In many ways, industrial PR isn’t that different to other forms of public relations. The PR Consultants Association in their guide to what does the PR industry do state:

  • The leading duties of the industry are general media relations, media relations strategy planning, and digital and social media – this is the case for industrial PR as well as for consumer
  • PR agencies are most likely to be made up of between 11-50 people. In-house teams are overwhelmingly made up of 2-5 people, regardless of organisational size. Again, this reflects the landscape of industrial PR as well as consumer.
  • Digital, S.E.O., and online communications are seen as the tasks that have most increased in importance over the last two years, and those that will increase most in the coming years. Industrial PR does reflect this trend too.

We can see that there are a lot of similarities between consumer and industrial PR. So, what are the primary differences between the two?

Focussed Industrial Trade Media

Most industries have trade media that specifically cover that market sector. There are a huge number of specialist trade publications that address anything from marketing to making cement. These publications have typically been the way that potential customers keep up to date with developments in their industry and are therefore very influential.

Industrial Trade Shows Remain Important

I’m writing this during the COVID pandemic, which does have the potential to dramatically change the important of trade shows. We’ve survived almost a year without events, so why shouldn’t we be able to continue?

It appears that trade shows deliver a high-quality audience, there is a strong appetite for the return of trade shows and events, particularly from industrial SMBs. Prior to the pandemic many smaller suppliers spent most, if not all, of their marketing budget around trade shows. This allowed them to reach an engaged audience with a clearly defined amount of effort: something that is very important when some of these organisations don’t have a full-time marketing role.

Trade shows therefore form a focal point around which many other activities, from product launches to journalist briefings are scheduled. Although the event focus does have some analogies in the consumer space – particularly the games industry – the reliance on trade shows for promotion is very pronounced in industrial PR.

Industrial Influencers are Few and Far Between

It’s interesting that the number of influencers in most industrial markets is significantly lower than the number for consumer products. Many of these influencers are also journalists.

Although there are some industries where influencers are important, the structure of industrial markets presents barriers to creating a strong influencer community. Firstly, most influencers are working in the industry. Their link to either a supplier of customer not only restricts what they can say, but also introduces inevitable bias. Confidentiality will also make it difficult for them to reveal innovative ideas as their organisation is likely to want to use them for competitive advantage.

There is arguably much less to gain as an influencer in an industrial market. Today there are few industrial PR campaigns that are offering incentives to influencers beyond a free product or evaluation. The relatively small markets also make it impossible to earn a significant income from advertising placed around an influencer’s content.

Ultimately with the restrictions placed on influencers and the limited rewards, most industrial markets see few independent influencers, and therefore analysts and journalists are the dominant targets.

LinkedIn is the Primary Industrial Social Media Platform

LinkedIn isn’t the only social media platform for industrial communications, but it is way ahead of other platforms for almost all industrial markets. The ability to target people by their job role and company demographics, and the opportunity to engage them when they are thinking about work, rather than wasting time on Facebook, makes it a compelling choice. Most industrial PR campaigns that include a social media element will therefore focus on LinkedIn, rather than the consumer platforms.

Direct Communications are so much Easier

The line between Industrial PR and marketing is very blurry. In addition to the link between paid and earned media (see later) it is much easier to collect contact details and communicate directly with a large proportion of the target audience. One reason is simply that the audiences tend to be much smaller than those for consumer products.

Industrial PR therefore often includes an element of what might normally be considered outside the scope of public relations and more a “marketing” activity. This overlap is a good thing, and the best campaigns often happen when PR and marketing experts work together, for example combining PR with industrial marketing automation campaigns.

Formal Corporate Communications is Formulaic

A real challenge for an industrial PR professional is the limitations presented by the corporate style guide. Of course, if you are making products that fasten aircraft wings to the fuselage you will want to have a corporate persona that is less about fun and risk-taking, and more about trustworthiness.

Unfortunately, many industrial companies take this to an extreme, creating restrictive styles that are frankly formulaic and boring. Anyone who understands the theory of loss aversion will see its impact in the dull and boring communications from the many industrial organisations who seem ready to give up any chance of winning new customers to ensure they don’t say anything that could be controversial or upset existing clients.

In recent years, there has been a trend to make B2B communications more human, with highly regarded campaigns from Volvo Trucks (who had Jean-Claude Van Dam do the splits between two trucks) to RS Components’ use of a man with a jet pack to promote their brand. Although the trend seems to be limited to a small number of high-profile, and high-cost, campaigns, we hope that industrial PR will continue to communicate in a more interesting and engaging way in the future. The best industrial PR campaigns are often the most creative.

The Relationship Between Journalists and Organisations

We have discussed the importance and influence of trade media, and this is perhaps the biggest difference between consumer and industrial communications. Trade media in the industrial sector is typically based on “controlled circulation”, where the publication is sent free-of-charge to the audience that advertisers would like to reach. The publication is therefore funded by advertising, rather than a combination of advertising and sales or subscriptions that would be typical for the consumer sector.

The relationship between the advertising spend and the editor getting paid a salary causes a conflict of interest, where the journalists are likely to favour advertisers over non-advertisers. The level that this occurs varies from publication to publication, but at one extreme we see “pay for play” titles that will only provide editorial coverage to companies that support the publication through advertising.

Controlled Circulation Challenges

The move to online has also caused challenges for the controlled circulation model. Previously the publisher could demonstrate that the print title was being sent to the “right” people, and in fact there are companies such as ABC and BPA who audit the circulation to ensure that recipients do have the job roles claimed. Although this model wasn’t perfect – the publication might reach the right people, but there is no evidence that these recipients actually read the magazine – it is clearly more controlled than a website, where anyone can be a visitor.

Despite the openness of the web, it tends to still be the target audience that views the website, primarily because the content isn’t interesting to people outside of the industry. We do see, however, some industrial online publications producing content that is of much broader appeal: for example, electronics titles discussing developments in the Android operating system that are primarily of interest to phone users rather than electronics engineers.

Conclusion

We’ve seen that there are many similarities between consumer and industrial PR. The differences, however, are significant and this is probably reflected by the fact that few PR professionals move fluidly between industrial and consumer PR, and most agencies have separate groups for the two specialities. In particular the conservative nature of industrial PR, the lack of influencers and the importance of trade events and publications mean that a very different approach is needed.