The Role of PR in Your Growing Business – Linda Varrell

The Role of PR in Your Growing Business - Linda VarrellPublic relations, or PR, is about a lot more than crisis management, but it is critical to have a plan in place in case things go wrong.

PR expert Linda Varrell stops by the Fast Forward Maine studios this week to talk about crisis management, the role of PR in your company, how PR impacts how people see your business, and a whole lot more.

If you’ve ever wondered how PR fits in with your business strategy, you’ll want to check out our interview with Linda!

Rich: Our next guest has more than 25 years of experience in communications, public relations, crisis handling, and product and sales management. As a former vide president and company spokesperson for a publicly traded financial institution, she created and executed external and internal communication campaigns supporting expansive growth, product introductions, mergers, acquisitions and divestitures, financial disclosures, high visibility construction and technology projects, as well as numerous crisis. In 2006 she founded Broad Reach Public Relations, an award winning, woman owned, strategic communication firm based in Portland, Maine. She is nationally credited in public relations APR, holds a masters degree in organizational leadership, and is regularly tapped to speak at C level events and industry specific conferences.

Rich: she serves on numerous nonprofit boards, including as president of the Maine Public Relations Council. Chair of University of Southern Maine USM corporate partners, and is a board member of the Maine Press Association. She also has served as adjunct faculty at both USM and Thomas College. She recently launched Word Lab, a nationally recognized department of labor apprenticeship program providing public relations, marketing, and public affairs training to young professionals while serving the communication needs of small businesses and nonprofits.

Rich: We are very exited today to be talking to Linda Verrill.

Linda: Well, thank you Rich, and that was quite a mouthful. Thank you for getting all that in.

Rich: I only stumbled three times, that’s pretty good for me.

Yury: That is a very impressive resume Linda, and thank you for joining us today. It feels like the resumes field and screaming public relations very loud, so could you tell us how did you get in public relations?

Linda: Yeah, so that’s a great question Yury, because I never explored public relations. I really fell into it. Throughout my years in banking I headed numerous projects, and the common denominator in all of the projects was communications. It wasn’t just communication amongst the project team, it was communicating with the community, town leaders, organizations, with the customers, and with our employee base. I realized the more successful you were in communicating what was going on during a project, the more successful the project would be. Then, I discovered in marketing when I took that over at the bank in ’01, that I really enjoyed that aspect of it.

Linda: I got out of the project management, reorganized the marketing department, and then moved out on my own as a corporate communication specialist starting Broad Reach. The bank was a client of mine for the first four and a half years, so that was nice.

Rich: That is awesome. You mentioned you’re heading up, you founded Broad Reach Public Relations. What is your job as a PR professional? What exactly do you do for your clients.

Linda: That also is a great question. When CEOs ask me usually the first words out of my mouth are, “I tell you what you don’t want to hear.” Then, we have a nice chuckle, and we really talk about no, I really do come to the table and tell you what you don’t want to hear. We work on how you want to be positioned in the market, how you want to build and preserve your reputation. How we want to be in alignment with your brand, because your brand is really that image that you project out there and that your reputation is really what is reflected back. Those two pieces have to be congruent, and public relations is all about shaping your reputation and what’s being reflected back. Making sure that your brand promise is being delivered, those messages are being received, and they’re reaching the audiences that you care about.

Rich: What parts of that are you handling in terms of like are you talking to newspapers, the media, or are there other components of that to help shape that reputation?

Linda: No, absolutely. We’re talking to a lot of different outlets because right now, you know, public relations is today what one might call content strategy, content marketing. Community relations. The tools of a PR pro back in the day was the newsletter, the white paper.

Rich: Press clipping.

Linda: Press clippings. The seminar. The meet and greets. You know, all of those feel good events that really helped build long-term deep relationships with again the audiences or the stakeholders that matter. The work that we do could be anything from, you know, we’re doing an announcement now about a joint venture between two companies. Really exploring okay what does that mean, who needs to know, why is this important, what industry publications, what news publications, what organizations, what centers of influence. Who needs to know this piece of information so that they can help bolster the company and the two companies, and also share that news.

Linda: Today everything is really word of mouth, and we’ve just been able to amplify that with social media. We help find those connection points or those collision points where that can happen.

Yury: Speaking about social media, so how did it change, how did social media change public relations?

Linda: Social media basically turned both marketing and public relations on it’s ear. I think Rich could probably attest to that. There was a time when we used to laugh when someone called themselves an expert because maybe they were like a month ahead in the learnings than the rest of us. But, social media really opened up a whole new world in terms of citizen journalism, independent storytelling. You didn’t need the media anymore to tell your stories, whereas they used to be the broker. An organization usually used a PR firm to communicate with the media, and now organizations can go direct to market with their news, with their information. They don’t have to wait for a journalist to say, “Yeah, I’ll do that story.” They can put it out there themselves.

Yury: But, that adds a little bit of a complexity. Just because I can tap a button and go live from a boardroom announcing something, doesn’t mean that I should.

Linda: Right. That is correct. We’re actually learning that earned media is starting to gain traction in terms of credibility and in terms of search engine optimization, validation, and trust. While everyone out there was pushing information through social media it was hard to trust what you were looking at, and so now with that third party validation through trusted outlets, organizations can get their stories out there. But, putting them out there yourself it’s great to just keep pushing and pushing and pushing, but at some point you’ve got to get folks coming in bound and really validating those stories for you.

Rich: I had this question qued up, but I’ll jump to it because you mentioned this. There are different types of media out there. Earned, bought, shared, owned. How does a company find the right balance between those different types of media?

Linda: It depends on what their overarching strategy is. You can take two similar organizations, whether they’re financial institutions, Yury like what you’re dealing with, or law firms or accounting firms. Each of them has to decide how they want to be positioned in the market, and then they have to decide what channels they want to do that with. You can have 100% paid strategy, understanding that you’re not getting the credibility, you’re not getting the third party validation. We always advocate for a healthy balance between paid and earned, owned and shared. Again, it’s not about pushing everything out there. I mean some of you have seen that model, the listicles, how many blog posts can we put out there.

Linda: Well, if no ones commenting on them, if no ones sharing them, if that information isn’t being repurposed across multiple channels or outlets, then it’s really a waste of that content. We really look at say one piece of earned media and we actually have a three page checklist on how to maximize that single piece of earned media across an organizations channels. Whether it’s an internal newsletter, their social outlets, their vendors social outlets, their employees. Really leveraging all the different pieces and parts of the spiderweb of communication.

Rich: That’s a lot like content marketing strategy anyways, because you get one really good piece of content and you want to make sure as many of the right people as possible see that. Very similar model in terms of that.

Linda: Right. Then, it’s also what kind of shelf life does this piece of content have? Are we going to bring it back to life on a throwback Thursday, or on an anniversary, or every four months we’re going to take that same piece but we’re going to tweak the introduction or we’re going to tweak the actual post, but the link is still going to be the same.

Yury: Well, when we were talking about marketing and content and public relations, what do I need to know to understand the difference between public relations and marketing. Is there a divide that I know exactly what I’m doing and exactly what I need?

Linda: Yeah, that’s a great question, because I wasn’t brought up in the marketing world. I wasn’t really brought up in the public relations world. How I’ve defined it for audiences when I speak is that marketing captures the wallet, and public relations captures the heart. If you look at definitions of marketing it’s all about creating a transaction, creating revenue, or creating an exchange. Public relations it’s all about creating and building that relationship. For me, the two really go hand and glove. They both need each other. Public relations looks at it more from a holistic perspective.

Linda: The public relations professional is sitting at the table again thinking about the overall reputation of the organization, regardless of what products are being sold, what initiatives are taking place. They’re really thinking about what business decisions a company is making, how is this going to effect them going forward, what are the risks. They’re thinking of the whole organization, from the employee to the shareholder. From the customer to the prospect. Really looking at all of it, whereas a marketer might be looking at it more through that narrow view. They might not be thinking about the employees and how this effects them, or the community and how it effects them at large. It’s a different mindset in how you think strategically about the organization as a whole.

Yury: Basically based on your value proposition then you choose how you want to be introduced in the market, whether it’s through aggressive marketing or through nurturing relationship and doing your community events and focusing on public relations.

Linda: Right. One of the roles I’ve always played sitting around a table, whether it’s an organization I belong too or it’s a company I’ve worked for. An IT person comes to the table with a solution that’s grounded in IT. You know, they’re going to come to the table with a piece of hardware, a piece of software, this is what we need to do. An HR professional is going to come to the table and say, “We need to hire someone. It’s a people solution, it’s a training solution.” A marketing person is going to say, “We need to go out and spend money on something.” The CEO or the CFO is going to be thinking about it from a financial perspective, or a value perspective.

Linda: Whereas a PR professional looks at it from a reputation perspective. How is this going to impact us across all of our audiences. That’s the difference. It’s that risk management perspective that really makes the difference. Also being able to say, “You know what, we don’t really need to do anything here.” Whereas a lot of the different positions in an organization want to do something.

Rich: Now, Linda, I’m going to put on my business owner hat now, and I probably know the answer to this but I’m going to ask you anyway. Should I wait for a crisis to engage in public relations?

Linda: No. No, and no. One of the things having a banking background, and I think Yury can attest to this, is there is a lot of preparation for incidences. You had to write plans for bomb threats. You had to write plans for hostage takeovers, fraud, embezzlement, employee situations, et cetera. The rest of the business community wasn’t required to do that. The financial services, health care, et cetera, they’re all required from a regulatory perspective to have crises plans in place, practice them, upgrade them on a regular basis. Small business, they’re too busy doing their work so they don’t realize that what happened to the retailer two states over could actually happen to them. That’s a lot of the problem is people think, “Well, this isn’t going to happen to me.”

Rich: Absolutely.

Linda: We talk about, even if it’s a two page document, who’s the company spokesperson? What are your core values, how do you want to respond to the media? Those are some really basic things that you need to have conversations about, and at least put on a piece of paper and have your senior managers or people who are frontline know what the first five steps are they need to do in case something happens.

Rich: I think that’s a great approach, and it almost feels like a fire drill. Like, we want to prepare, we want to make sure everybody gets out of the building, whatever it is you know. But I guess the other side of that question that I’m asking is, is PR focused, for the small business owner, is PR focused on crises, or should it be focused on more of that reputation and it’s an ongoing sort of thing. Like, do I only call Broad Reach if something hits the fan, or should I be saying, “Hey, everything’s great, but let’s just talk anyway.”

Linda: Yeah, no, and that’s a great question. When you think about crisis communication it’s really about crisis mitigation, because you’re never going to stop it. It’s like a runaway train, but you can slow it down a lot of times. We advocate for adopting a communication discipline. It’s all about communication with your audiences on a regular basis. Filling that well with good news. People need to know about your organization and it needs to be online, because the first thing a potential employee is going to look at is your website. A potential customer is going to look at your website. They’re going to do a search on you, and they’re going to want to see, you know, what are you doing?

Linda: Who do you donate too, what do you support, what kind of company are you, what about your reviews? All of that. If you’re not putting that information out there, then there’s nothing on you. You’re pretty much an unknown and if something happens, there’s nothing out there to counter balance the negative news.

Yury: In preparation or in anticipation of whatever may happen to us, is PR something that we should be doing in house. Is it something that should be outsourced, is it a combination? In addition to what you already mentioned that we should have some kind of a fact sheet for media, is there anything else we can be doing in anticipation of …

Linda: Yeah, so the first thing is probably some sort of quick reference guide that answers the question, “What should I do if the media does call?” Because everyone thinks that just because a reporter calls or an editor calls that they need to talk to them right then and there, but there are ways to deflect. There are ways to control the conversation. Gather your thoughts, gather your information, and then get back to the reporter. That script should actually be written out and be underneath everybody’s desk. Under their blot or at their desk or hung up on their bulletin board. That’s really the first thing.

Linda: As far as hiring, doing it in house, we see it all. The bottom line is you need to have resources to monitor your reputation and be able to respond to events that are occurring positive and negatively. The definition of a crisis is that the scope extends beyond your internal capacity to handle it. The last thing you want to be doing is you’re in the middle of something, an IT crisis for example. You’re trying to fix it, and you don’t have a PR pro on speed dial. You don’t have your attorney on speed dial. You don’t have your insurance company on speed dial, and you don’t have an HR professional on speed dial. All who are outside the organization, because again, a true crisis extends beyond the capacity of what you have for internal resources.

Rich: Makes sense. Now, this podcast is obviously called Fast Forward Maine, so I’m curious, and you’re here in Maine, I’m curious to know, do you think that Maine companies have an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to PR. Or, is it really all the same regardless of where your company is?

Linda: Hmm, I have to think about that one for a minute. We work with a lot of organizations that are getting national news. We have a product company that we’ve placed them in Forbes, we’ve placed them in Eat This, Not That. A number of blogs, a number of other things.

Rich: I assume they were in the eat this category.

Linda: Yes. They were. I think it’s more about having the tools that are necessary, because reporters change on a regular basis and the outlets we want to connect with aren’t always right here in Maine. We’re a global society, so we have clients that want their news internationally. I mean, you remember the beer box, reaching out to papers in Iceland or in the UK. You’ve got New York or Canada. It’s an interesting time. Being from Maine though, everybody always wants to visit Maine. When we’re ever talking with a writer or an editor or a journalist, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to come visit Maine.” Or, “I was in Maine for a family vacation.” There’s always a little bit of sentiment when we’re talking with reporters about Maine. There’s a mystic.

Rich: Excellent.

Yury: If you could change one thing about the Maine business ecosystem, what would it be?

Linda: There are actually two things.

Rich: Oh. Bonus answer.

Linda: I know. The first is I feel if Maine is the number one place in the country for startups, and it’s also the number one place in the country for women owned businesses, then there really needs to be more access to capital, to grants, and to different programs that are being paid or accessed directly by the business owner. You know, it’s great to have consultants, it’s great to have all these support organizations. But, I think more money needs to actually get in the hands of the small business owners to create jobs, to build capital, to do training. That would be the second piece, is that right now if an organization does it’s own training in house, or takes on apprenticeship programs or different things like that, there are no tax incentives to do any of that.

Linda: Yet, we are trying to attract young people to Maine, we are trying to keep young people here. We really need to think about what resources are available, what tax credits, what grants are available out there, so that companies can attract young people and keep them here in Maine. Then, get credit for that, for the training that they’re having to do to get those folks to the next level in their career.

Rich: Love that. Now, normally at this point I would ask you hey, where can we find you online, and we’d talk about Broad Reach, which of course we’re going to have links to in the show notes. But, I want to take this moment, can you tell me, tell our audience, a little bit about Word Lab. Because I think this is a fabulous project, and I’d love everybody to hear a little bit more about that.

Linda: Yeah, so we’re excited about Word Lab. It’s a trademarked name, interestingly enough, we couldn’t believe that working-

Rich: No one had snapped that up before.

Linda: Yeah, working with our attorney no one had snapped that up globally. Word Lab was the result of a business plan that I put together last year working with Goldman Sachs, 10,000 small businesses. We were struggling at Broad Reach in that we were regularly receiving resumes from young people who wanted to work for us. Either in internships or apprenticeships. They wanted to move to Maine. Then, we also had small businesses, non profits, companies that had projects but didn’t really have budgets. This business plan was formulated to bring these two together, and working with the department of labor we found out that there is the Maine apprenticeship program, and Word Lab is certified department of labor apprenticeship program.

Linda: What we’re doing is we’re offering public relations communications services to small business, non profits, and to other organizations, at affordable rates. We’re also training the next generation of communicators. Our first cohort was hired in February, so we hired four. Of the four we brought one young man to Maine, Brian. Of our second cohort was started in June and we brought two young people to Maine, so in total we’ve attracted three young professionals to the state. Our program director is Wayne Clark. He had set up the communications program at Maine Med years ago, so he has a long history of PR, a long history of being adjunct faculty.

Linda: We have some of our first clients. Wireless partners. Bob Parslow has underwritten one of the positions. Fred Forsley has come on board, and is supporting the program. We’re working with on Eli’s and Pumpkin Head. It’s been pretty exciting. One of our first clients was a wealth management firm that moved into Portland, Boston Financial Management. It’s been a fun ride and we’re working out the proof of concept, and we’re bringing on new clients, so if you know of anybody I’ll send them their way.

Rich: I think it’s a great idea. Yeah, absolutely.

Yury: I agree.

Rich: Linda, this has been fantastic. I appreciate you coming by, teaching us a little bit about PR, a little bit about Broad Reach and Word Lab, and thanks for sharing your expertise.

Linda: Oh, well thank you for having me. I really appreciate it Rich and Yury.

Yury: Thank you for coming.