I’m sure it’s happened to you before. You drive by a business, and, perhaps not even noticing it at first, you cringe.
"It’s funny," you may think to yourself, "but I haven’t been in the place since last November." Maybe you can't even remember why.
One way or another, you were put off by the place, and never went back.
Then you drive by a second business, and you almost want to invent a reason to stop and go back in, even though you may have no business to transact there.
How does that happen? And (you might be thinking) how can I make THAT happen for MY business?
Some people view public relations as the domain of glad-handing, back-slapping "yes-men" or pretty faces who tell clients whatever they want to hear. But the truth is, this kind of PR person wouldn’t be much help to the client who cringed, above, or to that client’s business. These efforts instead could be an expensive distraction; or worse, a waste of money. Simply trying to distract customers from a bad experience doesn't fix the underlying reasons for the bad experience. And it won't change perceptions if they have new bad experiences if they return.
Changing a negative reputation into a good one, or at least a neutral one, or reinforcing a business’ already-positive image, is really what public relations is all about.
In the negative example above, becoming aware of the company's problems - whether it's poor service, shoddy merchandise or even the bad odor of the establishment - by using customer feedback effectively, then making sure that current and past customers know you are aware of their past bad experiences and are taking steps to correct them, are the first steps to changing bad perceptions.
Perhaps a sign out front, reading, "Newly remodeled," touting a new product line, or, even better, new management, would help entice disgruntled customers back into the door. But of course, real changes will have had to have been made. Customers are savvy, and can see through the old "new paint job" or "new signage" approach, IF there aren't real changes made along with them.
An ad in the paper and a mailer to past customers trumpeting a totally new approach to customer service, may help, too, as long as that claim is then TRULY backed up with EXCELLENT service and products and a clean environment when customers begin to return. (Because, again, savvy customers can not and will not be fooled - and you should not try.)
For the business with an already good reputation, but with little repeat business, a company e-newsletter, mailed every other month to regular customers and containing special deals to reward their loyalty may help remind them why they liked the business so much on previous visits.
A Facebook page is also a great way to interact with customers on a daily basis, posting specials, customer and employee profiles and promoting new services and products.
Special programs to reward regular customers solidify that important base, and increase word-of-mouth buzz about a company. And of course, an effective social media presence on facebook and twitter, with perhaps a video element on YouTube, also backs up a company's reputation and are channels for effective and immediate feedback.
A paid advertising campaign highlighting satisfied customers may also be necessary to let people know that they, too, can have good experiences there. Advertising - online and in print - can also reinforce the good work you've done to improve customer experiences.
All of this underlines the seriousness of the profession of public relations. It involves the art of effective communication, writing skill, and the ability to determine a course of action that will truly be effective in widely varying situations and appealing to diverse publics.
PR isn’t just happy talk, it’s a profession that helps make companies more successful through an approach of identifying positives and negatives and creating plans to addressing them in a systematic way.
Stephen Abbott is owner and principal of Abbott Public Relations, a division of Abbott Media Group, which can be found online at www.abbottmediagroup.com