How PR can help SMEs

By: Bill Nichols

Date: 1 September 2011

When it comes to marketing communications, today’s SME manager has a wealth of tools, from classic print advertising to viral marketing. Whether you are looking for awareness or increased sales, you are spoilt for choice. But each tool is different. Effectiveness, in turn, means using subtle combinations of the toolkit – not just more of one or another.

So what about PR? Although versatile, PR in its broadest sense (off and online), almost alone, helps SMEs manage complexity and campaign over extended periods. Its extended editorial formats allow firms to deliver multiple messages and handle “shades of grey”. Meanwhile, its ability to spin a narrative over many months creates sustainability: more novel than short story.

Here are three illustrations: agenda creation, agenda subversion and market re-positioning.

Agenda creation

It’s no accident that Silicon Valley start-ups hire PR firms first. Unless they can explain (PR) their new technology’s competitive advantage quickly and successfully, everything else — from funding to market channels and logistics — will founder. So, if you’ve invented the next-generation potato-peeler, created a roast beef fast food formula or identified the next hairdressing “killer app”, start with PR. It will make your case to all interested parties including media.

Quick litmus test: if you’re struggling to explain your next business idea to your best friend, let alone your mother or, heaven help us, the bank manager, call for PR. It will help make your story simple and compelling.


Conversely, imagine you’re on the defensive. Your local rival has seized the moral environmental high ground. Coverage of the firm’s special efforts is everywhere. By implication, and unfairly, your firm is the dinosaur. You’re dangerous. And you’re losing business.

In this context, getting angry, issuing blanket denials or — worst of all — making legal threats, digs an ever-deeper hole. PR helps you step aside and research and identify a solid evidence-based agenda that will overturn your rival’s position. It will make you the winner on a different, stronger dimension. And, be reassured, you will almost always win on something. Creative PR will find the angle, subvert and change the game.


Finally, complexity and time come together in re-positioning. Imagine you own a solid mid-market well-groomed pub with an ageing, declining and low-margin lunchtime food trade. You want to extend your market appeal. Not to youth which would require huge investment and lack credibility but to nearby market segments like middle-aged business customers and upmarket shoppers. And all without causing your loyal “silvers” to defect. It’s tricky, but this is home turf for PR — a likely mix of carefully chosen language, apparently different menus, special promotions, easy online access/bookings and business networking.

So if you’re thinking, “I need a bit of PR” and you’re mentally seeing a pile of general press releases, pause for a moment. Be clear about what you really want to achieve and the toolkit that you may require. And if you fancy a little subversion...

Dr Bill Nichols is a Senior Lecturer at Buckinghamshire New University and former Chairman of international communications consultancy Whiteoaks.

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