Posted on November 30th, 2023
AIMCLEAR differs from other integrated performance marketing agencies in its commitment to building a public relations component—the work of our Communications Practice Group—at the center of client engagements. Few agencies that provide our level of ROI-forward, paid and organic digital marketing offer such a skill set and the value it creates for clients.
Recently, AIMCLEAR founder Marty Weintraub sat down with Vice Presidents Joe Thornton and Rob Karwath, who oversee the Communications Practice Group, to discuss why this work is vital to what AIMCLEAR does.
Rob: Marty, why did you include public relations when you founded AIMCLEAR? It was a novel idea then. It’s still rare to find within agencies.
Marty: In 2007, when we launched, it was the beginning of the social media era. I wanted to establish a social media practice that involved managing online communities for businesses, crafting and disseminating their social media content and addressing both positive and negative interactions within communities.
At the time, social media was gaining impact on the overall marketing funnel. But clients were hesitant to trust their reputation management—essentially their brand image—to individuals primarily skilled in managing Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft ads.
I recognized that social media essentially functions as a platform for both personal and corporate journalism. Still, persuading international corporations or even local businesses to trust their social media to us was challenging. Clients were more inclined to place their trust in public relations and communications professionals. Those experts were traditionally adept at understanding their clients’ narratives and crafting compelling stories that aligned with the business. However, PR firms knew little about performance marketing and offered arcane connecting points to relate brand propagation to revenue.
So, AIMCLEAR made a strategic commitment to public relations. Over time, public relations has become a significant part of our agency and the core services we offer.
Rob: You’ve often spoken about the influence of Donn Larson, who served as a mentor for both of us and had a legendary career in public relations.
Marty: Donn was a remarkable individual who played a pivotal role in elevating Duluth, Minn., and the marketing industry in our region. In the late 1990s, I worked as interactive director for the agency Westmoreland, Larson and Webster. I found myself creating websites for local businesses. Mr. Larson was trained by advertising industry professionals of the 1960s and 1970s. His wisdom was rooted in the belief that all marketing is fundamentally a form of communications. He emphasized that everything boils down to PR and brand. Donn explained that, whether it was PR, marketing, newspaper ads, radio commercials, TV spots or even creating websites, it was all about communications.
Today, if you were to ask me about the differences between PR, marketing, banner ads, social media, Google advertising, retargeting, SEO, programmatic, CTV, digital out of home or any other aspect of our field, my answer would be consistent: It’s all about effective communications. The only variation lies in what messages you communicate and to whom, but with a universal focus on building and maintaining the brand reaching its goals.
Rob: Joe, a few weeks ago, we had a discussion with our colleagues about our work. We both come from journalism backgrounds, which honed our ability to spot interesting stories. During that conversation, we shared examples of how we’ve helped clients break through the noise. Could you elaborate on where you see that value?
Joe: What sets an agency apart is when it seamlessly integrates PR and communications with its marketing services. This represents a different mindset—one rooted in journalism. It involves digging for the story, identifying stakeholder interests and avoiding the pitfall of merely “marketing at people.” With a PR mindset, we become adept at identifying gaps, challenges and barriers, and then crafting messaging and narratives to address them. PR professionals also know how to handle tough questions. Knowing how to handle those makes answering easy questions a breeze.
People seeking our clients’ products or services are essentially looking for solutions to their problems and desires. They want solid answers, and this is where stakeholder analysis, intrinsic to PR, comes into play. It involves understanding the needs, desires, objections, concerns and critiques of each stakeholder. Working in an environment that blends marketing and PR is both rare and invigorating because everything we communicate, whether through earned media or social posts, contributes to the audience’s perception of an organization, product or service.
Marty: If the goal is ROAS, CAC and revenue, and I had to choose between paid performance marketing (which can be costly), SEO (which takes time to root) or earning a well-placed article in a relevant trade or consumer publication with wide distribution that speaks highly of my product, I’d opt for the latter. Nothing quite matches the impact of authoritative mentions of a brand. Successful public relations amplifies the effectiveness of paid performance marketing. While most websites can rank well for brand-specific terms, such as the company’s name and location, good public relations amplifies the reach of your story and enhances your overall online presence.
PR can significantly boost all aspects of marketing. When it comes to brand search—people searching for your company’s name or products, especially coupled with your location—it’s like owning lakefront property. There’s a limited supply, and PR expands that valuable real estate.
Rob: I call it “third-party validation.” When our clients receive positive coverage in reputable media, it’s not our clients boasting about their greatness through paid ads. It’s those respected third-party media sources. The beauty of earned media is it’s not a one-time benefit; you can leverage it in your owned and paid media channels.
Joe, going back to our days in newsrooms, there was a guiding principle: You didn’t run a story just for the sake of it. You did it because your audience cared about it. Editors and journalists routinely ask, “Why does this matter?” and, “Who cares about this?” Clients often believe they know their audience well, but they can become too close to their products and services. We bring audience-centric thinking, grounded in journalistic principles.
Joe: Again, iIt’s not about marketing at an audience; it’s about marketing with an audience—engaging in an intellectual exchange. PR involves sharing stories and addressing questions people genuinely ask. It’s essential to distinguish between what you want to say and what your audience is willing to receive and digest. Leveling up messaging your brand wishes to communicate with what audiences are willing to receiverecieve is where journalism comes in, often rooted in common sense. I had a mentor in the PR industry who referred to our work as “high-priced common sense.” This stuck with me because it emphasizes the importance of stepping back from the noise, recognizing the critical messages and applying practical thinking to convey them. The power of common sense and simplicity cannot be underestimated.
Rob: At AIMCLEAR, we combine public and media relations with modern marketing tools. This allows us to better connect with the audience. One example is our content collaboration with the SEO team. They need us. We need them. And our clients need both types of expertise.
Marty: The line between marketing strategy and business consulting is often thin. We frequently find ourselves solving broader business problems. I like to bring in either one or both of you as experienced PR professionals to meet separately with the client. Your perspective on the business is invaluable. Companies have traditionally invested in PR professionals for their business acumen, and this approach ensures we align our strategies with the client’s business goals.
Also, PR as a front end for paid performance marketing is priceless. A key differentiator for AIMCLEAR is how we use our PR team to provide hard-core business insights to our advertising-creative teammates. Before we field campaigns, AIMCLEAR develops deep institutional knowledge about our clients. Many performance marketing companies are all too quick to start spending. We measure twice and cut once.
Joe: Let’s talk a bit about crisis management. Every organization, whether it’s a nonprofit, government entity, academic institution, hospital or any other, may encounter situations they never want to face. These can range from tragic incidents to executive missteps or viral social media posts damaging the brand. Having a PR component within a performance marketing agency enables organizations to address everything from selling products to protecting their reputation from potential devastation. We’ve witnessed brands brought down overnight in today’s society, and it can happen seemingly innocuously. Having experienced professionals who can remain calm in crisis situations, develop statements on the fly and anticipate how events will unfold is like a life-insurance policy for brands.
Marty: How often have you seen brands self-sabotage?
Joe: I’ve lost count. What surprises me most is how seemingly innocuous actions, such as a social media post or a poorly executed automated ad, can lead to a brand appearing insensitive, ignorant, racist or worse. These mishaps often occur because humans didn’t pause to think or didn’t fully comprehend the implications of their words or historical references. Addressing a crisis isn’t about explaining it away; it’s about effectively managing the situation, answering tough questions, offering apologies when necessary and taking the required steps to salvage a brand in freefall.
I had a colleague who always said that, during a crisis, it’s crucial to be the calmest person in the room. In these situations, panic tends to be the default reaction. But amidst the chaos, it’s essential to maintain composure and focus on resolution.
Rob: In the middle of a crisis, people are not in the right frame of mind to conduct crisis planning. They’re usually overwhelmed, panicked and emotional. Having a well-prepared crisis communications plan really is like that life-insurance policy you mentioned, Joe. It’s there when you need it most. I recall a client who had the solution right under their nose. But they were so fixated on the problem that they couldn’t see the solution. Providing an external perspective can help cut through the crisis fog to find that solution. And today, there are so many ways to get in trouble. The speed of news cycles and public discourse amplifies the potential damage. That makes crisis planning and management more important than ever.
Joe: In the past, there were clear media deadlines for getting statements out, such as the 6 o’clock news or the morning newspaper. Today, the deadline is immediate, requiring rapid response and effective crisis management.
Marty: Rob, a question for you: People often approach us with stories they believe are newsworthy and deserving of media attention. In many cases, these stories may not genuinely be newsworthy but rather self-promotional. What criteria do you use to determine whether a story is worth pursuing with the media?
Rob: First, we need to ask whether the story brings something genuinely new or previously untold to the table. As a reporter, I wanted to tell stories that were unique and hadn’t been covered elsewhere. Access to behind-the-scenes information also helps. That can offer a different perspective on a familiar topic or event. The story becomes more attractive when we can provide exclusive insights or access. Ultimately, It’s about telling the audience something new or helping them understand in a new way.
Joe: Finding the human story within the seemingly mundane also helps. It involves taking something that initially appears difficult to articulate and finding the thread that leads to a fascinating, understandable story.
Marty: There’s one more thing I’d like to touch on. Joe, you mentioned how PR plays a central role in content strategy. It’s crucial for organizations to consider their outbound information flow, including their blogs. As you said, instead of simply talking at the audience and sharing what the organization wants them to know, the organization should focus on addressing the audience’s needs and answering their questions. This approach also aligns journalism, where the audience comes first.
Joe: One of the greatest takeaways from our combined experiences is the importance of putting the audience first. Whether you’re a journalist, PR professional or marketer, understanding your audience’s needs and providing value has to be at the core.
Marty: Thank you both for sharing your insights and experiences. The collaboration and alignment of your discipline within our agency creates solutions for our clients. I appreciate your contributions to that work and to this conversation.