• The Sole of a Shoestring Budget

    by  • May 11, 2016 • On Public Relations, On Public Relations Management

    (I was honored to be part of a panel on “Shoestring Budgets That Deliver Phenomenal PR Results” on April 29 at PRSA Georgia’s annual professional development conference. Fortunately, I had two outstanding, energetic and highly entertaining professionals on the panel with me: Manu Muraro, marketing director at King of Pops, and Elyse Hammett, vice president for marketing communications at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. They carried the session. In preparation for the panel, I pulled together some of my thoughts on maximizing the impact of your budget expenditures. Here they are.)

    I’m not sure you can describe our Georgia State University budget as “shoestring” funding. It is a substantial budget, the best I’ve had at the universities where I’ve worked. I wouldn’t describe it as overly generous, but given the way we have defined our operation and the economic issues we face, it makes sense from my perspective and that of university leadership.

    No matter how large or small a budget we work with, if we are able to clearly identify our strategies, plans and tactics and align them with the business goals of our organizations we will ensure ourselves we are assigning our resources to best effect and impact. Public relations is a complex field and our work addresses all of the major constituencies of our organizations. It is easy for people to think public relations handles just about everything that can be defined as related to communications.

    Press relations? Absolutely. Flyers and banners? Check. Special events? Check. Celebrity and distinguished (and not so distinguished) visitors? Uh huh. Web site? Yep. Photos, especially those enormously compelling grip-and-grin shots? Our specialty. Video? Sure. Advertising? Can do. Fund raising? Got it. Trade show displays and setup? Got it. Business cards and stationery? Graphic design? Covered.

    We can produce a prodigious to-do list, but before we do we need to carefully examine the return on investment of the resources we assign to our professional activities. We need a strategy. This strategy must clearly connect to your organization’s business strategy, the so-called bottom line. That bottom line for almost every public relations initiative, program or activity is to motivate people to act on our behalf. We demonstrate our value when we tie our work to that singular goal.

    And let’s not forget that a fundamental responsibility we have before we even put a communications plan in place is to clearly and consistently define our organizations for the many audiences, publics and stakeholders who are important to us. We need an identity. Without it you simply cannot be strategic in trying to build awareness of your organization or enhance its reputation. Without an identity you will always be reacting to public perception. Without an identity you are condemned to diffuse communications that likely will never penetrate through the information tsunami and communications clutter your target audiences struggle with every day.

    Who are you? What do you stand for? What your distinctive qualities? How are you different from peers and competitors in the world of public opinion? Creating and establishing an identity in your organization is the foundation on which all of your communications are built. Costs nothing, but the value is incalculable.

    That means, as folks in my organization have often heard me say, we don’t want to be a donut shop, a place where people take a number and let us know what they want. Yes, we serve our partners within the organization, but we do it in the context of a strategy, plan and goals.

    I guess when we start talking about “shoestring” budgets, the inevitable sub-headings are “free” and “cheap.” Before I get into some tactics that might meet those standards I’d like to offer one important imperative. Low-budget, free and cheap should have nothing to do with the quality of the communications materials you produce. They are not adjectives that provide an excuse for creative malfeasance, terrible writing, unimaginative design and lack of attention to detail. Professionalism costs nothing, but it means everything to the value of what we do.

    Let’s start with so-called “earned media,” right at the top of our free list. A lot of people, many of them in the organizations for which we work, have no idea what public relations is, but they do know you deal with those press types. Everybody wants that magical press coverage. Besides being free it provides that third-party endorsement of the importance and value of your organization’s people, programs or perspective. Of course, the down side is it comes with the potential for negative or inaccurate coverage. News holes continue to shrink. There’s not as much room for our publicity any more. And worse yet, the impact of mass media continues to decline. That story on the front page of the newspaper doesn’t mean as much as it once did.

    That said, we want our share, don’t we? The good news is that PR professionals are as bad as they ever were in defining news and determining what news media will find of interest. You can get your share. You simply have to think about what media want, not what you and your CEO want and need.

    Sadly, the news media void has been filled by social media. Free, right?

    Not exactly. There are a lot of free opportunities out there in social media, but it is likely a place where you will have to spend some money on monitoring and perhaps some promotion to get the attention you want. It’s another category where talent pays off. You can create the conversation by understanding the social media community. You can tell your story in new and dynamic ways. You can connect people in ways you never could before. You can even push out and amplify the impact of your news media coverage using this booming communications channel. It takes a deep and firm investment of time and resources if it is part of your communications strategy.

    Digital communications should also be right at the top of your investment list. Your Web site, your mobile computing capability, are critical communications channels today.

    When you add these three channels together they have one thing in common, the need for content. Creative, thoughtful, engaging content, and a lot of it. And this is where, you, as a public relations manager, get to demonstrate your talent, talent that is uninhibited by any budgetary limitations. To get the most out of your shoestring budget you have to do two things well. First, you have to have storytelling judgment, be able to find the distinctive and interesting activities, programs and people in your organization and connect them to the world out there. And second, you must use your managerial skills to organize your content providers into teams that will enable you to use their valuable content across media and channels. Writing, design, video, photography, social media, Web, media relations. They all go together in this brave new communications world.

    I am pleased after all these years to say I have never had a day in my professional life that I did not want to go to work. And the primary reasons are the creativity, the imagination, the discovery, the vast opportunity open to PR people every day. Something new, something different, something potentially rewarding every single day. The best news is that no matter what your budget, shoestring, maxed out or somewhere in between, PR places no limits on your ability to use your mind, take a new direction, invent a new approach, find an uncharted path, create something that has never been seen or done before.

    How cool is it to spend your life doing that? Priceless.