During my more than 17 years as a growth strategy consultant to A/E/C and environmental consulting firms, I’ve been mystified why so many firms have so much difficulty grasping the art of strategic messaging in the area of public relations (PR).

Even in this day and age, when terms like “thought leader” and “subject matter expert” are bandied about, it’s the rare firm that successfully steers clear of inwardly focused, self-serving press releases about projects won/completed, and people hired/promoted. These announcements, which I refer to as “transactional” rather than strategic, are perpetuated on web sites, in newsletters and sometimes even in quals packages. Yet they do little to convince clients that you understand their universe, their pain points and what information they need to be successful in today’s economy. Further, they’re a real yawner for editors of trade journals and professional association publications.

But enough complaining on my part! Let’s review a few key points — and then get into PR best practices:

A PR Primer

  • In spite of A/E/C industry consolidation, it remains a crowded playing field with intense competition in all markets. Your firm is fighting for name recognition and mindshare. Clients likely view you as equally qualified as several of your competitors.
  • The primary strategy behind writing and distributing press releases is to have them “picked up” by editors of publications your target audience reads. From the standpoint of business development, your target audience includes past/current/prospective clients and strategic partners.
  • Editors of trade journals and association publications have a responsibility to provide content that informs their readers and helps them to be successful. If your firm can offer original research results, advice, opinions, lessons learned, resources, case studies and best practices, you increase the likelihood that your press release will be published and/or that editors’ appetites will be whetted enough to request a more substantive article.
  • Self-serving news and information about projects won or completed, awards granted, and staff hired or promoted may boost internal morale, but does little to meet the needs of editors. That content looks just like 99% of the other self-serving crap that they receive and toss every day.
  • Once you establish your firm as a reliable and timely source of valuable content, editors will view you as a go-to resource.

Why Take a Thought Leader Approach?

Providing content that’s intended to make your target audience more successful (through the placement of press releases and/or being invited to write articles) offers many benefits:

  • Your content is distributed to hundreds, if not thousands, of decision-makers, influencers, partners and prospective hires who likely aren’t in your firm’s marketing database. (And if some are there already, the contact information is likely outdated if you’re like most firms.)
  • In a crowded playing field, getting published sets your firm apart, particularly when you provide content that positions your firm as a thought leader and subject matter expert in your target markets.
  • In my experience, the very process you need to go through to determine what information, advice and resources your audience craves will make you a better consultant and a more effective business developer. Done right, this thought process alone helps codify your elevator speech in terms of benefits provided and differentiators — all presented in the context of your clients’ needs.
  • The enhanced name recognition that comes from thoughtful, targeted publicity often opens doors on the business development front, resulting in greater success in scheduling meetings, being sought after as a teaming partner and being contacted by prospective clients with project opportunities.
  • The potential residual value of publicity is significant. Once you’ve “gotten ink,” don’t forget to squeeze out the return-on-investment (ROI) by:
    • Placing the coverage on your web site
    • Including articles in proposals and quals packages
    • Converting coverage to handouts for conferences and professional association events
    • Share the article link via email with clients and those you’re building relationships with
    • Employing social media by distributing article links through LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook

Don’t forget to distribute coverage to staff and key prospective hires — reinforcing to them that the firm is seen as an industry expert.

Generating Content that Editors Crave

Developing ideas for compelling content should not be difficult. That is, if you’re able to extract yourself from the day-to-day craziness and be disciplined about walking in the shoes of your target audience. How does one better understand clients’ pain points, challenges and needs? Here are a few ideas:

  • Talk to editors — in getting them to “bite” at your content, they’re your client!
  • Subscribe to publications your clients read
  • Become an associate member of your clients’ professional associations and if possible, serve on a committee alongside clients and prospects
  • Conduct client research (refer to this previous issue of The Friedman File: Client Research: An Underutilized Business Development Tool)
  • Make sure your project managers and other project personnel are well versed in the art of asking probing, open-ended questions (refer to this previous issue of The Friedman File: Ask, Don’t Talk: Using Probing Questions to Pursue and Win Work)

Be on the lookout for a follow-up in The Friedman File profiling several firms that use PR to project thought leadership. If you have questions or stories to share on this topic, I’d love to hear from you. Call or e-mail me (508-276-1101; rich@friedmanpartners.com).