When promoting your business to the press, hiring the right publicist is half the battle. The other half is communicating your expectations—and aligning them with reality.
This story appears in the May 2013 issue of JCK magazine
It’s a timeworn story. As an independent retailer, you hire a public relations firm to heighten awareness of your store. Meetings are scheduled, media pitches are formulated, and status reports are filed. But months down the road, the fruits of the collaboration feel as underwhelming as a bag of stale potato chips.
Most retailers agree that ongoing promotion is critical to maintaining a booming business. And PR is a key component of that endeavor. So why do so many jewelry retailers have a negative anecdote about a PR campaign somewhere in their company’s timeline?
It’s true that not all PR firms and professionals are created equal. Industry know-how and media clout—two qualities that provide consistent results when getting the word out on brands—take time and care to cultivate, and not every publicist possesses both.
But launching a public relations campaign requires more work on the part of the client (the retailer, in this case) than many realize, say some of the industry’s most experienced PR executives. And the malaise that occurs a few months after engaging a PR firm often boils down to a lack of clear communication on both sides.
Starting Off Strong
“The biggest challenge I find in smaller companies is they don’t really understand what a PR person does and that makes managing expectations very difficult,” says Carrie Soucy, president and founder of Miamore Communications, which represents jewelry brands including Henderson Collection and Leon Megé. “I always liken [public relations] to a party or an event. A publicist is the person who brings people to the store. If you don’t have the follow-through or the product to complete the sale, that’s not the publicist’s fault.”
The best client-PR relationships begin with “a kickoff face-to-face, where you meet the people who are going to be working day-to-day on the account,” says Jen Cullen Williams, managing director of the Luxury Brand Group, which represents Supreme Jewelry, Charriol, and Jeweler’s Mutual Insurance Co., among others. “Not just senior-level people, but also junior-level people.”
At this meeting, “it’s important for the retailer to communicate their history and to give the background,” says Cullen Williams. “There might be a story or an angle for us to pitch.”
Setting (Realistic) Goals
But before the vetting process on any public relations firm can commence, it’s important to define your goals—and make sure they’re attainable.
“I think the client should have a clear picture of what they want before going in to talk to PR so no one’s playing a guessing game about what’s expected,” says Sarah Greenberg, president of Fox Greenberg Public Relations, which represents Martin Katz. “But the expectations have to be realistic. If someone says, ‘I want to be in Vogue’ and the chances of that are slim, they should expect to hear, ‘That might not work for you right now; let’s look at another way to go.’ Ninety percent of the time people have an inflated view of their product. I would venture to say there isn’t one PR firm that doesn’t get that call once a week: ‘I want to be in Vogue.’ ”
If you’ve had trouble seeing results from publicists in the past, it’s worth taking a look at your product. Is it truly covetable, or attractive only to a niche audience? “Some people want PR, but their product isn’t really connecting with anyone,” says Jennifer Gross, owner of the fashion and lifestyle PR firm Evolutionary Media Group. “So they can’t understand why they’re not getting placement.” And beware of “yes” people in the public relations industry. “PR firms have a hard time saying no because of the money,” adds Gross, “but sometimes they already know it’s going to be a tough sell.”
Finding the Right Fit
When interviewing firms, look at the type of clients the firm already represents, says Greenberg, “so you see where you fit. Then ask which clients pay at the highest rate, which are paying at different retainers, so you see what’s happening based on pay.”
Some PR firms charge for work hourly, but “you could end up with people working less for you that way,” says Greenberg, who considers $5,000 a month a typical retainer for a jewelry company—retail or wholesale. Other firms specialize in certain aspects of public relations—celebrity placement, for example—so make sure your goals align with what the agency does already for its clients.
You can hire a firm based out of any city, but “I think there is benefit for a store hiring a more localized place because they will know some of the more localized outlets,” says Cullen Williams. If the firm is national, but your store isn’t based in a major market, expect to take the time to educate that PR firm on your market. “As a PR agency, we have the tools to develop relationships, but we sometimes don’t know what’s happening locally,” she adds.
And when interviewing firms, look for genuinely enthusiastic publicists. “It’s not how big the firm is, it’s how passionate the people are,” says Gross. “They have to believe in and understand the brand. And it’s not how much you pay—it’s if you’re working with someone who you feel will be an advocate for your company and who can be tenacious, thoughtful, and go out and get the coverage.”
Beware also of firms that present you with a proposal that isn’t tailored to your business. Conversations full of platitudes and promises that never get down to brass tacks may be another sign that a PR firm isn’t going to work for you, says Soucy. She adds, “You want someone who’s going to tell you what they’re going to deliver.”
Gross warns against the old bait-and-switch trick. Basically, “When you go in and have a big meeting with the heads of company, then you get a junior who’s just out of college working for you and you never hear from the primaries again,” she says. “I think sometimes juniors are thrown to the wolves—they don’t have the relationships or the friendships under their belts.” It’s a situation that, ultimately, hurts the client the most.
Passing the Reins
With so many social media tools at your fingertips, it’s easier than ever to communicate with your clients. And if apprising existing clients about sales and special events is your sole goal, then hiring a PR firm may not make sense. But if you’re seeking major media placements, relying on someone with good relationships in the media is likely worth the expense.
“You can do your own PR if you’re extremely resourceful and willing to put time into it,” says Greenberg. “PR people have spent years enhancing their relationships with reporters and print and online journalists.” So much so that “sometimes the editors will come to the PR people for ideas.”
And few outside the industry understand just how much work it can take to get a mention in a major publication. “It’s about calling people on a daily basis and reminding them that so and so is there, and ‘please look at this’ and ‘please look at that,’ ” says Greenberg. “It’s about the constant phone calls—figuring out ways to keep an editor’s attention.”
Cullen Williams adds, “A PR person works with multiple brands and they do hold a little more leverage with journalists. The job is knowing who you’re pitching to. Knowing the journalist’s deadlines and certain windows when you can get a response is important. We oversee the editorial calendars. And I don’t write one pitch and just copy, copy, copy. I write to each editor separately. It takes a lot of time.”
A chief complaint among publicists is clients who don’t update them on news about their company. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked in a vacuum,” says Cullen Williams. “It’s about constantly updating the PR team with store news—upcoming events, promotions, product launches, collaborations. You have to let us know what’s happening in your store all the time.” In short, the work of PR doesn’t end for a retailer when an outside firm is engaged.
But communication needs to go both ways. A quality PR professional is constantly touching base with his or her clients, providing regular reports detailing which publications have been pitched and for what. “The agency should also be able to say, if the current strategy isn’t working, ‘maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing because the response was not what we hoped,’ ” says Cullen Williams. “Both parties have to feel comfortable being honest.”
Greenberg adds that the level of communication is usually in direct proportion to the size of the client’s retainer. “With a higher retainer, you’re going to expect more. But the standard is a monthly update. You want to know in writing what is pending—who has been contacted, what [media placement] has been secured, and who has passed.”
Expecting the Best
Considering how expensive public relations services can be, determining your return on investment is crucial. But, much like the value of publicity, it’s a difficult thing to measure.
“PR is about creating brands and brand awareness,” says Greenberg. “You can measure it by how many people saw you on Good Morning America. You can gauge readership and eyeballs [on articles]. But how one brand measures success is subjective. If you’re a jewelry retailer who sells things that are $50,000 and up and you get a media placement that brings even one person in to buy a ring, that would count as a success.”
You should start seeing results within 60 days of signing, says Gross. “Generating results on the trade level can happen pretty quickly,” she explains, “but on the national and consumer fronts, it definitely does take time.”
Even if Anna Wintour pulls an item from your store, says Soucy, “you might not see it in the magazine for five months. That’s a very daunting prospect for a small business—asking them to pay for up to a year to see returns. But there are lots of small things that can be going on in the meantime, including social media and small placements on the Web and in trade publications.”
If you’re not seeing results in 60 days, Gross recommends contacting the firm and stating simply, “I need to see what’s scheduled to run in the next 30 days, or else we need to end this relationship.’ And if within 90 days no results are pending, “it’s time to stop the bleeding.”