How PR folks can win the budget war

With the increasingly shrinking marketing dollar, getting a share of the budget for the PR arm of any organisation is becoming challenging. At a recent PR Asia 2016 conference, PR professionals weighed in on how folks in the trade can get a cut of the budget in order to fund the projects they need.

According to Frazer Neo Macken, vice president communications, Electrolux Asia Pacific, organisations need to be aware of how to get the budget for the tools needed to meet the KPIs.

“If there isn’t a budget for what is needed, a PR lead needs to fight for it,” he said. In doing so there needs to be a keen understanding of the dynamics of the budget game, he explained, adding that one needs to take into account the different levels of authority in order to get the green light.

“Maybe your boss gave the green light, but then the next step is going through the CFO and making him/her understand why you need the tool, what exactly are you trying to achieve. With that there is synergy and you are able to get your boss to sign off on it, with the support of the CFO,” Neo Macken said.

Agreeing with him is Gaynor Reid, vice president communications Asia Pacific, AccorHotels, who added that her strategy is first making friends with the chief financial officer (CFO) from the get go. She said:

Make friends with your CFO. It doesn’t hurt.

Establish yourself as a decision makers

Reid also added that making yourself part of the executive team and being part of the strategy and decision making is also crucial in increasing your budget prospects. As such, speaking the business language is also important.

“You need to present it as to how it will help the business. Don’t just report the strategy, be part of creating the strategy,” Reid said.

Lavinia Rajaram, regional head of Public Relations (Asia), AirAsiaExpedia, said PR professionals need to establish oneself as a trusted partner to the business. This is in addition with having a seat at the management level to be able to influence stakeholders.

“Choose your battles. When you are in a dynamic organisation with different levels of marketing streamlines, the marketing team always gets the larger investment. Meanwhile, PR is always at the bottom of the food chain,” Rajaram added.

Do your job well and the money will come

However, she explained that PRs are creative people after all and know how to get things with very little in hand. Once a PR person is able to start demonstrating great work, eventually the management will see the power of PR and invest, allowing growth for the team.

Agreeing with Rajaram is Reid, who shared that sometimes she thinks she should have done marketing instead because the marketing team “tends to get 10 times the budget of PR”.

“Coming back to being best friends with the CFO, make friends with the marketing team as well and sometimes you can present a project that is really PR-based and call it marketing to get the money for it,” Reid added.

Another tip she added was in always asking for more than you need because the team might not get the whole budget which is being asked for. However, there is a need to present it as a business case. Not only do you say why you need the money, you need to explain how it is good for the business in the long term, Reid said.

Always ask for more than you need because they are going to cut it in half. If you need a $100,000, ask for $200,000.

However, Lavinia Rajaram, regional head of Public Relations (Asia), AirAsiaExpedia, cautioned that having more money does not always translate to a better deal as. In fact, having more money can lead to higher expectations for PR to deliver on KPIs, especially for KPI-driven organisations.

“On the flipside, having less funds is not always a good thing because when you do great work with less funds they would think PR can work on a shoestring budget, resulting in lesser allocation,” Rajaram explained.

In-house versus agencies?

When asked if brands should then rely more on agencies due to the cost advantage, Electrolux’s Neo Macken explained that it depends on the budget that an organisation has – and that differs for each brand.

He explained the two parts to a budget – the first being fixed costs and then the variable costs. When a PR has a small budget he/she want to ensure low fixed costs and high variable cost. So in the event their budget gets cut, fixed costs are not affected.

“You can get agencies to do monitoring or using the digital tools but at the end of the day you need to understand the budgeting process. That is fundamental,” Neo Macken added. While numbers maybe be a terrifying experience to PR or communications professional, what is important is being able to read and understand how the game is played, he explained.

AccorHotel’s Reid was of the views that while she would much rather spend on building an in-house team on a whole; she recognised that agencies do bring in skill sets which are sometimes lacking in an in-house team.

“However, when you bring in an agency you got to make them part of your company so they feel a sense of ownership,” Reid added.

In the case of AccorHotels, a lot of money is spent training its team for instance in the art of storytelling and working with influencers. Numerous workshops are organised to help the team better understand the area – going as far as working with travel writers and journalists.

“We don’t always have to rely on an external agency because it is good for your own team to build their skills and that is what keeps people from wanting to leave an organisation. Training gives them the feeling that they have the opportunity to grow and develop their skills,” Reid explained. This also keeps the younger folk motivated.

She added that moving on to try something is new is something which is more prevalent in Singapore’s culture as compared to other markets.

“If you feel you are not getting the training and the growth in your current company you need to at least go to them with a plan and tell them this is what you would like to learn. Most companies will comply if they can,” Reid said.

Rajaram added that she is a huge believer of client-agency partnerships as she feels agencies bring a different skill to the table because it makes sense for certain markets.

“They are able to scale and deliver when possible. And also scale down and deprioritise and focus on other things. This is why it is absolutely important that your agency partners feel they are part of the business and not just a vendor,” Rajaram said.

However, Rajaram added that agencies should not let themselves be at the mercy of clients.

“I really appreciate agency partners that challenge the way clients think. That gives me the assurance that you are passionate about my business and you are serious about this relationship and you want to stay relevant. Do challenge us to think differently,” Rajaram explained.

Meanwhile, when it comes to media relations, she feels that in-house professionals need to hold on to some of these relationships as there is a trend towards brands letting that power go to their agencies.

Agreeing with her is AccorHotel’s Reid, who added that at the end of the day it is all about relationships in the public relations field.

“If you are not getting out there and entertaining the media, you can’t expect to send out a press release every month and expect them to cover your news,” Reid added.

She added that in-house PR folks also need to head out and create relationships of their own with the media – rather than solely rely on PR partners to do so.

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