Before starting public relations firm Graber Associates, Creative Partner Ray Graber worked in banking technology research and consulting at TowerGroup, product launches at Citibank and BankBoston, and treasury operations for a $325 million public company.
Virtually Here: On your services page, Graber Associates lists public relations, marketing, and research as separate. What are the primary differences of those aspects of PR and why is it important for businesses to use all of them?
Ray Graber: Public relations is everything from press releases to when a bank or credit union is going to open up a new branch. We’ll be there, we’ll introduce some of the people, maybe some of the local dignitaries, get articles written and out to the press. That’s what we consider public relations.
On the darker side of public relations is crisis management. For example, if a bank were to foreclose on an orphanage and the media came in and saw pictures of little kids being kicked out on the street, we do our best to mitigate those types of bad publicity.
Most of the time, if not all the time, it’s good publicity—every once in a while something happens where we have to provide training to talk to the press about bad situations. And to do it correctly, without any fibbing or lying. We give them words to use to soften the situation, while still being honest about what’s happened.
Now marketing is more—I liken it to making someone thirsty. The sales people come along to your company and offer them different types of beverages to drink. They whet their appetite by showing them brochures, websites, blogs, and things like direct mail marketing to get them interested in the company, and the products and services they offer.
Research can be anything from conducting extensive customer service reviews and collecting that information in a digestible format, to helping sunset projects behind the scenes, or researching the market landscape. For our clients who conduct an enormous amount of business at trade shows, we’ll take that burden of research off of them and do all the checking and digging to figure out if the audience will be the right fit for them, and give them estimations of what kind of return they can expect from their investment if they go to a particular trade show.
VH: Did you always want to start your own business?
Ray: You know what, it’s funny. I was looking for a job. I spoke to a head-hunter search guy and I said, “I’ve had jobs. I was a treasurer, I was a professor, I did all these different things. I don’t see a pattern.” He says, “I do.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “You like to be an entrepreneur.” You start something, you build it up, then you get bored and you pass it onto somebody else, start something else. Even when you’re in a large company. So I guess it’s one of those innate things that you don’t realize until someone else points it out to you.
So when I was at Citibank, we did new product launches. Came up to Bank Boston, we launched a product and sold it to 25 very large companies. When I was at Deck, we managed the relationship with software vendors and banking. And it was just me and a staff of 10. If you do that over and over again, you don’t realize because it’s in different industries and areas. But it took him, an outsider to see the big picture.
VH: Did you start Graber Associates right after that happened?
Ray: Oh, no. No, I was working for TowerGroup and I was writing research papers on banking and technology and they had layoffs. My third child had just graduated from college in 2001, and I said, “You know, if I’m ever going to do something, I’m going to do it now.” Tuition payments were still being made, but what the heck. So I started it a year after he graduated basically, because I got laid off and it was like, “Do I want to work for another company again or do I want to take a chance?” So I did.
VH: Can you give us a walk-thru of what happens when you start working with a new client?
Ray: Sure. So let’s say we have a meeting next Tuesday with ABC Corporation, they sell technology to banks. We’ll do some research, we’ll look at their website, we’ll Google them, if they’re public we’ll look at their financials—again, that just comes from good due diligence and some research. We go in and we have some questions that we want to ask. But also—we’ll just listen. We’ll ask them what their goals are, what they’re looking to achieve—open ended questions. And then just be quiet and listen. They can tell you a lot in a short period of time.
And then what we’ll do is we have a grid that we use, and let’s say that we have 11 different offerings, or whatever the number is, and we want to have that continuous process. So we’ll make a chart with 11 potential items that we can do: press releases, case studies, articles, trade shows, speaking engagements, etc., down the left-hand side. Across the top, we’ll put 6 months, whatever the month is, from when we start. We’ll populate those cells with what we think is more than they need. And we’ll explain to them that it’s more than they need, more than they want to spend, and more time than they have. But we want to put it out there so they can take a red pen, cross out the ones they definitely don’t want to do, circle the ones they definitely will do, and then let’s talk about the ones that are sort of undecided.
We’ll assign a dollar amount to each one of those boxes. Generally, they’ll pick 3 or 4 out of the 11. We’ll put a budget together and we’ll add down the columns, divide by 6, and that’s their monthly retainer. Just to give them an idea that if they did everything, that’s what it would cost. And we know that’s not going to happen. We know we’re not going to do everything and we know we’re not going to charge them that amount of money.
So after that, we go back, and they tell us what they want to do, what they don’t want to do, and we discuss the ones in the middle. We come back with another number based upon that, which is obviously lower, and hopefully they say, “That’s reasonable. Let’s get started.” So it’s an interim process. The first thing we do is listen, and then we put together what we think is a good plan, we discuss with them, go back through it again, and then take it from there. But we want to make sure that they understand what the process is. We don’t just give them the number and say, “This is what you have to do. Take it or leave it.” That’s no way to build an on-going relationship.
VH: When you show clients that grid of the possibilities is there a high impact one that everyone wants to do? How about one that no one wants to do, but it’s really good for their business?
Ray: No one’s really wanted to do crisis management. They don’t want to think of that.
Press releases are probably at the top of the list, as well as case studies. Those are the ones people pick the most. Press releases to get the name out, to get some notoriety, to get some awareness in the journalist community, the analyst community. Those two things are usually at the top of the list.
We strongly suggest they do what’s called—and it’s a one-time deal—it’s called message development. Basically, how are you different from your competition? “How would we know? We’ve got this widget and that widget, and we have great customer service,” and I say, “Well, yeah, so do your competitors. What else do you have?” And they say, “We’ve got this, and this, and this.” “You have a good sales force. Customer service. So do your competitors. What differentiates you?”
So there’s an actual process that we do, it’s tried and true. A lot of PR companies do it. A lot of branding companies do it too. You talk to 10 of their customers, ask them a series of 5 or 6 questions on the phone, record all the answers. Get their team together, do the same thing, and compare and contrast the answers. You would be surprised what the customers say and what the internal folks say. Sometimes the internal folks have no idea what the customers are thinking. And out of that will come a tagline, an elevator pitch, three differentiators. And then that becomes the three legs of the stool that becomes everything they do.
We make sure those messages get on their website, get on the collateral about XYZ company, at the bottom of their press release, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere, so no matter where you come into their company, a blog, a tweet, a press release, etc., you see that same message. And it has to be the same, it has to be consistent. A lot of folks say, “We already know. We don’t want to do that.” I say, “Look it’s one time. We really shouldn’t be doing anything else until we get that done.” “No, we already know,” so you can push back a little bit, and maybe even more than a little bit, but you can’t force them to do it. Folks who get it do it.
VH: Is there anything you like to highlight when talking to small business owners about marketing?
Ray: From a small business point of view, you have limited resources, use them wisely. Don’t go for the big, glorious, big bang. It’s a marathon, not a 100-yard dash. So if over the course of a year you have $3,000 to spend, you could blow that on one trade show easily. But rather than that, maybe you set up a blog, which is free, you do a couple mailings, you do some events at your establishment, invite people in, spend the money on wine and cheese or something like that.
I was going through the math the other day with a business owner and he was saying, “I’ve got to figure out how much per impression.” I said, “You’re on the right track,” because if you’re doing something to a large crowd and it’s 50 cents per impression, versus $5 per impression, okay. But if the $5 per impression is you’re going to sell a $30,000 item, then okay, do that. But if you’re selling cookies or you’re selling coffee or something, which is a small ticket item, you can’t be spending 5 bucks per impression because you’re going to break even or lose money. So try to figure out your budget, the different avenues you have to spend that over time, and then figure out how many people—and the right people.
So let me boil this down to you in 3 letters: MMM. The message, “We’ve got the best coffee and cookies in Burlington because X, Y, and Z,” that’s the message.
The market: people who like coffee and cookies, people on the go. You can even peel down a little further so you have a drive-thru. Or like True North here in Burlington, it’s like Cheers. People come for the good coffee and the pastries, but they go there to sit and chat, and see their neighbours.
The third M is the medium. How do you reach them? Inexpensively through a blog where it takes time to build up those followers? Do you do it through a newsletter that you get e-mails and you build up a distribution list. It just takes a little time to do a newsletter, “Here’s what’s new in the coffee business,” or “Here’s why such-and-such type of cookies are better for you.” They’re informational and educational. Once you’ve determined the demographic of the market, then you have to figure out how to reach them.
And it’s boring. It really is. There’s nothing exciting about beating your head against the wall, the continuous movement of doing things. Sending out a blog once a month or once a week. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Sticking to it can get tiring and boring. Finding things to re-tweet and so forth. But if you set it up and you stick to it, you’ll be more successful than the person who gives it up after a couple of months. It’s like a New Year’s Resolution to stop drinking, stop having as much coffee, start losing weight. You just need to stick to it and that’s the boring part of being a small business owner and marketing. You have to do it. It’s a grind.
But that is something that you need to do. And it can be exciting. This one woman I know sends out a weekly newsletter, and she just takes everyday occurrences, like, “I was driving the other day and I was thinking about this, and I related it to business somehow.” It’s probably 400 or 500 words and she has a blast with it.
VH: Those are the writers I remember. It’s so unusual and unique that you remember them even if it wasn’t a ton of content.
Ray: If you’re a baker or a barista, you probably don’t have the natural talent to do that. You may—I don’t want to knock anybody—but you may not. So you find somebody, you’ve got that $3,000 budget, and you say, “You know what, I’m going to give you 100 bucks for every blog you write.” And if you do it once a week, that’s $5,000. So maybe you do it every other week, $2,500. There’s your $3,000.
And if that’s how you reach people, you have a raffle every once in a while. Put a fish bowl out, have the people that come to your shop put their business card in to win a free whatever. Now you’ve got business cards with e-mail addresses. It’s free. Just add them to your distribution list with an opt out and there you go.
There are ways of doing marketing that are inexpensive, but you have to be consistent. And like I said, that part is tough, because you’ve got personnel problems, supply problems, financial problems, a water leak. It’s just all kinds of stuff that comes up that you have to take care of and many times, a blog or a Twitter account or something like that, is just the last thing you’re thinking of.
VH: What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Ray: The freedom. I can work when I want to. Being my own boss, although sometimes I’m a pain in the neck. I did some errands this morning and I didn’t have to ask permission. So that gives me the freedom. And the folks that work in the company as contractors, they have the same freedom. And I have a good team. They’re all mature enough to know what has to get done by when and I don’t have to stand over them and watch over them.
Connect with Ray here.