While we have a major focus on inbound marketing here at Revenue River, we understand that it's just one solution for establishing and reaching your audience with your messaging. We are some of the best in the business when it comes to inbound, but we're always learning from different sectors of marketing, advertising, and public relations to find tools and techniques that the experts use to dominate their field and bring in results for their clients. In this Expert Q&A series, I'm reaching out to friends and peers of mine in these industries and finding out what they are working on, how they set and exceed client expectations, the ways they connect with the audience, and how what they do ties into digital marketing.
Kelly Harbaugh is a Senior Account Executive in Chicago with MSLGROUP, which is part of the Publicis Groupe conglomerate and one of the largest strategic communications and public relations firms in the world. She handles a variety of client responsibilities including campaign strategy, media planning, analytics reporting, and content creation. I've known her for a couple of years and she was gracious enough to sit down and answer a few questions about the world of corporate public relations and how it ties to other modern marketing efforts.
What is your professional background and how did you get started in public relations?
I've taken a very long and winding road to public relations. I started my professional career in nonprofit management and fundraising, and decided after a few years that I wanted to get back to what I loved most - writing. I then went back to school to supplement my undergrad English lit degree with a master's in English, and quickly discovered that as much as I wanted to get into publishing it just was not meant to be. I had interned at MSLGROUP after my junior year in college, so with master's degree in hand, I found myself interning again at MSLGROUP. It's a weird professional world, man, but I was so excited to get my foot (back) in the door. In any case, I loved PR from a writing perspective and found myself writing press releases, feature articles, bylines, social media posts, etc. Really anything and everything they would let me write I did. I went off to the digital marketing world for a year before returning to MSLGROUP a third time as a senior account executive. And I'm here to stay!
What are some of your main roles and responsibilities for the clients you work with and how do those roles factor into overall brand strategy?
I work on six different corporate accounts right now, and my role varies with each. Overall, my responsibilities include both managing our team and being a part of our team (different accounts have different leads), developing content, providing strategic thought and counsel to our clients, monthly and quarterly reporting, developing media strategy plans, and doing the day-to-day tasks as they come up.
To give a little context, my clients occupy the higher education, healthcare, third-party logistics, apparel, beverage and automotive industries. Brand strategy is certainly a key component for each, but our clients have different senses of what brand strategy means. Our education and healthcare clients have very distinct views of brand strategy - it's essential to their business. Our automotive client is focused on bringing the brand - and a redesigned retail structure of that brand - to its dealers in a new way so they are convinced internally.
It's a different game in PR than in marketing because we aren't following strict KPIs. Our work is about driving awareness or elevating a brand/company so that, ultimately, consumers see them in a certain light. So what we do is provide really good soft lighting for them at all times.
How do you manage client expectations when starting a new project/campaign and set real goals for yourself and your team?
We do have metrics goals to abide, usually involving impressions (how many people saw a particular online/print placement), reach (number of placements) and tonality (how positively, negatively or neutrally did people perceive the company through those placements). But our clients have to also believe in public relations because a lot of the work we do involves a long time frame before payoff. How does a third-party logistics company build a strong presence in Chicago's business community? They have thousands of employees here, but they are working hard - and we are working hard - to elevate their messaging and corporate identity through tactics like thought leadership. We want our major Chicago outlets to see our client as the go-to experts in their field and utilize their executives as resources for stories. That takes time in PR. Almost as long as this tangent I just went on.
Many people see public relations as a reactive tool responding to positive/negative events, what are some ways you and your clients are proactive to present a brand story and identity and guide public perception and conversation?
Great question, and yes, we do lots of reactive issues and crisis management as well as proactive reputation management. It depends on the client and their needs. The proactive measures we take usually involve developing positive stories about the company, brand and/or its employees - or in the case of our higher education client, its students and faculty. We do plenty of story mining, and I suppose I would say that this is a very essential part of PR. Ultimately, we are here to tell stories about a company or a brand. There are people involved, and they have important stories to tell. It's not all selling products, it's sharing a message.
With the caveat that I didn't actually work on this account because it's out of the New York office, I would say that MSLGROUP's Always #LikeAGirl campaign is a perfect example of the kind of PR work we strive to do. You're connecting a brand with a positive, important, worthwhile message. And that means something to people.
With so many mediums and methods available to share messaging, what are some of the most effective and personable arenas for personable and genuine PR storytelling? (i.e. social, email, press, media, events, etc)
I think social can be horrible if done badly, or really wonderful if done strategically and thoughtfully (#LikeAGirl, for instance). Events can be great but sometimes difficult to connect the company with the event, and corporate sponsorships these days need to make sure they don't become a farce of themselves (ahem, Quicken Loans Arena). To tell stories, long form feature articles or byline articles can be meaningful and effective, but in the world of listicles and infographics it can be a struggle to make our clients' voices heard. I would say it's almost more important to make sure that you have a strong strategy in place, rather than just picking and choosing methods of communication. When everything lines up, it's golden.
How do you and your team identify, create, and present unique brand stories that connect with the public without being hyper self-promotional?
Like I said above, you have to have the right strategic mindset. PR should never feel self-promotional. It's a sneaky mom! You look at the companies or brands you're working with, you look at their objectives, and you find ways to creatively inject their voice or their presence in the right media pockets. It takes quite a bit of brainstorming, and you have to be fearless with your ideas. The best ones will rise to the surface.
What role does data and feedback received from marketing and research efforts play in dictating how you craft PR opportunities for clients?
It depends. KPIs are not as important to us as they are in marketing, and we aren't completely tied to our metrics. An event might create a space for developing or shifting the reputation of a brand or company, but it's not necessarily going to get consumers to buy products or click over to a website. Research, though, is very important. Just like with marketing, we want to understand the consumers, target market, demographics, etc. so we can develop the best media plan for our clients.
How can excellent public relations work reach an audience in ways that traditional marketing efforts can’t?
By being a sneaky mom. You might read a story in a newspaper that you don't realize was written by a company CEO and crafted with help from a PR agency, but from that, you might retain that information or connect to the company in a new way. You might be at a music festival and grab a beer in a branded tent with products or resources that somehow enhance your experience, and that has a positive impact on you. Stories take root in your brain, and we are Leonardo DiCaprio there to plant new thoughts in your brain safe. Influencing in PR is about subtlety.
Public relations conjures up some negative images sometimes like “spin,” how do you tell a positive and genuine brand story that reaches people and breaks past that perception?
I think the Always campaign is a good example of that. The Bat Kid viral story, though not an MSLGROUP victory, was also a (partial) public relations effort. A lot of what you see might be PR-driven and you don't even know it, and the good stuff always has a solid strategy behind it.
For our client in the apparel industry, our focus is on telling stories about its corporate social responsibility. We're working right now on a communications strategy and tactical plan surrounding their announcement that they've reduced their global factory waste to zero, meaning that they reuse or recycle absolutely everything coming out of their factories around the world. This is a huge deal, and something many might not expect to come from this company. We want to tell their genuine brand story because we believe in it and we think others will do.
As audience acceptance of advertising, marketing, and PR constantly shifts, what will be a key to reaching people with a strong brand story in the next few years?
I would say authenticity and integration. Our industries are not so siloed anymore, and working together across marketing, advertising and PR makes brand/corporate identities stronger. Maybe a PR tactic won't work for a client but a thoughtful ad campaign will. We have to be smarter because the consumer is getting smarter. Plus, sharing is caring.
While public relations and marketing often fulfill different roles and use different tactics, the end goal of reaching the audience where they are with the right message and the right time is the same. Kelly makes a great point about the two not being siloed - there is so much overlap today between advertising, marketing, and public relations, and when an agency or brand figures out which of the three is best suited for a certain campaign or target audience, you see dynamic results. Obviously MSLGROUP plays in a global sandbox with massive clients, but the main message to companies of any size is the same: you have a story to tell. Finding out what your message is, creating the right way to share it, and connecting your brand with that positive idea should be a priority no matter what your business is about, and discovering the unique way to present your brand can be far more important to your success than the way you present your product or service.