, and helping them become contributing members of society.”

Including this year, Dental Access Days has provided more than 8,900 adults with $4.5 million in free dental care since the event’s inception in 2009. Delta Dental has a social mission to improve oral health in the communities they serve. Learn more at www.deltadentalsc.com.

posted by Kelly Davis Jul 02,2014 @ 08:00AM

A Smashing Success: PR Case Study

For the past year and a half, several of us at Riggs Partners have immersed ourselves in the “better burger” fast casual segment of the restaurant industry. Through our work with two separate franchise owners, we’ve helped to open the first three South Carolina locations of Smashburger, one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the nation. Smashburger’s corporate office in Denver places a strong emphasis on public relations with limited paid advertising supplementing the marketing effort.

Smashburger grand openings follow a formula established by their corporate marketing team. This tried and true plan has guided the company through more than 240 store openings in the US and several international markets. Our grand openings include four private events before the public opening: a “Friends and Family” preview event for the franchisees’ closest friends, associates and vendors; a media event for the “ceremonial first smash” with a local celebrity; a VIP event for local dignitaries; and an “Eat and Tweet” for local food bloggers and online influencers.

For each store opening, Smashburger’s franchise owners have partnered with a local charitable organization in their respective markets. In Columbia, the partner is Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia. In Charleston, the partner is the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Children’s Hospital Fund. Our clients don’t just want to write a check; they want to have a long-term, ongoing relationship with these organizations that make a meaningful impact on the lives of children. For each of the first store openings in the Columbia and Charleston markets, the respective franchise owners agreed to donate $1 per Smashburger or Smashchicken sandwich sold during their grand opening month to their charitable partner, with a minimum commitment of $5,000.

One traditional component of a Smashburger grand opening is the “celebrity smasher.” For both Columbia and Charleston, the charitable angle opened the door to a wonderful tie-in for the celebrity smashers. In Columbia, we invited two pairs of “Bigs” and “Littles” with Big Brothers Big Sisters to be our smashers. A Big Brother/Little Brother pair and a Big Sister/Little Sister pair served as our smashers, which was the first time that children had served as celebrity smashers at any Smashburger. In Charleston, we invited a 13 year-old girl with a very rare disease who has been treated at MUSC throughout her life. She smashed burgers alongside the Mayor of Summerville, who just so happened to have worked as a short order cook one summer as a teenager. It was fun to see them in the kitchen smashing the store’s first official burgers together.

 

Hayden, age 13, smashes the Summerville store's first burger. Hayden, age 13, smashes the Summerville store's first burger as her mother Cindy looks on.

Each of the grand openings has been a “smashing” success with terrific media coverage and a smoothly executed series of events that brought hundreds of guests through each store during their preview events. The two Columbia stores combined have raised more than $10,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters, while the Summerville store raised $8,147 for MUSC Children’s Hospital as a result of the overwhelming sales in its first month.

 

"Bigs" and "Littles" from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia teamed up to smash the Irmo store's first official burgers. "Bigs" and "Littles" from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia teamed up to smash the Irmo store's first official burgers.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned during these retail grand openings include:

  • Practice makes perfect. Have a “dress rehearsal” to iron out the kinks beforehand.
  • Get local. Find a charitable partner or some other community tie-in.
  • Focus on quality over quantity. Packing hundreds of guests into the restaurant may build curiosity from the outside, but we’d prefer that guests enjoy a leisurely paced meal and an overall great experience.
  • Make it fun. Be sure that guests aren’t just treated to free food, but also enjoy a festive atmosphere. We’ve hired balloon artists, ordered fun promotional items and given out coupons for repeat visits.
  • Build ambassadors. By pulling back the curtain into the store’s menu and operations, we’ve secured a great deal of goodwill for the restaurant and its owners.
  • Evaluate. Always take time to do a “post mortem” meeting during which you discuss what worked, what didn’t and how you can improve next time.

While Riggs Partners has developed a strong reputation through the years for our work in the nonprofit sector, we find just as much reward when we work with business owners who have a deeper sense of purpose – something that motivates them to develop and deliver upon a mission that may or may not be obvious to their customers. The next time you bite into that burger or slurp that shake, keep in mind that you just might be helping someone in need.

 

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