What can current PR practitioners learn from the career of a controversial provincial politician who retired nearly a decade ago? Plenty!
Back when I was still a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new grad thinking that I wanted to make my way as a speechwriter, I accepted a Communications Officer role with a long-time Liberal MPP working towards his seventh successive election victory. Having outlived, politically, a number of premieres; having been part at various times of the party in power and the official opposition; having been the focus of more than one scathing media exposé, this was someone who knew how to win. Despite all of his short comings and outmoded thinking, he consistently won over the hearts and votes of his constituents.
At first, I was baffled. Why did the diverse community he represented, even as it changed and morphed and evolved, continue vote for him so faithfully? Then I started to campaign with him and quickly realized the reason why he got the votes: he consistently renewed a personal relationship with every single constituent.
Nightly and twice on weekends, he and I would walk the streets of his riding to knock on doors and voters. Every single door! And whenever a door was answered, he would engage that constituent in a real, substantive conversation. He would listen intently to their problems. He would provide real advice and empathy. He would even do it in their language – having taken the time to learn Spanish, Portuguese and Italian which dominated the riding. He got personal and voters thanked him for it every time they were asked to. He had, as they say in the GR business, a strong ground game — much to the chagrin of his political opponents.
The lesson here seems obvious and yet, despite the potential inherent in a grassroots approach, companies operating nationally frequently opt for scale and efficiency over impact. The reasons for this choice are easily understood. With limited marketing dollars and the need to move the needle quickly, marketers dive into the pond where they’ll make the biggest splash. They invest in media based on reach. Is there another reason that online banner ads still exist (Does anyone ever click on them?)?
In short, marketers seem to forget that water displaced by a rock tossed into the middle of a lake is indistinguishable when it reaches the shore. That same rock thrown into a puddle, however, will make a splash! For PR today, this is a significant opportunity.
Yes, we need to think big. We still need to secure top-tier national coverage and deliver content marketing strategies which achieve national recognition. But the truth of the matter is that we’re not the only fish swimming in that pond (ok, I promise that’s the last water metaphor). With marketing budgets being divided dedicated brand building PR budget are going to continue shrinking unless we make a change. So why not carve out a new niche and reason for brands to invest in PR that is firmly based in what we are already good at — creating connections and speaking the language of customers?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Grassroots strategies are inefficient – how can a brand afford it?” And you’d be correct. Grassroots strategies require a brand to invest more in PR. What I suspect, however, is that brand managers would willingly do so if that meant achieving tangible results and consistently being chosen by customers over the competition. To my mind, it’s a no brainer.
The only real question is: how do we do it? To that end, the good news is that there are a number of tactical PR approaches for successfully connecting with customers and communities. These include but are in no way limited to:
- Supporting community news outlets and providing them with high-value, ready-to-print or broadcast content;
- Micro-Influencer relations to drive word-of-mouth buzz within your customers’ existing, real-world, social graph;
- Brand journalism (see my earlier piece on the subject);
- Coast-to-coast media tours – like the famous Stride Guys Cross Canada Ping Pong Tour, developed and delivered by Strategic Objectives;
- Contests – like the Main Street Matters campaign that Strategic Objectives brought to life Benjamin Moore;
- Dignitary relations and VIP outreach;
- Community events and experiences activated in small towns and communities. Not just Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (for example);
- Sponsorships of local events that align with brand values;
- Translation of content and materials to reach specific ethnic communities;
- Speaking and thought leadership opportunities; and
- When it’s appropriate, good old-fashioned door knocking.
There is clearly no shortage of strategic options. Yes it’s more time consuming. Yes it requires a larger investment. But, and here’s the most important point of all, it’s the right thing to do STRATEGICALLY. And, it just so happens that PR is the marketing communications function best positioned to lead the way and help the brands we represent forge personal relationships with customers.
If you’re a brand manager reading this, what are you waiting for? Drop me a line and we’ll discuss how to activate at the grassroots level to build your business.
And, if you’re a PR pro, let me know what you think. Are you actively engaging at the community level? If so, what have the results been like? If not, what’s holding you back? Join the discussion using #PRforToday and connect with me on Twitter: @adamsandersTO.