PR and “Pressing the Flesh” – Does Physical Presence Count Less than it Used to?

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I’ve been getting out more lately. Out meeting clients and prospects at User Conferences and Trade Shows. Out making new contacts, engaging people in conversations and learning more about what makes customers and prospects tick within the vertical markets that we serve.  I’ve been out “pressing the flesh.”

A few years back I was the PR Manager for the State of Maryland’s two 529 college savings plans. If you are unfamiliar with a 529 college savings plan, basically it’s a financial savings investment vehicle with special tax considerations and incentives, designed to encourage saving for children’s future college expenses. My job as the PR Manager for Maryland’s plans was to make sure that:

#1:  the value of saving for future college expenses was top of mind for parents (and grandparents)
#2:  Everyone understood exactly how Maryland’s two 529 college savings plans worked,

It wasn’t an easy task. Despite the fact that Maryland is a small state geographically, it has a dense population with an extremely diverse demographic and cultural architecture. After a few weeks on the job I quickly recognized that educational outreach through face-to-face contact with prospective investors that broke down the learning barriers to explain the plans in a language that everyone could understand was going to be the core of my PR strategy. I had to create evangelists for the plans through grassroots efforts and I began working diligently to combine my media relations strategy with beefing up a physical presence in the community.

I established a grassroots PR campaign by exposing parents to the idea of saving for college at PTA meetings with county and private school systems but I discovered that the greatest potential impact we had to increase enrollment in the two plans came from exposure at events where the last thing you expected was to see a booth on how to save for your kids college education. I was at country fairs. Carnivals. Food festivals. Professional sporting events. The zoo. Art museums.

Take your family out to an event, turn the corner and there I was (or one of my ambassadors) shaking hands with prospects and introducing them to the value of saving for college education.

I worked on PR efforts that built trust and one of the fastest ways we built trust was through grassroots PR efforts –  building rapport by shaking hands, promoting goodwill and looking parents in the eye as they described their fears about the cost of college. The core of my PR strategy was to go out and “press the flesh.”

At the time, I didn’t have the benefit of hopping on social media channels to monitor conversations that pertained to college savings and engage prospects. Facebook had yet to be established as a rallying point to virally spread the word about the value of saving for college. It was grass roots efforts combined with traditional PR strategies and establishing a physical presence that created results.

With the digitization of PR and the fundamental shift over the last few years in the way we communicate, should you still encourage clients to include physical presence as part of their PR campaign? I think that largely depends on the vertical that the client operates in. Selling clothes to teenagers vs. copy machines to businesses requires vastly different PR strategy to reach preset goals.

My point for this post is to remind PR pros that even though social and digital media has changed the dynamic of PR strategies and tactics do not underestimate the power of physical presence if it is applicable your client’s target market. Not everyone uses social media or consumes content through digital channels. The power of human contact can pay huge dividends if executed properly.

Search for opportunities where your client can get out from behind the desk and meet face to face with prospects and clients. Encourage them to “press the flesh.” Creating evangelists and sparking word of mouth about a product or service may require more than a deft media relations campaign, savvy blogger relations, or digital brand awareness strategies.

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  • Gsideman

    “Pressing the Flesh” in PR doesn’t count less, but can be more challenging because of time constraints and in many cases, distance. Face time with clients and media is always good when it’s possible.

    • http://twitter.com/John_Trader1 John Trader

      A valid point. In my experience, for certain vertical markets it makes a lot of sense to get as much face time as possible with prospects and clients to promote goodwill and encourage WOM. Noticing that a lot of PR content written these days doesn’t seems to focus on the digital channels for effectiveness so I wanted to remind everyone that getting out from behind the desk should be encouraged when applicable!

  • MHaeffele

    Did you enjoy your grassroots work for the State of Maryland’s two 529 college savings plans?This summer I held a grassroots marketing position with a local movie theater and it was a lot of fun!  I went to city fairs, non-profit fundraisers and benefits, Joplin relief events, I agreed to sponsorships, and helped promote local non-profits and their events.  The position was certainly time-consuming and a little stressful, but I met so many contacts, many of whom remembered me and who I represented: the theater!  Face-to-face marketing approaches definitely helped in my mid-western city.  I also focused on Facebook and other social networking accounts like 417-shopping.com, and MomsLikeMe.com.  Our Facebook page grew tremendously but I truly believe it was the grassroots campaign that did the most good for the theater. 

  • Jim Nichols

    Right on. Social media are of great value, but there’s a lot of Kool-Aid being passed about.

  • Sara

    John,
    I may not be a public relations professional yet, I graduate college with a public relations degree in May, but I agree completely. I feel that more and more organizations and businesses are relying more on social media and forgetting that they have to actually get their representative out and shake hands witht he public. I feel that people feel more comfortable with an organization/company if they feel a closer connection. So once they have actually had a conversation or can see a human face other then a computer screen, I believe that is absoltely huge.

  • Kristine Marie

    I completely agree. There seems to be an increasing amount of new stories about social media and the effects of a digital world on public relations. However, we should not forget about the roots of PR.  There are lessons to be learned from how PR originated. (In fact, I just read about some of them in “PR may have changed but the Core Foundation Remains” on this site.) Also, we must not forget that many companies are still not in the social media/technology age. They make PR work for them every day without Facebook or Twitter. There is something to be learned from that.

  • KristinM

    Interesting post.  I’m a graduate student and plant to focus on the use of social media in PR, but this article reminds me that physical presence can still be important depending on the intended audience.  Do you think that physical presence is being utilized less because digital communication is seen as being able to reach a larger general audience without necessarily needing to focus separately on many different groups?

  • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

    And I would even add that pressing the flesh includes with bloggers and journalists and evangelists. The face-to-face connection always adds more value. Always.