Roger Darnell of The Darnell Works Agency on Why Businesses Should Invest in PR

Roger Darnell of The Darnell Works Agency on Why Businesses Should Invest in PR

Interview by Anja PaspaljAnja Paspalj
Published: March 23, 2023

Who Is Roger Darnell

Roger Darnell is an author, career guide, producer and PR consultant with over 25 years of experience in high-profile business, marketing and production. He specializes in developing strategic marketing plans and leading, managing and executing them while maximizing media channels. Roger is the principal of the PR firm The Darnell Works Agency, which focuses on creative agencies, brands and entertainment ventures.

Businesses are always on the hunt for the secret to success. While many companies and agencies focus their efforts on advertising and marketing, public relations is another strategy that can be just as effective. 

PR involves building relationships with the media and other key stakeholders to create positive coverage and improve a company's reputation. Expert PR consultant Roger Darnell claims, “PR is much more powerful than many people suspect, especially when it is prioritized.” 

In this article, we'll explore the benefits of PR and hear from Roger Darnell, principal of The Darnell Works Agency, on why businesses should invest in this important strategy and the relationship of PR and marketing. Darnell also shares his thoughts on the significant changes and advancements he has seen in the PR industry and how they have impacted the way companies approach PR and communication. 

Spotlight: With the rise of digital marketing, how do you see the relationship between PR and marketing evolving? 

Roger Darnell: If I think about the companies I know, where they put a lot of resources toward marketing but little or none toward PR, there is a lot less strategy and less emphasis on bigger picture issues like the company’s mission and vision and the ins-and-outs of its all-important customer service functions.  

When PR is a top-level consideration for companies, those operational facets become key parts of their communications and factor into marketing activities in ways that are much more profound, and therefore, more impactful over time. This is especially true in a world where customers (and clients in the B2B world) are most interested in doing business with companies and individuals whose values they understand and identify with.  

What are the biggest misconceptions or myths about PR and marketing? How can companies or individuals better understand the role they play in a company’s overall branding strategy? 

There are a lot of misconceptions about PR and marketing which vary across different groups. Focusing on how I operate and the myths I encounter and address through my work, I feel many established and rising entrepreneurs undervalue the astute problem-solving capabilities of polished PR professionals.  

About 12 years ago, acclaimed author and PR and marketing strategist Deirdre Breakenridge put a spotlight on people she called PR champions. She attributes all these skills to them: strategic communicator, social media professional, market analyst, web marketer, customer service rep, relationship marketer, viral marketer, listener/ conversationalist and research librarian. Each of these areas of specialization draws upon vast knowledge and skills, and most PR pros I know fulfill all these roles, among others.  

Further, another friend and mentor Gini Dietrich has done the PR industry at large a huge service by educating us all on her Paid, Earned, Social and Owned (PESO) model, which allows us to understand the business-enriching superpowers that arise when companies optimize their approaches to using media strategically.  

In short, PR is much more powerful than many people suspect, especially when it is prioritized. Investments in PR tend to pay extraordinary dividends in all market conditions. 

DWA has worked with many high-profile clients over the years. What are some of the most memorable or impactful projects the company has worked on?  

I remain especially proud of being involved with global creative agency ATTIK’s Noise series of books, creative production studio Shilo’s collaborative project for the people of Burma and Sarofsky’s Cannes Lion-winning documentary film, “A Mystery to Me.”  

In short, over nearly three decades, ATTIK rose from a tiny graphic design startup in Northern England to a global creative powerhouse. In the earliest days, founders Simon Needham and James Sommerville addressed their promotional needs ambitiously, publishing beautiful leave-behind collateral that helped them get work.  

Over the years, they institutionalized the development of this creative content, producing multiple, highly impressive volumes, the last of which was NoiseFive, published in 2009. What made this stand out? Sophisticated design, extremely dedicated craftsmanship and ambitions for greatness inspired many. 

In 2008, the principals of Shilo had a dedicated following globally that largely tracked with ATTIK’s and both ventures put trust in yours truly to tell their stories in the media. Working in partnership with Ogilvy & Mather Amsterdam, MTV and The Burma Arts Board, Shilo poured all of its talents and resources into producing a visually stunning 90-second PSA.  

Released soon after a massive cyclone hit Burma through massive efforts involving all the partners, the project was an epic win in every way imaginable. What made it stand out? The film itself was striking, poetic and beautiful. The campaign also resonated with viewers universally, it reached a wide audience due to the strengths of its underwriters and its call to action was inspiring. 

As the pandemic was kicking in, the talents at one-stop cross-media production company Sarofsky were in the enviable position of having pitched a long-form project they knew they could produce remotely, using a hybrid virtual production process. Focusing on individuals navigating life with a rare and mysterious autoimmune disease, the project rallied another All-Star group of collaborators.  

By the time it debuted at The Chicago International Film Festival, it was already an extraordinary game-changer. The film’s subjects contributed a lot, learning how to film themselves with guidance from director Ben Strang and his colleagues. I also give much credit to the camaraderie, vision and leadership of the filmmakers, and all the invaluable support provided by project sponsors argenx 

In this trophy case, I hope it’s okay for me to also mention that my ongoing relationship with my clients at Cutters Studios is another best-case scenario for me in terms of the impactfulness of my PR contributions. Since teaming up in 2014, we have forged a unique relationship.  

There have been amazing highlights, including the company being instrumental in crafting top-rated Super Bowl commercials three years in a row (all through Highdive Advertising), but I feel their commitment to making PR a consistent part of their business year after year is the foundation to our success. The people and business operations of Cutters Studios stand out due to being great at what they do, and valuing their relationships above all else. That is a phenomenal foundation for a PR champion like myself.  

How does DWA approach working with clients from different industries? How do you understand each client's unique needs and goals?  

Over 23 years of operating my business, and learning from a Who’s Who of creative-industry business-development expertsmy business is focused on the creative industry. That is not to say that my knowledge doesn’t apply to a lot of different types of industries, but as a believer in the power of specialization, I would always counsel anyone expressing an interest in PR to look for a partner who specializes in their realm of business. 

That doesn’t mean that my clients are one-size-fits-all; on the contrary, even just focusing on the creative industry, I have never met two businesses that operated the same way, even if they are competitors. While the Small Business Administration defines a small business as having fewer than 500 employees, over 23 years, my average client has 30 or fewer employees.   

Still, to address your question, for every client and even curious friends who want to understand how PR works, I always ask them, what are your objectives? That is where my days start and end for my clients – in service of their unique needs and goals. With those clarified and in front of us, we get to work. 

A key point at DWA is leveraging your experience in media. With the expansion of social media content creation, how do you recommend companies utilize social media? What should they avoid?  

Going back to my answer abouthow PR works best in a company’s big-picture marketing scheme, having a sophisticated understanding of a company’s objectives – and then, all the facets of a marketing campaign, including knowledge of the targeted customers or clients – that is the groundwork that allows social media to be effective.  

I do believe that many companies very often turn over the handling of their social media accounts to junior people who don’t necessarily have a deep understanding of the nuances of business, where engagement is more of an art form, versus something to be handled and then forgotten about. Still, I view having an inexperienced person who is capable of learning in charge of social media marketing as less short-sighted than turning it over to a chatbot.  

While experience in media is a considerable advantage from my perspective, I also value many soft skills that have helped me succeed in building meaningful relationships over the years. Maturity, politeness, charm, humor, discretion, mindfulness of others and kindness are qualities that go a long way toward building relationships, in person and online.  

One more thing: Just because a company doesn’t have a lot of followers on a given social media channel is not a good reason to avoid communicating there. If there are individuals you wish to reach on a social media platform, use it to echo your well-crafted, strategically sound communications messagingIf you don’t show up there, you will never reach a single one of those individuals.  

As a PR company with over three decades of experience, what challenges have you noticed most companies struggle with today in PR? How does DWA approach resolving those challenges?  

I do have experience seeing those who struggle with PR even as a concept, and those who don’t. The first group is a lot bigger, and to be fair, the reasons are complicated and come in a lot of shapes and sizes. In my experience, many of those people are just uncomfortable with the idea of bringing attention to themselves. 

I recently had a meeting with the principals of a small start-up who invited me to lunch and proceeded to tell me why they are anti-PR. Since I thought they were at least somewhat interested in working with me, I pointed out the benefits that can come from smart business positioning combined with strategic storytelling that plays out consistently over time. As I have seen, those benefits impact objectives spanning business development, recruiting and retention. Nonetheless, these guys professed their passion for doing everything low-key, being undervalued and surprising themselves when they won.  

In the scenario where a business executive or owner is interested in using PR expertise and tactics to positively impact business development, recruiting, and/or retention, I encourage them to have a conversation with a PR specialist in their field.

In counseling other smart people, I feel there is little to lose – and a lot to gain – by engaging with PR expertise. And for those who are shy or reluctant to step into the spotlight, that obstacle might be easy to overcome. 

Looking back at your experience in PR, what are some of the most significant changes or advancements you have seen in the industry? How have these changes impacted the way companies approach PR and communication?  

For me, I feel like the golden age of media was right when I was cutting my chops as an account executive at the LA-based high-tech PR agency, The Terpin Group. Newspapers were profitable all across the country and magazines covering business were so successful that monthly issues looked like Christmas catalogs (if people remember those). Even then, there were big players in tech targeting PR people to make it easier for us to find and pitch media contacts.  

Over the past two decades, there has been a lot of consolidation in that space. I am pitched regularly by Cision (where, for the record, I do use some of their services), Meltwater and LexisNexis, inviting me to subscribe to their pricey (and admittedly highly valuable) media intelligence platforms, to ensure I can find and reach journalists. At the Terpin Group, we bought into those platforms, and it was indeed easy to find and pitch journalists.  

What I have found is this: Ease of access does not equal coverage, and it does not automate relationship-building.  

There is another phenomenon impacting professional marketing communicators: consolidation, digitalization and downsizing of media operations on a massive scale. Where once there were teams of reporters with their own beats, many publications that still exist now stand on the shoulders of one or two reporters who have to cover everything.  

This has led to some very savvy entrepreneurs launching membership-based organizations where news coverage is a benefit of membership. The creative industry has several of these, and there are also many trade groups and industry associations which offer similar perks, allowing companies to generate what looks like media coverage.   

I have found this area of sponsored content to be very important in addressing the communications objectives of almost every company I have worked with over the past 10 years, and expect the importance will continue to rise. 

You are also a published author. How does writing play into differentiating your approach from other public relations agencies?  

I’ve experienced a lot of benefits from positioning my agency effectively and operating my business the way I do. I have a solid reputation in my niche of business, I get a lot of referrals and while I am often single-bid when I face competition, I often win.  

All of that was true before the pandemic, but in 2021 – and again, coming into this year, with economic recession looming – I had a couple of clients drop off unexpectedly. Most of what I encountered in discussing business was fear and trepidation. 

Leading up to 2021, I had been working on writing a book to teach others what I’d learned about business. That became two books which were both published by Taylor & Francis/Routledge Books in 2021. The first book is one that I thought my existing and potential clients would take interest in, whereas the second one was more targeted to PR practitioners seeking to launch their ventures. In a nutshell, the experiences publishing and promoting those books provided a different way for me to engage with the core audiences I target for my business.  

The confidence that comes from publishing books is another invaluable upside. Not too long ago, writing a book was just an objective. By persevering, I’ve now done it three times. Finding your voice and completing such a large, self-driven project is highly gratifying. Confidence is a powerful catalyst, especially in difficult times.  

Finally, what personal advice would you give to someone just starting their career in PR? What qualities do you think are most important for success in this field?  

Thank you – this is an easy one for me to answer: Read my book, “The Communications Consultant’s Foundation.” Beyond that, for college students, I encourage membership in PRSSA, where the academic advisors are very focused on helping to teach skills, build experience and launch careers. For those past college, through membership in PRSA, the American Marketing Association and/or The Content Marketing Association, study up and earn enough qualifications to pursue some lower-level job in the PR field – then build your expertise and grow according to your interests.  

There was a study several years back that directly correlated people’s grades in high school with their earnings potential in their careers. If someone was a poor student in high school, I believe they can turn that around and defy the odds, but in my experience, being successful in PR does require a rigorous approach to excellence. You need above-average interests in learning about things and people, in telling stories and in writing. Being creative and strategic will lift you to even higher levels.  

Keep up with The Darnell Works Agency on LinkedIn and read interviews with other industry leaders here

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