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Heather Ripley, CEO of Ripley PR, a public relations agency specializing in construction and skilled trades opened her agency a decade ago.
We first met Ripley when she was managing campaigns for Clockwork Home Services and its three franchise brands, One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and Mister Sparky.
Since then, Ripley PR has been named to the Forbes list of America’s Best PR Agencies for 2021 and Entrepreneur’s Best PR Agencies for Franchise and is the second largest PR agency in the Knoxville, Tennessee market.
In 2021, Ripley released her book, “Next Level Now: PR Secrets to Drive Explosive Growth for Your Home Service Business” to help home service business owners understand how PR can help them improve their brand awareness.
She’s a regular contributor to PHC News, as well as other trade publications.
PHCPPros: How did you get your start in offering public relations advice for the home services contractor?
Ripley: About 12 years into my professional marketing career, I went to work for Clockwork Home Services managing the public relations and marketing for its three franchise brands, One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and Mister Sparky. While with Clockwork I earned the company top-tier media exposure, including an appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2009, after which the CEO was able to sell the company for $183 million.
Because I had grown up in a family of blue-collar employees, working with home service companies became something close to my heart. I recognized that contractors could benefit from the same PR strategies that businesses in other industries already leverage in order to succeed and grow. So, I started Ripley PR to provide them with the added advantage that good publicity can bring.
PHCPPros: What do you think is different about offering such services to home services contractors vs. to a more general business audience?
Ripley: So many home service entrepreneurs know they have to be online and searchable to compete in our search-engine-driven world. But with the sheer number of residential service companies in any given market, it is hard for them to truly stand out from the crowd.
Even with as many cars as there are on the road, there are still only 14 major companies that control the entire automobile industry. However, when you search for a plumber in any medium to large city, you’re likely to find dozens and dozens of plumbing companies in your immediate area alone.
Public relations is a way to help these businesses pull away from their competition in ways that marketing alone can’t do.
PHCPPros: The first chapter of your book, Next Level Now, has a helpful breakdown between PR and marketing. While the book is largely focused on PR, I think a lot of people don’t see a difference between PR and marketing or, for that matter, think PR is only for “big” companies. Can you go over the distinctions between marketing and PR, and also make the case for why PR benefits any home services company regardless of size?
Ripley: While advertising and public relations should both be a part of a business’ marketing budget, the difference is that marketing or advertising focuses on the hard return on investment of dollars spent vs. the number of leads generated. Public relations is about building relationships, brand awareness and a positive perception.And when executed correctly it builds credibility, establishes trust and makes all of your other marketing efforts more effective.
But PR is still often misunderstood. Most business professionals realize they need to call a PR expert when they are suffering through a crisis, but it shouldn’t be limited to that.
Too many smaller organizations believe that positive, proactive public relations is only beneficial to large companies. But building a positive reputation is another way for smaller companies to increase their top-of-mind brand awareness, improve their SEO and is the most effective form of advertising because it is earned.
PHCPPros: What are some of your biggest successes helping contractors?
Ripley: We’re proud to have helped dozens of home service contractors rebrand, become more visible in their community or take their business to the next level.
For example, we helped our long-time client, Petri Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Drain Cleaning in Brooklyn, New York, become one of the most trusted expert sources for New York journalists through a series of leveraged press releases and media pitching. This company has remained family-owned for 117 years. The current owner took over the company in 1977 from his great-grandfather and now the son is running the company. We spotlighted this longevity to help the company build trust in the community.
We also saw Southern Trust Home Services in Roanoke, Virginia, through a rebranding from Southern State Electric Services to the powerhouse contractor they are today. Our extensive outreach plan that included monthly press releases, constant social media and blog content and assisting them in applying for the awards they deserved helped them grow from $1 million a year company to a $10 million a year business.
In addition to helping businesses rebrand and grow, we also helped bluefrog Plumbing & Drain develop their franchise network into one of the fastest-growing plumbing companies in the United States by executing a two-pronged PR strategy: highlighting bluefrog’s franchisees in their local communities and driving overall brand awareness and franchise development through national placement and recognition. As a result of this additional recognition, Restoration 1, one the nation’s largest restoration franchises, bought bluefrog with plans of aggressively growing that business throughout North America.
We also helped the owners of Gold Medal Service build up their business through a series of press releases designed to show their expertise and experience. For Gold Medal owners Mike Agugliaro and Rob Zadotti, being able to exit comfortably was a goal they’d long wanted to achieve. However, after the first 10 years of long hours and barely surviving, that goal wasn’t in sight. So, they took stock of their business model and devised a plan that included studying the world’s most successful companies to see how they transformed their businesses into empires.
After resetting their business approach, Agugliaro and Zadotti were able to cultivate their business into a company that was growing by leaps and bounds. The company that had struggled for its first 10 years became a powerhouse over the next 12 years. The company was earning about $10 million by the time it hired Ripley PR and it grew even more with the addition of a public relations component. By 2016, Gold Medal was earning nearly $32 million a year. Agugliaro has publicly credited Ripley PR’s ability to elevate Gold Medal by positioning them as thought leaders on the news and in the minds of consumers as one of the reasons they were able to build the value they needed in order to sell the company for a successful exit.
These kinds of positive recognition helped the owners of both bluefrog and Gold Medal Service build their publicity so they could sell their businesses for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
PHCPPros: With so many people routinely leaving reviews on various social media platforms, what do you suggest a contractor do when the contractor gets a bad review?
Ripley: Contractors should regularly read their reviews and provide professional and timely feedback to both the positive and negative reviews.
As a business owner, your company is your pride and joy; you may be tempted to take bad reviews personally. Don’t. The key to dealing with bad reviews is to remain calm, respond promptly, admit fault when necessary, apologize to the customer and offer to remedy the situation.
You should also remember that your responses on online sites are public and your replies will be seen by anyone who cares to see them. Poor responses can lead to a bad reputation. Provide a limited response and offer to take the resolution offline and talk with the customer personally.
Most home service business owners know that there are about 2% of people who are always going to complain and won’t be satisfied no matter what you do. That’s why many choose not to respond at all. You know your response probably won’t make them happy, but we recommend that you do because other customers and potential clients will see that you’ve taken time out to address the concern. This builds your credibility and trust among members of your service area, and helps you weather any bad reviews that may be thrown your way.
PHCPPros: Other than hiring your agency, what advice would you give contractors who wanted to become better known in their community for their home services?
Ripley: One of the best ways to garner continued positive publicity is by creating content on a regular basis. You should regularly produce blog content that provides helpful tips for readers or provides your thoughts on industry news. This cements your role as a thought-leader in the industry.
Stay engaged on social media, too. You can’t just post every once in a while and expect to grow a following. You should also put out regular press releases about topics that are of interest to the general population or to those who read trade publications. Journalists will want to hear news of new hires or expansion but won’t care about your release if it sounds more like a sales pitch.
Another way to become better known in your community is to find a meaningful cause you can champion. Studies have shown that people want to do business with companies that are socially responsible. By finding a non-profit or charitable organization you would be proud to assist, you not only build goodwill amongst your target audience, but you also become better known and trusted in your community.
Too often, many home service companies only want to spend their marketing budget on advertising alone. While advertising is certainly necessary, it doesn’t produce the kind of long-term results that public relations can. PR is a long-haul solution that builds your brand while ensuring you become a well-known and trusted thought-leader in your industry. This can take your company to the next level and enable you to grow exponentially.