Bloggers, Brands and Business: The Changing PR Story
The world of public relations is changing by the day. The Barcelona Principles of measurement and evaluation of PR campaigns are being re-defined for a new digital era. Advertising Value Equivalent (or AVE for short) is no longer considered the undisputed measurement benchmark of value and new social and print media outreach paradigms are being established to quantify and report just how successful a PR campaign has been, so that clients can assess their returns on investment. If you operate in the world of food and drink PR, especially, you have to keep your eye on many fluctuating balls.
There is no doubt that foodie bloggers are becoming increasingly important in the broadcasting landscape. If you look at the top twenty individual writers in the Wikio rankings for gastronomy you will see that PR companies and media marketing directors in FMCG sectors are using the algorithms used by the website to calculate blog popularity, links, backlinks and social media interactions. They then target a chosen niche of influencers to promote and sell their brands.
These bloggers have voluntarily chosen to be ranked and contacted: they review cookbooks, kitchen equipment, food and drink, hotels, cookery schools and restaurants, albeit not for a living, but often as a side revenue stream attached to other activities, such as writing their own cookbook, talking on radio or organising supper clubs. Many are specialists in their chosen field and are foodie obsessives. They are rapidly outplacing more established, salaried media professionals as the guardians of culinary expertise, influence and news dissemination.
Brands are able to tap into the kitchen sink power of these new world pied pipers in a number of ways: making contact via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google + and Linkedin) to secure their support and endorsement; sending their products to the writers in return for their opinion; organising lunches and get-togethers to network and influence key players and even inviting writers to write guest-Blogs on their website. How consumers absorb media messages has changed profoundly in the last two years, and now many brands employ specialist PR companies to manage their relationships with bloggers as well as more traditional writers.
If you think these waters seem very murky indeed, just grasp onto this thought: if you are artisanal food and drink producer, you will not get very far in selling your product to the masses without the help of Blogs, social media and PR. You will need to create your own presence as well as court the collective voices and enthusiasm of the chattering cloud crowd, be they bloggers, housewives, amateurs, chefs or newspaper editors.
I wanted to find out more about how print, digital and broadcast PR food and drink campaigns are run, now that the shifting sands of influence have created a playing field where, as Martin Raymond of The Future Laboratory said “The influenced have now become the influencers”. I have always felt since the beginning, that a website such as The Foodie Bugle should retain its economic independence and be an advertising-free platform, not just for moral and credibility reasons but also for aesthetic integrity. When I go to interview artisanal producers, however, I am shocked at how un-savvy many are with regards to modern media, how ignorant they are of how to create viral and direct outreach and engage with consumers, bloggers and journalists. So I needed to meet a seasoned professional within the PR industry to update and inform me about its changing landscape in order to empower me to give key advice to smaller businesses as to how they could communicate and collaborate with these new forces and get the most out of the PR whirlwind.
Ailana Kamelmacher is the founder of Story PR in Bloomsbury, and for the last twelve years she has worked with brands such as Innocent drinks, Sipsmith gin and vodka, The London Tea Company, Little Dish baby foods, Riverford Organics fruit and vegetables, Nyetimber wines, Copas turkeys, Vallebona Sardinian gourmet food and Talisker whiskey. She believes that, owing to the wide and varied number of media channels, no brand can be rigid about its PR campaign anymore. According to Ailana, participating in the overall conversation is key:
Ailana: “If I were starting a brand new artisanal company today, and I had little or no PR budget, I would make sure I embraced every kind of media. I was once a start-up myself, so I know exactly how it feels to have very little money. I would engage with customers on Twitter and Facebook, creating an open dialogue to connect and converse. There is a whole new generation of consumers out there now who never look at the newspaper magazine supplements. They can be reached so readily with social media, and by showing your true personality, giving consumers insight into your daily, working life you can create a much more authentic and meaningful rapport with your audience. For example, when Guy Watson of Riverford Organics has a bad day in the fields, he says so on Twitter: he is talking genuinely as a farmer out in the elements. The founders of Sipsmith Gin love cricket, so when the cricket season is on they Tweet the scores, so fan followers can join in. Talisker sponsored an Atlantic rowing race, so it was important to engage the sports community on social media, a channel one would not normally consider when selling premium whiskey. If, as the owner of the business, you really do not like interacting with people, try to find someone who is a natural, born salesperson within your business. If you are a sole trader, then play to your strengths. If taking people round your vineyard or winery is what you love most, then engage with people on that level. Do whatever line of communication enables you to convey your story. People are excited by a story well told.”
The importance of food bloggers and the value they bring to the market place is one that Story PR certainly embraces and makes full use of. There is an echelon of foodie writers who are deemed to know the inside stories, have travelled and dined extensively and have created bonds of trust and influence with their audience. Ailana reads their Blogs and analyses their content.
“When there is a good food blogger, one with a loyal following which has been accomplished through consistently good writing, knowledge and passion for their subject, then I believe their view is important to seek out. If, for example, one of the better known newspaper restaurant reviewers were to arrive at a restaurant, the manager knows immediately who they are. They will be given the best table, the best complimentary Champagne and, all of a sudden, trays of free amuse bouche canapés will come out. Their whole experience will be completely different from that of a food blogger, because on the whole he or she is an anonymous, undercover person. Even in the case the restaurant offers them a complimentary meal, the chances are, in general, they are most likely to receive the same sort of standard of service and food as the ordinary customer. This is why a blogger’s review is more likely to be realistic, democratic and of value.”
Ailana believes it is very important that before a new producer even approaches any form of media they should establish very firmly in their minds exactly what it is that makes their product different, and they need to do so in succinct language. Then they need to target the right individuals to talk to:
“You only have a couple of minutes at most to grab an editor or a blogger’s attention. Be very realistic, and decide what it is that that particular blogger, that journalist, that food writer writes about normally and contact those carefully targeted writers and influencers that are most likely to write about your niche. Make absolutely clear what your unique selling point is. Simplicity, authenticity and clarity are very important principles. Do not haphazardly broadcast your message: distilled and discerning quality of communication is far more important than random volume and quantity.”
It was interesting to note, during the course of the interview, that even in the world of cyberspace communication, simple, human recommendations and word of mouth are still two of the most important marketing tools available for any brand, big or small:
“If I cannot get personally excited about a product then I would not be able to sell it when I come face to face with a journalist. If the overall ethics and values of a company are not aligned with mine, then, when I am speaking to the media about that company I do not feel I can be enthusiastic. That is why I am selective about the kinds of brands I choose to represent within my portfolio of work. If your product is genuinely the best out there, communicators will naturally want to chat and shout about the “wow” factor. I always say to prospective clients, don’t be medium, be amazing, because good word of mouth relies on excitement and buzz.”
I have personally seen the Twitter feeds of completely unknown, but very good, food products, rise like billowing soufflés in a hot oven when the rallying chatterers start spreading the word. The timing of a PR campaign is just as important as the content, however.
“I always ask start-up companies when they want to push the button. This has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. For example, I often meet artisanal food producers at the Abergavenny or Ludlow food festivals who are selling very well in delicatessens or farm shops, but they want to take the giant leap to selling to Waitrose. Would a full PR campaign be of benefit, to raise their profile and enhance their chances? Well, all this needs to be judged very carefully on a case by case basis, because Waitrose sometimes does like to show its customers that it has “found” a certain company all by itself, such as the Gu puddings brand. It can be counterproductive if the supermarket cannot get the credit for that and your brand is already in all the media. If they have not found you, they may not want you on their shelf.”
But how can all this talk of PR campaigns actually be quantified in terms of sales? How can you prove, unless the buyer stipulates where they first heard of your brand, which communication line is of impact and relevance and leads to repeat sales? Furthermore, how can it be determined that advertising in The Telegraph’s Saturday Magazine, for example, is going to produce better coverage for a brand than, say, advertising in a more sector specific magazine that will have a more targetted demographic and audience? The lines are blurred, and difficult to quantify in terms of results. Ailana does not look at campaigns in terms of only demographics, but rather personal, longstanding relationships she has with individual writers and editors, who she knows will create a “buzz” for her client. Editorial buzz is the holy grail, and she suggests that the buyers of PR need to have clear in their minds what is being achieved on their behalf.
“In some cases it is quite clear how sales are generated. We were recently successful in getting one client featured quite prominently in a Sunday magazine, and the following day 100 more units were sold of that product. When there is a story linked into the BBC online, the spike on the brand’s website is enormous, because the BBC is such an important website and links from there go everywhere. I would recommend to all artisans, if they do decide to hire a PR company, that they need to sit down with their agent and discuss very clearly the parameters of how results are going to be measured and when. Make sure you ask them in what timeframe their agents are going to create online content or articles. Compare like with like when it comes to results: just because your agents have been very successful in helping apple growers increase sales, that may be of no use whatsoever to your sausage making business. Make sure you agree all the minutiae of the process at the start, so that, at regular intervals, measured judgements can be made about desired outcomes and quantifiable results. Challenge how realistic the goal posts are.”
Everything needs to be considered when a producer contacts a PR agency: credentials, tactics, strategy, budget and results. And when it comes to results the good news in an otherwise dormant or declining global economy, is that food and drink expenditure is set to rise in 2012 owing to fewer consumers going out. And many foodies are turning to premium artisanal brands for comfort and quality. There will be many more premium cocktails, specialist kitchen gadgets, functional and health foods, ethical restaurants and organic vegetable box businesses setting up in 2012 to meet the demands of not just the emerging markets and BRIC consumers but also of the educated, discerning and affluent foodies of the first world economies. They are deeply interested in the heritage, provenance and preparation behind their food and drink experiences and are increasingly consulting the Internet before making a purchase, booking a table or buying a cookery school voucher. There the impact of prominent bloggers will rise and rise. There is enormous economic power in harnessing the support of the commentators on deliciousness, value and news in the food and drink industry. 2012 is going to be a very interesting year for all consumers, artisans and writers in the sector. Ailana agrees:
“We are really busy in the Story PR office, we are recruiting. We are looking for really good, experienced PR agents to come and work here full time, as well as students who wish to become Interns, or graduates who want to see what it is like to work in the food and drink PR world. The agency is growing, and I hope to spend more time in 2012 going round meeting amazing food and drink producers.”
Ailana Kamelmacher can be contacted at www.storypr.co.uk
You can follow Ailana and the team on Twitter @ailana and @StoryPR