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Q&A: Paul Blanchard - Right Angles

Q&A: Paul Blanchard - Right Angles

Q&A: Paul Blanchard - Right Angles

Paul Blanchard is the founder of Right Angles, an innovative PR consultancy that aims to do things differently. The company boasts an impressive roster, including Compassion in World Farming, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Aviva and the ACCA. inspiresme.co.uk caught up with Paul about his company, the public relations industry, and how small companies can make the most of PR and get their name out there as efficiently as possible.

Q: Have you always been an entrepreneur?

A: I started my own computer business at age 17, it grew quickly and I soon became incredibly busy. I didn’t go to school because I was too busy earning money, and I woke up in the morning and I either had a choice between going to school and getting done for not doing my homework or making more money, so it was a no-brainer really. The headmaster gave me a choice; take the rest of the year off, see if the business works out, and if it doesn’t then come back and give school another go. He was really nice about it – I was ‘constructively’ thrown out of school, if that makes sense!

I built the business up until I had around 20 people working for me. We did websites, we did domain names, we wrote software – everything to do with computers really. I didn’t really set out to build an IT business but it was one of those things where if you employ people, you get on a conveyor belt where you have to keep them busy. And because I’m a natural sales person, we just kept growing and growing.

In 2001 I realised that although I was running a small IT business, I wasn’t hugely keen on the industry. It’s a really reactive industry, the employees think they are doing you a favour because they’re in demand. And also, businesses see IT as a cost, so they under-invest, then when things go wrong they get annoyed. It’s also a stressful industry – if anything goes wrong with a network, no one can do their work.

I thought it was time to move on, and luckily a friend of mine who ran a similar business agreed to take it off my hands. In 2001 I thought I’d start Right Angles. I knew I was good at PR. I hadn’t been able to advertise my IT business in the early years so I kind of befriended people at the local newspaper, took them out for a few beers, and they told me what worked and what didn’t in terms of press releases. It all grew from there really. I also got started in politics and that taught me a great deal about how the media works, which was obviously of benefit to Right Angles.

Q: Right Angles works in quite a saturated market, but you do seem to strive to make yourself ‘different’ from other agencies. Is this part of a strategy to ensure success?

We are different, and our website is very much different. We try to lightly take the mickey out of the industry because there’s a real perception in the PR industry that you’re paying a fortune for a PR consultant to lunch a few journalists, and that it’s money for old rope. So we’re trying to be very self-aware and capitalise on that.

Also, every PR company says they're different, but if you take a look at their website, they’re all the same. We are quite unique in what we do; we’re high energy and go the extra mile for our clients. And I think unless you are demonstrably different, then just saying it on your website is a lie, and that can obviously put people off. Your website is your shop window.

So we do try to be different, and we tend to attract owner-managers who like the feel of the website, who get on with my team and me. We also work with quite a few big clients, who may have had a few agencies that have let them down or underperformed, and now they are looking for a genuine change. That’s where we fit, as we actually are different from most PR firms out there.

Interestingly, our website does turn off about two-thirds of visitors, and that’s deliberate. The people who do business with us do business with us because we’re different. It’s a Marmite approach.

Q: When companies try to cut costs, PR is often first to go, and often it’s because owners think that PR is easy and therefore they can do it themselves. What do you think about this?

A: It is a big problem that everyone thinks they can do this job. We’re not surgeons, or lawyers where you have to be properly qualified, and what this means is that anyone can start up as a ‘PR consultant.’ Inevitably these people let clients down, and this reflects badly on the industry as a whole. I’d like to see more formal qualifications and regulation introduced.

PR done without proper understanding can lead to poor results. The classic example is distributing a press release without knowing the rules. I call it ‘Marvellous company does something Marvellous.’ These press releases typically use overinflated press release language, and focus on achievements that the company believes are interesting, such as hitting a sales target or moving offices.

But to other people these things aren’t interesting, and also, the distribution methods are often inadequate, typically involving buying a media disk and spamming 12,000 journalists en masse. And I’ve been in news room where journalists just hit the delete key because they can’t keep up with 3 – 4 generic press releases arriving in their inboxes every minute.

Q: What kind of mistakes do people make if they don’t understand the rules of PR?

I tell my clients to always have discipline – just because they've hit a sales target, it doesn’t make the company interesting to outsiders.

A: People tend to make classic mistakes, for example burying the story half way down the page in a press release – or even not even having a story! I tell my clients to always have discipline – just because they've hit a sales target, it doesn’t make the company interesting to outsiders.

Before sending out a press release, you must say: “If I was reading this story about another company that I didn’t know, would I genuinely care?” And for a lot of people, that’s a real eye-opener.

A lot of PR really is about understanding the rules. It’s about getting an image, in the right resolution, to the journalist by the deadline. It’s about using the right words, making sure you stick within the word limit, and have contact details you’re always available on. If you let down a journalist and don’t deliver, why will they ring you again? They can’t afford to be let down.

Another problem with doing PR as an owner-manager is that there are other important things to do, such as customer service and marketing, and PR can quickly go down the list, making it more likely to burn bridges with journalists or not get out a press release out on time.

Q: I guess that people forget that journalists have space to fill and are on as tight a deadline as everyone else. Do you agree?

A: Absolutely, and I think actually, what makes things worse is that people have a tendency to think that journalists are either for or against them. People think they have to ‘win’ journalists over, but this is really not the case. They just misunderstand what journalists want and then get annoyed when their press release isn’t accepted. They need to present something that’s genuinely of interest to a journalist, not what they THINK is of interest.

Q: A lot of small business owners do seem scared/put off by PR. Why do you think this is?

A: A lot of businesses think that PR is something that “other” businesses do, or something that “we’ll do in a couple of years when things are going well.” In other words, it’s perceived to be a luxury. But it really does make an incredible difference. They also think it’s going to be more expensive than it actually is. They’re convinced they want marketing, but mistakenly don’t see PR as part of that mix.

A lot of people think PR is just newspaper coverage, but of course it’s so much more. There’s awards, speaking opportunities, etc., all of which can directly contribute to an increase in business opportunities.

Some of our clients have put in bids for projects and the companies running the projects have come back and told them their bid was equal to other companies, but the awards they have won have swung it in their favour.

Q: Should PR be separated into offline/online or is it important to consider all channels as part of the overall strategy?

A: We don’t differentiate between offline and online; there’s a rush to go to online only but it doesn’t work by itself. We do have clients who we’ve built up a strong Twitter presence for, and I do think that’s important because journalists looking for people to interview will look for a strong social media presence.

If you can get a piece in a newspaper or industry magazines it gives you credibility in a way that social media can’t

So it can help you win offline coverage, but there’s no substitute for good offline coverage. If you can get a piece in a newspaper or industry magazines it gives you credibility in a way that social media can’t because anyone can go online and set up a social media profile. And also, the best way to drive people to your social media profiles is to get your username mentioned in traditional coverage.

There is definitely a rush to digital media, and it is important, but offline is still incredibly important and beneficial. “There are many routes up the mountain,” as they say, but in PR you have to do them all.

The risk is if you set up a Twitter or blog and then don’t keep it fresh – there’s nothing worse than going on a blog and it’s been alive with activity for three months and then there’s nothing for a year.

Q: If you were advising a business about PR and could only tell them three things, what would you say?

  • Awards are a fantastic way to gain momentum: people are naturally wary of small businesses because fear of loss outweighs desire to gain. But if you’ve won awards people feel they can trust you. And most businesses don’t realise how many awards are out there. Local councils will run “Best green company,” trade magazines will run competitions – there are loads of there. You’d be surprised how many awards you can win by just applying.
  • Speaking opportunities: you can win thousands of pounds worth of business from speaking opportunities. Speaking as an expert on your industry gives you the credibility to talk to your target audience as an expert.
  • Journalists are hungry for stories: if you have good news, give it to them, but it doesn’t only have to be news. Articles are great. Submitting articles can get you in easily, especially if you ring the comment editor and ask them if you can submit a speculative article on a set topic. Target existing columnists, take them out for coffee and ask them to write something about your business or a challenge/issue that you’re vocal about.

Q: Is establishing relationships with journalists more important than sending out the right materials?

A: Relationships are always important but they’re incredibly important now. I know so many journalists that have email addresses on media databases, and they’re so used to getting spam they just delete their emails without reading them if they don’t know the sender. Some journalists even give false names and email addresses for these databases because they don’t want to be spammed.

If you don’t know someone, an introduction by a mutual friend is a fantastic way to establish a relationship quickly

So yes, you really can’t beat a personal introduction so you can get on their radar. If you don’t know someone, an introduction by a mutual friend is a fantastic way to establish a relationship quickly (that’s why LinkedIn is a good tool).

Here’s a tip: if you phone someone, make it permission-based. Ask them for two minutes of their time, and – if they are busy – ask them when you can call back. Tell them how long your pitch will take. It’s all about managing expectations.

Q: In what way is PR changing and what trends do you see for the future?

A: PR is becoming a lot more video-led, and we’re also getting a lot of ‘holistic’ clients which means they are looking for everything in one package i.e. social media, offline coverage etc.

I also think a lot more people are realising how important PR is, even in areas where historically it’s not seen much grounding. For example we’ve just launched something called CEO PR, where we’re looking at CEOs in specific industries. When a story breaks, the news anchor wants the CEO on, and I think more and more CEOs realise this and that PR is one of the most important parts of the job. So we work alongside their corporate PR department, and we place them personally in speaking opportunities so that they can ‘front’ the business as a figurehead.

The BP oil spill, for example, was a classic PR disaster. The company handled it well; they set up compensation funds immediately and started the clean-up operation. It could have been a PR dream but they got bogged down in the technicalities, who was ‘technically’ responsible for the spill, etc. Tony Hayward should have owned up immediately but instead he attracted a lot of bad press by, for example, going sailing soon after the disaster broke.

Q: What PR strategies should entrepreneurs/start-ups pursue considering they are pushed for time and generally don’t have much of a budget?

A: Pick five journalists on whose radar you want to be, perhaps one in your industry, one a general business correspondent in a newspaper your potential customers read, one in local newspaper, and make it your business to get to know them.

Make a personal introduction, take them out for lunch, make sure they know what kind of stories you can give them, what you can comment on, what your interests are, and start building that relationship because they will then call you when they need copy, when they are stuck for an article, when they need a quote, and a whole host of other reasons.

And – if you’re reliable – they will call you again, and then that could lead to other things too. Relationships matter and, as a start-up, they are the first thing you should focus on.

Q: There’s a lot of talk around at the moment on the importance of ‘brand,’ that companies in the future will be judged less on their profitability and more on their environmental and social credentials. Do you agree with this?

There are arguments on both sides; it matters to some people, it doesn’t matter to others. It’s one of those things where, if you can tick the box that’s great, but some businesses just want to do business, and some consumers don’t care. It’s horses for courses really.

Saying that, a lot of companies are getting into this ‘triple bottom line,’ thing which is about people planet and business, and the policy that they are all valued equally. So for some companies, and for some consumers, it is becoming more important.

This is hugely admirable, but there are some companies that couldn’t care less.

Q: How do you respond to a company that relies heavily on Twitter and Facebook without looking at other potential PR channels?

A: Social media in its own right can be a waste of time, because it feeds off traditional media and vice versa. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Again, social media is very important when we’re trying to get our clients on TV or on the radio or in newspaper. Journalists will read their blogs and see what they’re doing, how they come across, and see how many followers they have. But just blogging and Twitter on their own is not really strong enough.

To be honest, PR is about getting you out there and it doesn’t really matter what the route is, so leveraging as many channels as possible is the best way to do it.

Q: Can start-ups with a very good understanding of how PR works do their own PR?

Why pay a fortune for a tiny piece of advertising when you can phone the journalist up personally, give them juicy news and be the page lead?

A: If you understand PR as a start-up, you can dedicate a set amount of time each day – I suggest an hour – to PR, and this can help your business enormously. Make sure you have some innovation and then shout about it from the rooftops, and get those relationships with journalists. Work those relationships ruthlessly – after all, it’s free publicity. Why pay a fortune for a tiny piece of advertising when you can phone the journalist up personally, give them juicy news and be the page lead?

That’s where people go wrong. It can take a long time to come up with a decent story that journalists are interested in, and it is hard, but once you start to innovate, the publicity will naturally come. And this is a fantastic way to get new clients. Specifically with industry magazines, if you have an innovative story, you can get on the radar of all your potential clients easily.

I don’t understand why people don’t want to do PR, it’s an incredible way of growing your business and it’s free if you do it yourself!

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