For many remodelers, public relations, or simply PR, is something they mentally file under the general category of marketing, if they give it much thought at all. It’s an afterthought, not a stand-alone function. And if it is an item in their budgets, it’s more often than not one of the first to be chopped when times get tough.
However, some remodelers beg to differ. Far from being the last thing on their minds, public relations tops their list of key business strategies.
That’s how Michael Sauri, owner of Arlington, Va.-based TriVistaUSA, sees it, putting PR ahead of marketing on his agenda. “I would say marketing gets kicked out and we use PR,” he says, explaining that a company like his, which strives to deliver unique, creative high-end design, is highly relationship driven. “Does a homeowner have a more intimate service relationship [than the relationship with a remodeler]?” he asks. “We’re in a home for a year.
“With a small remodeling company like ours, we really don’t do a marketing plan,” Sauri explains. “We’ve found advertising on a small community level pretty much ineffective; we’ve run some local neighborhood advertisements that haven’t done anything for us.”
Sauri comes to remodeling from a different background than a typical remodeler. At 17, he became a professional musician and has played with the likes of David Byrne, producer Rick Rubin and opera star Placido Domingo. Remodeling, he says, is a lot like making a living as a musician. “Whether it’s in a recording studio or on a jobsite, you’re herding the same cats. You have to get [musicians and tradespeople] wrapped around a common vision,” he says.
The story of Sauri’s transition from rocker to remodeler, by the way, was featured in the Washington Post, an effort he credits to his PR person, Polly Elmore of PR Works LLC, Clifton, Va. As Sauri says, one of the reasons PR has been effective for TriVistaUSA is “because people get to know us before they even pick up the phone and call.”
Many remodelers, however, have difficulty separating PR from marketing. No one should blame them; one Web site for PR professionals lists 31 definitions of public relations. However, a word that should resonate with remodelers—relationships—is often repeated in those definitions. Remodeling is about building relationships, and one of the goals of public relations is not very different: building connections to relevant “publics” and communicating to them on a regular and consistent basis.
“Public relations is an ongoing process consisting of a variety of communications methods designed to keep current clients and potential new clients informed so they develop a positive awareness of a business and its products and services” is the formal definition developed by David Lewis, president of Levinson Communications International, Morton Grove, Ill. One of Levinson Communications International’s clients is a major Chicago-area remodeler, an established company that has seen significant growth even during the recession.
Lewis keeps that definition close at hand for a reason. “When I talk to a business owner for the first time, he or she often says, ‘What do I need you for? I already have advertising.’ The obstacle for me is to explain the difference between advertising and public relations,” Lewis says. “I have to explain to people how we work with the editorial side of a newspaper or magazine as opposed to the advertising side.”
Selling a Concept
PR can be a tough sell. “They’re nuts-and-bolts guys, and you’re selling them a concept. It’s a tough thing to understand, but when you have it, and it’s working for you, you become very aware of its value,” Lewis says.
“I always tell people a successful business owner doesn’t keep his business a secret. A lot of people have a listing in the Yellow Pages and hang a shingle outside of their showroom and that’s the extent of their PR, marketing and advertising. You have to go beyond that, especially these days when there’s so much competition,” Lewis says.
“I think it takes a very forward-thinking person to understand the difference between public relations and marketing,” says Heather Logrippo, president of Shrewsbury, Mass.-based Expose Yourself Public Relations. “Remodelers want leads; they want their phones to ring; public relations is a long-term branding strategy. We create content for our clients that show them to be the experts in the industry. When people are doing their research and deciding whom they’re going to call, they find a lot of this content, and it lends [remodelers] credibility.”
One of Logrippo’s clients is Norwood, Mass.-based Neponset Valley Construction, a company that emphasizes exterior contracting work, such as roofing, siding, windows and decks.
Remodelers are well advised to find someone to handle the PR function for them, either someone on staff or an outside PR practitioner, because it requires a great deal of time and dedication, Logrippo adds. When evaluating an outside company to handle PR, Logrippo says, “It’s important [remodelers] find somebody who can speak their language, because if [the PR firm] doesn’t understand construction, it’s going to be hard for them to create content that’s going to show their client in a good light.”
“The clients I work with are smart, but they’re smart enough to know what they don’t know. They’re smart enough to hire it out: They have expert accountants and expert attorneys,” Logrippo adds.
Nevertheless, marketing and PR are interdependent. “I find with builders, remodelers and real-estate clients, once we start to do PR it uncovers other needs they have in marketing. We’ve morphed into a PR and marketing firm because they need so many other things. We’re able to uncover that when we’re talking to them about their businesses,” she says.
Traditionally, PR has focused on cultivating the media to tell a story or create an image. Today, media has expanded from conventional news outlets, like newspapers, magazines, radio and television, to include the ever-expanding and changing realm of social media. PR, consequently, is more important than ever.
Techniques Remain the Same
“I’ve been in the PR business a long time, and while the technologies have changed the techniques remain the same,” explains Polly Elmore. “I think PR is going through a resurgence because PR embraces social media now.”
She makes a case for hiring outside help to handle public relations. “I think for any small remodeler, as for any small business, time is the most precious commodity, and they need to look at PR as hiring a professional that can help them do the things they can’t do for themselves,” she says.
Hiring an independent public relations professional has other advantages, too. “It’s hard for anyone to boast about themselves,” Elmore says. “I think an outsider can come in and say, ‘This is what makes you unique; this is your differentiator; now let’s tell people about it.’”
“Times and publications change,” Lewis points out, citing magazines that have pulled away from home coverage and shrinking home sections in local newspapers. “You need someone who keeps up with that to place your articles,” he says.
If home sections in local publications are shrinking, so are the number of remodelers and designers generating the kinds of projects publications like to feature. “Editors are not receiving the overwhelming number of projects they used to get for consideration,” Lewis notes.
PR Is Less Expensive
Another advantage of public relations is that it’s “free”; that is, the subject of a newspaper or magazine article doesn’t pay for placement of it. “PR is less expensive than advertising, and I feel it’s more effective because it’s like a third-party endorsement,” Elmore says. “If you run an ad, you’re boasting about yourself, but if a publication runs something about you, it has more credibility.”
Logrippo puts it succinctly: “In marketing you pay for placement, but with PR you get free placement and it’s more valued and therefore scarce. When you’re on the news talking about your industry and you didn’t pay for it, there’s a lot more credibility.”
Lewis agrees. “When you hire a PR person, and they get you a full-page article, how do you compare the cost of buying a full page in a magazine? Depending on the magazine, it can run from $1,500 in a local magazine to $25,000 or more in a large national magazine. PR is a fraction of the cost, and you get the benefit of the credibility,” Lewis maintains.
Credibility can’t be overemphasized. “If you have good, effective PR, you’re going to have credibility and you’re going to have trust. Those are two difficult things to obtain, but it can be done through good PR,” he says.
“Free,” of course, is an overstatement. There’s the cost of the time and effort involved in developing the contacts, writing copy, being interviewed and hiring a photographer to portray a project. Still, that cost is reasonable compared to the cost of buying several pages in a national or even a local magazine.
Photography Is Crucial
Photographs, for example, are a crucial expense. Few magazines today, outside of a few major consumer shelter magazines, have the financial wherewithal to send out a photographer to shoot a project.
“Have good professional photographs.” Elmore advises. “I think remodelers go into projects and don’t think about this. They also need to have clients agree that they can use these photographs.”
Sauri adds: “When we choose our photographers, we’re very careful to make sure that their style aesthetically matches where we’re going [with our designs]. There is lots of beautiful, wonderful photography, but it has to be a photographer that fits your company. Your mom and her new digital camera doesn’t really work.”
Public relations isn’t just about getting a free mention from a media outlet, however. One of the things Lewis has done during the past year is to arrange for his clients to present seminars at public libraries in the Chicago area. The people who attend are “almost prequalified customers; they’ve made an effort to come out and hear you talk,” he says. “Plus you can take advantage of coverage in local community newspapers. They will announce an upcoming seminar, and they may cover it and do a story.”
“PR is about finding opportunities,” Logrippo agrees, “not just getting into the newspaper. We’ll find opportunities for clients to sponsor local charity events, set up scholarships and do things that will get their name out in an unusual way that’s not a regular marketing buy-an-ad strategy.”
Lewis advises remodelers who want to engage a public relations professional to find somebody local. “Stay away from the expensive, glamorous downtown PR agencies. Look for someone in your area who has an established public relations firm with some history and someone who has significant experience with remodelers, architects, interior designers and other home-related industries,” he says.
Crisis management is another area that remodelers rarely think about, but it’s an area where a good public relations advisor can be invaluable. One news story comes to mind in which two employees of a remodeler were charged with murder. Calls to the remodeler’s office, the story continued, were unanswered. As an employer, the remodeler may only have been a victim of circumstance—or merely guilty of poor hiring practices—but his handling of the situation made him appear to be hiding something and no doubt tarnished his reputation.
“It’s something that people don’t ever think is going to happen, and then they don’t have a plan or anyone to advise them,” Logrippo says. “When you’re in the middle of a crisis situation, you only see things one way. You need a rational person to say, ‘Here’s reality, and here’s the way you need to deal with it.’”