Marketing brands should leverage PR agencies in this digital era

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BY MOHAMED AHMED

It’s a grey Friday evening and you receive a cold call that your business is being discussed online. Instant reaction is “awesome”, but first things first. You need to ascertain whether the publicity being referred to is negative or positive. Expectedly, in this digital era where information reaches a big number in a few mouse clicks thanks to digital platforms like Google, and sharing buttons available on social media portals like Facebook and Twitter, you think twice. What if it is negative publicity that spread in split seconds?

Although bad publicity is a real pain to businesses big or small, you don’t have to panic. The best thing is, the moment you realise that your business is gaining bad publicity you must embark on how to turn things around. It is not time to judge when word is already out there in the public domain.That is just the time that the many public relations companies come in to fill the gap.As more and more brands remain more on making profits, and less on building good reputation, the tool that is used best by competitors to spoil the market is dirty tricks that we are all familiar with. For instance, those who boast of huge social media following are usually not scared of stepping on any toes. This lot can easily make a business stagnate, coil, and fail.As always the case, one tweet can break or make an organisation. When a big brand is exposed online, it takes revolutionary innovation to bring things back to normalcy. You have to make sure that your brand name is reported correctly, and messages going out to the public are not bad to an extent of denting your company’s image. It is important to communicate actions and what impact the company has, not just spinning nice words. Public relations can increase the reputation of a firm that should have collapsed due to negative publicity.

In 2015, Safaricom sued blogger Cyprian Nyakundi for maligning its brand. Back then, the dark story was that the telco’s Cheza Games was conning unsuspecting Kenyans. The year that followed would see the giant player announce that customers who were subscribed to the service without their knowledge as well as those who suffered erroneous billing be refunded. The telecommunications firm is not a lone. Bidco and National bank are other big firms that have suffered from the so-called power of social media. But who is to blame?Despite the reputation challenges, a good public relations strategy especially during time of crisis is a precursor to the success of a brand. It is not always about the big cheques when it comes to the impact of public relation services. What determines the value of what has been spent on building a company’s reputation rests mainly on economy and political fundamentals, supply and demand as well as purchasing power parity of the targeted market. All these aspects are interconnected in such a way that should you get one wrong, the rest will be tough to achieve. If customers are not happy for example, it is time to find a way of talking to them. Find out where the problem is, and deal with it.

When things fall apart for a company and the centre can not hold, instead of pointing fingers, the top egg should be looking for ways to maximise the use of public relations services when there is still enough leg room. Ignore the negative noises at your own peril and watch how you will exit the market as others come in. Listen, develop and learn what’s going on both online and offline. People share information nowadays so much that just one unhappy customer can spoil your business big time. Setting up a division to take care of reputation management is the way to go. A fully fledged crisis monitoring tool – perhaps a dedicated team whose eyes are not only focused on the usual crisis (like unhappy customers) but also on the internet that involves social media and even websites should be put in the mix of things.

An estimated, 70% to 80% of seniour executives said in a McKinsey Quarterly survey (March 2009) are aware of today’s serious reputation challenge. Most of those interviewed pointed out that certain sectors especially the financial services have violated their social contract big time with customers, regulators and even share holders losing trust in some organisations thus rendering their brands less powerful. This is supported by Edelman Trust Barometer that shows that 62% of people who responded with regard to brand reputation, across 20 countries, say that they “trust corporations less now than they did a year ago.”

It is against such challenges that for a company’s reputation to be built from scratch particularly after a crisis, public relations cannot be overlooked. Much is not publicly known about public relations. There is a thin line between public relations and marketing. While public relations is all about the whole perception of a brand, an organization, or a company, marketing touches on creating awareness to create a perception that can convert into a sale. Public relations is not just convenient. It tackles mainly publicity, crisis management, media functions as well as social corporate responsibility. Most major brands resist offers from public relations agencies simply because it is associated with media buying, a branch which falls under marketing functions. Or, in other words, advertising.

Given that marketing eventually leads to advertising, public relations agencies are generally able to help organisations lower overheads when it comes to spending on functions like publicity – try to picture reputation management, interviews on radio, television, newspapers, magazines, websites…. Public relations also meets somewhere with marketing and advertising. However much it will break the hearts of potential customers, our role is to work closely with customers advising, and acting as liaison by simply strengthening the relationships between a company and its major stakeholders including employees, customers, governments as well as NGOs.

The Writer is the CEO Lens Media, a PR agency operating in Kenya.