B2B Communications: How to Fight for the PR Resources You Need During a Budget Showdown

It’s the time of year when many in-house communications executives stare down their chief financial officers like gunslingers at the OK Corral. What’s at stake? Their communications budgets for next year.

According to the MarketingSherpa 2012 B2B Marketing Benchmark Report, survey respondents pointed to the lack of resources in staffing, budgeting or time (62%) as their top barrier to success, far outpacing the inability to prioritize strategic thinking over tactical execution (39%) and the limited capacity to develop content (35%).

With economic danger signs still looming, the negotiation for PR resources and funding won’t be easy. Senior B2B PR strategists are challenged to shape budgets that balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s goals.

In businesses where enterprise-facing PR is folded into a broader marketing plan, rigid models that tie budgets to a percentage of sales revenue offer tighter controls. More sophisticated communications strategies tend to be backed by budgets where the impact of PR investment on holistic business objectives—from talent recruitment to risk management—can be measured.

The current business environment will force budget decision makers to remain focused on cost savings and sales generation. At risk may be some B2B communication mainstays where tactics are based on scale (e.g. trade shows and sponsorships), or longer-term investments including corporate social responsibility programs and market research.

To better understand the dynamics of this yearly review, we turned to three experienced business communicators with this question: How can B2B PR professionals more effectively assert the value of their efforts during the critical budget planning period?

You’ll find two key themes among these answers. First, to ensure that PR goals are in lockstep with the goals of the organization. And second, the importance of relationship building leading up to budgeting talks can’t be overestimated.

JEFFREY A. JOSEPH: Vice President of Communications, Biotechnology Industry Organization

Efforts to drive support for your communications programs should begin well before the budget planning period. At the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), we follow three basic principles:

1. Align PR efforts and metrics directly with organizational goals. As an industry trade organization, our primary goal is to advocate for public policy that allows our member companies to do what they do best: develop advanced technologies that help heal, fuel and feed the world. To that end, we closely align our PR campaigns and success metrics with our advocacy agenda.

2. Establish metrics and goals. We work cooperatively with our CEO and other senior executives in establishing the primary goals for our major PR efforts up front. In this way, our leadership is invested in our campaigns from launch and intrinsically recognizes the value our strategic communications efforts bring to our broader organizational goals. This makes it easier to champion funding for the continuation of existing programs as well the creation of new campaigns.

3. No surprises. We communicate with our leadership and stakeholders regularly throughout the year on the progress of our campaigns. This means there should be no surprises when we evaluate success during our annual review and budget planning meetings.

ANDREW BURNS: Director of Communications, Smith & Nephew

The days of CFOs funding public relations simply as a cost of doing business are long since over. Modern B2B PR programs must be able to prove ROI—if they can’t; they are viewed as a waste of company resources.

The starting point of every budget discussion has to be, “Can I draw a clear line between my actions and my company’s strategy?” No matter how exciting a plan may be to other PR professionals, if it’s not tangibly tied to the CEO’s goals, it won’t get approved, much less funded.

Second, a PR budget’s value is increased by integrating campaigns across stakeholders. By using company assets such as reputation and branding at Smith & Nephew—which develops advanced medical devices—I can more effectively leverage my consumer PR efforts by weaving its themes into a B2B campaign.

Finally, I have to match my budget request to the company’s ROI expectation. As professionals, we have to be able to accurately predict the results of our actions. CFOs operate in predictable worlds and expect that we do as well. If I deliver the ROI I predicted, future budget conversations will be much easier. And while everyone is being asked to do more with less, we must never overpromise results on an underfunded program.

MIKE JACOBSEN: Senior Director, Corporate Communications, Diebold Inc.

As the corporate communications department for a global provider of ATMs, security and services for the financial industry, we are deeply engaged in all aspects of our company’s communications efforts. This includes communicating to 16,000 global employees, maintaining brand integrity, governing our Web site, media relations, issues management and a host of other related needs.

We’re also a very lean group that reports up to our CFO. So our resources are especially scrutinized. Here are the key elements of our approach to budget submission time, which for us is generally less painful than it is for others:

1. Be clear in communicating what aspects of your plan are needs, desires, and nice-to-haves. Your finance folks will appreciate the honesty and visibility to your thinking. Plus, that pre-evaluation will help you plan in advance in case you need to cut your budget.

2. Provide risk/reward assessments. For example, in a recent planning cycle, we asked for additional resources to fund an employee communications survey. We went on record by providing our CFO with a very clear explanation of our expectations from that survey, but also communicated the risks involved if we didn’t get the funds necessary for the project. That approach helped us get the support we needed.

3. Be realistic in that for which you’re asking. This will help build credibility with the finance folks in the future.

4. Channel all your persuasive skills by developing a relationship with your finance counterpart(s). Work to understand their needs as best as you can. That will increase the likelihood that the finance team will understand your needs during budget-crunch time.

Whether their business operates on a calendar or fiscal year, PR budget negotiators liken the process to asking for a pay raise: Focus on results and be prepared with documentation to prove merit.

By employing this approach, B2B communicators can turn the dreaded showdown into a strategic show and tell to yield budgets that make sense on the ledgers and in the marketplace. PRN


B2B Communications is written by Mary C. Buhay, VP at Gibbs & Soell Public Relations. She can be reached at mbuhay@gibbs-soell.com.