August 27, 2008
What Really Makes PR Valuable?
I've been thinking quite a bit about the recent Alley Insider interview with Jason Calacanis.
His advice: don't use a PR firm or an in-house veteran. He says that you don't need to spend ANY money to get amazing PR. Public relations by nature has always had a lousy reputation. Some call us flacks, some tell us that we tout fluff.
Sure, there are situations where companies have spent a lot of money on PR and gained very little if nothing at all. It happens, just as hiring a sales guy could yield you very little ROI in some cases, particularly early on. The timing is wrong, the person isn't the right cultural fit, their background doesn't match your needs.
His philosophy of PR is summed up in six words: be amazing, be everywhere, be real. The "be amazing" part is really referring to Godin's Purple Cow. How can you really stand out amidst the noise unless you're extraordinary? You. And your product.
How many times have you seen a fabulous product but you think the CEO is arrogant or the product sucks but you want them to win because the team is so great? So, by nature, being amazing is harder said than done. It's not just that the product and team need to be great, but the timing needs to be right as well. We've all seen launches flop because the product was too early for the masses to adopt it or too late and the market was too crowded.
What if you have a great CEO and a fairly decent product but its not amazing? What if you're in the middle? You don't have another Google, Amazon, Yahoo, YouTube, or Apple but you have great revenue potential and are tapping into a great need. What if you don't have Jobs charisma and drive or Jason's contacts, confidence and decade of industry experience? What if, simply, you're not designed that way?
Secondly, he says be everywhere. I agree and it works, but it means your life becomes your work and your work becomes your life. (which is okay for some, particularly young unattached entrepreneurs in their early twenties).
What if "being everywhere" takes away from your ability to stay close to your engineering team to ensure the best possible features are delivered on time? What if "being everywhere" isn't in your nature and you'd rather be building products than chatting with press and bloggers?
What if you're trying to grow a company and you have three kids at home who want as much of your time as your team does? What if you believe in excellence and being amazing but also want balance in your life? More folks I know than not who are "everywhere" are not married or if they are, they don't have small children at home.
Frankly, that argument can be extended to a number of other "fluff" categories like marketing, advertising and in some rooms, new business development. Of course a good new biz guy directly impacts the bottom line once that deal flow starts flowing in. In many cases, when its a 'trade' rather than money exchanging hands, that value isn't as obvious.
The same applies to PR. It's about building relationships -- over time. It doesn't mean as a CEO you can't build those relationships and be in as many places as you can. Most reporters and bloggers I know would rather hang out with a founder than a flack.
That said, managing that process and building relationships with those influencers takes a substantial amount of time -- and trust. Just like a great new biz guy who has worked with their counterparts in giants like Nokia, Microsoft, HP, Oracle and Google, great PR folks have worked with journalists from the NY Times, Newsweek, Family Circle and blog networks for years.
We forget that while the blogosphere has exploded and opened up more and more content outlets for us to talk to (and read), the basics haven't changed. For all the reporters and bloggers who don't like PR folks, there are a ton who value those relationships.
Through ongoing interactive dialogue, both sides can discuss ideas, and learn about new products and innovations while the founder can focus on doing his job -- driving revenue, raising capital if necessary, motivating his management team, signing deals.
And then there's 'being real.' I assume that means being authentic, honest and following through with what you say you're going to do. May as well say "be human, be courteous, be genuine." All founders should follow that rule. It's a great one. This is also a lot of work, not because its hard to be genuine, but because it takes time to reach out to people, pay attention to what they're saying, and actually "listen."
He says, "things that look like an "overnight success" typically are not." So true, I tell clients this all the time and prospects who think a quick hit in the WSJ will turn them into the next YouTube.
He also tells companies to "be their brands" and to be a human being....which is followed by this statement: "journalists hate PR people and they hate being pitched. They do. It's just a fact. Journalists and bloggers despise PR people, and if they say otherwise they are lying, placating you or just being diplomatic."
This may be true in some cases (I know plenty who complain), but in this context, I'm reading that to mean that PR folks are not human beings, or at the very least, journalists and bloggers don't think so. Odd, since I have a number of friends who are both bloggers and journalists. (and have been for more than a decade).
While it appears that he hates PR folks as much as his journalist friends do, he has some great pointers that the really good publicists and CEOs I know follow. There is value to great PR (and yes I mean those who actually do it for a living as well as CEOs who "get it") just as there's value to great sales and marketing skills.
Those who are in my biz have all experienced this scenario. Your CEO wants an article in the WSJ or New York Times and this is the main way they measure their PR success.
Reminds Jason, "getting someone at The New York Times, WIRED or The Wall Street Journal to pay attention to you can take years. Small publications, however, don't get their calls responded to by the big companies. This creates two big wins for you:
a) Small publications have more time for you
b) Big publications troll the small publications for stories"
Yes yes and yes. And remember that some of those small publications may be much more targeted to your audience anyway. I'm amazed at how much effort start-ups put into getting covered by GigaOm, Mashable and TechCrunch. I love and read these blogs, don't get me wrong, but if your customer is anything like my cousins in the small towns of this vast country, they're not going to learn anything about your product through those outlets.
And, increasingly my clients are trying to reach audiences that are still slow to blogs. Blogs will ultimately reach all of us one day and perhaps the esoteric long tail ones centered around a specific passion is the way to go, even if their numbers are a quarter of the size of the majors. It starts with a conversation and then you build from there.
In other words, PR is about more than getting ink. It's more than pitching. It's more than writing press releases. It always has been.......it's always been about building relationships, creating a brand, establishing trust and watching one successful milestone after another -- over time. Alongside persistence, vision, passion, and authenticity, I'd also add faith, patience and grace.
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Bravo Renee! You capture the essence of what the best in the profession do and the value that is added. Remarkable people and products do generate their own swirl of exposure but they don't lock in the relationships and the next opportunity. Or is the kernel of the issue that everything today is a one-off and temporal. If 15 minutes of fame is all you get, everyone may not need a publicist. But if 15 minutes of fame is all a business gets, there are going to be an awful lot of disappointed investors.
Your blog is great -- great to see you climbing on the PR Week chart.
Posted by: donald Levy | Aug 30, 2008 9:26:52 PM
Renee, that was an amazing post.
Posted by: Gail Scibelli | Sep 2, 2008 2:21:17 PM
I thought this was a great post. I think too often self help writers and the like get away with casually throwing out catchy lines like "Be Amazing" or "Be Everywhere" that they don't back up. As you explained so well, reality is much more complicated. Buying the hype of their catch phrases can lead to impatience, unrealistic expectations, and general disaster.
Posted by: Cris | Sep 4, 2008 8:27:59 AM