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PR 101 in 2021: Life in a changing public relations landscape

by | Apr 12, 2021 | Analysis, Public Relations

As public relations professionals, we wear many hats. We are the image shapers, the brand builders, the media handlers, the crisis managers. We are also tasked with communicating quickly with a range of stakeholders—from customers and investors to business leaders, press, analysts and others—all with different agendas.

Since every company is vastly different, there is no textbook answer to describe what we do. Add to it a global pandemic—and the fact that any misstep is often public and can be detrimental if not handled thoughtfully—it’s a complicated role to maneuver. There are, however, some fundamentals that I believe are important—no matter the company, solution or situation.

Using adaptable, holistic messaging as a foundation

Holistic messaging is the bedrock of all solid PR campaigns but keeping it both consistent and pliable can be easier said than done, especially when it needs to be communicated across multiple personas, publications, industries and countries. This is why it is critical that this holistic messaging be flexible through various lenses while still maintaining a company’s core values. Geotab, the company where I work, provides a perfect example of this concept with one of the cornerstones of the business— telematics.

What is telematics? Well, it depends on who you ask. And that same philosophy is crucial when it comes to how we position it in our messaging. The short, basic version is that telematics is essentially GPS, but smarter. We have a product that is plugged into a vehicle, and from that we process all sorts of data to help businesses streamline their fleet management efforts.

Because our products are sold worldwide through a large network of authorized resellers, our marketing efforts focus—even more so than they normally would—on creating relationships. On the marketing communications front we focus on educating potential customers and talking about how great telematics is in general, and what that technology can do for their business. But on the PR side, thought leadership is the name of the game, and we’re really fortunate to have a leadership team in place who are engaging and have a great understanding of the business and the value it provides to transportation as whole.

But even within that dynamic, there’s no one size fits all when it comes to messaging. For instance, if we’re targeting trade publications within the fleet management industry, it’s important that we demonstrate our existing expertise by highlighting safety features, operational efficiencies, cost savings and other important business factors. Tech-focused publications might want our expertise when it comes to how our solutions may help support industry trends like smart cities or electrification, as well as our methodology around gathering and analyzing data. If we’re speaking to a more general business audience, we might emphasize a broader message about modernization, digital transformation and creating corporate goodwill. And if we’re speaking to the general public, we might focus on the benefits of telematics in terms of environmental impact, accessibility to safe, convenient transportation, or simply the reliable delivery of goods or transportation utilities that keep our day-to-day lives going.

Creating meaningful relationships in the “new normal”

With press tours and in-person meetings tabled for the foreseeable future, how do we make new connections and grow current relationships with the press? The early part of 2021 has seen 2020’s “Zoom Boom” steadily being replaced by “Zoom Fatigue,” as stakeholders on both sides of the PR equation search for more engaging ways to safely bring their content to market.

We’re just two months removed from the first-ever completely virtual Consumer Electronics Show, which, under normal circumstances, is by far the biggest event of the year for any company even remotely associated with automotive technology. In one fell swoop, what has traditionally been a three-day networking mecca in Las Vegas became a race to see which companies could come up with virtual alternatives that would be imaginative and engaging enough to get the right eyeballs on their newest products and services. The flashy presentations and sizzle reels that would normally be served as side dishes to fancy in-person demonstrations had become the main course, which meant pre-virtual show engagement and follow-up became crucial.

Similarly, corporate events that were previously relied upon to help foster relationships with customers, partners, press and analysts are now also online, and ramping up the creativity is key. For example, Geotab, which hosted an annual conference that attracted more than 1,500 attendees to San Diego in January 2020, is hosting online conferences this year. This means no in-person dinners or in-between-session hallway chats—both just a couple of the many ways we have continued to build relationships with core media via an in-person environment. Instead we are using several unconventional strategies to engage this core audience.

For example, before our online event in March, we sent coffee kits to targeted media along with a custom event schedule highlighting recommended sessions to tune into given their interests. We additionally hosted a press-only virtual event, which kicked off with an executive keynote and included “speed-dating,” one-on-one sessions for press and our executives — giving reporters the opportunity to individually connect with each subject matter expert. Throughout the conference, the PR team also hosted a virtual booth to field journalist questions, and following the event we sent relevant session recordings to the media. Underpinning all these initiatives is a focus on continuous, customized engagement.

Even when things go back to “normal” in terms of face-to-face interactions with journalists, the media landscape won’t exactly be the same as we remember it. Sadly, more than 11,000 reporters, editors and other journalists were laid off in just the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and those left are still expected to cover the same amount of news, often as part of beats that aren’t familiar to them. As experienced PR professionals, this puts us at a crossroads where we have to be willing to pivot away from just being the messenger, and toward a willingness to educate the media on behalf of our own companies or clients.

Turning on the creativity to make new connections

Given the evolving media landscape, it’s more important than ever to get the creative juices flowing when it comes to capturing attention and ultimately forming solid relationships with journalists.

One of the ways is by using a range of voices to get the word out. We are finding success leaning into industry experts and influencers—including customers, partners and even those in the media—to help tell our story.

For example, as part of Geotab’s virtual CES presence, we hosted a virtual press conference that featured a custom video presentation that both showcased our impact on transportation and explained the basics of what telematics is, as well as a virtual keynote speech followed by a panel discussion, which was moderated by a renowned business reporter. After being introduced to the company’s new offerings, reporters were personally invited by our PR team to engage one-on-one with subject matter experts in breakout rooms.

Another vehicle is the contributed article. So often as PR professionals, we target publications with the end goal of securing an interview to generate coverage—something that takes considerable time on the part of the reporter to execute. Contributed articles, whether in the form of a traditional byline or a Q&A format, are a creative way to not only help an editorial team by providing them with ready-to-publish fresh, relevant content; they can also be a viable way to communicate and control a company’s holistic messages. And oftentimes, these contributed articles help lay the foundation for building long-standing relationships with editorial teams.

In a PR landscape that seems to be changing faster than we can keep up—and in ways we’ve never seen before and may never again—it’s all the more important to create the types of genuine relationships that will make a real and lasting impact. Spend the time and effort now to build those relationships with your key contacts and communicate your value proposition over time, making sure to put it into context of the larger conversation. As evident in our current state of flux, you’ll be better off in the long run—no matter what the future throws at you.

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Kelly Hall
Kelly Hall is Senior Manager, Corporate Communications at GEOTAB.

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