Q&A Interview with Two Financial PR Firms

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Here’s a Q&A interview with Casey Boggs, President of LT Public Relations in Portland (OR), and Dan Barron, President of Conroy Barron Public Relations in New York, a PR firm that helps ad agencies with financial clients.

What are the big PR challenges
financial institutions are facing today?

Casey: On the whole, every financial institution is faced with the scrutiny of their safety, soundness, trustworthiness and longevity. These are critical issues that need to be addressed. If a financial institution is indeed safe, sound and going to be around for a long time, it should ratchet-up communications. Saying nothing now speaks volumes about a financial institution. Consumers will draw their own conclusions and interpret silence as guilt.

I encourage banks and credit unions to indefinitely stop their product pushes — e.g. HELOCs, checking products. It seems insensitive and disingenuous right now. Focus on communicating sympathy and care.

What’s an example where a financial institution
really dropped the ball with its PR?

Casey: Where do I start? The majority of community banks and credit unions that are safe and sound are missing a golden opportunity to get their message out and instill trust and loyalty in a down economy. Yes, it’s expensive to spend money on communications — especially when many are in the midst of cuts and lay-offs — but the pay-off is huge.

Dan: Is this a trick question? AIG.

What trends are you seeing in PR?

Casey: The biggest trend is that the PR industry is becoming less and less reliant on the media as a conduit to tell stories. At one time, media relations was the bread-and-butter of PR firms. On the one hand, you have editorial cuts and publications dying. On the other hand, there’s more communications mediums than ever…but the challenge is finding the credible venues.

Blogging is quite possibly the best new medium for PR professionals in the last four years. Blogs are now credible sources of information. The blog may even replace the almighty press release someday.

What role do social networking sites like
Facebook and Twitter play in PR?

“Incorporating Facebook, Twitter and the like into a PR plan may not necessarily be in a financial institution’s best interests.”
— Casey Boggs, President
LT Public Relations

Casey: It’s a bit too early to truly understand the depth and impact of social networking (i.e. measuring how these mediums affect business). But to ignore these mediums (and the others that will inevitably follow) is a bad idea. Incorporating Facebook, Twitter and the like into a PR plan may not necessarily be in a financial institution’s best interests. But if they’re not monitoring the dialogue about their institution on these mediums, then they’re making a big mistake.

If an institution has determined that social media is an important component to its public relations efforts, just be smart and exercise extreme caution.

Talk to me about the difference
between offensive and defensive PR?

Casey: Offensive public relations is about being proactive in communicating a financial institution’s message and finding the most appropriate ways to tell their stories. Being strategic and assertive with communications is key to being successful.

Defensive PR, sometimes called “crisis communications,” is the ability to avert situations that could be detrimental or disruptive to the institution. The key components of a well-executed crisis effort is to communicate fast, often and honest.

Knowing how to play both defense and offense is essential in a well-rounded public relations firm and is what separates good PR firms from excellent PR firms.

How do you know if your PR is working?
How do you quantify and measure PR efforts?

Dan: That is a very individual question. Small clients like mine know in their gut whether their PR is working. When larger clients are forced to quantify, they should remember that the numbers they generate can never be more than approximations of effectiveness. And they should be prepared to see beyond them.

Casey: PR is one of the most challenging business initiatives to measure because there are many variables. Some measurements include:

  • Increase in Web traffic as a direct result of public relations campaigns
  • Substantial, quality coverage in media outlets and blogs
  • Increase in sales (or customers) as a direct result of public relations campaigns
  • Periodic customer surveys on where they hear about the financial institution

Each financial institution’s needs and PR benchmarks are different, but these benchmarks must be established before any PR activity commences and reviewed periodically throughout the year to ensure goals are being accomplished.

What does PR cost? How is billing structured?

“Good PR costs more
than bad PR.”
— Dan Barron, President
Conroy Barron Public Relations

Dan: Good PR costs more than bad PR. Fortunately, good PR is exceptionally cost effective. As a business growth tool, I’m a strong believer in a retainer arrangement. Good PR needs to be agile and fast. And repetitive.

Project-based may make sense when a client is responding to exceptional circumstances (i.e., a crisis), but generally speaking, a client robs his program of too many valuable opportunities when he or she needs to make a new purchasing decision on every potential news story.

Casey: Quality public relations effort is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s why we strongly suggest a retainer-based billing structure. The retainer model lets the firm to be an extension of the institution’s family. A retainer allows the firm to intimately get involved with the financial institution and always be aware of business objectives. This also makes it easier to be assertive with opportunities, anticipate issues and react quickly. The other benefit of retainers is that you pay a lower hourly rate.

“Quality public relations effort is a marathon, not a sprint.”
— Casey Boggs, President
LT Public Relations

The project model is not uncommon. PR firms are brought in on a project basis during large campaigns to complement in-house PR/marketing efforts. And we’re currently seeing this model more in the crisis communications (or defense) campaigns. However, you have to wonder if the PR firm was on retainer, would the crisis have ever happened?

The most controversial payment model is the pay-for-placement. There are a few PR firms who are paid according to the coverage they garner for their clients. This myopic model might work for some financial institutions who are just looking to get a story placed, but don’t care for the comprehensive perception management efforts a full-service PR firm provides.

How does a financial institution pick a PR firm?

Dan: Do you trust them? If you don’t trust them, why would the press? Do they understand how the media writes about companies like yours? Ask for references, but not the predictable ones. Ask for reporters or editors with whom the PR firm has dealt.

Casey: Don’t just hire a PR firm that claims to be media relations superstars. You need a comprehensive approach to public relations. That means the firm must be able to manage positive perceptions of your financial institution, as well as be able to fight off negative perceptions. That also means the firm should be able to provide ongoing PR training and coaching to top executives and staff.

A well rounded PR firm has a combination of creativity, compassion and tenacity. These days, you also need a PR firm with a thorough grasp of new media, and successful examples of how new media get integrated into PR campaigns

How should a PR firm and ad agency work together?

Dan: An ad agency and PR firm need to be in agreement on the broad strokes of their client’s intended message. But their means of conveying that message are so fundamentally different that they need to give each other a wide berth. Ad agencies have infinite control over every nuance of their message, while the PR firm is forever borrowing the media’s credibility and limited by what the media will print or publish. Incidentally, this is something PR practitioners should remind themselves of when they over-polish every last detail in their releases.

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