The world of communications can be confusing and nuanced and for those not in the profession, it can be a bit daunting. You may wonder if you need communications, but what type, what will it do for your organization, where do you even start and how much will it cost?
To begin, it’s good to have a general understanding of some of the overall categories of work that fall under the broader concept of “communications”.
Throughout my career I’ve heard well-meaning managers, staff and politicians ask for one type of communications, when they really meant another. For example, they may want public relations, but ask for a marketing campaign. It’s understandably difficult; even those of us in the field of communications can be confused, and sometimes the lingo varies depending on the type of organization being represented (public information vs. public affairs vs. public relations!).
According to Wikipedia, public relations is managing the release or spread of information and how it affects public perception. Organizations such as business, government agencies or non-profits can typically benefit from public relations. The most common is telling a story through traditional media, and these days, social media. It can even extend to email blasts or other outreach. News releases or pitches may be used to convince reporters your organization has a story to tell. It can be extended to include press conferences, common in emergency situations, for big announcements or major calls to action. Often, this falls under what is called ‘earned media,’ rather than paying for advertising or direct marketing.
A common mistake people also make is using Public Relations and Media Relations interchangeably. Media relations is the relationship organizations, or individuals within the organization, have with members of the media. This can include journalists and reporters in print, radio, TV, bloggers and even podcasters. A good relationship with these important story tellers is critical to telling your story. A good relationship can mean the difference between a story that paints your organization in a positive light, or one that has you scrambling to do damage control. When you’ve built trust, members of the media will come to you as a credible source, to help them understand what is going on, dispel rumors and seek clarity.
To understand Marketing Communications, we first must have a general understanding of what marketing is. Merriam-Webster defines marketing as the process or technique of promoting, selling and distributing a product or service, or the aggregate of functions involved in moving goods from producer to consumer. So, what is Marketing Communications then? Wikipedia says it is simply “the use of different marketing channels and tools in combination.” In the field of Communications, I always use the phrase “tools in the toolbox.” In this instance, the tools could include advertising, social media, blogging, direct marketing, sales, relationship building and networking and public relations.
Depending on what industry you are in, the percentage of each tool used can differ greatly. For example, government is going to use far less advertising. They are concerned with people having factual, accurate information about how they are serving the public or how something they are doing will impact people. They may rely more heavily on public relations and social media, whereas a company selling a product may use a lot more paid advertising or direct sales.
Do you need Communications in your organization?
Likely, there is a chance you are already doing some form of communicating. If you have a social media account for your organization, you are doing communications. But are you doing it optimally? If you’ve ever had a newspaper story written about your company, you’ve touched on public relations. But could you be telling more of your story and did it turn out the way you wanted it to? Did your quote accurately depict what you were trying to say? Have you paid for advertising on the radio, on TV or in the newspaper? Were the results what you wanted them to be? When you are already focused on creating a quality product or service, any of these questions can be overwhelming. And that is where communications professionals come in. We help you discern the best avenues for getting information to your audience about what your organization is doing, to get them to buy your product, or to answer a call to action like donating to your non-profit. We then help create the information and get it out there.
To begin to incorporate a broader communication strategy in your organization utilizing the expertise of someone in this field, there are several routes you can take.
First, you may choose to directly hire a communication professional. Not only will you pay a salary for the position, but you will also incur the cost of benefits (insurance, paid time off, etc.). Depending on the size of your organization, you may or may not need a full-time person.
If your organization is large enough, you may need an entire team of communications professionals! Large organizations may have in-house communication teams, or they may hire firms that have a wide variety of specialties, including public relations, advertising, social media marketing, graphic design and more.
But if you’ve made it this far in this post, you probably don’t fall in those categories. If your organization is too small to need a full-time communication professional, a more feasible alternative may be to hire a consultant. Consultants (such as Keep Cool Consulting), can do work by the hour, on a project basis or on a retainer. Typically, a package can be customized to fit your budget and organizational needs.
For example, you may be a small government organization in rural Montana that doesn’t have the tax base, or the need for full-time public relations. But what happens when there is controversy about a decision that’s been made, or you have an emergency like an oil spill? Having someone to serve as a public information officer in an emergency or to do public relations in a controversial situation can be the difference between a successful outcome and ongoing fall-out.
While you may not need a full-time communication professional on staff, and you may not even need one on a regular basis, it is smart business sense to have a back-up plan should you need to do additional public relations, marketing or something else.
In what ways could your organization use better communications strategies?