Friday, April 23, 2010

Charity and Public Relations

There was some excellent response to yesterday's entry, thank you to everyone who responded.  If I can just revisit it for a second, I want to make one final point about shopping for a public relations/communications firm for your small business or non-profit.

I read an interesting article today about not throwing your money away on a PR firm when starting a new business.  It was on the Bnet website, a site specifically for businesses.  Click on the link to read the entire article.

I was all prepared to go to battle on this article.  I figured it was a slash and burn story on the idea of PR in general.  Then I read the story.  In essence, it's more along the lines of what I wrote yesterday.  To be fair, the story was written from the point of view of a business owner who had been fleeced and disappointed by PR firms in the past.  But as I got to the bottom, the author had advice for small businesses who need good PR. 

Here is a sample of her tips:
  1. Pay for results, not time. One company I know pays for column inches, another by the number of mentions in online and traditional media. This keeps everyone highly focused.
  2. Use a virtual agency. A newer model for PR and advertising is the virtual agency that coordinates a network of gifted freelancers. With no expensive real estate to cover and no deadbeats, they have to keep busy. They can assign specialists to your needs at a lower project cost or retainer.
  3. Build awareness through social networks. That way, you’re building an asset — the network — that you own and whose intelligence you can leverage indefinitely. If you don’t know how to do this, send your marketers to some courses.
  4. Integrate PR into your overall strategy. Don’t treat it as an add-on late in the day. If your products or services aren’t distinctive, no PR company will save you.
I actually agree with three of the four tips.  Numbers 2-4 make sense.  I continue to disagree with #1.  When you pay for placements, your business will be passed over on the priority list for other companies that pay cash up front.

More to the point, though, I agree with the theme of the article in general.  In order to find success when partnering with a PR firm, you have to find an agency that meets your needs.  Again, it's like a relationship.  You have to love them and they have to love you.  Yes, there might be spats along the way, but often times those spats will lead to bigger and better things.

Using a virtual agency is also a good idea, as is using social media and integrating your communications strategy into your overall strategy.  Good ideas all.  But in the end, even if you have a great strategy, if the agency you work with doesn't meet your needs, however large or small, you both will fail.  Don't get an agency that will charge your for things you don't need.  Find an agency that can work with you to fill the holes left open because you are either too busy or simply don't have experience to do certain things.  Today, you don't have to find an agency to do it all for you.  You can if that's what you want or feel you need.  But as a small business or non-profit, you can do a lot of the heavy lifting yourself.  That means finding an agency that can come in and do the work you can't or don't want to do. 

Now onto our regularly entry:

I want to talk a little bit about corporate social responsibility.  I know, you might be asking yourself, "what does that have to do with public relations and communications?"  I'll tell you.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become one of those catch phrases that has industry people all abuzz.

But what exactly is CSR?  Simply put, it's a strategy adopted by a corporation or business designed to reach out into communities to become involved in social issues of the day.  Of course, most corporations shy away from really polarizing issues such as abortion, politics, racism; and for good reason. 

Most CSR programs focus on the environment currently, but a few more recent campaign have targeted small businesses.  Of course there's also helping the homeless, feeding the needy and improving education.  All of these are viable and legitimate social issues, and companies across the country are taking advantage of the excellent press that comes with diving into the fray and doing what they can to help charities that focus on those issues.

The current Coca-Cola campaign, where they give away millions of dollars to everyday joe's with good ideas is, in my opinion, a brilliant campaign.  It combines social consciousness with a call to action and interactivity.  By letting the world vote on which ideas gets the grants, Coke has funnelled literally millions of people to their site and exposure to their product.  Plus, by opening the door to any and all ideas, they don't tie themselves to any single social issue.  Finally, they will reap the benefits of this campaign for years as some of these ideas will likely grow into very successfull businesses or non-profits, resulting in even more media coverage down the road.

Of course, you don't have millions of dollars to hand out willy-nilly to every good idea that crosses your doorstep.  Very few organizations do.  But that doesn't mean you can't still capitalize on good works and charity efforts by you organization.

It's Not Easy Being Green:

But beware, there are pitfalls to jumping blindly into a social responsibility campaign.  First, it has to be something you truly believe in.  You will likely alienate some people no matter what charity or issue you choose to support, you can't help that.  The best you can do is to not politicize it.  Take a look at my good friend's blog, PR By DeVol, it's in the sidebar of blogs I follow.  It has a great lesson about keeping politics out of your communications efforts and your business in general.  Simply by choosing an issue, you will be making a statement, so be aware some customers may not be on board with your choice.

You can either invest time or money to your outreach efforts.  You have to do one or the other.  For most small businesses I recommend investing time.  You can certainly throw money at a problem, but that won't buy you much good PR.  But by actually volunteering at a soup kitchen, or actually creating a fundraiser you will get much better press, plus you'll be out in public, meeting people face to face.  You can't beat that kind of outreach.

You can build a great image through social responsibility efforts within your community if done correctly.  You will also be able to garner some media coverage and, of course, you can publicize your efforts on your social media platforms forever.  Online, you can make it a true cause and make your CSR efforts part of your overall image.  This will help you create an identity and reach a larger potential audience than you otherwise might have.

Here are tips for small businesses when considering starting a CSR campaign:

1.  Find something you believe in - I can't stress this enough.  Whatever issue or charity you decide to support, it HAS to be something that you feel strongly about.  I can't stress this enough.  You will receive questions from customers and potential customers about your choice.  You have to be able to answer these questions honestly and passionately.  Even those who don't like your choice, will at least respect you for your passion.  Plus, if your efforts don't result in the kind of PR you hoped for, at least you'll be supporting something you care about.

2.  Think bigger than money - Most people will just write a check to support their favorite charities.  Some will simply plunk a dollar into a Santa bucket at Christmastime.  But you have a real chance to make a difference.  Listen, part of this effort is to raise your profile and get good PR.  If that's part of your strategy, then really go for it.  Host a benefit concert, throw a party to raise funds, open your own soup kitchen at the holidays.  Be proactive and come up with fun and unique ideas to raise interest not only in your business, but the charity as well.  By hosting community events, you'll get your name out to potential customers, plus you'll get to meet them face to face.  There is no better way to engender goodwill and build brand loyalty than to have them see you actively working out in the community.

3.  Don't make it about you - Let's be honest.  It IS about you and your business.  But you don't want your efforts to look that way.  People will be turned off if you're constantly beating your own drum saying "hey, look at us!  Look at what we're doing!"  When you pitch your story, make it about the event, the fundraiser, the issue, the charity not about your business.  You want your organization to be part of the story, not THE story.  This holds true when doing a community fundraiser.  Talk about the issue or the charity, don't spend all of your time trying to sell your company.  People will see you, they will appreciate your efforts and they will remember. 

4.  Use your social media -  You will get some coverage from your local media, particularly if you're supporting an issue that is high profile.  But you can only get so much newspaper and TV coverage.  After a while they'll look at your efforts as an old story, UNLESS you keep coming up with new and unique methods of raising funds, which is always a possiblity.  But CSR is a GREAT tool for social media.  You can support the charity, even various charities that focus on the same issue.  You can post entries that discuss the issue and give a call to action on a regular basis.  You may not generate a lot of funds this way, but you WILL get your name out there in front of a lot of potential customers in a way that generates interest. 

5.  Don't just do it at the holidays - EVERYBODY supports a charity at the holidays.  Small businesses everywhere jump on board to raise money and help the needy.  But there's only so much local media outlets can do to cover these stories.  With limited resources, they just can't get everyone covered.  But if you support a charity or cause, do it all year long.  That will open the door to coverage all year, you can host fundraisers at any time and garner media interest at a time when not everyone is pushing a CSR effort.  Plus, you will have much more legitimacy with the public when they see you are a full time supporter, not just a once a year johhny come lately.

Non-Profits Win, Too:

For the non-profits out there wondering how this can benefit them, here's how.  Partnerships.  As non-profits, you are probably used to going it alone.  You'll go out and round up grants as you can, but often times I see my non-profit clients missing a key element of a successful strategy.  There are thousands of small businesses out there who are looking for non-profits to partner with. 

It can be a very symbiotic relationship if done correctly.  You get the support of a small business, and they get to help a cause they believe in while raising their profile within the community.  I often go looking for good business/non-profit partnerships when dealing with a client.  You will be able to reach new audiences and potential new cusotmers for the business, and potentially new donors and volunteers for the non-profit.

Like media partnerships, charity and small business partnerships can be very, very successfull.  So get out there and find a cause to support.  Just be aware of the pitfalls and the investment you'll have to make in time, if not money.  It can be a huge boon to your bottom line, just make sure it's something you believe in.  That way you win regardless of what happens.

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