Being a sole proprietor has its own host of benefits and challenges. Elizabeth Fairleigh founded thE Connection, Inc. in 1995, and, as chief connecting officer, understands the hills and valleys better than most. Fairleigh sat down with PR News to fill us in on the day-to-day operations of running her own communications agency.
PR News: For PR pros who own their own agency, what are the most pressing challenges right now?
Elizabeth Fairleigh: Knowing your core strengths and playing to them versus trying to be a jack of all trades. It’s hard in this economy to turn business away, but if your instincts say "no," you need to have the discipline to walk away and trust something better will emerge. If it’s not a fit for you or you do not believe in the product's heart and soul, you are not going to be able to sell with conviction—PR is a marketing channel, but PR people are in sales. It’s their job to convey, convince and connect the dots between client’s offerings and media needs. If you are not passionate about a potential client, don’t engage.
PR News: Among your clients, what are their top PR priorities?
Fairleigh: Creating and maintaining thought leadership in the eyes of my client’s prospects and customers is the No. 1 goal for my clients. Thought leadership delivers credibility and puts a human face on a company.
Another priority is identifying the key media outlets that influence the decision makers during the buy cycle: What outlets do they trust when evaluating potential solutions? Once those media sources are identified, messages must be created that do not push products and services, but instead convey how customers are benefitting. This propels the buying process in a positive direction without shilling. Allow your customers to speak on your behalf because they tell the most authentic and memorable stories.
PR News: Are your clients embracing a more integrated approach toward marketing communications? How is that changing?
Fairleigh: Clients like using content like white papers and video in very creative ways and leveraging it across multiple marketing channels, which projects a unified and cohesive brand image. They are much more focused on tracking media placements in their ability to generate leads and ultimately sales revenue. One of my clients is now assigning a unique tracking link in bylined articles so they can track digital body language (i.e. who is visiting their website in search of their products and services.) It’s a good, measurable way to track media placements. Of course, this form of measuring does not tell the entire PR story. While we live in a digital age, not every PR initiative is going to drive someone to your website. There is—and always will be—that element of PR that can't be measured with clicks. Often it’s a symphony of marketing efforts than influence the buying decision in a positive direction.
PR News: What's most problematic when it comes to convincing your clients on the value of social channels?
Fairleigh: My clients are in B2B and tend to use LinkedIn and Twitter, not Facebook. They use LinkedIn to research, network and disseminate messages to targeted groups, but have little interest in Facebook. At the end of the day it gets down to resources: Where are you going to invest your marketing time, energy and budget? My clients know social is a marketing channel that cannot be ignored, but they are not generating sales leads from it, not tracking measurable ROI at this time. It's not problematic; it’s more symptomatic of being in the B2B space versus B2C.
PR News: What's the most rewarding/frustrating aspects of owning your own PR agency?
Fairleigh: The best part of having my own PR agency is working with the people I really like. It’s the supermarket test: If you were to see a client at the grocery store in the produce section would you be inclined to walk up to them and say hello or would you dodge and head down to the bakery aisle? I only work with high integrity folks who understand the value of PR, and because PR is a process not an event, I almost always work on a retainer basis. For this reason, I become part of their organization, as a trusted advisor instead of an external contractor or consultant. Being a trusted advisor to clients I love is the best part of my job. It gets frustrating when clients do not respond to media requests in a timely way, or are not as as forthcoming as they should be with me about a certain problem or weakness. It’s the ego that gets in the way. I do my best to be diplomatic and direct. And understand that clients hire me for my advice, but they don’t always take it. I have to let go of the outcome sometimes.
Elizabeth Fairleigh is a PR professional with more than 20 years of communications experience. Prior to founding thE Connection in 1995, Fairleigh was PR Director for two Atlanta-based tech firms.