PR Interview with Rachel O’Connor, MD of Siren Communications

About the agency

What industry sectors does Siren Communications specialise in?

We work mostly in leisure and travel, but increasingly we have clients from a number of other sectors including charity and food and drink.

What’s been happening recently at the agency?

It’s been a big year of change for us all. Victoria Savill and Sarah Rathbone are very much managing the business on a day-to-day basis and now sit on the company board. We have also appointed Marie Louise Windeler as chairman. We have invested in the team by recruiting Claire Winsor to lead the travel sector clients and Ed Maule to support the team’s increasing client demand for more digital and social media work. Ed joins us as social media manager. 

We have seen a very strong summer and second half for 2012, and we have made some significant business wins including City of York, Travel Technology Europe, an Italian Food Festival and The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show. We are also looking forward to an exciting Social Travel Market, where we are the key partner.

What is special about the agency’s approach to PR?

We’re a team of bright and energetic people that genuinely enjoy making a difference to our clients’ business. We are truly blessed with some very strong client supporters and have benefited enormously from the goodwill of people who have been prepared to give us a go, listen to us or even take a risk with us. I am happy to say that we have a reputation for delivering what we promise so the risks have almost always paid off.

We are meticulous at planning and really crafting a story. We genuinely understand the media and how it works, and we know how to create a story and roll it out across different communications channels. This doesn’t happen by accident and when clients choose Siren Communications, it’s because they like our robust approach to planning and delivery.

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

Mostly, it’s by understanding what the business or brand needs from a story – be it exposure, click-throughs, bookings or visibility. Once we know that, then we can make the right recommendations that will achieve what they need. So, simple really! We listen, understand, research, create and craft our ideas. We don’t operate an off-the-shelf approach because no business or brand is the same. 

What has been your biggest PR/communications challenge?

I think the biggest challenge PR people in travel and lifestyle have is overturning the ‘fluffy bunny’ reputation PR has, and getting clients/business to see the huge opportunity PR and communications affords business today. 

What we do is so much more than media relations these days, and convincing clients of this is a big time absorber. We spend lots of time encouraging clients to invest in assets to support a story –  images, video, info graphics and influential advocates are all critical elements of our approach to almost every story; all too often clients don’t see that a small investment in these areas can stretch a good story so much further and create a much bigger impact for the business.

Ultimately it’s demonstrating the commercial value of what we do to a business’ bottom line. Therefore we spend a lot of time trying to get a decent brief or identify business objectives for our work, to prove this value and what we will deliver.

About clients

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

Motability Operations, UK Flagship, Royal Horseguards Hotel, The Cumberland Hotel, The Grosvenor Hotel, Swann Hellenic, Hebridean Cruises, The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show, City of York, airberlin, Canvas Holidays, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! London, The Charing Cross Hotel and The Tower Hotel.

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

‘Urban Art @ The Cumberland’ campaign for Guoman Hotels was a great one. Our brief was to reinforce the contemporary feel of the hotel but we didn’t have big budgets, so we capitalised on the assets we had – namely, a fantastic lobby which doubled up as a perfect gallery space. We exhibited 84 pieces of street art – including eight works by Banksy. We created images, video and print assets to work with. Then the team worked the blogs, social media platforms and traditional media and the coverage went around the world. But best of all, for the two weeks of the exhibit, The Cumberland was one of London’s most visited attractions.

How do you harness social media for your clients?

It’s an integral part of all that we do; we are launching a new product in 2012, which will underpin our expertise in this area.

What has been your most outlandish campaign?

On a personal level, I spent a whole summer working on the launch campaign for the then Universal Studios Orlando's new Jaws attraction. The campaign ran for six weeks across the summer holiday season in the UK and involved events, stunts and media relations. The key assets that we worked with included shark attack survivor Dr. Rodney Fox and novelist Peter Benchley, and we ran a six week road trip involving a 9.5 tonnes shark monster truck Outside Broadcast unit. The entire campaign was supported by a great piece of scientific research fronted by Dr Judy, who had created Theme Park Therapy and who visited the UK for a media tour. It was highly successful and absolutely brilliant fun.

My other very favourite launch stunt was for National Breakfast Week, with Frank Bruno and Frankie Dettori, ‘To be Frank you have to eat your breakfast’, for which we achieved blanket national TV, print and radio coverage. Perhaps the most contrived (and dangerous) stunt I ever crafted was taking Kellogg’s Frosties' Tony the Tiger to Wembley with Baddiel and Skinner to watch an England home game. More fun than you can imagine – happy days!

What are the main issues for your clients in the travel industry right now?

Differentiating a brand. It’s a highly competitive set and famously low budget and so often difficult to create the stand out clients want – it requires constant creativity and relies heavily on strong media relations. 

The other massive challenge and opportunity is encouraging clients to make the most of online communications. Of course, media relations remains key, but to achieve real stand out, getting clients to appreciate the importance of assets is vital these days. A small investment in video, spokespeople, statistics, info graphics, etc. can take a story and message so much further and really max out the return on investment a business gets for a story.

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?

There is no real balance of emphasis – obviously, we work very closely with key trade and travel editors but we do a huge amount with news agencies, food and beverage, lifestyle, online and listings media and increasingly with business and news. 

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

Good story ideas, well-briefed spokespeople, market intelligence, supporting materials, video, images, statistics, etc. plus access to events, hotels, attractions, press trip experiences, regular news releases and information.

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with journalists?

As a team we are all regularly out with media of every shape and size. On a weekly basis we ensure that everyone in the team is talking and meeting with media and bloggers to brainstorm and discuss opportunities for our clients. This contact is important in maintaining a real handle on what’s happening in the world of media, as well as securing media opportunities for clients.

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

In my 20-plus years of working as a PR, I have to say that in the majority of cases the working relationship is certainly collaborative, if not harmonious. Even in extreme conditions, when you are fighting to defend a client, or at least to get a fair hearing, most journalists will work with you if you demonstrate that you understand their own needs and objectives. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy banter to hear each other out and establish rules of engagement. I have always found that even in hostile situations, being open about where you stand and what you are working to achieve for the journalist and the client works to the clients’ advantage. I think it’s fair to say that being an ‘ostrich’ never works.

If you could ask a journalist one question out of the ordinary, what would it be?

Why don’t you give us a fair hearing?

About you

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

Radio 4's Today programme.

Name three guests you’d invite to a dinner party and why.

Sir Harold Evans – who wouldn’t.

Desmond Tutu – to hear him giggle.

Meryl Streep – grace and talent personified.

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

I’d go back in time to Fleet Street circ. 1960s. The intellect, adrenalin and the ruthless drive to secure The Story and get it out. How thrilling.

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

Anyone that knows me knows I am terrible at this these days. I used to be out every night as a younger, single PR. But these days it’s more challenging. Not least because I am a working mum, but also I prefer small and less busy (I must be getting old) business settings and one-to-one catch ups with people. I tend to work better like this. However, networking is important and especially in travel, so I do have to work hard at it, but it always pays off. I was very lucky in my early years to have jobs that gave me access to interesting people, many of whom have become business colleagues, clients and friends today.

What’s the first rule of good PR?

Build trust. Unless you are able to build trust with your clients (or within your organisation) then your advice and counsel won’t ever be taken on board. Equally important is to build trust and respect as an ‘operator’ with key influencers, media, bloggers and stakeholder communities, without this you go nowhere. Once you achieve trust in any relationship, then you can usually move forward much more effectively.

On a personal level, I have always thought it important to be as honest as you can within a situation. I much prefer to cut to the chase and work to understand the ramifications of a situation to be able to provide the right advice or solution. I’d like to think I’m known for telling it how it is and working to create a good outcome for everyone involved; client, team, media and Siren Communications.

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