By Ann Pilkington,
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) turned over £1.9 trillion in 2017 and in the private sector, 60% of all employment is within an SME. So, it sounds like they are doing pretty well – but could PR enable them to perform even better?
Most of what is written about PR is done so from the perspective of large corporate and public sector organisations. And truth be told, there probably isn’t a huge amount of money to be made by providing services to SMEs so it is likely that PR agencies go after the bigger fish. It means that SMEs can think that PR isn’t for them. So why should SMEs invest in PR and how should they go about it?
What is public relations?
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations defines PR as being about reputation – the result of what you do and what others say about you. PR can certainly help with that and there is perhaps more scope for PR to have influence in a small business than there is in a huge global corporate.
The CIPR definition goes on to talk about PR as the process of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour, the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding.
Why does my small business need PR?
According to the CIPR: Every organisation, no matter how large or small, ultimately depends on its reputation for survival and success.
Having a good reputation means that you can attract the best people to work for you and that they will want to stay. It means you may be able to influence policies and opinions that impact on your business.
Having a good reputation will support your sales and marketing efforts. If customers already know about you and trust you, they are more likely to buy from you or to do business with you.
In “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR” Al Ries and Laura Ries argue that you can’t launch new brands with advertising, you have to lead with PR. The authors cite some impressive examples including Google and Microsoft. The form that PR takes will differ during the life of a brand. PR Place editor and university lecturer Richard Bailey suggests it looks a bit like this:
Who can do my PR?
As mentioned above, large PR agencies may be keener to work with bigger clients, but there are many good freelance practitioners who can work on a project basis or who will charge a daily rate.
Look for someone who is a member of a professional body such as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) or the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). Being a member means that they sign up to a code of conduct. Also check qualifications – it is still the case that anyone can set up and call themselves a PR practitioner and you want someone who is qualified. Look for a CIPR qualification or a degree or Master’s.
Even in a small team there maybe someone who could take on a PR role after some training and development. Both the CIPR and PRCA run lots of training courses and the CIPR has an introductory level qualification.
PR Academy runs a free online introduction to PR course (a MOOC) which is a good taster for someone who thinks that it could be a role for them.
SME case study: Green&Blue
Green&Blue was established in Perranporth, Cornwall in 2005 by husband and wife team Kate and Gavin Christman. There is now a small team of seven designing stylish products that help protect wildlife. The company’s biggest innovation is the Bee Brick, which provides a nesting site for solitary bees. Green&Blue sell direct to customers, to shops including the Design Museum and the Tate, and also to developers and architects.
Ann Pilkington talked to their Sales and Marketing Manager Faye Clifton who also looks after PR (and is also Ann’s niece!).
Faye, why did you develop a PR strategy for Green&Blue?
We want to influence the conversation around sustainable housing which tends to focus on things like solar energy. We want to broaden it out to include wildlife: bees, bats, swifts and more. We believe in looking at every part of a building and thinking about how it can do good for wildlife and biodiversity.
We also want to raise awareness among individual customers and show them ways that they can help wildlife in their own homes and gardens.
Increasing awareness and understanding helps to grow the market for our Bee Bricks and the Beeposts plus the new range of products that we are developing. But its more than that, we believe passionately in what we do – it really is about more than just selling products.
How did you plan your PR campaign?
Having thought about what we wanted to achieve, the next thing we did was to identify our stakeholders – the people we want to influence and who could help us.
That work led us to invite a nearby MP George Eustice to visit us here at Green&Blue. We identified him as, although he isn’t our MP, he is a DEFRA Minister. I explained to his office what the company did and that we would love to host a visit.
We were delighted that he accepted our invitation, but then we heard that he was bringing Michael Gove with him! They spent a good hour with us and it was a great opportunity to talk direct to government about the area in which we work. It also provided us with a nice local news story and content for our blog.
A spin off from that meeting was that we were invited to Westminster to join a round table discussion as part of DEFRA’s Pollinator Strategy Group.
We’ve kept in touch with Michael Gove’s office ever since. I know politicians aren’t always popular figures, but we believe in getting in there to influence the agenda and increase understanding of how buildings can and should support wildlife.
How else have you used PR to get your message across to government?
Awards can be a really good way for small businesses to raise their profile and make useful contacts. I entered Green&Blue for the Rural Oscars. We knew Michael Gove was going to be presenting the awards at the ceremony in the House of Lords, so it was another great opportunity to meet him and other innovative rural businesses.
We got highly commended in the Rural Enterprise Category and we knew our message was getting through when we heard Michael Gove explaining to somebody else exactly what Green&Blue were about.
We also applied to be one of 100 businesses included in the Small Business Saturday scheme. It isn’t an award scheme as such but I had to submit a business case explaining why Green&Blue should be included. As well as being accepted on to the scheme for that year, we were one of just 20 business invited to display our products at 10 Downing Street – another great opportunity to talk to government. It also led to some brilliant coverage on social media. The Cabinet Office videoed the event and I was interviewed for a short film put out by No. 10.
You’ve made excellent use of social media for your Solitary Bee Week campaign – can you tell us a bit about why you started it?
This started from the realisation that people don’t know about solitary bees – how important they are as pollinators and – good news – they don’t sting! And if they don’t know about them, they aren’t going to think about how they can help them and other wildlife.
Our idea was to establish a special week to spread the word about solitary bees, stemming from our future vision of having a Green&Blue Foundation to do charity and outreach work. Solitary Bee Week gave us the opportunity to talk to people on a non-commercial footing and to create more relationships both with individuals and organisations.
We worked with the team at the University of Exeter Environment and Sustainability Institute, who we’d worked with before on a project about Bee Bricks. This helped to strengthen that relationship, their involvement was invaluable, adding independent authority to the awareness campaign.
How did you make Solitary Bee Week happen?
We accessed funding via a Cornish project called Smartline which enabled us to enlist a marketing and communications freelancer to assist us in developing a brand for the week, which worked well across all our channels. We put out a call for people to wear striped tops during the week and share their pictures on social media tagging the week and using the hashtag #earnyourstripes. On social media one video tweeted under the hashtag #solitarybeeweek received nearly half a million views and was picked up and shared by Gardeners World, breaking their records for engagement and raising the profile of the event even further.
We also worked with local schools to run assemblies and created an education pack which is available as a permanent download from our website.
We involved Michael Gove – again! We sent him a Solitary Bee Week badge which he agreed to be photographed wearing and so we added him to our gallery on our website.
I think a key thing was making the campaign actionable. If you just tell someone about a problem they can feel powerless to help so we suggested six pledges that people could choose from – it meant we had a call to action, something that people felt that they could do easily. For example, planting a solitary bee-friendly plant, creating a wild flower patch and of course buying a bee brick!
We will be running #solitarybeehour on twitter throughout the year to keep momentum up, keep raising the profile of solitary bees and #solitarybeeweek, and to keep the conversation alive.
How do you measure the success of your PR activity?
We look at things like visits to our website – up 174% during Solitary Bee Week – shares and conversations on social media, which were up massively during the week, but we also recognise that it is the outcome of these actions that really matter. So, it is of course about sales figures and business growth, and also about seeing planners, developers and individuals starting to make changes that protect wildlife.
In Cornwall, where we are based, the council have a new biodiversity supplementary planning document, which stipulates that 50% of new builds need to include a Bee Brick, alongside provisions for bats and swifts. Our PR strategy going forward is to use this as a case study to talk to other councils and see if we can influence them to do the same. This is certainly a PR success!
Our objectives are around sales of course, and improving customer retention and profitability, but all as a force to do good with our business. By establishing ourselves as a market leader with a clear brand identity and a very clear mission hopefully we can use that influence to inspire others to consider nature and the environment.
What advice would you give other SMEs?
I think you need a clear identity, no matter how small your business. Rebranding to focus on wildlife was one of the first things we did after I joined the business and it has put purpose at the centre of what we do.
Think about who your stakeholders are, who can help you and who can you help? Then think about ways to engage them in a conversation.
What you say has to reflect what is going on in the business – who you really are. This year we have really thought about what changes we can make – looking at our business to see where we can do good. This might be from how we work, such as offering flexible working policies to getting involved in litter picks and swapping to recycled stationary, alongside the products we create.
Passion to do good is at the core of what we are doing, it comes through in the products we make and how we run the business. We want to grow, sell more and make a profit, but because we want to do good with that profit!
The other thing I would say is – make time for planning and PR! It is easy to get stuck in the “doing” and forget to look upwards and outwards. When you do – the benefits can be amazing.
You can learn more about Green&Blue and the solitary bee campaign in this video.