‘Write the headline first’ – comms advice from Group Black’s Bonin Bough

It takes a determined individual with great comms and marketing skills to put a fledgling agency on the map. Bonin Bough co-founded Group Black and acts as Chief Strategy Officer. The business focuses on investing in and growing Black-owned media companies and by so doing to dramatically transform the face of media ownership.

Fast Company recently named the agency one of the 10 most innovative companies in media and Bonin certainly knows how to secure positive press coverage and use it for maximum impact. He is a former global marketer for Mondelez International and PepsiCo has also worked for Weber Shandwick and Ruter Finn Interactive.

We were delighted he could join Propeller Group’s Vice President, U.S. Mary Cirincione for a wide-ranging chat about earned media and its role at our recent Comms Club event.

To begin, Mary raised the challenges of persuading CMOs of the value of PR. Bonin said: “PR is probably one of the hardest forms of marketing because you not only have to convince a person to tell your story, but you also have to convince that person to tell your story in a way that’s going to convince another person to actually go take action on what they read.”

He admitted there as a divide among CMOs between those who ‘get it’ and those who don’t. Many still need to grasp how PR helps the brand lean into culture and how good coverage “is timely, of the moment, unique and different.”

PR scales awareness

He forcefully made the case for moving PR up the ‘to do’ list: “If you are a CMO and you don’t know the power of PR, I think you’re in the wrong job, personally. I’ve spent a career with some of these conversations, but the reality is you show me one CMO that doesn’t want to be on the cover of, for example, Adweek? My point is, is that they understand the power of it as it relates to driving visibility of themselves, I’m pretty sure they understand the ability to drive visibility for their brands as well.”

Bonin pointed out that one of the big hurdles for a CMO is accepting the lack of control in an earned environment – but that’s the trade off. “Every agency wants to create programmes that people talk about – those things would not be what they are if it wasn’t for the fact they generate earned media. Earned media is the amplifier to all of this and most brands  couldn’t afford to buy the scale we reach with PR.”

Digging into strategy he said “PR is the most leveraged tool that you have in the marketing kitbag. And your advertising should drive your PR, your advertising should make sense for you. We took a little brand called Group Black, and I think we’re as known as almost any other brand in the media ecosystem.

“Make no mistake about it. My largest investment is comms. And the only reason why is because, again, when you land the story people are so much more likely to take action because it’s coming from a source that’s already vetted.”

Talking tactics

The pair also dived into the nuances of talking with clients versus talking to the media. Bonin advised PRs had to drop some of the “salesy speak” that clients tend to use and added: “You’ve got to lean into the data, lean into things that are quantifiable, lean into those proof points in a really intentional way, right? The editor and the reporter need to see the value in [the story] too and then they’re able to digest that and translate that for the audience.

“You have to make the news interesting so that they [the reporter] see themselves writing it. They want to break the story and to get the credit for bringing, so you have to make it valuable for them as well.”

Describing his own PR approach Bonin said: “Actually, for me it’s always write the headline first, then work back to create the programme. Invest in PR ahead and early and often and at scale and the other stuff will figure itself out. And the market will also shape and tell you what the audience cares about. Because if a reporter won’t write about it, it’s probably not important to culture or to the world right now.”

Both praised the way PR professionals move at speed and juggle several balls at once. Mary pointed out that PR is rarely part of any CMO’s primary job description, which means that it sometimes gets downgraded to “I’ll get round to it once I’ve tackled everything else.” But the media cycle moves really quickly and responsiveness and engagement are key to breaking through. She said: “Deadlines are rarely arbitrary, and if you wait too long, you can miss that moment.”

PR should be provocative (sometimes)

Bonin challenged some of the established PR wisdoms. He is happy to be part of an  “echo chamber” on opinions if it means coverage and is also willing to be provocative. “I like to do stuff just to be provocative because those are the things – the bold moves – that consumers remember and that people actually talk about. But we get scared and we don’t realize that you have to find a way to cut through and the only way you do that is by being provocative.”

He stressed that businesses looking for exponential growth “are not going to catch that by doing the same thing and … playing small ball or being scared. It just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to be brave”, while Mary added: “But [the point of view] has to be rooted in something, right? It’s got to be authentic to who you are as a brand or who you are as a spokesperson.”

Working with a comms mix

The incorporation of sponsored or paid-for activity as part of the comms strategy is becoming more prevalent. Bonin pointed to the ‘flywheel effect’ of sponsoring an event and how this can spin off PR coverage and cited Group Black’s presence at ‘Inkwell Beach’ at Cannes Lions 2023 as an example.

Another example from Bonin’s time at PepsiCo was the Doritos ‘Crash The Super Bowl’ marketing initiative whereby members of the public were invited to submit the Doritos Super Bowl ads they’d like to see.

Essentially Bonin said businesses need to zig when others zag – especially if you’re a challenger brand with smaller budgets. “I tell my team, regardless of how big you are, how small you are, somebody’s going to be bigger. So, you can’t outspend them. But you can outsmart them.

“And that’s where I think the magic in all this is, and PR is a huge portion of that because that gives you outweighed value because the cost of creating it is much smaller than the cost of creating many other pieces in your marketing mix.”