If you wonder why the same local HVACR or plumbing competitor always appears in a local TV news segment, or has a regular HVAC advice column in the local paper, the answer is to be found in public relations, which can accurately be called, '"the art of gaining acceptance."
One of the best PR practitioners for HVACR and plumbing contracting is Heather Ripley. Editors operating in the HVACR/plumbing media world know Heather Ripley as the founder of Ripley PR, Maryville, Tenn. She grew up in a family supported by the trades, worked in marketing at Clockwork Home Services, and later founded the agency to offer public relations services to home service businesses, a worthy and important business niche. Her first customer was Tab Hunter's The Surfin' Plumbers enterprise.
For two years, Ripley wrote, modified and polished her first book, "NEXT LEVEL NOW." It contains public relations strategies that will increase a service business’s credibility in a way that will help it generate more customers and more revenue. Topics include strategic analysis of your business, knowing the competition, online review management and response and many more.
We spoke with Heather to learn some of the ways HVACR companies can use positive PR to their advantage. We started with some of her beginnings, which included working for Clockwork Home Services, at that time owners of three service brands: One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and Mr. Sparky.
Contracting Business: You come from a family with a rich background in the trades, and you truly appreciate the value of blue collar occupations. How did you go from working at Clockwork Home Services to starting a PR agency?
Heather Ripley: My dad was an auto mechanic. His dad was a truck driver, and my great grandfather was an electrician. Growing up, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I loved to write. I got a marketing job after college. I liked marketing, but I loved creative writing. I worked at a department store and had to write copy for towels. It was a fun challenge, to make it interesting.
Over the years I worked for a manufacturing company, a PEO, and just did all these different things. I like the challenge. When in 2008 I got a job at Clockwork, I knew nothing about the home service industry. But the atmosphere there was always exciting, because we worked with business owners, and that sort of fueled me. At the time I didn’t even think about starting a business. That was never in my mind. But I fell in love with the industry. I realized how much Clockwork really understood marketing, and put such an emphasis on marketing every day. I realized quickly that none of them were using public relations. Most of them, in 2008-2009, were going to home shows and marching in their community parades, but none were doing anything with journalists in their markets.
So, I started asking my senior managers if I could work with some of the business owners, to teach them how to use PR. They said yes, let’s start with our biggest contractors. So I started working with them, and they started calling me for advice and help with press releases.
I knew when (Clockwork founder) Jim Abrams was ready to sell the company that I had to find something else. So I left Clockwork in 2009 and got an apprenticeship at CAP, and was on the agency side of things. We were working with restaurants, technology companies, but I couldn’t find anybody doing PR for the trades. That’s when I started thinking I could start my own agency with a focus on the trades. It started taking shape in my head, of what it might look like.
Tab Hunter launched Surfin’ Plumbers, and was my first client. I helped him with PR and it took off. It took off. It was cool, unique and different brand. There were a lot of stories there, and the media loved it. I just started painting a picture in my mind of what Ripley PR would look like. Then, I just did it.
It was a slow process, but nobody else was in that space.
CB: When we talk about the value of positive public relations, what would you say is the simplest and most accessible PR a company can design, and the most effective?
HR: After talking to hundreds of HVAC business owners, their biggest common denominator is that they know they know PR is important during a crisis, but they don’t know how to get positive press.
Part of the challenge is that they start marketing. They hire a marketing coordinator, who sends out press release about a new service, a move to a larger facility, anew training facility, or new ownership, all of which is actual news.
So, how do you make it news? How do you make it a public service announcement, something worthwhile to share? They don’t realize all the news they have. Sometimes it takes our team talking to them to discover amazing things, like donating $10,000 to the children’s hospital. Usually, we find clients are donating to lesser-known non-profits, so PR is doing them a favor because they’re increasing awareness in their community, so you’re essentially getting them more donations. So it’s how you think about things and tell the media about it.
We find when we are doing a discovery, some companies are doing some pretty amazing things, such as creating their own tech schools, or have partnered with a tech school in their market so they get first choice with students. Many of these companies are doing creative things with student apprenticeships. They have a job while they’re still in school, which creates loyalty for later. Or scholarships to try to attract those technicians.
CB: What are some of the other road blocks you see companies put up about PR, starting with not knowing what it is?HR: Some owners like to lay low, which is fine, if they want to remain stagnant. If they ever want to be sold, or if they want to acquire another company or want to grow, they have to be willing to put themselves out there a bit, or have their general manager do it. Some are simply too busy or are very introverted, and would prefer someone else do it. In that instance, we will do some media training with the general manager or other higher up on how to stand, speak, what to say.
I think the owner often thinks of PR as an ego-trip and wants to stay away from it. That’s a poor way of looking at it. It’s marketing. It’s like saying ‘We’re not going to do marketing because we don’t want our logo anywhere.’
Another is, companies who are doing amazing things in their community, and don’t want to share it because they feel they’re sharing it for the wrong reason. But again, I tell them they’re doing the community a service by doing that, because you’re encouraging other companies to give back. And today, people want to work for a company they can feel good about working for. It’s helping with employee retention and recruiting.
CB: How then do you determine PR is effective after the fact?
HR: PR has traditionally been hard to measure. We tell them to look at PR as a brand awareness campaign. And for those who have some money to do some analysis before and after, you can measure incoming calls. CSRs can ask ‘How did you hear about us’? Some will use a certain phone number for PR articles. Anything you can measure, including website traffic, and conversations about the evening news spot.
At Clockwork, one of things we heard when we were trying to get businesses into a franchise, they would say, ‘We’ve been around for 30 years, and everybody knows who we are.’ Then we’d send people out to a mall and ask shoppers to name three regional HVAC companies. We found the companies thought they owned more market share than they actually did. Your brand is not as well known as you think it is, and you want to stay top-of-mind more of the time.
CB: Do companies tend to think PR is expensive?
HR: Some are surprised to find it’s not as expensive as they think it is. They think it’s expensive because they have the mindset of dollar-for-dollar ROI. They want to measure it in the same way as they measure marketing, and it’s not possible to do that. Over time, PR builds momentum. We had a client who said PR is like planting an oak tree. Once it’s established it’s there forever. But it takes time to do that.
We have clients who are always the 'go-to' in their market for media, anytime there’s a freeze or other weather event, they’re the companies the media calls. That takes time, and is usually what we are asked: ‘How do we measure PR’s value and measure dollar-for-dollar return?’ and you shouldn’t look at it that way.
CB: How does a company establish itself as a media 'go-to' company without becoming a pest?
HR: I go back to the old school definition of PR. Public Relations Society of America used to described it as 'a mutually beneficial relationship between a company and its publics.' I say it should be mutually beneficial for your company and the media. That’s how you become a go-to company.
If you’re reaching out to journalists with marketing messages and requests for coverage, you’re not going to be the "go-to" company. But when you recognize what their job is, what’s important to them, and seek to be helpful, then you can reach out with a story idea in a way that’s newsworthy to them. Because most journalists have to present an idea to an editor for approval, and you want to make it truly newsworthy, one that will attract readers or viewers. It should be mutually beneficial story. Will they sell more newspapers or keep viewers on their channel?
Sometimes when we’re brainstorming pitch ideas, I joke about a “so what, who cares” response. It’s how you tell them. “We’re receiving hundreds of calls because XYZ issue is a situation. For example, when the R-22 phaseout was going on, there was a lot of false information out there and they can clear it up.”
CB: Is part of the concern over cost due to the fact that they think PR involves a long-running contract?
HR: Yes. Public relations doesn’t have to be an ongoing practice. You don’t have to wait until you think you’re ready for a PR agency to represent you all year long. Some of our clients hire us for a four-week campaign a few times each year. We strategically work with them to determine the best time. It isn’t always your busy times or right before your busy times. You have to be available for interviews.
We work with our clients to determine what news they will have. We put together a program where we work with them for four weeks They reap the benefits and come back a few months later. It doesn’t have to be like having an attorney on retainer, whether or not you need one.
CB: What do contractors need to know about generating positive PR during a crisis?
HR: Most of the time we will gather details from the owner and tell them to not say anything to the media until we can help them. Unless there is a death or serious injury, which open up multiple other things to consider. Most of the time the same advice applies: tell the truth, tell it all, tell it quickly.
Anytime a company does something wrong, or an employee makes a serious mistake, like something that causes a gas leak or is pulled over for a DUI, it's how you handle it that can impact the company.
What are you doing to prevent it from happening again? What action did you take? Sometimes the public might want to know that the employee is not working there any more. Sometimes it can be something silly, like many years ago, when a homeowner posted a photo of a dirty handprint on her wall, left by a technician. That was in the early days of social media, but it became a big thing.
We tell owners to keep emotion out of the statement. We help them write a statement and issue it to the media. We help monitor situations and help the client through it.