B2B Marketing Guide

Public Relations

If You Don’t Tell Your Story, Someone Else Will.

Tell your story

That is sage advice in B2B communications. Ultimately, public relations is about owning the company’s story and building trust in it with your key audiences. This can take many forms, but it’s the practitioner’s job to set the critical interpretation of an organization, protect that reputation, and build relationships with its key stakeholders.

This is especially important in the B2B space, because you can’t necessarily rely on the channel to do it for you. Often, one of our clients’ biggest complaints is that their distributors/dealers are too transactional. Instead of being strategically aligned with the end customer, they are filling orders. They often can’t be counted on to build trust in your brand, especially if they’re a multi-line distributor.

Building relationships and trust is the heart of PR. It isn’t about “spinning” a message. This rings hollow and erodes trust. Instead, it’s about communicating the values of a company and showing how they are lived out in real, tangible action. This is how a reputation is built — when a company commits to “walk the talk” in all facets of its operations. When communication and action are aligned, a company’s story is credible and compelling.

This means great PR doesn’t begin with a great strategy or a great communications plan.

Rather, it starts with the decisions the organization makes about its identity, mission, values, and contribution to the industry and society. Then it’s about building a plan that communicates them. Start here.

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Who Are Your Audiences?

Know your audience

Answering this question is one of the most critical steps and one that is frequently overlooked. It’s easy to say “customers” are an audience. This is obvious and not terribly helpful. Your audiences are real people — they have a host of job and life experiences, brand preferences and perceptions, beliefs and values, pressures, encounters with your company, and more. All of these things contribute to the way they think and feel about your company. Understanding this, at least to some measure, is helpful in identifying not just who to communicate with, but how to communicate with them.

This extends beyond your external audiences. Sometimes we’re so busy making sure we get it right with our customers that we neglect the audiences that are closest to us — our employees and channel partners.

Over Half of
American Workforce
Not Engaged

American Workforce Engagement Graph

As we discussed in the brand development chapter, marketing can position the brand, but your people have to live it. According to a 2020 Gallup report on employee engagement in the workplace, nearly two-thirds of the American workforce is either disengaged (51%) or actively disengaged (13%). If this is true of our own people, count on it for channel partners, who are another step removed.

It has to be more than a bulletin board in a break room or firing off a pricing update email. It’s about making sure that your brand never feels like a promise unkept. 

This means:

  • Casting a vision for where you’re headed and rallying support

  • Helping people find purpose in day-to-day operations

  • Shepherding organizational change and providing support

  • Inspiring great performance

  • Breaking down silos and forming partnerships

  • Elevating and advocating for winning processes

  • Encouraging people and providing recognition

  • Ensuring engagement and compliance … and much, much more

You need to be just as strategic in communicating with employees and channel partners as you do with any other audience. After all, this is your home team and you can’t win without them.

What Needs to Happen?

What needs to happen

Many PR programs don’t suffer from lack of innovative thinking or creative tactics. Rather, they suffer from something deep in the substructure of their program. Specifically, they’re never really clear on what it is they’re trying to accomplish. Rather than a coherent plan, these programs instead have discrete communication activities. This leads to confusion on the basic approach, specific activities, and what success looks like.

A PR plan should have:

  • Goals and objectives. The “north star” that communicates the aim of the program and sets the foundation for quantifiable measurement.

  • Strategies. Outlines for the best approaches to accomplishing your aim.

  • Tactics. The specific elements of each strategy that will be executed.

These are the core building blocks of a PR program. But it’s not enough to simply say what you intend to do. It’s the way you tell the story.

Great PR Programs Spend Time Building Out a Framework for Messaging

Building a framework

They invest in deciding how they’ll tell their story. If your organization has already done the appropriate brand work, you should understand things like voice, tone, and style. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about framing your message in a way that is:

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It’s rooted in the organization’s identity, is a believable position, and clearly aligns to its actions in the marketplace and community.

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It’s something that is relevant to both your audience and your brand.

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It needs to be a message that your organization can own; something that is uniquely yours and sets you apart.

Remember, it’s about building trust in your company and brand. Though media distrust is still a major issue (2020 Global State of the Media Report, Cision), there is some good news for business. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, business was the most trusted institution among the four studied (business, NGOs, government, media), and the only institution that was seen as both ethical and competent.

business becomes only trusted institution chart

What Does This Mean For You?

It means that the general public is still listening to the voice of businesses and business leaders. In fact, expectations for trustworthy communication are now higher for businesses, according to the report. But your message has to be credible and trustworthy. And to move the needle, it has to be meaningful and differentiated.

Consider Which Issues You Can Own and Lead

Issues owned and lead

Many companies want to be “thought leaders.” It’s common to aspire to be an authoritative voice on something important. But your audience won’t just give you this position. It has to be earned, and ultimately it is your audience that is the arbiter of this position. But it’s still a worthwhile pursuit.

What position can you claim? Are your engineers pushing the industry forward in product capability and design? Is your organization shaping industry standards or the direction of an important cause? Is there an industry trend you are guiding or significantly influencing? Are you making important civic or humanitarian investments? Have you made important investments in your people that make you a great employer?

Thought leadership can take on many dimensions. The important things are passion and authenticity (people can smell a fake). It also takes consistency. Think about this like an important sports figure. There are many who can score 30 points in a single game, but not many who can average 30 points. Establishing your voice as the voice on an issue takes time. It won’t happen overnight.

Invest in the "PESO"

It goes without saying that earned media is always a part of a public relations program. Just be sure you’re considering other routes to your audience. Paid, shared, or owned channels are viable public relations strategies, too.

  • Paid. Communicators and PR practitioners spend a lot of time working with media to gain placement. However, paid content done right can be very effective as well. Called native content or sponsored content, this often appears in media outlets just as an earned placement would, but requires a cash outlay. (And it requires the media to identify it as paid or sponsored content.) Today’s consumers are awash in paid messages. Bottom line: if it’s valuable, it’ll stick (read educational/informative, notpromotional).

  • Earned. Widely viewed as the most trusted coverage, this is the backbone of a great PR or publicity strategy. Few things offer the same level of third-party credibility. Just understand that you lose control of the message when it’s earned. While this increases the trust of the reader, your message is, by necessity, going to pass through the publisher’s filter. A well-rounded strategy that employs other channels will ensure that your message isn’t diluted.

  • Shared. With the advent of social media came the promise of meaningful audience interaction with a high degree of efficiency. These channels allow the brand to have two-way conversation. But, don’t forget, it’s social media. No one likes the person at the party who only wants to talk about themselves. Take the time to engage your audience and create community, but do so on their terms. They may expect you to be available far outside regular office hours. Your channels have to be monitored constantly. When a story spirals out of control, it often starts here.

  • Owned. Don’t forget about your own channels: the company website, blog, publication, or newsletter. With external channels, you’re giving up a measure of control. Not here. You get complete authority to tell your story as you see fit. Use it. Other channels can provide important backlinks, which add to domain authority and search engine performance. But regularly posting optimized content on your own site/blog is often the best way to be found.

Paid, earned, shared, owned channels diagram

This is just a small subsection of things that an organization can do proactively. But organizations should not overlook what they will need to do reactively as well. After all, reputations sometimes need to be defended.

“It Takes 20 Years to Build a Reputation and Five Minutes to Ruin It.”

Reputation built and ruined

In the wise words of Warren Buffet, “If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Every brand, company, or business needs a crisis management plan, yet many either don't have one in place, don't regularly update it, or don't practice specific scenarios.

Building a solid crisis management plan doesn’t have to be overly complex, but it does take time to do it right. The first step is to brainstorm the different kinds of crises that could hit your company at anytime — from the obvious ones (product recalls, layoffs, discrimination lawsuits) to the not-so-obvious ones. Global pandemic, anyone? Once these are identified, the real work begins.

Make sure the following elements are part of your crisis communications plan:

  • Templates

  • Media statements

  • Contacts and decision trees

  • Social media best practices

  • Spokesperson training

  • Scenarios and Q&As

A strategic partner can help identify the potential crises and then look at how to handle them with all stakeholders — from employees and investors to customers and clients. Good communication is key in any crisis. Without it, everything else is moot.

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A Few More Considerations …

One more thing

Developing the right strategy requires thinking through many things. As a B2B company, don’t get stuck in a rut.

Is there a place for mainstream media relations in your strategy? It's easy to discount these outlets for B2B companies. But, think about your broader goals as a business. Do you need help with talent acquisition? Do you have corporate social responsibility objectives or philanthropic initiatives? Do you have operational/facilities needs where local perception has an impact?

Are there societal issues your company needs to take a stand on?Never have companies been under greater pressure to be vocal on issues not directly related to their business. While traditional training has steered companies away from controversial issues, public perception is changing. In the Edelman report, 86% of respondents indicated that they expect CEOs to speak out on one or more of these issues: pandemic impact, job automation, societal issues, and local issues. 

What are the training needs?If we’re being honest, it’s easy to forget that our people need media training. Not everyone can simply be propped up in front of the media and expected to know exactly what to do. If the interaction is impromptu in nature, their insecurity will likely be heightened. If there is a camera rolling, there’s even more stress. If it’s on camera dealing with a crisis … you get the picture. Make sure you identify how to train people so that they provide a boost to — and not a drag on — all the other important PR work happening.

Measuring PR Effectiveness

Finally, measurement is key. If you put your best foot forward in the planning phase, this step should be manageable. Remember: your goal is to build trust and establish relationships. You won’t be able to measure this the way you might measure other initiatives. It’s not a discipline based inherently on selling. It’s based on influencing, engaging, and building relationships. So you can’t measure it like you would a standard promotion.

Often, you’ll need to quantify engagement with the message. When you think of the full scope of channels at your disposal today (remember PESO), there are a lot of ways to do this. At Two Rivers, we’ve found the following to be a helpful framework. There are varying definitions of these, but they are broadly adopted in the discipline of PR (Barcelona Principles 3.0).

  • Outputs. These are often short-term, immediate results of a campaign or ongoing effort. In the earned media space, this would be the number of placements that resulted from the work, corresponding clips, etc. Usually measurements based on quantity, not necessarily quality or impact.

  • Outgrowths. A step beyond the placements and clippings. Here, we’re looking at the initial reception. How far did the message get or what was the reach? Did they understand it? Can they recall it? Did it drive any initial reactions? Engagement and response is easier to measure in the digital space; it’s a core part of what we measure in social media. Earned media is often different; there isn’t always a specific CTA or opportunity to interact. Often, the best way to measure this is through a study or survey.

  • Outcomes. A study or survey is often the best way to measure these. We want to understand the audience’s perception and attitudes toward our message. Specifically, we want to understand how they are changing over time, and we want to know if there is a corresponding behavioral change. Our interest here is more long-term.

Patience is key to all of this. Just as in our personal lives, it takes time and effort to earn trust. If you build it carefully and consistently with your employees, your channel, and your customers, they will reward you for it. It’s your story — tell it well.

Find more helpful content on PR on the our blog or get in touch with us to talk about your specific needs.