THURSDAY 1 APR 2021 10:27 AM


Founder of PR solutions company CIJ Group, Courtney Rogers, talks to Communicate magazine about the value of streamlining communications between brands, journalists and PRs and what’s in store for PR events post-pandemic.

Where did the idea to connect brands, PRs and journalists come from?

The idea came to me in 2016 when I was on the train home, reading the Evening Standard. I saw an article by Jo Malone, who was at that time a small business agony aunt and the article was headlined, ‘This Is Why Christmas Happens in July’. A brand had written in and said, you know, we really struggle to get cut through at Christmas. What's your advice for this? But this article was in November and Jo Malone dropped the bombshell ‘Sorry, but you're really late to the party. You know, Christmas happens in the July period.’ I thought, isn’t this is crazy that everyone is doing individual events rather than being together, like you would say at Fashion Week. Journalists were being invited to loads of events and PRs were desperate for the journalists to attend. So let’s just make this really simple for everyone, streamline it for the journalists so they’ve got one place to visit, whilst streamlining PR budgets.

What is the CIJ Group business model and how does it support PR?

There are fewer long lead publications because writing six months in advance is almost a bit archaic today, where everything is on the day, on the pulse, on the minute. So, we were seeing a huge shift in terms of digital writers and publications, and a lot more influencer-based activity. When Covid-19 hit that just became even more twofold because brands just don’t have their products ready in time. What we wanted to do, particularly during the pandemic, was to support retail throughout the year. We've now got three core product solutions, the Christmas in July festival, which is now the Big Christmas Press show. Power Pitching, we were doing pre-pandemic in person but we’ve moved virtually. Then we’ve got PressFix, which is an online platform that journalists can access three, six, five to find content and press releases. So it's a much more of a hybrid model. I think most importantly we knew the challenges of our customers during that time and we really wanted to find the right solutions to support them.

 What were the challenges or opportunities presented by the pandemic?

I think it was 17 July when the government dropped the bombshell that there were to be no live events that year. But, in the background from March we were already planning our alternative digital and virtual solutions for the year. We did a pilot event in May for Father's Day, because if we launched anything virtually it had to be engaging. We launched power pitching virtually, the way we describe it is like a speed dating meets dragons den. You're pitching your products to the journalists. You've got five minutes to impress them, it’s super fast and such an effective use of time and we use technology to facilitate that. We went full steam ahead with plan B and really ramped up that virtual series. We had no idea what the appetite that was going to be. But we'd had enough feedback to know that brands, journalists and PRs still needed a way to communicate, and we wanted to help facilitate that. Equally on our digital platform, we invested to enhance its functionality. We needed to make sure there was that kind of day-to-day interaction. The key thing is the communication because that face-to-face time is so important if you’re going to get to know someone. There’s only so much you can see on a press release, particularly when it’s products. For the Big Christmas Press Show, that was slightly more challenging to move virtually, being such a huge exhibition and we weren’t confident we could translate that into virtual.

How does CIJ Group support both in-house and agency PR teams?

I would say around 50 percent of our clients are represented by a PR agency, so it's a really even split. And what we found is that whether the PRs are in-house or agencies, they have exactly the same challenges, and that main challenge is getting cut through to journalists. When I used to run my agency, I would see PRs so worried about having spent all these tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds on budget, but getting super low attendance. So we wanted to take the pressure off. And whether you’re in-house or agency, I think any brand working solo has that challenge. Do we work with them in a slightly different way? Yes sometimes, because lots of the PR agencies we work for have multiple different clients, so there are different solutions that will work. Whereas when it's in-house, it tends to be one thing that they’ll be looking for. But largely, as a PR solutions company we want to solve challenges.

Which project from the last year are you most proud of? 

I would say it's probably the development of our online platform, PressFix, that was rebranded from our Gift Guide Portal. But as we expanded into new solutions, we wanted it to be for any new product launch or any new gifting occasion. We've invested heavily into its functionality and it's just gone down really, really well because I think it's been so helpful as a tool for PRs to have during this time. We used to be an in-person events company and I'm most proud that we’ve evolved into a hybrid solutions company, with in-person and virtual events. I think in terms of the longevity, it's really difficult to say at this stage which kind of habits and behaviors are going to stay and which people are going to bounce back to. And for us, we're reviewing that every quarter, because at some point we might realise that actually everyone wants to get back in person and clink those glasses of champagne and not be sat behind a zoom anymore.

What is in store for CIJ Group post-pandemic?

It has been an incredibly exciting time. Especially over the past few months, we've been approached by an increasing number of brands and retailers. There seems to be a lot more demand for collaboration. That's always been our vision anyway, to support the PR industry, brands and the retail industry, to collaborate and get more results. We’ve just had Wilko, who have always traditionally done their own activity, and many other large retailers, like Not On The High Street approach us, which is fantastic and that brings benefits to everyone. Our mission as a business is to keep developing our PR solutions and to continue to be growing and building. We see lots of change coming up, so I see it as continually evolving over the coming months. The main thing is that we are super agile so we can respond to what our customer’s need. If you'd asked me this this time last year, I would have had our three-year plan to share with you, but now, and I see this with many businesses that we’re working with, everyone’s planning quarter to quarter. I’m really hoping that in the next six months we can start that much longer-term vision again.