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PR Interview with Hilary Crossing, MD of Focus PR

Hilary Crossing

In these challenging times, journalists are relying on PRs more and more. I would say that the relationship between us is the best it’s been in the last 20 years.

About the agency

What industry sectors does Focus PR specialise in?

We’re a consumer lifestyle agency with clients in four sectors: food and drink, luxury and lifestyle, beauty and health and art and interiors.

The agency was recently featured in PR Week’s Top 50 Digital Consultancies league table. What is special about the agency’s approach to PR?

Every agency likes to think of itself as different and special but it can be hard to define it in tangible terms. It’s no accident that we’re called Focus PR; we are particularly good at drilling down into a brief to get to the heart of clients’ commercial objectives (which are often not the ones defined in the brief!) and then set about delivering against them with a very clear strategy forming the backbone of the creative idea. Most of our campaigns straddle editorial, digital (now an integral part of most brands’ communications strategies) and experiential, using a combination of media relations, brand custodianship, consumer engagement and something we call business alchemy.

Were any of your clients involved in the London Olympics?

We signed up Helen Jenkins (selected as part of Team GB for the Women’s Triathlon London 2012) to a two-year deal, just days before she became world champion last year, on behalf of specialist triple-action anti-perspirant Triple Dry. Leveraging Helen’s knowledge, we have worked with her to produce a series of triathlon training guides to tap into one of Britain’s fastest growing sports. Helen has proved invaluable in securing editorial coverage in national newspapers and magazines, giving a voice to the Triple Dry brand in hard-to-get media spots.

How do you ensure your clients get the right coverage in the press?

It’s all about focus. Media relations are about quality not quantity: targeting the right journalists and media, tailoring stories, doing your research and building strong relationships. We set clear KPIs with clients relating to editorial coverage and evaluate based on key message delivery and the quality of the coverage in target media, rather than seeing how high the stack of coverage is or some spurious AVE figure. We also track sales with our clients so we see how our media results relate directly to sales spikes.

Focus PR is all-female at the moment. Was that intended?

No. We have had some fantastic male account handlers in our team in the past but they seem to be a bit thin on the ground in consumer lifestyle PR. We’d love to even up the gender balance, although I must stress that we are very proud of our ‘dynamo team’ as it is.   

About clients

Can you list some of your most well-known, or respected clients?

We’re lucky to work with market-leading brands and some great clients, many of whom have been loyal to us for many years. Courvoisier, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, Stolichnaya, Lavazza, Vosene, UGG Australia, Parker, Eylure, COLLECTION…

Tell us about one of your clients you recently worked with.  What was the company’s brief, your approach and the result?

One of our most recent campaigns for Lavazza has been really successful and we’ve had great fun with it. Lavazza is the official coffee of The Championships at Wimbledon so we were asked to create a campaign to drive awareness of an on-cup promotion they were doing to support their sponsorship. A pretty tough brief!

We secured thirteen food and lifestyle bloggers to take part in the Lavazza coffee, set, match competition, designed to follow the format of the Championship with knock-out rounds and a grand finale. Each week the bloggers created a variety of different coffee-inspired recipes, from cocktails to marinated lamb and cake pops, which were assessed on style, flair, originality, Twitter engagement and enthusiasm, by judges from the Lavazza brand team. 

Bonus points were awarded for entrants who spotted the Lavazza promotion ‘live’ and included links to the special Wimbledon promotional website. After five weeks and over 60 blogs, the winner was invited to join Lavazza at the Wimbledon Championship and visit the home of the brand in Turin, Italy. This was the brand’s first real foray into the blogging-sphere and both the UK and Italian team have been overwhelmed by the level of engagement and overall results.

What’s the best way of engaging your target audience when using social media?

Firstly, you’ve got to do a lot of listening. Before you plan any social media strategy it’s important to understand what consumers are saying about your brand, the questions they want answering and the aspects of your sector they are interested in. You can’t force people to engage with your brand online – you need to respond to their desires, aspirations and queries if you’re going to be useful to them. Consumers won’t be interested unless you are useful or entertaining. 

Secondly, you’ve got to choose the most relevant tools to reach your target audience and use them appropriately. It’s not about setting up a Facebook page or Twitter feed for the sake of it, with the aim of broadcasting promotional messages. You’ll soon find yourself shouting into an abyss. As social media is becoming mainstream, brands need to find increasingly creative and interesting ways to get attention, but at the core you need the strategic focus and some clear measures of success (which isn’t just the number of ‘likes’).

What has been your most outlandish campaign?

Over the years we had a lot of fun, from creating a life-size chocolate sculpture of Elton John for the centenary of Cadbury Dairy Milk to a guerrilla campaign for Lotus Cars where we had ‘faceless’ people popping up at high profile locations. The story went around the world, with people speculating on whether aliens had landed or if it was a silent protest by celebrities sick of being photographed. 

At the moment we’re running a Vo-sing singing in the shower campaign for Vosene in aid of the NSPCC which has been getting a lot of attention on Twitter (and we’ve just hit our £10,000 fundraising target).

From 12-14 July we’re putting on one of the most amazing events we’ve ever done for Courvoisier, where consumers will literally step inside Cocktails on a Grand Scale in a series of Alice in Wonderland-esque rooms which will assault their senses.

What advice would you give to recent business start-ups on their PR strategy?

It’s all about telling your story to the right people in the right way. Develop your story and your key messages and think clearly about your audiences. Be focused and be prepared to play the long game as it can take time to build momentum. Finally, listen to your consumers and be prepared to change tack if a campaign isn’t working as you anticipated.

About journalists

Which areas of the press do you communicate with the most and which media outlets or journalists do you find you work with the most often?

More than 80% of our work is consumer-focused but we ensure we are in touch with the trade side too, as it’s vital for understanding market dynamics and seeing the world through our clients’ eyes. We work across national and regional media, newspapers, business press, magazines (from the monthly glossies to the weeklies) and have very strong relationships with bloggers and online titles. We also work with TV and radio too, from producers, researchers and presenters to make-up artists and stylists.

What can you offer to journalists seeking a story on one of your clients?

Speed and reliability. We try to give journalists the right ‘package’ for them, whether they’re looking to test drive a Rolls Royce, trial the latest skincare product or have access to senior client spokespeople. We place enormous value on our relationships with the media, especially as they are under so much pressure to create copy as well as web content, to increasingly tight deadlines. 

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with journalists?

We meet them face-to-face as much as we can and always do our research before pitching a story. But the key way to build trust is to make sure we deliver for them. It’s hardly rocket science, but getting information and images to them on time and in the right format counts for a lot, as does knowing their production cycle so you don’t call when they’re on deadline. making sure they have the facts they need before their editorial meeting. We have a ‘Best of the Best’ database of all our top media contacts across categories, built up over the years.

In your experience, do you think the relationship between journalists and PRs is always harmonious, or is it more of a love-hate affair?

It’s naïve to think that any relationship will always be plain sailing, but we need journalists and they need us, to a lesser or greater degree. If we treat each other with respect, have realistic expectations of each other and maintain a sense of humour, great friendships can be formed. In these challenging times, journalists are relying on PRs more and more. I would say that the relationship between us is the best it’s been in the last 20 years. 

About you

What media do you seek out first thing in the morning?

Every morning: BBC Breakfast, TheTimes.co.uk, The Guardian, Facebook, Twitter.

Tuesday evenings/Wed mornings: Stylist.

Wednesday evenings/Thursday mornings:  ShortList.

Friday mornings: Sport.

Sunday mornings: The Sunday Times (Business first, followed by Style).

If you could work anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

Paris. Apart from being a complete Francophile and loving the Gallic attitude, I’d like to be able to communicate in a professional/business/media environment in French. We’ve had many French clients and my experience is that they take pride in their work and they treat people with decency.

Do you attend networking events? If so, which are you attending soon?

Yes. I always go to the Marketing Society Annual Conference.

What’s the first rule of good PR?

Know the media, journalist and column before you pick up the telephone.