The role of the PR professional is changing fast. No longer limited to media relations or crisis management, these days PR people have evolved into larger and more strategic roles as “communicators,” who handle multi-channel messaging to a variety of important audiences, or “publics.” Our guest, Bonnie Harris, explains what’s driving this change, and where it’s likely to go next.
Ruth Stevens: What is a communications professional and how is that different from marketer or a marketing communications professional?
Bonnie Harris: Communications is a subset of marketing, but I also think that public relations in that title over the years has become really synonymous with media relations and getting news stories. We've seen a trend in the last two or three years where people really are calling it communications once again, which is a smart thing to do because it goes back to the basics of what that job entails from the very beginning.
Ruth Stevens: Does it include corporate communications such as employee communications, investor relations, brand messaging and core company level messaging?
Bonnie Harris: If you think about the term public relations what it means is building relationships with your key publics. So yes, that could include employees, it could include government, media, customers—all of those kinds of things. We work more in the field of nuance and influence and that's where it's really different from a traditional marketing sense where you're really driving towards a conversion or a sale. We're kind of influencing the process in every step.
Ruth Stevens: Why did it change? What triggered those professionals to rename themselves or reposition their function?
Bonnie Harris: I think that when social media really started to gain traction in 2007 or right around there and the proliferation of messaging channels created need to develop more of an integrated approach. In the old days we had very few channels, and so it was all about frequency and getting the message in there and reaching impressions and today it's really about how can we reach our audiences. It's more focused, and it's less of a broad swath.
Cyndi Greenglass: There has been growth of digital commerce since the pandemic. Do you see this continuing?
Bonnie Harris: There were double digit percentage growth numbers during the pandemic, but if you look at the numbers that are coming out now, over the last two years, we're only seeing a drop in retail sales, which is a different way of looking at it. People are going back to the stores, and they're still wanting that in-store experience. If you look at some of the stats that just came out, we're seeing a real slowing of the growth of online retail. What we're seeing is that people kind of want this hybrid experience. There is a combination of wanting to go in the store and actually touch and feel clothing, but then buy them online. I think that it's becoming much more a hybrid experience. I do not believe digital is going to kill retail experience. We're just not seeing that numbers.
Ruth Stevens: Could you give us some examples of how the message might be adapted for each channel?
Bonnie Harris: In the old days, we would say how many times somebody had to see a message for to stick and now it's how many different ways really understanding the audience. For example, I work quite a bit with public health vaccination efforts here in the Twin Cities. One of the real challenges we are having is with communities of color and raising the vaccination rates. We looked at where they were going and the people that they trusted and we ended up having a vaccination program that is occurring at barbershops. It's doing really well. You're optimizing not only within each channel, but you're optimizing your combination of channels. We communicated about those barbershop things all over the place—on Facebook, on radio, in some of the churches. What we know is that in public health in particular, the messages that really work come from people that they trust. It's a bit of influencer marketing, if you will. And then just making sure that those messages are coming through those leaders in an authentic way.
Ruth Stevens: How are things evolving just over the horizon?
Bonnie Harris: I see now a lot of communications professionals who are able to understand how to incorporate data analytics into what they're doing and how to inform their practice so that they are kind of approaching it with both the left and right brain approach. In healthcare, just like every other industry during the pandemic, we saw the effects of the pandemic and the effects of having to do so many things virtually. People began to have preferences for things they've never known they could do before. For example, virtual doctor visits. For communicators, they need to understand not only these different channels but how these hybrid experiences work holistically and learn how to message each stage in what we call a journey.
Key Takeaways/Three Little Piggies
- There is what we call the opti-channel concept, which is that key messages need to be optimized for each channel. Customers are going to behave not based on frequency of messaging, but how many channels through which they're receiving our messages.
- AI and analytics are enabling us, through real-time sentiment tracking and other technology tools, to be better at natural storytelling.
- We need to think about the PR function more broadly. It’s not just media relations or crisis communications, which is sort of where our minds typically turn to, it's really bigger and more impactful.
Marketing Communications Today presents Horizons, it’s forward-thinking, looking ahead, through the front windshield and beyond, into the marketing future. Join Cyndi and Ruth bi-weekly for new ideas, technologies, tools and strategies that are emerging to help marketers navigate over the marketing horizon.
Meet our guest
Bonnie Harris is the founder of Wax Marketing, Inc. an integrated marketing agency based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Harris and her team designed and implemented IMC strategies for clients across the United States, focused primarily on midsized companies in the healthcare, technology and manufacturing industries.
Prior to founding her IMC practice, Harris worked in the technology industry for 16 years, eventually rising to the role of vice president, where she oversaw sales, marketing and operations for nine profit centers in eight states. She received her master’s degree from the West Virginia University IMC program in December of 2007 and completed her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Minnesota in 2001.
View her blog for more content.
Meet the hosts
Cyndi W. Greenglass is a founding partner and Senior Vice President Strategic Solutions at Diamond Communication Solutions, a data driven communications firm specializing in Healthcare, Financial Services and direct response solutions and an adjunct instructor in the Data Marketing Communications online master’s degree program from WVU.
Greenglass has twice been named into the Top 100 Influential BTB Marketers by Crain’s BtoB Magazine and was the 2012 CADM Chicago Direct Marketer of the Year. Greenglass is a member of the Executive Management team at Diamond Marketing Solutions where she is responsible for the strategic planning process, participates in strategic acquisitions, and manages the agency services division.
Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, for business-to-business clients. Ruth serves on the boards of directors of the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. She is a trustee of Princeton-In-Asia, past chair of the Business-to-Business Council of the DMA, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York.
Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain’s BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She serves as a mentor to fledgling companies at the ERA business accelerator in New York City.
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