small business pr: a big opportunity but one size never fits all

When I pick up a shiny new top off the shop rail, nothing makes my heart sink faster than a “one size” label.  Why? It never fits.  You’re pretty much guaranteed either your boobs, your tummy or your bum will be mercilessly exposed by a garment designed to be OK for everyone but that usually provides a poor result.  And it’s usually the one part you want to hide that ends up on show.

I hadn’t intended to start with a shopping analogy but hey ho, I am short of time so let’s press on.

We’ve been doing a lot of work recently with small to medium sized businesses and it never ceases to amaze me how many companies just don’t get what they need.

Small yet individually formed

In March this year, when David Cameron told the Conservative Party Conference ““There’s only one strategy for growth we can have now…and that is rolling up our sleeves and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to start (and) grow a business,” a line was drawn in the sand.

Only two months later, business secretary Vince Cable stood on a national stage alongside Lord Green and William Hague to announce that, “we’re rightly proud of British firms and making sure they can increase their exports to a worldwide audience is vital if we are to rebuild our economy.”

From grassroots campaigns to large-scale media pushes by the likes of The Mirror and The Independent; Google’s “get your business online competition” to HSBC’s small business confidence monitor, championing British small and medium-sized businesses and wanting them to succeed has never been more fashionable.

This is different.

If the UK is to recover from recession and bounce back from the economic woes that currently face us, we need small businesses to succeed.

Q. But how many large organisations truly understand the needs of small businesses?

A. Not many… least not when they are trying to communicate with them.

The most common complaint we hear from journalists (and the counsel we provide for our clients) is that the story IS different….solutions selling doesn’t work in the same way for SMEs as for large enterprises.  As for targeting audiences by job title, how does that achieve the desired results when the HR director is the finance director and the marketing director and the managing director all rolled into one?

From IT complexity to changing taxation; super-fast rural broadband to money laundering regulations; cloud security to the cost of “free”; understanding changing privacy laws to increasing remote working and the power of micropayments to the impact of mobile technology.  As the managing director of a small British business today, there is currently a LOT going on in your head.

And the end game? Cutting costs and achieving growth.

So where are the danger points? And why do (according to Experian) over 1800 small businesses a month fail in the UK?

According to Jonathan Hogg in April’s Independent SME supplement, “businesses fail to understand that the most successful time in a company’s life is its most dangerous time” and attributes this to what Freud called “totems and taboos”.

“Totems are ideas that become so sacred they cannot be questioned and taboos are the questions that cannot be asked. They arise from some very deep-rooted human instincts…reflect our natural conservative bias in the form of a reluctance to change….and the herd instinct where everyone wants to agree with the majority.”

And why this reluctance to change? At an enterprise level, businesses usually have non-executives to lean on.  To spot trends, point out pitfalls and to provide experience from learning the hard way.  But what do SMEs have?  Very often a combination of gut feel and a very small amount of spare time.

Doing well by doing good

In the UK at present there is a real opportunity to provide not only support, education and competitions/giveaways to the SME market but genuine help. The media want this, the government wants this and only a very few global organisations are really doing it.

I believe here is a wealth of industry knowledge, support and mentorship sitting within vertically-focused global businesses that can be shared to mutual benefit with the SME market in the UK.

What does this mean for PR and social media?

Where the focus on technology in the broadsheet media has shrunk over the past ten years, the tabloids, regionals and small business/consumer titles have seen an increase, particularly online.  An increase in blogger credibility, search and link-led marketing, has meant that ideas MUST be good enough to be shared amongst friends and colleagues and campaigns must deliver more than just news.

What works?

Businesses that are succeeding in reaching SME and industry audiences through print, broadcast and social media are using a simple but successful communications formula:

Simple language + human angles x strong support from real businesses= PR success

In the UK, there is a real opportunity to take initiatives such as business mentoring and community partnerships a lot further.  PR-wise, it amazes me that still companies are not talking the language of small businesses, instead burying all the interesting stuff under mountains of product marketing speak.

The smart company that can couple the wealth of interesting business news that its end users generate EVERY day with the political, social and macroeconomic picture in the UK today (alongside providing genuine support for British businesses) is a PR success waiting to happen.  So come on then, who’s game?

(cross posted with my employer’s blog)

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