Five questions with… Chuck Tanowitz, PR & Marketing Consultant

As a marketer, public relations professional, writer and former PR firm owner, Chuck has helped to put numerous startups on the map. He helped to engineer the rise of Greentown Labs from an unknown collection of clean-tech companies to an incubator overflowing with tenants. He also helped cloud provider ProfitBricks generate headlines that put it in the company of major players like Amazon and helped VoiceDream Reader become one of the top 10 education apps in the iTunes app store. Chuck has also helped non-profits like the LigerBots, the FIRST Robotics team of the combined Newton high schools, land sponsorships from major consumer brands like Dunkin Donuts and Shark Ninja.  chuck tanowitz

Chuck served as a panelist for the Publicity Club’s recent Masters’ Institute event covering the Financial Challenges of Growing a Small Business. Designed for seasoned corporate communications professionals, the discussion focused on what business leaders need to know in order to stay ahead in today’s rapidly changing environment.

Following the panel, Chuck took a few moments to provide some insight into small businesses

– What are the biggest challenges facing small- and mid-sized businesses today?

For small to midsize PR firms, it’s offering the right mix of services. Media relations remains the bread and butter for most small to midsize firms. But “getting ink” is not only tougher, it’s less effective than it used to be.

Traditional media doesn’t have the same pull it once did, publications are closing their doors, reporters are being laid off and those who are left face greater pulls on their time. The problem is that buyers understand media so that’s what they buy.

There is that often quoted statistic that we have 5 PR people for every reporter.  This all creates a perfect storm of a process that takes more hours and therefore costs more to do, but has downward pricing pressure thanks to a competitive landscape. This means small firms need to invest in areas and build skills that may feel ancillary to their original mission. This may force the leadership to hire outside of their areas of expertise.

There’s been a lot of M&A activity recently in the PR industry. What does this mean for the industry? And how does it affect (or not) growth strategies and market opportunities?

The consolidation should do a decent job of clearing the way for new services. As I noted before, clients continue to buy media relations because it’s what they understand, but that will change. The larger firms will service that need for the time being by picking up the business of the smaller firms. Then the more entrepreneurial among us will spin back out and offer new services, like data PR consulting or acting as consultants on paid media opportunities.

Marketing continues to change at a dramatic pace. How do you know which path is right for your business and what steps do you need to take to get there?

This is where you really need to take your best read of the market based on what your clients want and what you are prepared to offer. Some things are going to take off, others are going to fizzle. Some you’ll need to offer for free to current clients but then will sell to others. There really isn’t an answer.

It’s similar to when social media came along, no one really knew how to charge for the services around this. Some organizations have figured it out, some have just folded the cost of doing it into the retainers.

Paid media offers both an opportunity and a threat. If I’m a VP of Marketing for a small company and looking at where to put my budget, I need to think seriously about buying awareness-based opportunities strategically with certain publications. My problem will be determining where to get the best value.

PR firms can offer value here, but the service model is going to take a while to develop.

– How do you balance mitigating and taking on risk, particularly when looking at growing your business?

I wish I could offer a great answer here. I wish I could give some kind of magical equation that lets you figure out where that balance is between balancing risk and taking it on. But it’s a little like asking “which roller coaster is the best for me?”

For some, a simple roller coaster is the way to go, it offers excitement but isn’t going to make you ill. Others need the excitement that loops and twists offer, and nothing less will do.

Sure, you can keep your risk at bay and still grow, or you can risk more and grow faster… or just lose more. How much can you stomach? What can you afford? Can you afford not to?

What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see made today, in terms of running and/or growing an agency?

The number one mistake is jumping into new markets without understanding them. I’ve seen companies open up in a new city and assume that it operates just like the one they’re based in. Every city has its own cultural heritage, key players and business climate. You need local people to help understand all that.

The same goes for business markets. You can’t just take your experience in real estate PR and apply it to technology. You need to hire the right people who can help teach your staff what skills cross over and what doesn’t. Some companies do this very well. Others open offices or even buy firms only to manage them poorly and watch them die.

Taking a risk doesn’t mean jumping with your eyes closed.