Turbulent times for industry women

If I’d had to describe myself a year ago, I probably would’ve come up with a description along the lines of “feminist lite”. A belief in a Spice Girls-esque version of Girl Power, I suppose, where feisty women hung around in girl gangs, talking about equality while comparing the best brand of sparkly nail polish and badass heels. But something’s happened over the past year to change this.

Time for us PRs to take some flack

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently I wrote about experiences I’d had in dealing with media and journalists where I felt that, sometimes, their behaviour fell short of expectations. It wouldn’t be fair not to stand up and take the heat in return, so I asked our friends in the media to let rip with their feedback on pet hates they have with dealing with PRs. And let rip they did.

Embarrassingly enough, the same old stuff kept on being mentioned — the same careless approach that PRs have been accused of doing for years on end. How have we not learned yet to sort it out?

So, nothing new here, folks’ let’s have a little chat among ourselves about what we could be doing better.

1. Being careless and sloppy

This was the biggest bugbear from literally everyone I spoke to: inviting people to events or telling them about things in cities that they don’t live in; typos; poor grammar; badly written copy; getting names wrong on emails/invites/name tags — the list goes on.

As one journalist said to me, “My pet hate is when a PR sends a personalised email addressing journo from rival magazine and references wrong publication.”

Come on, people. That’s just rude, if nothing else.

Apart from that, we are pitching and selling ourselves as experts in communication, yet we can’t even get a name spelt correctly? Hmmmm.

2. Not having a clue about media

This is just as unforgivable, in my opinion. Again, we are supposed to be experts on media — what the difference is between different media outlets and platforms; who writes about what; what their audience likes to hear about or read, and so on. Yet, again, the same frustrations are cited by journalists over and again.

Pitching ideas or stories that are completely irrelevant to the media outlet (an example was given of a PR sending local community news to a tech publication). Sending byline pieces where the “author” quotes themselves. Not knowing (or even bothering to research) who they are pitching to or knowing what beat they cover. Or, as cited by the editor of this venerable website, “Have never heard of them. Have email address, hits send”. I had a boss once who was insistent I send out samples of washing powder to fashion bloggers, convinced that they would be gagging to write about this wonder product among their reviews of trends and catwalk outfits. Just embarrassing all around.

So often this is blamed upon the “juniors or interns” who don’t really know what they are doing and are just trying to carry out some vague instructions from a senior. That’s a cop-out and unacceptable, however.

First, whoever is mentoring and managing those juniors needs to take the time to sit with their team, explaining how things work and what is trying to be achieved. Clients are paying the business to care, and to be professionals. Palming it off on juniors is not good enough.

Secondly, everyone who works in PR, at all levels, needs to eat, breath and sleep media. They need to be avid readers and obsessed with media — whether that be a passion for magazines, a hunger for news, or fanatical about blogging. If they can’t be bothered to understand the difference between a community newspaper and a tech blog; or how an editor and a features writer differ, they are probably working in the wrong industry.

3. The “follow-up” phonecall

Dreaded by media worldwide. Dreamt up by some evil account director somewhere, in the aim of further killing any sort of amicable relations between the PR and media contacts.

For those who don’t know what I am talking about, it goes something like this.

Scary account director (or client, maybe) tells junior PR person that they need to get reams of coverage everywhere about whatever dull thing the brand has just done. Poor young PR person dutifully sends out dull press release to every known email address linked to a media outlet. Deathly silence in return. Scary account director (or client) requests results from poor, quivering, young PR person.

“What do you mean, we’re not on the front page of every newspaper?” they demand angrily. “Give them a call personally and make sure they run it!”

Poor, young PR person then calls up every poor journalist on the list (usually who are on deadline/holiday/or in the middle of having an operation in hospital) and meekly asks them “whether they had received the press release and would they be publishing it?”

Here’s the deal, though. The chances are they had received it, along with a hundred other waffling and irrelevant press releases. And they don’t want to do anything with it because it is irrelevant or boring or just because they don’t like the product or the person sending it. The phone call won’t make any difference. If the story or brand is interesting enough, they will run it, and they will make contact if they need any more information.

A recent example came from an editor of a luxury magazine who tells of a poor PR who kept hounding them with mournful phonecalls, pleading with them to run features about some dental floss among their fashion pages

Let’s just make it the year we kill off this “follow-up” phone call, now already?

4. The dreaded “spray-and-pray” approach

This is the unending belief in quantity over quality, and, again, it’s just laziness in not bothering to individually address and develop a bespoke pitch to each media person.

UK blogger, Kat Williams, summarises this perfectly when she talks about her frustration with being spammed:

“These emails are usually flanked with the imposing phrase ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ (capitals and bold type are obviously mandatory to demonstrate just how damn important this piece of ‘news’ actually is)….

These days, and for the most part, journalists and bloggers want to publish exclusive content. We want to be the first to break a piece of news or showcase an amazing story idea. By sending out a press release to everyone, you’re offering the exact opposite of what we really want. The most likely outcome is not that it’ll be picked up and written about with enthusiasm, sending thousands of new customers your way, it is more probable that it’ll be relegated to a spam folder… because that’s exactly what a generic pitch sent out to hundreds of media outlets with the vague hope that at least one of them will bite is. Big fat spam.”

5. Not understanding that journalists are (quelle surprise!!) people, too

Strangely enough, most journalists aren’t gagging to spend their free evenings at our crappy brand launches. So, if we’re expecting them to come, we should at least make it pleasant for them. And let’s not ask them to do stuff they don’t feel comfortable with.

Blogger Leigh van den Berg explains this neatly: “I think it’s rude when people expect me to write about an event, but don’t invite me to it. I’m uncomfortable endorsing anything I haven’t been able to try, test, taste, experience myself. I’m all about credibility.

“My reader’s [sic] rely on me for an honest write-up. If you send me something and I don’t like it, I’m not going to feature it. Please don’t assume that, just because you sent me your super-fancy product with a side order of Lindt, I OWE you a rave review.

“And really? You’re inviting me to your hot new bar opening sans partner? Gosh. That sounds like fun. Here’s me standing in the corner all alone like Loser Girl while I pretend to tweet stuff…”

(PS I reckon her piece about PRs is required reading for everyone in the industry and should be taught as compulsory reading material.)

6. The stuff of nightmares

Then there are just some horror stories that stand alone in their awfulness. Both of these were submitted incognito by an ex-journalist who wanted to remain anonymous as they had recently moved over to the dark side themselves, becoming a “Pee-Arr”.

Horror story #1: “A PR agency sending out press information that was incorrect, resulting in one of the parties concerned threatening to sue the publication when it was published”.

Horror story #2: “I was invited to go to a conference [overseas] with a multinational [redacted] vendor and, having the flights home messed up by the PR who booked them, I was almost stranded at [an overseas] airport. I managed to sort it out, but when I tried to contact the PRs during the ordeal to ask for help, the reply I got was ‘the flights should be fine’. There was me, near tears and having no idea how I was getting home, and that was what I got? From my hosts?”


Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

When a creative agency must PR itself

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I’ve been involved with several advertising and creative agencies which have asked me to advise them on “PRing” themselves and raising their profiles. An odd thing, when you think of it: creative agencies that specialise in communications asking for help, essentially, to communicate. But not so odd when we think that many agencies — ad, design — are so specialised in what they do, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees and translate that into profile-building for themselves. After all, we don’t often (if ever?) see an ad agency running an ad about itself.

A few years ago, as with most of the other industries, media and marketing had numerous print publications, websites, local awards and recognition initiatives and other media platforms in which to showcase themselves. We had seemingly endless opportunities to profile people, share case studies and brag about successes. But, bit by bit, these have fallen away, and there just a handful of outlets and places left dedicated to showcasing and talking about the marketing industry (including this respected leading website *wink wink*).

So, agencies need to think harder and smarter than just sending out press releases and placing “thought-leadership pieces” if they want to grow their reputation (although I would argue this stands for brands and businesses in any industry these days). As daunting as this sounds, growing the profile of a creative agency doesn’t need to be too complicated, and there are a few basics that any creative agency may do first before thinking they have to spend their hard-earned margins upon hiring people to run their media relations or PR campaign:

1. Develop a personality

We always tell brands that they need to understand their personalities and ensure that this comes through in everything they do, and this is the same for agencies. So many agencies have conflicting or confusing personalities — the exco team talks one language while juniors speak another.

An agency needs to work out what its personality is, and weave that through everything it does, whether that be wacky and eccentric, or authoritative and corporate. This, after all, is what makes clients want to work with an agency, and the best talent to work for it.

Part of this is developing a face for the business that represents this. Think of many of the agencies that you admire and respect; I’d place money on them having a senior person who is the face of the agency that brings this personality to life.

2. Sort your social platforms out

It sounds obvious but it constantly surprises me how many local agencies have rubbish social media platforms; it’s the first place that so many potential staff members or clients look at. It’s the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to share news, showcase work and paint a picture of the culture and people who make up the business. Along with this, any agency that professes to be knowledgeable about social media and digital comms (which all have to be, I would argue), falls short when their own channels are poor.

And yet I see so many dire attempts: either outdated and old news, or boring bragging. The mistake is often that businesses feel that they need to be on every single platform, and keeping them all updated and interesting becomes, literally, a full-time job. Rather choose one or two and do them well. And don’t feel that they need to be over-thought or crafted — this is the one place where the creative teams may go wild and create the kind of crazy content that client would never sign off.

3. Understand that every touch point is important in growing your reputation

As with any brand, telling people about how wonderful you are isn’t as effective as the experience they have with you themselves. So why is the focus always on media stories and press releases?

More important, I believe, is ensuring that every single time someone —current or potential client, employee, supplier and everyone else — comes into contact with that agency, they need to have a positive and pleasant experience with it.

I know of agencies which profess to be creative hotshops, yet entering their offices is like entering a morgue in a bad 1960’s hospital drama. I know of other agencies which profess to be open and friendly, and yet they treat their suppliers horribly. And I know of still others that promote their open and friendly culture, and yet which are also known for keeping their staff in the dark of major agency changes and for being stingy with salaries and career development.

The problem with these is that they are so focused upon landing the next big client and making the next buck that they don’t realise that all these people who they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis are forming — and sharing — opinions about the business. It’s no use sending out a press release saying that a business is wonderful and successful, when staff is telling everyone over a beer about their Stalinist work processes.

4. Handle the challenges, not just the successes, well

A good business is one that works well not only in times of success but in weathering bad times, too.

A decade or so ago, PnP was hit with a crisis when a nutter threatened to have poisoned a number of unknown products in store, leading to thousands of products having to be recalled. This could have led to panic and a loss of confidence in the brand, but the communications team jumped quickly into action and executed a well thought-out and thorough plan which kept everyone updated on what it was doing to take responsibly and fix the issue. The result? That year the retail brand was named “Most Trusted Brand” in South Africa.

The same goes for agencies. It’s all very well and easy to go around shouting about how many Loeries have been scooped up. Yet how do you go about acting in times of trouble? Do you take responsibility and fix a problem? Do you blame it on the juniors? Do you tell staff what is happening to their jobs and involve them in decision-making?

I think this is the mark of a great and long-lasting agency brand. And I think it says more about them than a cabinet full of awards trophies.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Driving change at global indie agencies


This article first appeared on Marklives.

A turn away from the concept of integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades — to niche, Uber-like agencies; the importance of diversity; and why clients hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake are just some of the topics covered at the 2016 Indie Summit (The Independent Agencies Global Leadership Summit) which I attended last month in London.

A conference and networking event for senior management of independent marketing and communications agencies from around the world, we spent two days exploring a number of opportunities and challenges facing our industry. In no particular order, here are some of the things that I found valuable, reassuring, notable or just plain interesting:

1. As much as agencies change, they stay the same

Several things struck me about how agencies globally are looking these days.

The first was that there seems to be a turn away from the concept of huge, big integrated agencies — jacks-of-all trades but masters of none, if you like. To be fair, I am sure if it had been a summit of big networked agencies, this would be different but, certainly among the independents, there was a return to focusing upon niche and specialised expertise.

This was echoed by the clients that were there; a common theme from them was that, despite boundaries between agencies’ work streams and offerings becoming blurred, they were all looking for agencies that had specialised and in-depth knowledge of certain areas, rather than a one-size-fits-all offering.

Another theme was that of increasingly flat structures, and a move away from fixed hierarchies. Over and again, we heard about how agencies are moving to empower (often younger) employees, understanding that allowing them to make decisions, play a valuable role in the organisation and essentially be mini-entrepreneurs in a business ends up benefiting everyone.

Lastly, we heard a lot about diversity. One client spoke about how he would never award business to an agency if he didn’t see a diversity in age, sex, race and background — for how could they ever be able to have an insight and understanding into various clients needs if it were a pitch team of cookie-cutter white males?

Ironically, then, was the makeup of the attendees of the conference: in the 200 or so attendees from agencies around the globe, I would say a conservative estimate was that 70%+ of them were white men…

Looks like it is the world over — not just South Africa — that needs to make some serious changes in this respect.

2. All clients want the same things

It seems clients everywhere want the same things, and the same themes keep coming up when they spoke about what they love and hate about working with agencies.

Delegates kept mentioning the value that good agencies bring: an inspirational culture, optimism, powerful ideas, a wealth of knowledge and bravery. The ability to look at a complexity of client needs and turn it into a simple solution; and the ability to look at a problem from the outside and introduce a new way of looking at things.

Collaboration kept on coming up, and how they were looking for tight relationships where the boundaries between client and agency were indivisible. And, again, diversity, diversity, diversity.

But it’s not all roses; again, the same themes kept coming up when they were asked about what they found challenging about working with agencies. They hate creds meetings and think that pitches are fake; agencies spend too much time talking about how great they are, without listening to what the client is saying or needing. Their feelings towards awards are ambivalent, too; although they are a nice to have, they don’t feel that it makes a difference in appointing an agency (in Germany, there is apparently even an industry award for “credential presentations”!).

But the biggest bugbear was the lack of transparency; this was mentioned over and over again — in costs (especially media buying); how the agency delivers on a brief (pretending they have the skills when they need to outsource); and in relationships (such as sucking up to the client in order to win brownie points).

The main takeout I had — and it’s nothing new, let’s be honest — is that a client chooses to work with an agency because of chemistry, much like one would choose a lover. All of them cited the need for diversity in talent, the need for listening, flexibility, and a strength in insights and the ability to transform them into powerful ideas.

3. The trends that are driving us forward

There’s a whole lot happening out there that it helps to be aware of. Here are a few I found interesting:

The growth of Uber-like agencies — where client can draw upon talent in an ad hoc way.

Global agencies are starting to work more like management consultancies that happen to have a specialisation in the field of communications, rather than agencies that work as suppliers.

One of the biggest consumer trends the world over at the moment is the trend of “Me”. This stems from the pressure to fulfil potential, a pressure to be authentic, and the pressure to be “me” (as opposed to one of a “tribe’). This means a couple of things for brands: it means that people are no longer defined by broad groupings of religion or nationality, for example, but rather by micro-definitions, such as what they eat. It also means that they expect more from brands; they want to be acknowledged and followed back from brands on social media, and they like to be rated by brands (such as Uber does).

The “next big thing” (or things) in technology will not be about a development in technology. Those ideas that work are those that start with basic human need and wants, and use technology to benefit lives, and make them cheaper, easier and/or quicker. Consumers don’t know what they want until they are told, but we are able to see what is happening elsewhere and use that technology to innovate.

Facebook is planning on taking over the world. Seriously. And those who think it is ‘just’ a social-media platform are foolish. There are massive plans to be in every part of our lives, based upon being immediate (becoming a messaging app that is part of every conversation — even one-on-ones with retailers and brands); expressive (expect to see much more emojis in the future; it understands how our brains process images thousands of time faster than words); and immersive (along with introducing 360 video, live streaming and virtual reality, its drones plan to bring wifi to, literally, the whole world). Facebook’s advice to brands for the future? Reach people where they are (on mobile and through apps); embrace messaging platforms as a new way for brands to communicate in a one-on-one formats; experiment with expressive storytelling formats (such as Boomerang): and begin to use more immersive formats (such as 360 videos).

4. A few other interesting things and resources I found useful:

  • The Browser (and the Daily Browser emailer): some of the best writing on the internet handpicked and delivered each day in one place.
  • The Future Foundation: global consumer trends, with a free newsletter sharing global trends and insights.
  • TrendWatching: another monthly free newsletter collating global consumer trends.
  • The Staffing and Entertainment Collective: staffing for events and activations in multiple global locations.
  • Interesting read: “Negotiating to win” written by Gary Noesner, the former head of the FBI Hostage Negotiation Unit.

Overall, there were two things that kept on coming through, over and over again.

The first was to listen: listen to clients, make decisions in a calm environment, and create an atmosphere in which input is encouraged.
Positivity: talk positively; treat people positively; and make stuff happen in a positive way.

PS It’s not just in South Africa that politics are giving business leaders the heebie-jeebies. The world over, there is a demand for a new kind of doing and a new kind of thinking. The danger is that this seems to be leading to the thinking of the past. A frustration with the status quo is resulting in revolt and a general rejection of rationality, and of emotion rejecting facts. Coming from SA, it’s all very easy to get embroiled in the chaos of our own politics — but it’s simultaneously comforting and horrifying to be reminded that agencies and businesses everywhere over are looking with trepidation at how the rise of populist politics will affect them, too. How this rolls out will be interesting, and probably unsettling — even in advance of the Brexit referendum result, agencies at the conference were reporting of deals, network acquisitions and mergers, and client projects being put on hold or cancelled because of uncertainty of what will happen next politically and economically.

A little chat about media bartering

This article first appeared on Marklives.

A big part of PR centres on media relations, and working in partnership with journalists to develop and secure media content on a client’s behalf. The trick is knowing what makes good media content, and providing media and bloggers with information that is compelling, interesting and valuable. We all know cases of PRs spamming media with branded nonsense, and everyone loves to jump on board to ‘name and shame’ some inexperienced PR intern who did a rubbish cut-and-paste job on their pitch to media. But what about when it is the journalists who go rogue?

In recent times I’ve been party to a couple of cases of questionable, behaviour from media contacts we have been working with — not keeping to their side of a deal, plagiarism and pure non-delivery.

There seems to be a common belief that the PRs are the ‘baddies’, hounding poor journalists and drowning them irrelevant crap. And, fair enough, this is often true. But both media and PRs need to have a mutual respect and understanding for this symbiotic relationship — essentially a business agreement — to work.

A PR’s very job exists around the concept of taking their clients’ (often dull and overly branded) information and repurposing so that it is meaningful and newsworthy. It is our responsibility to understand that sending out a press release, about how wonderful a brand thinks it is, is not enough. Hounding people to cover rubbish ‘news’ is not on. And being too lazy to get a journalist’s name right or understand what they write about is just downright rude.

But, likewise, the media has a responsibility to play fair. Below are some real recent examples where I feel that our media friends have not been playing according to the rules of the game:

1. Keep to your side of the deal

The simple truth is both parties have to give in order for both parties to gain. If a brand or a PR consultant has developed a programme or worked up a story, which the media outlet has agreed to cover, it is only fair to deliver upon that promise.

We recently ran a week-long press trip where we took some media guests on a (no exaggeration) money-can’t-buy experience. The trip included staying in places that the public have no access to, a helicopter flip over the Kruger Park, and so on. An expensive exercise for a non-profit initiative that is raising funds to support anti-rhino poaching efforts.

Beforehand we made all media guests aware of the itinerary, agreed in advance that this was of interest to their readers and that they would run a substantial amount of media coverage in return to publicise how the public may get involved and support. After enjoying the trip and all it had to offer, one media guest and their editor have gone, literally, AWOL. No media coverage, nada, and avoiding responding to all emails and follow up communications.

If the content wasn’t of interest or relevant to the readers, shouldn’t the trip have been turned down in advance? And if something came along afterwards that meant they couldn’t run the story (we know that nothing can ever be guaranteed), couldn’t they have given us the heads up and chatted to us about it?

(Side note: fair enough if the experience is rubbish — we understand totally if a journalist comes to an event or experience and has a bad experience, and decides not to write about it.)

2. Don’t plagiarise

At the time of writing, we‘ve had not one, but two, examples where media outlets have copied our press release or content verbatim, without a brand reference or credit.

One example resulted in a full-page feature in a regional newspaper — literally word for word, including extensive details and information that the brand had pulled together comparing prices and stats for travel. Not a peep about the brand’s blog where they had lifted all the content from.

3. Understanding the meaning of a RSVP

We get it. Media types get overwhelmed by millions of invites every day to all sorts of fabulous and glittering occasions. It’s easiest just to confirm attendance to all and then decide on the day which looks the most exciting.

But have a think about what goes behind the invite. If it’s a brand event, the brand probably has spent a big chunk of its budget upon making it as nice as they possibly can. It has spent money upon catering for everyone who said they could come. Last-minute cancellations mean that, not only has the host spent money upon catering for the no-shows, it’s probably too late to fill the space with anyone else.

It happens incredibly often — we’ve even had last-minute cancellations on non-refundable airfare.

Am I being unreasonable? What are your thoughts? And, yes, I know we PRs can be just as unbearable. Next month’s column is about rubbish things we do to irritate journalists. You’re welcome to add your stories. Hit me up on Twitter at @EmmainSA.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Innovation in PR - so what's the deal?

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Last month I wrote about how everyone in the wider advertising and communications industry is innovating — except, it seems, us PR people. I felt there was just too much cookie-cutter, dullsville farming out of crappy media releases for many of us to be considered credible players in the communications industry. Quite rightly, I was then asked: what is the answer? How should we be innovating?

I think the answer will be different for each agency or consultant, depending upon their experience and where their passions lie. But looking at what is happening with bigger agencies overseas, and from what I can see happening here, there are some interesting territories that we, as modern agencies, could (or should) be considering doing to survive the long term.

Diversification in offering (and hiring of talent)

Most PR people are pretty much jack-of-all-trades. We’re copywriters, strategists, media-relations gurus, industry schmoozers and general dog’s bodies all in one. It means, though, we can’t offer much except that. And a decade ago it was OK to send out a bunch of press release and let other people do all the work.

But it’s not good enough now — in a time when everyone is consuming information across a million different platforms in a million different formats. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be taking on briefs to develop videos, emailers, design and visual identify projects and other collateral. And, instead of outsourcing it, we should be looking to hire that talent and build those skills into our offering. Why should that go to the ad people?

Creating specialised business units

So many PR agencies, especially in this country, lump all kinds of PR together. If we’re lucky, there may be some kind of focus or specialisation in corporate vs consumer-facing work, or perhaps a couple of social media managers making up a “digital” team. But, again, I think we’re missing a trick by just focusing upon using our skills in traditional old media relations.

The exciting agencies overseas have taken their skills and developed business units or specialised offerings that focus in on a tight understanding of a niche area. Some have sponsorship arms that focus upon clever management of brand assets and faces of brands; others have research teams that develop clever insights that media campaigns may be built around. Still others have rolled out events teams that do more than simply manage activations that hand out product samples — they are teams that understand that value of news creation, and so their events and stunts are clever enough to make headlines.

Freuds — the UK-based agency made famous initially for its celebrity connections — has become serious players through developing a number of specialised offerings. Alongside talent management, it now offers an industry-leading insights division, as well as being lead agencies in brand and strategy development.

Exposure PR meanwhile, in London, Tokyo and New York, started life as a fashion agency sending out samples and managing fashion shows. If you look at its showreel at the (shit-hot) work it does now — across all categories — there isn’t a PR poppie with a clipboard in sight.

Another London based ‘previously PR-only’ agency, Lewis, now places as much emphasis on its other offerings — including content, research, advertising and marketing — as traditional PR, and is a strong proponent for saying ‘goodbye to the single-practice agency’.

Imagine how much more interesting we could be instead of just drafting those dull old “thought leader” pieces?

Development of new revenue streams

A smart entrepreneur once told me that the secret to success (and millions in the bank, one assumes) was not in creating many businesses, but rather in creating one which had several income streams.

Again, the ad and digital people have worked this out: the big ad agencies have incorporated income-producing business units (such as media strategy and buying teams) into their offerings, while the digital folks are cleverly using their talents to create passive income streams through apps and digital innovation.

And what have we PR people been doing meanwhile? Not much except blithering about whether AVE is a good measurement of success (pro tip: it’s not) and patting ourselves on the back because we learnt how to do a Facebook promoted post.

Personally, I’ve been thinking about some ways in which to develop new income streams which work alongside our PR business (which I’m obviously not going to share in this forum yet — at least until they have been wildly successful and I’m reclining in my private island in the Bahamas). But here are some thought starters-I’ll chuck in for free. Why aren’t PR people being publishers? Could we commercialise a model based around global-asset management for brands — managing the creation, development, licensing and issuing of collateral to news outlets on their behalf? Or what about developing a shit-hot media monitoring, contacts and measurement tool that actually works? The possibilities are endless…

PR agency of the future

Much has been spoken about the “ad agencies of the future”, but not that much about what the PR agency of the future will be. It won’t be much different to that we are seeing now, unless we, as an industry, get out of our little boxes and start to take more risks.

We need to be trying new ways of doing things (even if we fail a couple of times along the way) and we need to become proper consultants who counsel at leadership level, instead of being purely implementers. For me, this means that PR agencies need to radically change from being simply “media-relations specialists” to start looking closely at how they can build their offering to deliver clever insights, creative execution, and innovative offerings and products.

Only then will we still be relevant enough to see in the next couple of decades.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Why isn't PR innovating?

This article first appeared in Marklives. 

Recently, I happened to sit in on some masters lectures at the UCT GSB for a course built around the concept of innovation. Filled with a colourful selection of young and eager minds coming from a range of backgrounds, the students were lapping up how innovation — in all of its forms — may be used for problem-solving, keeping relevant and driving entrepreneurship. It struck me: why isn’t the PR industry in South Africa innovating more?

I so often see PR businesses doing the same old work and rolling out the same old schpiel that they have been doing for eons. Press release after dull press release is farmed out to poor journalists, and coverage reports praising the merits of AVE and tenuous claims of ROI are faithfully pulled together, month after month. It’s been the same since I entered the industry — which was millions of years ago — we were not far off communicating in cave paintings and smoke signals back then.

But, looking around, I see the other disciplines innovating like crazy. There’s not an ad agency which hasn’t completely relooked at its business and reskilled its teams to be able to provide a shit-hot digital offering. Never mind the digital peeps, who wouldn’t have even had a job or a business five-to-ten years ago, but who are now gobbling up larger and larger chunks of the budgets.

And what has the PR set been doing meanwhile? Not much.

Sending out the same-old spammy press releases and drafting dull old “thought-leader pieces”. And, if we were really brave, thinking we ‘got digital’ by inviting some ‘influencers’ to an event or posting some content on Facebook.

I think we missed the boat.

When “social media” starting taking off about eight years ago or so, a wise old PR guy I knew in London said he thought it was “our time”. We, as PR people, could have jumped up and taken the lead in managing and driving the new ways of communicating, self-publishing and using new platforms. And why not?

We knew how to create content that was interesting enough for people to pick up and run with themselves (vs salesy ad-speak). We knew how to build relationships with people who had big circles of influence. We knew how to move fast with strategic communications, instead of working on copy that needed to go through a million creative reviews and client reverts.

We could have led the charge, innovated, and owned the new way of communicating that was springing up and becoming powerful then.

But we didn’t.

While we were snoozing, the others ran with it. The ad agencies and the digital people are the ones who are producing content and managing communities. They are often the lead agencies on social media and digital work. But we just keep on farming out the same old stuff — while the media landscape we work with gets smaller and smaller, and less and less influential.

So what’s the answer?

If we look to innovation models that are being taught to entrepreneurs and business thinker, there’s something we could learn.

We need to radically look at and change the way we are operating, and where our industry is going. We need to learn new skills and start to train and take on board talent who allow us to produce new kinds of work — designers, video content producers, and developers — why should they just work for ad agencies? And we need to look at what we do, what we offer and how we are working with clients critically, and then begin to work with new business models that are more sustainable long-term than the ones we are currently working with.

Change is scary, but change is good. If we don’t embrace it and learn to radically change the way we do business, we’re soon going to be as obsolete as a VHS video tape.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Why clever PR agencies are stealing ATL biz

PR business opinion piece

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently, we PR peeps were put firmly in our place when he-who-knows-all-things, Sir Martin Sorrell, informed us sternly that PR agencies who think they can take on advertising agencies (unless being generously allowed in as part of an integrated pitch) were “living in la-la land”.

Phew! Glad to hear that’s finally been sorted! We can go back to our little corners and continue scrabbling around, hoping that a few scraps get thrown our way when those higher up the food chain get tired of then.

Although — dare I say it — could he-who-is-never-wrong be mistaken?

I would point him to look at wider trends, where business and budgets that previously would have been allocated to the big ATL players are being passed on to PR agencies (plus other niche offerings, such as digital or social media hotshops). And I know from personal experience where just that has happened; within my own business, we have been the lucky recipients of that a couple of times in the last few months.

I concede, at this stage, that it would be rare to find any pure-PR agency being the lead agency on a big piece of business (although there are cases). But I would warn the traditional agencies to show caution, because clever PR agencies that know what they are doing are starting to snap up their business. And here’s why:

1. PR people are also “creatives”

For many years, the ad agencies snapped up the most-promising creative minds by offering a sexier option. Visions of Mad Men-esque all-night benders and outrageous antics tempted the craziest dreamers into a promised land of rule-breaking and creative nirvana.

But we only need to look globally to see how this has shifted. In the US and UK especially, some of the top creative talent and brightest strategists are starting to choose PR over advertising, as they realise that it offers credible choices for canny communicators. We only need to look at how the lobbying industry there offers big bucks for smart and creative thinkers.

Even outside that, I would argue that PR people are inherently “creatives”, though’ we have to be, because we need our ideas and stories to be interesting enough for a journalist to run or for someone to share. We cannot just buy media space and plonk them out there.

Good PR people have to be on the pulse of popular culture, at the forefront of trends and damn familiar with what is news — we need to be in order to make stories that are relevant, and we need to be able to identify and mitigate threats to our clients’ business long before anyone else does.

Clients are beginning to realise all of this, too, and are approaching us for creative leadership, not just to “PR” the ad idea at the end.

2. We have business models that are tighter and more nimble

Traditional old ad agencies are struggling to deal with the kind of turn around and budgets that clients and consumers demand. And they always will until they fundamentally change the very way their business models and systems have been built.

PR agencies, however, have always been quicker and more nimble. When a crisis is breaking, we don’t have the luxury of a six-month turn around that involves millions of people and hundreds of creative presentations and reverts. We have learned to think quickly, respond even faster, and work with clients in a way that allows feedback, reverts and approvals to be virtually instant.

Good PR people are not just PR people, either. Or “creatives” (see point one above). We are account managers, strategists, writers, art directors, social media managers and general schmoozers all-in-one. The industry favours multitaskers and polymaths over people who stick to a job description.

It means we can be even faster and more adaptable. We don’t need to wait for account management to brief traffic to write a job bag to brief a writer for a copy change for a creative director to review. We just do it, in the fraction of the time, and for a fraction of the client’s budget.

3. Bought media doesn’t make the same kind of sense it used to

I challenge you to find a marketing manager anywhere that doesn’t wince at the eye-watering amounts of cold hard cash that are needed to run a good old-fashioned media campaign. That’s not just because of the cost, but because of the acknowledgement of how much of it is wasted.

Anyone with half a brain can work out how much traditional advertising is NOT being seen and NOT being noticed, just as a result of ad-blockers, skipping YouTube prerolls, and PVR-type functionality, not to mention the rest. Clever marketers know that clever PR really can be effective — because, if it’s done well, it creates the kind of content that people want to read or see, not skip through.

As the old saying goes, “Advertisers make things. PRs make news.”

I reckon Sir Sorrell doesn’t have to worry too much immediately. His big ’ol advertising agencies will still make him a couple of squillion bucks this year. But he shouldn’t underestimate us feisty ’lil PR poppies. We may show him a thing or two if he doesn’t keep an eye on us.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to


Hire the person, not the talent

This article first appeared in Marklives.

I often see people focus so much on the experience or list of achievements on a flashy CV that they fail to think hard enough about the person who hides behind it. And this, I think, is fatal.
There’s a theory floating around on the web that a person is made up of an average of the five people they spend the most time. Although this initially sounds like the kind of vomit-inducing motivational statement found on Pinterest, perhaps there is something in it. For it is true to say that a person’s personality mirrors the people they hang out with, and good and bad habits and traits become exaggerated when surrounded and encouraged by similar behaviour.

This stands true, I think, for businesses as well.

I have seen many a culture affected — both for better or worse — by the introduction of just one person. I am convinced, too, that the addition of just one incompetent person to a pool of good talent dilutes that talent and makes everyone else just that little bit more rubbish.
I would even go so far as to say that just one bad hire may make or break a business. I have twice seen first-hand the disastrous effect that the introduction of one toxic person at a senior level can bring to a business, in both cases leading to the loss of staff, clients and irreversible damage to the bottom line.

It makes sense — clients don’t only choose an agency because of the work they have done. They have chosen it because they like, and trust, and have chemistry with the people whom they have to deal with. And, as much as employees want a good salary and to work on sexy brands, they also don’t want to be bullied or miserable or traumatised every time they sit down at their desks.

As I have said many times, we spend more time with the people whom we sit in an office with every day than our friend, families and lovers. So who wants to be miserable for the majority of their life because of the asshats whom they are forced to work with?

There a more fundamental point to this, though, than simply whether people are nice or not.
Nothing to be done with a bad attitude

Skills may be taught and people may be invested in — but there’s nothing that may be done with someone who has a bad attitude. I would choose an eager and personable junior who’s willing to learn over an obnoxious, aggressive or lazy person with loads of experience any day.
For an industry where most of us have just two real assets — our reputation and the people whom we employ — isn’t it crazy that we so often overlook the value of the second?

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Secrets they never tell you about starting up a PR shop

The Friday Street Club

This article first appeared in Marklives.

A friend of mine has finally made the leap and is leaving the big corporate world to start up on her own. She’s asked me for some tips on what I’ve learnt since I started my own PR shop, just over a year ago.

Looking back, it wasn’t the usual business tips about tax and company registration that have been the most useful. Instead, it’s the personal realisations I’ve made along the way, of how to behave and what to focus upon, that I like to think are the more valuable.

So, here’s my cut-out-and-keep advice on starting a new business.

If you build it, they will come

I decided to start a business and resigned from my job with no clients lined up and two months to get something sorted. My friends looked aghast at what I had done, but one wisely nodded and said “If you build it, they will come.” And she was right.

If you are good at what you do, offer something that people need or want, can be competitive in how you offer it, and works wholeheartedly to create a good and legitimate business, there’s no reason that it can’t be a success.

Another friend asked what my back-up plan was. I looked nonplussed, as I didn’t have one.
I still believe that is the right approach — because if you always have a Plan B, you are never committed to making Plan A work. And if you don’t believe in yourself and what you can offer wholeheartedly, then why would anyone else believe it and offer to pay you for it?

Network the hell out of your contacts

It sounds obviously, but this is so valuable in a country such as South Africa, where personal and word-of-mouth recommendations are the true drivers of business.

One of the first things I did when I started up was go and meet up face-to-face — for a coffee or a cocktail — with everyone I could think of even remotely linked to the industry, and told them what I wanted to do.

It doesn’t matter how random the connection is, it doesn’t hurt (and anyway, it’s always good to spend some time connecting with old pals over a drink and snacks).

My first piece of business, and first retainer client (a global brand), came as a result of a catch-up glass of wine with someone I knew from varsity — someone I hadn’t seen in ages — who recommended me to a brand manager who was looking around.

Act like a business from day one

Many people think that starting small and safe is the way to go — by hoping their freelancing will grow into a business; and by not wanting to invest in the business until lots of cash is coming in.

But I believe that you only have one chance to make a first impression — and that impression sticks. So if first impressions of you is of a fly-by-night freelancer making ends meet, it will be hard for them to start considering you as a legit business when you suddenly feel like you want to be one.

Invest in getting some proper branding (not a kak pixelated image you nicked off the internet). Print business cards out on decent paper. Get a website that isn’t covered with clip art and rainbow coloured Comic Sans.

And, for heaven’s sake, pay the people who design your logos and make your website — you are a business now, and if you don’t treat suppliers as businesses in their own right, why should anyone treat you as such?

Don’t try to please everyone

When people start a business, their focus is often on trying to get any piece of work possible — and that often means trying to be everything to everyone. But that leads to a lack of focus and a tendency to become vanilla — something inoffensive, but not memorable.

The best businesses are built around a unique and memorable offering — and customers and clients are attracted to something that sticks out and appeals to them.

My advice to start-ups would be to wholeheartedly embrace that which makes them interesting and different to what else is out there; it will attract the right business from clients who see that way, too.

Don’t be a dick

Well, you could be a dick. There are lots of people who are dicks who run very successful businesses. But you don’t have to be a dick.

I believe that people — friends, colleagues — are attracted to people they want to be around or whose lives they want to be part of. And this goes for clients, too.

The good ones are attracted to people that not only do good work, but who are decent people that they enjoy spending time with (and spending their money with).

There’s a misconception that you need to be an autocrat, a bully and a loudmouth in order to be a good business person. But I have found that doing good work, treating people well, having fun and making money don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

A slice of inspiration from going global


This article first appeared in Marklives. 

I’ve just returned from my first-ever visit to New York, full of that delightful feeling of discovery and adventure that only comes when one is in an unfamiliar place for the first time. And as I explored the city — from yellow cabs and cocktails bars in Manhattan, to grungy dive bars filled with dogs and tattooed artists in Brooklyn — there were a couple of things I thought about that we back here in South Africa could take on board as a learning and an inspiration.

The first is that the Americans have done a damn fine job of PRing their lives and their lifestyle.

Before going there, I thought that the people and scenes I saw in the movies were exaggerations or caricatures. But when I saw them unfold before my eyes — the chunky NYPD cop, with a drawling, nasal accent, digging into a Dunkin Donut next to a manhole spurting steam; the blinged-up guy rapping to loudly to himself as he strutted along the sidewalk; the struggling actors/models/waitresses, sipping cocktails on the rooftop of a small inner-city apartment, all waiting for their big break — I realised that this wasn’t a movie. This was real life.
The way that America has owned the entertainment that has infiltrated the whole world has meant that their lives have become so familiar to us that we understand and recognise everything about it instinctively.

Is that something we could emulate? We couldn’t ever own the global entertainment the way that the US has, but perhaps there is something, as a country, we could do to showcase our people and culture in a way that is less contrived and expected than we currently are.

Think of what people outside of South Africa see or hear about us — images of questionable politics; gritty dystopian landscapes (à la District 9); freakish caricatures of a questionable sub-culture (à la Chappies); or “rainbow-nation” MultiChoice-type collages of safari parks, sunsets over Table Mountain and smiling locals.

So far, so predictable.

But think of the incredible work done in documenting culture and real people that we see in things such as the local shnit International Short Film Festival — wouldn’t it be amazing if that could be portrayed in our tourism communications, instead of the usual pictures of penguins and djembe drums?

This links into another realisation. When I arrived in New York, I was overwhelmed by the amount of information on what to do and see. Although I was vaguely interested in seeing the sites (Central Park, Rockefeller Centre and so on), I really wanted to see the local haunts, the little side-street bars, the ‘hidden’ gems. And it was hard to find out where these are — without having a local to tell me what the secrets were.

We know that “local travel” and “experiential travel” are growing trends for internationals visiting SA. How do they get past the safari brochures and beaded knick-knacks to find out about our hidden secrets and local haunts? Is this a role that our local bloggers and media could (or should?) be championing — developing the kinds of guides and content that visitors can easily navigate and share?

Lastly, I was struck by the incredible self-confidence and patriotism shown by everyone in the States; not surprising, I suppose, for a culture that has grown up being told constantly they are the best in the world in everything.

This has spread to more than just hanging flags all over the place and a belief that they truly do live in Utopia. There is a sense of confidence in everyone and integral in everything they do, from initiating conversions with strangers on the street to their inherent belief in their convictions.

Coming back home, I was struck by how apologetic we are, how quick we are to shoot ourselves and our country down, and how eager we are when anyone outside of SA gives us praise or likes what we have to offer.

Wouldn’t it be great if our schools constantly told our children how clever they are, and taught them to be proud of and hold dear all that our country has created and how far it has come?

So, what else have I learnt about the US?

You can start up bizarre and hilarious conversations with pretty much anyone on the subway, be it an aged professor, loud frat boys, or homeboys from the hood.

That many people hear our accents and think we are British.

That hipsters definitely aren’t a dying breed.

That America is surprisingly old-fashioned/ behind in some areas. For example, they still *gasp* take credit cards away to swipe in some back room, and the only proof of authenticity is a scribbled signature. When I explained chip and pin codes, and things such as SnapScan, I was met with awed disbelief.

That our international airports beat JFK hands down.

And that despite it all — the glamour, the fun and excitement of the unknown — I couldn’t wait to get back home again.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

Business lessons from Masterchef


This articles first appeared in Marklives.

Slumped on the sofa, glass of wine in hand, watching a handful of frantic Aussies desperately spill and burn things while the clock ticks — one wouldn’t think it was the ideal place to learn life (or business) lessons. But life is funny like that and sometimes the greatest little gems of insight pop up when least expected.

I had one of those moments recently, when catching up on a Masterchef extravaganza. British celebrity chef, restaurateur and TV personality Marco Pierre White was stomping around the room, leaving quivering aspirant chefs in his wake, while making them mindlessly chant “Yes, Marco!” each time he barked an instruction or insult. Gripping TV at its finest.

But, in the middle of his tirade, a lucid comment about some unappealing disaster of a meal stayed with me and made me think: “Perfection is a lot of little things done well.”

Isn’t that true of so many things, especially, I think, a successful business?

I have written at length before about how important attention to detail is. A stroppy email bcc’d to the wrong person; a mistimed tweet about a sensitive subject; or a typo-ridden piece of communication have all been subject of our derision or cause of some poor soul’s redundancy package. For how can an agency position itself as an expert in communications, and charge for it, when it cannot get even the simple things right?

On the flipside, I’ve always believed that a strong business or brand is one that pays attention to all those little things — one that ensures that, every single time someone comes into contact with its branding, people or physical presence, she or he has a consistent and pleasant experience. A lot of little things done well, in truth.

In keeping with the Masterchef theme, and White in particular, another of his favourite sayings is “Time is not your friend; it’s your enemy.” Again, perhaps there’s something to be learned by us armchair-foodies that we can take into real life — For those who do well in the time-pressured situations on TV are those who have focused on their mise en place, simply translated from French as “putting in place” or “preparation”.

For we PR types, our mise en place is not the chopping of millions of vegetables or deshelling of hundreds of prawns, but rather the slow and steady planning and preparation that belies a good campaign or piece of work. It’s an exercise of mindfulness and concentration.

There are many people I have come across who believe that the loudest or most-noticeable person in the room is the most competent, often the one running around making everyone else run in circles.

Yet I would argue that the ones who really have it all under control are those who are quietly keeping things moving in the background — the ones who have thought out each potential issue in advance and prepared for it; the ones who have come equipped with the tools to make things happen and the phone numbers of people who can make it happen if they can’t. Yes, the ones who have done their mise en place.

Who would have thought that little gems of insights could come from watching reality TV? I don’t suppose much can be learned from the latest episode of the Kardashians, except perhaps how to be vulgar and how to stretch the boundaries of good taste. But I do think that inspiration and life learnings may unexpectedly come from many places, so why not in a plate of steaming risotto or the bottom of a beverage glass?

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

How can we sell something if we don't believe in it ourselves?

Work we are passionate about

This articles first appeared in Marklives. 

When chatting to a young entrepreneur the other day, he casually mentioned about how he had never considered using a PR service to launch any of his businesses or products because PR was “expensive and all PRs were liars and spin doctors”.

How sad that our industry is perceived as such, when, out of all of the communications streams, ours is the one that relies the most upon trusted relationships, and the one that can offer the most bang for the buck.

And, yet, it’s not surprising when we look at the evidence.

I can think of many times, back in the day, when I had to harness my growing shame and dread in order to hound a poor journalist to try and get her to write a glowing report on some rubbish product or other we had been paid to spin.

One highlight that springs to mind was a catalogue that featured, wait for it, other catalogues, that I was tasked on getting media coverage for! And then there was that other time I sent a beauty journalist to try out an “amazing new spa”, and she returned, horrified, telling tales of change rooms that smelt of poo; crusty dirty bathrobes; and dodgy, dusty, fake plastic fruit arrangements as décor.

The shame of it all.

No wonder the poor editors at the other end of the phone, hounded by hundreds of breathless, eager young PRs, grow more and more brusque and irritable when taking our calls.
This is not limited to consumer products and PR. Corporate clients take this up a notch, insisting that their dull sustainability measures or photos of big cheques being handed over to grateful impoverished charities are headline news or front-page features. And then there is the opposite, when we desperately spin tales and webs of confusion in order to keep bad news out of the public domain.

What a sad state of affairs, as our reputation as an industry of lying spin-doctors becomes ever more entrenched.

So it’s been a relief to start my own business and make a few rules of my own. Joining the first hard-and-fast rule (that I don’t work with or for horrible people or people who have bad attitudes), is the second, but equally important one — that I don’t work with any brands or businesses that I don’t fully believe in or like.

For how can I market something if I don’t believe it is the best thing since screw-top wine bottles were invented? And how can I sleep at night if I am responsible for spinning a web of deceit about a business that is doing something that I have fundamental moral issue with?
It doesn’t stop with choosing the right people or brands to work with, though. There are times when we need to take a step back and question whether what we are doing or selling is really relevant.

I’ve been working on a content strategy with a corporate recently, where we were looking at and reviewing all of its streams of communications — from its B2B newsletters to consumer-facing magazines and social media streams. It was wondering why its “levels of engagement” were low, when it spent so much time and money telling all sorts of fascinating stories about the business in prettily designed pages.

So it took some guts for it to realise, and address, that it had been playing to egos internally, allowing every bit of work or achievement (from new internet cables to energy-efficient light bulbs, I kid you not) take pride of place in every piece of external communication.

It was only when it could take a step back and ask what people wanted to HEAR, rather than what it wanted to SAY, that thing suddenly became exciting.

So, as a PR consultant, the learning is clear. Work with people and brands that you love, and that value you as a consultant rather than a service provider. You need to believe in what they are all about, and yet be able to step back and question when something feels wrong.

It is only then that we can begin to address this issue we have of being “lying spin doctors”.

 Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to

A strong reputation isn't built through PR

Markllives PR

This article originally appeared on Marklives.

There has been many a client which has asked how it could build its profile and reputation, asking me to “PR” it and make it a loved household name. And it would be easy enough to sell a PR approach that promised a bunch of press releases in return for instant fame and adoration.

But those brands that are loved and revered are not those which have sent out a million statements about how great they are or what they have achieved.

They are the ones that have quietly gone about doing their job really well, and growing the reputation and column inches as a result.

And this is important, not only for the CEO’s ego, but also for the bean counters behind the scenes, because it has been proven time and again that those companies that have a good reputation benefit in a myriad of ways — from attracting (and more importantly) retaining the best talent through to a strong bottom line.

Let’s look at a South African success story for some insights. And what better than South African Breweries (SAB), which has grown from being a small local brewer to a world leader?
Obviously, there’ve been a number of business decisions made along the way that made it the force to be reckoned with that it is today — from water-tight and extensive distribution channels to strong and innovative brand development and marketing.

But at the heart of this is the aim to be a company that has an authenticity at the core, whether it be using its flagship brand Castle to join the fight against rhino poaching or building ways into the management and building of its breweries that have an understanding of sustainable growth at its core.

It would have been easy to slap a “Responsible Drinking” logo on every drink and tick the box of “good marketing”. But, instead, funds are channelled into carefully researched, on-the-ground projects — from educating taverners on responsible trading to the development and funding of entrepreneurs and startups.

The resulting effect is a place in which employees and consumers have a sense of pride and ownership, and that loyalty pays off multiple times over when the end of the year’s financial results comes in.

The learnings for us, as communicators, are many.

First, I would say that it doesn’t matter how good a PR team you have on board if the core of your offering is not strong and authentic; it will never gain traction. We all know that famous saying about the futility of polishing things that rhyme with words.

Secondly, there needs to be an inherent understanding — in the boardroom — that there’s a value in a strong reputation that cannot be measured. And that the PR or marketing team is not the custodian of this — it lies instead with the whole management team, who needs to let the philosophy and values run through everything that is done.

And, lastly, it is the understanding that the reputation of a brand or business is not made through press releases and holding statements in times of crises. It is made up of all of those little moments and encounters that people have with it — from what they read in a newspaper or see on social media down to their impression when they arrive in your reception or how they are greeted by your security guard.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to