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04.28.21

Brand Reputation Is Everything (And It Starts With Strategic PR)

by Natalie Kay

Brand + Reputation: Allies and Cousins

Companies spend years building a brand and, occasionally, find it threatened in an instant.
A brand is the promise of an experience. The media, including social media, is where you may uncomfortably find that certain audiences feel that you have not kept that promise.

Your brand is controlled, influenced, and managed by the company. Your reputation is the outcome of the experience you’ve promised, as well as the perception of that experience, based on the brand’s character and choice, and those perceptions are not necessarily driven by your customers.

This is where strategic public relations strengthens or protects your brand as to what it means to your neighborhood, your workers, the environment, and your government, to name only a few primary audiences. When threatened, you cannot declare in an instant that you are moral or ethical or that you care in the face of evidence, valid or not, that your beliefs are not shared by audiences that are not normally considerations.

Earned Credibility

The companies best able to withstand brand reputation threats are those who regularly execute a strategic public relations plan.

Much of that plan should certainly include media outreach on behalf of your product or service and, as important, a reinforcement of the collective ethos of all those behind the brand. Just what we mean by media is vastly different from the days when professionals “pitched” media, meaning newspapers, magazines, broadcast television, and radio.

The best public relations professionals recognized more than a decade ago that the opportunity was not just in pitching media but in being media. The good and bad news of today’s digital world is that we may all assume the role of citizen journalist.

It means that the universe of those clamoring for attention has grown more populated, and louder. But it is not increased volume that cuts through the clutter, it is creativity.

At Material, we ask ourselves a simple question before we approach media: If it was not my job, or my industry, or some product or service I use, would I have any interest in this story? If the answer is no, why would a reporter be interested?

We have a client in the agriculture space that helps growers, packagers, and retailers bring us fruits and vegetables that have a longer shelf life. Their process is why we are now able to buy crisp, ripe apples in June, rather than only in the fall harvest season. It is a process that will eliminate the need to throw away half of every bunch of bananas we buy because they have spoiled.

It is an interesting story but it became a compelling story when we focused on what the reduction of tons of food waste could mean to a hungry world. It worked because the company was willing to share its beliefs in open, frank discussions with reporters who must, by definition, be skeptical.

Whether the reporter is a traditional journalist or an influencer in social media, there are questions companies cannot avoid. A refusal to acknowledge those questions is not only a lost opportunity at the time but a failure to bank goodwill that may be of great benefit later.

We worked with a wonderful pharmacy that is helping one of the largest states administer vaccines for underserved areas in the state, a noble, mission-driven effort. National media organizations were interested and, as you might expect, they wanted to know how beneficial the effort would be to the company. Affronted by the question, they refused interview opportunities that could have elevated their profile.

They expected that the messages they had created would be unassailable, accepted without any need for discomfort.

In many ways, companies see message development in strategic public relations in the same way they develop a brand. But it is not at all the same exercise. Too often, a company’s message set cannot withstand even polite inquiries. It’s why we devote as much time to testing brand messages as preparing them.

Modern companies need strategic public relations partners, often because C-suite executives are so accustomed to being believed without question.

Material’s Differentiating Approach

A lot of agencies view the media as a target audience. At Material, we do not. Rather, we view them as a window to our audiences.

We don’t do PR by the pound. Other agencies put weight on audience impressions or how many people see a specific press release. We view those as soft metrics that matter, but not exclusively or even especially.

Yes, impressions can be great, but only if it’s from your desired audience, and that audience derives a favorable impression of you as a result. We take a more qualitative approach, ensuring that everything a brand releases reflects the brand’s mission and connects with their audiences in a meaningful way. The strongest PR comes from targeting readers and viewers, not the actual reporter. It’s less about products and features and more about why it ultimately matters. That’s much harder to do than merely distribute a press release.

The Material process is truly collaborative but, more importantly, has the potential to evolve in ways that no other strategic public relations firm can match.

Material is one of the most sophisticated research organizations in the world. We have the ability to predict with unmatched certainty what people are likely to believe and we have a history of offering that research to brand efforts by companies and yes, other agencies.

In ways that no other agency will be unable to match, we will be equally adept at knowing what an audience will not believe. That research ability, coupled with a group of seasoned professionals, will be the model for successful strategic planning going forward.

Natalie Kay