Privacy will be a big theme in 2018. If you’ve not yet come across the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), where have you been hiding? The regulation will come into play in May 2018 – and if privacy and data protection wasn’t already all people could talk about last year, then just you wait for the explosion this year!

GDPR brings a host of challenges for businesses – particularly for marketing folk. But I won’t go into that now, we’ve already covered this in a previous blog post which you can read here.

But one consequence of GDPR is that people will become more aware of the protection of data and their privacy – which has already started to result in people losing trust in some of the major technology providers.

The build-up of mistrust

We are not far off a major breakdown between consumer-business relationships at the rate we’re going. Last year Uber was hacked and hid it, YouTube allowed sexualised remarks to be left alongside content featuring children, Google was sued for gender discrimination and that’s only a handful of last year’s scandals in the tech sector.

Big players can just about ride out this type of negative attention due to their dominance of the market – although many responsible companies have responded and changed in response. But what would happen if this was an attack on one of the smaller challenger brands? It could be their ending.

There’s nowhere to hide – brands must prepare for total transparency

Internal culture is becoming part of a brand’s identity. For a long time now, sites like Glassdoor and social media have given outsiders an inside view of a company’s ‘employer brand’ and culture. But culture hasn’t been exposed in the way we’ve seen it in 2017 – people have actively ‘outed’ poor behaviour and we’ve seen boycotts of services (like brands pulling ads off YouTube) and regulators swoop in (European demanding fair taxes from Google, Facebook and Amazon).

For transparency to work, brands must work on what they deem is the right internal culture because it will live on outside the company. If the marketing team hasn’t spent considerable time with HR in the past, then it’s time to start now.

Marketing and HR must club together

All employees and all customers are advocates of some kind, whether good or bad. HR and marketing must work together, not just at a tactical level to engage these advocates, but at a strategic one, especially given the incredible harm bad advocates can have on a brand.

Alongside HR, marketing must monitor how the company operates and keep a firm hand on the tiller. More than ever before, the inner workings of a company are projected externally – either through social sites like Glassdoor, or more simply, the way that staff talk to customers, partners and each other. This makes it far more important that HR and marketing are on the same page to ensure alignment in the way they engage advocates. And today, every single member of staff is an advocate. This is especially important if there is a cultural change – and if there’s resistance – marketing must help to mitigate that, which often means working very closely with the senior management team.

In a competitive talent market, HR teams and business leaders will have been busy building their employer brand, but in 2018 it’ll be about building employer trust. There are a number of surveys and studies which show the impact of a bad employer brand – mostly focusing on the consequence of your talent acquisition with higher costs to recruit and candidates turning down roles at companies with a bad rep. But in today’s world the impact of a bad reputation is so much higher, as we saw with the Uber and YouTube boycotts.

Marketing has an inherent skill in building trust. With HR, marketing becomes fundamental in navigating the company during this new era of trust. And customers and employees will demand proof of this trust – regulations like the GDPR will make sure of that!



It’s not polite to speak ill of the dead but when it comes to cold calling, it’s a practice we’re not sad to see become extinct. In fact, 97% of cold calls are ineffective and 70% of exec-level buyers state that sales people on calls are unprepared to answer the questions they ask.

We’re in the age of story-selling – not a new concept, but one that becomes more important as we become more reliant on social media and search. The savvier we are online, the more equipped we are at researching and making that purchasing decision. The disruptive ‘out of the blue’ sales call doesn’t work any longer. We don’t like to feel we’re being ‘sold to’, and we don’t like to feel like we’re uninformed, or even speak to someone who’s uninformed. We know how to get the information we want – isn’t that right, Google?

Story-selling is a subtler way of making that sale. It’s about providing value and engaging a prospect over time – by answering questions and providing interesting content, in a logical sequence – until the person is ready to make a purchase.

Unlike cold calling which needed marketing and PR’s help to boost the top of the sales funnel (in the awareness and understanding of a brand), story-selling needs marketing and PR to help influence the buyer throughout the full sales cycle. For example, a sales person could be about to close, but then the customer sees a bad Google Review and decides against it. Or a customer could be hesitant and needs gentle nudges through thought leadership content to be further convinced and move further down the sales funnel.

Good marketing and sales alignment goes all the way down the funnel from top to bottom. Many marketers have the top end in check – generating awareness for their organisation and passing the sales team Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs).

But, how can marketers ensure they’re still influencing the customer until the sale is made?

How can marketing and PR influence the full sales funnel

 1. Stay on top of the company’s digital reputation

At any point in the sales funnel, and often nearing the point of making a decision, customers will Google you. I mean even when you’re being told a story in your personal life – like watching Making a Murderer on Netflix – we still feel the need to check the facts by Googling during the TV show.

Marketers should keep track of what appears on page one (especially) and pages two and three of Google. Is there anything that could hinder a sale, such as a bad review or a damning article? If so, marketers should have a strategy in place that looks to displace negative content.

The long-term solution to digital reputation challenges will include both places where you can control your content (Twitter, LinkedIn, SlideShare, etc.) and sites classified as News/Expert Authority. The latter is much harder to influence but this is where PR excels due to its inherent understanding of storytelling, engaging experts and developing messaging that resonates with various audiences.

 2. Feed insights to the sales team

How much internal dialogue happens between the sales team and marketing? This should be regular and marketing can take the lead by feeding the sales team with thoughtful content and insights. And in fact, having the sales team pushing out content means that marketers unleash a social army that has considerably more reach than it could ever hope to achieve just through its own social channels.

A great example of this working well is with one of our clients Cornerstone. Every week, Firefly compiles a newsletter with a selection of industry stories, blogs and insight on the competition. We continually refine the way we select content by analysing popular and effective content through trackable links. This gives the right context to the story our client is selling.

 3. Interact with even more tailored thought leadership content

We all know that pushy sales tactics don’t get anyone very far – it’s about being consultative and this is where PR and sales need to be more aligned. Do marketers know which questions come up time and time again? Do they know which content prompts a response?

As much as marketers should feed sales with insights, sales must do the same. Marketers need this understanding to develop tailored ‘persuasion’ content, especially for a high value lead. It’s worth the high effort. Everyone wants a Disney ending!

 4. Get in it, to win it

The mature story-sellers on your team will understand the importance of building and maintaining their social profile to give the ‘story’ personality. But some may not, and the marketers who are at the forefront of digital technology need to educate and support the sales team when it comes to the potential of social media. For the sales team, it’s about making it personal and relevant, and not relying on a company’s social presence to feed the sales funnel.

With this army of story-sellers, it’s also important to all align. This means looping in sales at the start of message development because they need to be authentic when speaking to prospects. ‘Plugging’ a message that’s been given to them by marketing may not be as effective as a message that they bought into early in the process.

 5. Build, listen, build more, listen, build even more

Story-selling is just as much about listening. That’s really listening to what a prospect is saying, but also how they’re behaving and engaging with you. Sales and marketing need to work together to build conversations and help each other keep track of each stage. A customer won’t want to start explaining everything over and over again. Continuity in story-selling is so important.

Likewise, if you begin to feel like you are shoe-horning in your ‘solution’ to their issue, then it’s time you re-evaluate your proposition. You can’t build on a conversation if it’s off to a wonky start.

We live in a time where we are resourceful and make decisions on our own terms. The instructive nature of a cold call is long dead and this new sales environment is perfect for marketing and PR to thrive. However, it will only flourish if marketing and sales teams change working practices in order to be more closely aligned.

Trust plays a big role in modern commerce and communications. It can be a fickle commodity, rising and falling based on your reputation.

Amazon for example, is a brand that we would typically trust. You can buy pretty much anything you want and know that delivery will be quick, especially if you’re a Prime member. It’s a solid brand built on efficiency and doing things right (most of the time). But…would you trust Amazon to deliver your pharmaceuticals? According to CNBC, Amazon is hiring to break into the multi-billion-dollar pharmacy market.

Amazon’s biggest challenge is unlikely to be logistics, but getting customers to trust the brand to deliver drugs to their doorstep. In the UK if you need some paracetamol or cold/flu medicine or need to pick up a prescription, you trust Boots or your local pharmacy, maybe even the local Tesco. Will consumers truly trust Amazon?

In the last year, Firefly worked with a rail infrastructure specialist that had been singled out by Network Rail regarding safety, despite most other operators having worse records. Firefly helped the brand to rebuild trust and take a lead on improving safety, by developing a whitepaper on the future of the rail maintenance industry, launched alongside Network Rail. This helped to prompt the creation of a cross-industry alliance to put in action the issues raised by the whitepaper.

PR is a vital tool in helping to build trust and credibility for brands. Here are my top tips on how it can be done.

Master the art of listening and understanding

OK – admittedly, this is advice that has origins in the dawn of civilisation. But it is often something that does get forgotten. You can get so wrapped up in the excitement of launching into a new market, or a start-up that’s launching itself onto the world stage, meaning listening and understanding can sometimes take a backseat.

Taking time to continually listen to your customers and understand their needs and questions is important. But you must also make sure that anything you say is going to be actioned. If your communications team and operations team are well-linked, then you know that you can do something about feedback and questions you receive.

For example, it’s intensely annoying to have a social media account respond quickly to your enquiry, but then not actually DO anything about it. It’s a bit like Virgin Trains tweeting at that guy who ran out of loo roll ‘lol yeah sh*t happens’ rather than actually dispatching someone to help him in his hour of need. Tying up operations and communications can help you to listen to your customers and then action requests or complaints, to make sure you’re doing what you said you would do.

Focus on your expertise and accomplishments

Whilst it’s tempting to talk about your products and services, the activity that will build trust and credibility for your brand is your knowledge of an industry and the issues it faces. Expertise and knowing “your stuff” is far more effective in building trust and credibility than how fast your product can measure a piece of string.

Yesterday, journalist and Silicon Valley Watcher Tom Foremski wrote a piece on ZDNet posing the questions “Can public relations become ‘brand journalism’? What is it?”

‘Brand journalism’ is a new, fairly self explanatory term which – unsurprisingly, as a journalist – Tom Foremski doesn’t like:

“I have little confidence in PR people becoming ‘brand journalists’ for the simple fact that PR is not journalism. There’s no such thing as brand journalism, or innovation journalism, or anything-else journalism. Journalism is journalism.”

For the most part I agree with him. Part of the problem is the term. Brand Journalism is an oxymoron – and a pretty horrible sounding one too. Branding is by its nature promotional and journalism should be balanced and probing.

Part of the background to all this is that media is becoming fragmented, brands are discovering that they can create their own content that consumers/business customers will engage with, and people want to get interactive with media.

Funnily enough, I don’t think the media’s ever been that comfortable with the interactivity element of citizen journalism, or blogging for that matter, and feels a bit threatened by the whole thing. It really shouldn’t. Journalism is essential for reporting, verification and analysis.

I disagree with Tom saying that the media isn’t involved in the ‘every company is a media company’ concept that’s being bandied around. The media itself is very, very happy to get into bed with businesses to fund content. While journalists are flocking to work in PR and marketing departments or agencies. The problem is that hiring a journalist alone doesn’t make content compelling.

Who controls the message?
The fact is that the dynamics have just changed. We can all see that the media doesn’t control the message any more. We now have a complex inter-dependency between three groups: the media, institutions (e.g. businesses, government, charities) and individuals.

All of these groups create content, conversations and stories – let’s just call it ‘stuff’. Stuff is created, shared and endorsed by various parties. For example, a group of people might attend an event organised by a business and tweet about it, which is also written up by a journalist and live-blogged by the brand (probably employing the journalist’s former colleague!).

We see this model in practice over and over. Whether it’s election debates, watching the X Factor or attending the a company’s product launch, these three groups are almost always present, vying for attention but equally dependent on each other.

Some people will like the stuff they read, hear or watch, others won’t. The question is how to decide – and measure – what is the most influential stuff. For me, a big factor is trust.

From the banking crisis to News Corp, or from expenses scandals to the Jimmy Savile affair, many of our institutions have had bloody noses this past year or so.

When it comes down to it, the question of brand journalism becomes irrelevant: the role of public relations is to try and marshal these three groups, measure what’s working and help various parties earn trust. It’s something we all need to work on together.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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