North Star Is Setting A New Course

February 28, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Dan Calabrese, who founded North Star Public Relations five years ago, tells of hearing a bothersome question during a client meeting.

"The meeting was going quite well," Calabrese said. "Then one guy at the table raised his hand and said, 'I don't understand what the deliverables are. We're paying you money and what we're getting back is — what?'"

He said the question nagged at him. It also sparked a long dialogue with North Star's vice president for client services, Cindy Droog. The problem of measuring results arose from a similar query an employer of hers once posed.

"The longer I was in the industry, the more I found myself starting to ask the same question," she said. "So I went back to school just to study how to evaluate and measure and do the research that shows PR does have real results." (Droog is still in college, but as an adjunct professor in public relations at GVSU.)

According to Droog, the traditional public relations answer to the man's question would have been that the deliverables are news stories appearing in the general media or trade publications.

But she told the Business Journal that contriving publicity for a client doesn't necessarily equal what a lot of people would consider a "deliverable."

"And even if you do get stories in the newspaper," added Calabrese, a former reporter for the Business Journal, "you still haven't necessarily insured that you have delivered value for your client.

"Getting your name 'out there' alone doesn't necessarily do anything," he said. "You're still then left with the question: 'How do I know this has actually helped my client have any success, make any money, sell anything, get a referral — all the stuff that they need to do?'

"Try as we might," he said, "we find it difficult to demonstrate those things in any kind of a direct and convincing way."

In a year of discussion that sometimes became "sharp and spirited," Calabrese and Droog said their view of public relations changed utterly.

They still believe PR firm should deliver publicity, but that publicity merely should supplement some measurable form of contact with the client's constituency; contacts that persuade constituents to take action favorable to the client.

"Now we think the clients do get it," Calabrese said, "and that they are asking the right questions. And if you're in a field that's incapable of providing concrete answers for those questions, then maybe you need to think about changing what you do.

"And we did," he added. "Now we have to go further. We have to be able to show a contact was made; have to be able to show what action they took as a result of the contact."

How one makes those determinations, he said, varies from client to client.

"You just do whatever it takes," Droog added. In the case of Deligo Technology, a Detroit firm that serves the CAD engineering market, she said she is on the phone getting feedback from the firm's sales people.

She also is on the phone either qualifying or eliminating Deligo's sales prospects.

"Back in the old days, PR was all about media relations," she said. "Now we pick up the phone and start dialogue with prospects. We find out what would they like to receive, what they think of what they received from Deligo. I've had the phone slammed down — they're not interested; stop sending material. Well, the client would rather know that than keep wasting money."

Calabrese admits that what North Star does for Deligo sounds like a form of marketing research. "But I don't really care what you call it," he said. "The clients like it."

"It's not traditional PR," Droog added. "But the practices of marketing and advertising and PR always did overlap. And if the term 'public relations' means building relationships, well — you've got to dialogue to do that."

They said North Star set its new direction last month.

"We met with clients — including some that were quite happy with what we are doing," Calabrese said. "Everyone has gotten on board. Everyone has liked it. We have changed the nature of what we do so that we actually can see where we're getting measurable benefit."

Another client has asked North Star to increase its number of "at bats" — sales contacts.

"They feel they succeed with a high enough percentage of meetings," Calabrese said, "and have asked us to help get them more meetings.

"That's the kind of measurement we would have cringed at in the past," he said. "Now, it's one we embrace."

Droog said academia has talked for some years about the need for quantifiable PR results, but that industry practitioners seem to be responding slowly. "I think we're one of the few firms doing this," she said, "but I don't know if anybody in town is doing it."

What sold Calabrese on the change was a recent furor in Los Angeles

Because of a budget deficit, the city fired a host of PR firms — all the PR firms in town, in fact. And LA's public relations industry responded, he said, by launching a publicity campaign pegged not on what benefit city government would lose, but how unfairly the city was treating PR firms.

Calabrese said that if some client announced it was dispensing with North Star's services, he'd rather be armed with facts to show the client how it would lose than whine about how unfair it was.

Droog concedes that making lots of contacts with clients' constituencies is labor-intensive.

But Calabrese said that the aggregate of staff time is no greater than before. "You're just not spending as much time sitting around engaged in 'strategic planning.'"

So, how does a firm go about customizing its work for its clients?

"It's not as difficult as you'd think," Calabrese said.

"It just takes a few basic questions to get the client thinking. It's not that they don't know the answers. It's just that they're so focused on the day-to-day minutia of operations.

"So what we do is ask them: 'Who is it? What to you need them to do? Why should they? What do they need to know that will motivate them?'

"Once we get the answers, we just start using our same PR skills to produce results."    

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