Press relations—or public relations, depending on your audience—didn't emerge fully formed from the primordial ooze. It took a pair of 20th century professional persuaders to recognize its power and potential and reposition their respective communication styles to emerge as the rather more ubiquitous, if timid sounding, PR.
That transformation has taken place largely over the last 100 years, but the twin powers of persuasion and influence have existed in some form since a visionary cave dweller first marketed fire as "good."
Today, press relations, which is what we shall call it for the purposes of B2B marketing, is in many ways sophisticated beyond measure from its earliest formal implementations. The advent of the almost real-time availability of data and, with it, data analytics—enabled by what many will say are the now-essential online media platforms —have transformed contemporary PR. Yet, many of the fundamental principles remain the same.
So, let's take a short step back. To know where you're going, you must consider how you got where you are.
The Beginnings of PR
The seedlings of modern PR are thought to have sprouted roughly concurrent with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. The rapid growth of new, often transformative businesses required the dissemination of information to gain widespread and often necessary acceptance by shaping public and private opinion. It made things a lot easier (and more profitable!) to promote a new or expanding business in a way that was seen to be transparent, accurate, and trustworthy.
What qualified to be labeled with those noble attributes may be debatable today, but at the time, the "truths were held to be self-evident." In any case, being publicly transparent about the benefits of a project, service, or initiative more often than not assuaged resistance to the whirlwind of changes that were taking place.
However, it wasn't until the 20th Century that PR became a profession in its own right. Early pioneers, such as American southerner Ivy Lee and Austria-born but US-raised Edward Bernays, can both arguably lay claim to be the "Father of Public Relations."
In fact, the two men were contemporaries for many years, as well as somewhat competitive in personality and approach.
Lee championed honesty, truth, and accuracy in how corporations should conduct themselves in the public eye. He was the first to establish a "Declaration of Principles" reflecting those views.
Bernays, a nephew of the world-famous founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, favored changing human perceptions by using endorsement by opinion leaders, celebrities, and other prominent people to shape public opinion. In other words, turning public "desires" into "needs."
The truth is, both approaches work, and both continue to underpin contemporary practices. Transparency, accuracy, and integrity are ideally linked to reasoned opinions or endorsements (blatant or implied) by respected and admired third parties that are together persuasive and convincing. It is a harmonious marriage, notwithstanding the odd disagreement over tactics... or drapes.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the practice of B2B or consumer PR is 100% pure, altruistic, and wholesome. As in any profession, there are those who opt for the murky end of the PR pool, but in our experience, most PR professionals practice with the integrity and professionalism that one would hope for not only in business but also in society as a whole.
Modern Data-Driven Methods of PR Measurement
So, what's changed since the days of barnstorming polemic and compelling coercion?
The days of regional focus groups and fax machines have vanished. Today, the best, fastest, and most reliable way to gain genuine insight into what makes your target market respond is to conduct online messaging testing. It will very quickly tell you what resonates with your prospective customers and what falls flat—or perhaps even offends.
The key is to perform that data gathering and analysis with a level of expertise that can be brought in on a retained or project basis or conducted in-house. The parameters that must be measured and assessed are of paramount importance and must be clearly defined, not only for a single campaign but also for securing the reputation of the agency or in-house department charged with shaping the outside world's opinion of a company's product, policy, or persona.
The goals for each outcome will vary, but to reach them, a common denominator in modern PR practice is that each of those goals benefit from data analysis that can be gathered to implement a campaign and measure its success.
Those measurable parameters include the following:
- How well has your PR campaign initiated, established, and sustained a positive reputation, protected the brand from potential crisis, and enhanced trust?
- Has the message you have presumably so carefully crafted based on your analysis been effective in persuading your target audiences? Is the bridge you have built to those audiences rightly perceived as transparent and trustworthy?
- If the worst hits the fan, has your brand's status—built on the reputation established by your PR campaign—mitigated the potential fallout or reputational damage? (You should always be ready to break the glass on your crisis communication plan.)
- How engaged are you with social media influencers? Do you know who they really are? Similar to blatant or implied endorsements championed by Edward Bernays in the early 20th century, the methods used to harness and measure social media engagement have found their 21st century equivalent. It took a while, but influencers now occupy an outsized percentage of persuasive power and must be factored into the overall PR campaign equation.
- Have you used your research techniques to measure whether your message truly reflects the needs and concerns of your stakeholders (i.e., customers, colleagues, employees, investors, and the greater community)? Does what you are proposing align with what they perceive as their route to success or satisfaction, or does the data indicate that you need to recalibrate? These days, it can tell you very quickly. Intuition, instinct, and experience still have their crucial place, but ignore the data at you peril.
Those are just a few parameters that must be taken into consideration, but they are the primary ones that apply across most PR practices.
B2B Marketing and Brand Trust
The specifics of B2B PR, however, require a slight shift in emphasis: Customers no longer buy products, per se. They still buy products, but only from suppliers they trust.
Establishing and maintaining trust and credibility with a B2B audience is paramount. Being perceived as a trusted industry leader by securing positive media coverage, garnering industry awards on a regular basis, and taking every opportunity to deliver expert commentary through thought leadership articles or presentations are vital aspects of influencing B2B purchasing decisions, both near and long term.
Whether B2B or B2C, your brand is your bond and must be protected and enhanced through proactive communication. What you're aiming for is brand loyalty. B2B companies that spotlight their expertise, innovation, and commitment to customer success are always more likely to accumulate precious brand loyalty. The key is to ensure that that loyalty is acknowledged and rewarded with both practical recognition and ongoing messaging that reinforces that enduring loyalty as well placed.
It too often goes without saying (i.e., It is too often assumed) that B2B awareness and visibility are byproducts of good PR rather than goals in and of themselves. However, "awareness and visibility" can be nebulous or falsely assumed concepts. By securing media coverage, contributing to industry publications, and participating in industry events, PR activities can increase a company's visibility among target customers, partners, and influencers. Such increased visibility can lead to new business opportunities and partnerships.
Overall, PR in B2B marketing is a central, often board-level pillar businesses need to use to establish, shape, and maintain their brand image, establish credibility, generate awareness, and build strong relationships within their target market. It plays a vital role in influencing purchasing decisions, attracting new customers, and fostering long-term business partnerships.
That said, B2B buyers are spending less and less time with salespeople and much more time on self-directed research that is still largely informed by the fundamental principles of transparency, trust, persuasion, and influence.
So, it seems Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays were both right in their assumptions of the effectiveness of their respective approaches, although they manifest in ways they never could have conceived but no doubt would have delighted in.
More Resources on the Relationship Between PR and Marketing
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