Emma Fair: Making the business of PR add up

I am an accountant '“ not something I necessarily always want to shout about, but between you and I nothing pleases me more than a good spreadsheet.

Emma Fair, commercial and finance director at Perceptive Communicators. Picture: Contributed

My career started as a trainee CA in the audit department at KPMG where I would audit companies, carry out stock takes and generally do all the things the more experienced accountants didn’t want to do. I then went on to work as an accountant in the publishing and media industry for ten years, before landing a job at with a small agency that helps companies and individuals improve their communications.

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The one thing that the companies I audited and those I had previously worked in had in common was that there was always an end product – something tangible you could get your hands on, count at a stock take and, as auditors like to do, “physically verify”.

Communications was very different. There was no end product as such, other than some articles in the papers, and it took me some time to get my head around this. I thought I knew exactly what PR and communications was before I started this job, but the reality was that I knew about 10% of what it was all about.

With my accountant’s head on, PR and communications were things you spent money on because everyone else was doing it and it was a necessary (and costly) evil to promote an event or a new product. It was something that I gave lip service to in my budgeting process and the first thing that I would cut if spend was required elsewhere.

Looking back, I wish I knew what I know now. The value of a good reputation and brand cannot be underestimated. For a business looking to raise its profile, gain public awareness and keep one step ahead of competitors, it is invaluable.

The sort of profile my colleagues gain for our clients in the local and national press, online and on TV and radio can’t be bought. Of course, spending lots of money on advertising can guarantee column inches too, but this lacks the credibility of the coverage a journalist can give, not to mention being rather expensive.

If done properly, promoting and protecting an organisation’s reputation is not a box-ticking exercise. It should be strategically planned to convey the key messages a client wants to communicate with their identified target audiences – whether that’s customers, stakeholders, government or the wider public.

Something that pleases the spreadsheet-loving part of me is the fact that results matter to my colleagues and our clients. KPIs are agreed at the outset. Targets are determined to ensure the results can be evaluated and measured, allowing us to keep our quality high and keep the finance person at the client happy (return on investment is key to us accountant types!).

With my accountant’s head back on, another area where I have learned that money can be very well spent is crisis communications. On many occasions my colleagues have gone to the rescue of a client when something unexpected or unfortunate has happened, keeping their reputation intact.

It’s hard to put a value on this – good crisis communications support could be as significant as saving a company from ruin, which is priceless, but the minimum benefit is that the crisis communications fee will be a lot less than the spend required to rebuild reputation and gain customers’ trust following a damaging incident.

When people ask me now what exactly it is that my company does, I can proudly explain to them, rather than mumbling something about communications and promptly changing the subject.

If I could give my fellow finance people advice, it would be this – don’t write PR and communications off as an unnecessary spend. Instead, rethink the PR line in your budget and what the value of this could actually be. You never know when you might need rescued.

• Emma Fair is commercial and finance director at Perceptive Communicators