PR is sales
I spent the first three years of my career working with a PR industry pioneer, Graham Lancaster. In 1978, he established Biss Lancaster with Adele Biss, and it quickly became a leader in the roaring PR 80s of London before being acquired by EuroRSCG.
Graham was a maestro, who had grown up in Salford, north-west England, a true poor-kid-done-good story. Even the smallest achievement was a big deal for him, and his enthusiasm infused everyone, a key to his and others’ success.
My lasting memory of Graham is him leaping out of his office to celebrate even the smallest piece of coverage with verve and aplomb - to him a few column inches was akin to winning a new client. Coverage was gold. He was, and still is, a writer of thrillers; a story teller professionally and personally.
I joined Biss Lancaster as a Graduate Trainee, alongside a few others, and within a month of arriving, having a desk, a whole lot of new challenges, as well as mountains of clippings to sort, he sat us all down and asked a question….
“What is PR?”
We responded with phrases including the words reputation, communication, strategy and one of us attempted a long winded definition. He nodded, asked for more detail and then said…
“No…..all wrong….PR is sales.
“You will spend most of your time here selling ideas, concepts, events, brands, people, organisations, stories, features, to your clients, colleagues, journalists and even to yourselves. PR is sales.”
We all felt deflated but ever since, I’ve been selling.
The irony is that public relations is not often associated with selling and sales, when it is actually critical to the main thing any organisation needs - revenue.
The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) defines PR as:
“The deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding and excellent communications between an organisation and its publics.”
It goes on to say:
“Communications management shall be defined as the systematic planning, implementing, monitoring and revision of all channels of communication within an organisation, and between organisations.”
No mention of sales or selling here.
You will find the same in the definitions from the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) and Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).
Maybe Graham was a bit bonkers to suggest such heresy?
Jump forward a couple of decades and the word sales became part and parcel of Storicom starting to use a marketing automation platform to meld PR and marketing communications together.
In doing so, the sales funnel became front and centre to everything we did. We were using the Hubspot platform to support clients and following its sales funnel inbound marketing model (see below). We were trying to insert sales into public relations and vice versa. To us the combination of PR’s storytelling prowess with the technical ability of marketing to deliver to the right place, at the right time, using the best channel made logical sense.
This sales funnel process is similar to thousands of other models and is fundamental to everything a salesperson does.
However, supporting this is another funnel - the Understanding Funnel, which is more about people’s thought process as they progress through each stage towards a sale.
In this, strangers lack knowledge about a product or service and are starting to search for a solution and visitors are finding interesting information and delving deeper.
Leads are people who are absorbing the information they’ve found and topping it up with more research, and customers like what they’ve found and are buying. It ends with promoters having such a good experience they will tell others, some of whom will become leads and customers. And so on.
It is in the understanding funnel that PR’s value is maximised to provide the strategic communication to support understanding, the building of a relationship between a product or service and a customer, and the reputation and trust that ultimately help deliver a sale.
The main difference is it’s not a sales pitch - it is an education, a long term process comprising stories, case studies, views and opinions, anecdotes and proof points, research and statistics, either written, visual, video or audio.
With many channels of communication to consider, PR is not short term. However, it’s a shame that so many still consider it this way, as a method to report on what’s happened rather than using it as a management tool to support the long term achievement of organisational goals, sales targets included.
Graham took a maverick approach when he said PR is about sales but he was looking at what really counts for business and the practical day-to-day life of a PR consultant. He was also bringing us bright eyed and bushy tailed new grads down to earth.
Having said this, I have done an awful lot of sales since I worked with him 30 years ago.
While sales will never be front and centre in a definition of public relations I do believe it needs to be discussed more. Sales are a concrete measure and let’s face it, they are what keeps leaders interested. If we can show how PR drives sales we will have the attention of CEOs, Managing Directors, Boards and the finance people who pay our bills.
The eyes, ears and time of these decision makers is what PR needs more than ever, as we are increasingly bitten into by so many different professions and professional practices who think anyone can be a PR expert. We in the Public Relations profession know this isn’t the case, so we need to do more to protect our patch. More of a sales mindset would help.