POV: Interview with Valerie Donati, Founder of Brand Building Communications
I’m Valerie Donati. I live between New York and London (and the globe these days), running my PR business, serving on the board of charity: water and C3, an international church movement.
Tell us about Brand Building Communications. What led you to found the agency?
I founded Brand Building Communications more than five years ago. It was/is designed to be a public relations agency that supports building and maintaining awareness for lifestyle products and services — anything that touches a modern life: food/beverage, fashion, beauty, home, etc.
Prior to founding the agency I worked in the PR division of the branding agency Toth Brand Imagining. I “grew up” in PR representing Toth and learned most of what I know today from their branding expertise. They were one of the first and most comprehensive agencies to do brand work in the ‘90s. It was an excellent education in how to develop communications programs that were 360 degrees in nature, taking into consideration all parts of the marketing mix.
How has social media changed the field of public relations? What has remained the same?
Social media has provided a vehicle for talking directly to the consumer. In our world, where raising brand awareness with the consumer is vital, this platform has provided our agency with a productive way to connect and engage directly with our audience. Still, our social media practice does “wear a PR hat” when creating and executing our campaigns. Though we do counsel our clients on how to make campaigns more intuitive, what advertising might work best and how to maximize SEO strategies, we do develop our programs from the perspective of a PR professional — great messaging and a strong call to action.
What skill is most important for a public relations professional today? What should PR professionals consider training in for the future?
Communicating excellently, with an emphasis on the written word, is the most important skill a PR professional must possess. Certainly creativity is an important asset, but in the end we are constantly positioning our client, either in front of the media or other businesses, and the ability to communicate key points well is critical. Understanding the realm of social media will continue to be an important skill to have as the industry moves forward.
Many brands and advertisers separate the marketing and public relations efforts. Why should the two be integrated?
In our agency we have always developed our PR campaigns with marketing in mind. Short of pitching a story that sells itself, most PR campaigns need a good platform to generate media coverage. We believe in either working alongside brand managers to publicize their marketing programs or developing them ourselves when the company is small and doesn’t have that internal function.
You are also the founder of 24/Savvy, a lifestyle blog/publication. How has running a publication changed the way you view public relations, product placement or even relationships with bloggers?
Running 24/Savvy has given us an insight into how the other half lives. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is having brands approach us that might not be the right fit for the site and recognizing that when we pitch our clients, it’s vital to make sure the pitch is on target for that publication. It sounds obvious, but it’s instructive to see it in action.
How does the rise of content marketing change public relations efforts? Do you feel that content production is the duty of the marketing, social or PR agency?
I am huge fan of generating content whenever we can. Perhaps it’s because I have a creative mind and I can see limitless possibilities. Creating your own content (on behalf of the client) gives us so much to work with and makes what we do not only “easier,” but also more fruitful. I think content marketing belongs in all three arenas and ideally, when all three are working well together, it can make a great campaign.
The New York Times recently changed its policy on allowing journalists to conduct interviews on the basis that a PR professional is able to approve the quoted material, and this practice could extend to other media outlets. What is your take on the issue? How would this change media relations and media training?
I actually agree with the decision by The New York Times. I think it will make our position more valuable. If we believe the client is right for a story in that publication and they want that story, this decision will demand that there be mutual consent on how the story should be approached, how to handle the interview and what the client can expect if they veer off message. So often an agency is left responsible for a client not staying on point. I always tell my clients if you don’t want to see your words in print, don’t say it. Now more than ever, media training will become a critical aspect of what we do in our field.
You are a board member of charity: water, a successful non-profit that has greatly elevated the awareness of the world on the plight of individuals living in areas with little to no access to clean water. Besides working for a great cause, what do you think has helped charity: water as a brand to be successful?
charity: water is successful because they are transparently working in a grassroots manner to change the water issue around the globe. Transparency and a “person-to-person” approach/appeal have made them a charity people feel they can trust. Also, the concept that a lot can be done by giving just a little has helped them generate enthusiasm for their projects. It’s an organization that wears its heart on its sleeve, and people relate to its honesty and dignity.
One reason you love what you do:
I love what I do primarily because I love helping people. Even though we represent brands, there are people behind the brand. I like helping my clients achieve their goals and move their careers and businesses forward. I focus on the people more than anything, and that gives me a real sense of accomplishment and joy.
Mike Toth was my mentor. I learned so much from him about branding — how to think comprehensively and consistently about a message. He has a love of life and an incredible way with people. He brought heart to everything he did/does.
OK, this might seem a bit off topic, but I am currently reading, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” It is a shocking and fascinating look at what can happen when people are faced with hardship. One of Hitler’s key strategies was to gain control of the masses — something he did with his propaganda machine. It was all based on creative messaging. He took advantage of people’s weaknesses and fear. We are walking through interesting times today with the market, and I think it’s instructive to see what can happen when we lose sight of our humanity.