What is a Web. 2.0 PR Agency?

There’s a lot of buzz about PR these days. Is it dead? Has social media taken over? Does everyone do PR now? What’s wrong with PR? Why is it broken? Is it even necessary anymore?

The latest rant about how PR is broken comes from Michael Arrington of TechCrunch. I was on vacation when this post appeared so I did not participate in the comments parade (145 and counting!) following his post. But I have to say that I don’t blame him. Like Mike and his post-muse, Steve Rubel, I have recently experienced what it’s like to receive really bad, really off-focus PR pitches (since I started blogging outside of PerkettPR for This Mommy Gig, Women for Hire, etc.). The pitches I’ve received have embarrassed me, knowing that these are the professionals representing our industry… and doing such a bad job that reporters and bloggers are compelled to publicly cry out against PR in general. I don’t have time to read – let alone respond to – lazy, off-topic pitches and I’m pretty sure that I’m not even half as busy as guys like Mike.

All of this hoopla – combined with recent incoming new business inquires where prospects told me they are looking for a “Web 2.0 PR Agency” – has me thinking. Is there a difference between “traditional PR” and ” Web 2.0 PR?” Is PR really broken or are executives under pressures from clients who don’t understand, now more than ever, what PR is about? What is a Web 2.0 PR Agency, anyway? I think it depends on who you ask.

One prospect defined a “Web 2.0 PR Agency” through a series of posts describing the agency as having “current clients in the Web 2.0 space with funny sounding names” and the ability to demonstrate “out-of-the-boxiness” – preferably by wearing jeans and t-shirts to the pitch meeting and not bringing paper presentations. Numerous other prospects defined Web 2.0 PR as having a blog (you’d be surprised how many companies haven’t even taken this step yet). Still others said they were heavily weighing their decision on a new agency around the amount of Twitter followers or Facebook friends each agency had (although, since most agencies don’t yet have – or keep up – a corporate entity like @PerkettPR, they instead looked at one individual most of the time).

None of the above makes a successful “Web 2.0 PR Agency.” You can still abuse Twitter and Facebook if you use them to send bad pitches (or any pitches, in some cases). You can be a savvy PR firm and still wear suits (in fact 99 percent of the time if we showed up in jeans and a t-shirt, we’d never get the job). You can have thousands of followers on Twitter and not one of them who cares about your clients or their products (hence delivering no value).  Anyone can create a blog.

PR has always been about “people skills,” as vague as that sounds. It’s not only about how many existing relationships you have, but rather about the ability to connect with others in a valuable and meaningful way – whether we’ve met or not. It’s also about mutual benefit and communication – not just calling when you need something.  And finally, it’s about time – we’re not brain surgeons, but just as you could paint your own house, you most likely have other things you need to do, so you pay someone to do it for you. PR is not dead because everyone wants promotion. Some are good at doing it themselves, some need help and still others simply want to pay someone to do it for them.

A “Web 2.0 PR Agency” is simply one that understands the new ways that people are connecting and building relationships. They understand that today, “people skills,” go beyond attending networking events or taking a reporter to dinner once in awhile. They take the time to join the conversation, read and comment, share a bit of their own insights and give something back to the community in terms of participation. As Arrington said, “… participate in the fascinating conversations [and suddenly] you are a person that gives and takes. Someone who makes the overall network stronger.” PR executives can do this as well, if they make the time for it – think of what you can learn! In this regard, a good “Web 2.0 PR Agency” isn’t afraid to experiment and take chances – breaking out of the usual PR mold (which clearly isn’t working anymore).

Any “Web 2.0 PR Agency” understands that it may take more time to read, comment, write, build and share original content, and provide information – but that consistent participation is the key to success. You can’t watch from the sidelines anymore. PR agencies are suffering because they are used to maximizing billable hours by skimming the surface – they find a basic formula, teach junior executives what it is and apply it to all reporters, analysts, bloggers, etc. They don’t want to spend hours personalizing efforts for clients when they can service more clients – hence, more retainers – if one formula fits all.

This doesn’t work anymore yet they don’t know how to change. Managers demand reports of who received a press release, rather than recognizing the value in ongoing conversations and the time it takes to actually read and respond appropriately to individual constituents or to execute direct-to-customer communications. But it isn’t just agencies, the demand for such reports and lists – and the failure to recognize value in building relationships through two-way conversations – also lies with clients. They don’t measure conversations, they measure clips and ask for your Rolodex. Blasting news can quickly create a pretty list of reporters who the firm “pitched” and, sadly, can often create more quantity – not quality – “hits” than the time it takes to work with a reporter for a feature story or to build a viral campaign.

PR isn’t dead – it’s alive and well in almost anything you read on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and more (disclosure: The Style Observer and Constant Contact are clients). Traditional PR (media, speaking, awards, analyst relations, events, etc.) can still be effective – but in conjunction with these new social channels. I believe a “Web 2.0 PR Agency” understands this, has come to grips with the fact that a reusable formula no longer works, takes the time to participate, and is flexible and wise enough to adapt to this reality – and teach clients how to do so as well.

  • Veronica Giggey

    It’s good to hear the other side of the story. So many people focus on tools, tools and more tools. I’m a real purist when it comes to this social media stuff and I loved reading about relationships and not campaigns!

  • Mel Webster

    Agree 100 percent, Chris. One thing you forgot to mention, however, is common sense. An incredibly elusive trait for so many in our business it seems. I do, however, think that Arrington, Scoble, et al went overboard on their condemnation of the PR business.

  • http://katesays.org Kate Olson

    As someone outside of the PR industry (and one of your co-writers on This Mommy Gig) I love your description of a Web 2.0 PR Agency. It’s the same as anything else that “Web 2.0″ is thrown in front of – in my area it’s education. It really isn’t about the tools, it’s about the people and how they use those tools!

    As the one receiving numerous pitches for This Mommy Gig, I’m appalled at the number of pitches I get addressed to the wrong person or without at all. On Friday I received 25 emails, all to the same email address, all with different Dear ____________ names…..one for each writer on our site. Now, this has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a blogger, it has to do with the fact that the person sending those emails did NOT take the time to think about the fact that 25 emails sent to the same address would, in fact, all arrive in the same inbox. Regardless of what product she was pitching, I didn’t take the time to find out because it irritated me so much that this supposed professional was obviously not pitching ME, she was pitching the IDEA of me. She wanted a blogger, supposedly the “it” thing.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for making this about the most important thing – people and the relationships involved in quality PR.

  • http://www.perkettpr.com Christine Perkett

    Kate – you hit the nail on the head re: pitching the “idea of you” as a blogger. I think that is a huge part of the problem with PR! Great thoughts and thank you for reading and sharing your insights.

    Mel – common sense – of course! Excellent point…although I hate to admit that the longer I am in business the less common sense I see; seems it takes a long time for some people to really learn it.

  • http://JoelLibava.com Joel Libava

    Christine,
    Great job on this article.
    You know me as “franpro”. One thing that really gets me going is when I get “cold” stories sent to me from PR agencies who are hoping I will write about their clients on one of my many blogs. Why would I want to do that if I don’t even know them? These flaky PR agencies need to develop relationships with us bloggers, and understand that we want to know, “What’s in it for me” kind of things.
    Here is a novel idea. How about some cash?
    Joel Libava
    The Franchise King Blog
    Cleveland

  • http://davidmullen.wordpress.com David Mullen

    Great thoughts.

    As you pointed out, I believe the challenge is that many clients care more about quantity than they do quality. The only PR stat many CEOs or board members look at is total number of impressions (circulation, audience, readers, etc.). They base their perception on successful PR on that one little (or big) number. So clients want to see massive call reports and the bigger the better. They want as many emails sent and phone calls made as possible within each hour. That approach doesn’t give the account team time to research the people they’re pitching, much less build relationships.

    Our industry jokes about “smile and dial,” but that’s one of the reasons we get a bad rap among reporters. We’re doing the same with email blasts when we “spray and pray.” The difference – and it’s a big difference – is that managing editors aren’t going to give up precious editorial space for a reporter to vent about bad PR pitches. Bloggers, on the other hand, have much more liberty to draft a negative post to vent their frustrations. I hope that difference helps speed the transition to a focus on relationship-building within the PR industry.

    [disclosure: some of the words above are from a blog post I wrote on this topic recently. they're relevant here and, just to clarify, still my words.]

    Joel – just want to make sure I understand your comment. You only write posts out of PR pitches from people who are willing to pay you? Is that accurate?

    If that’s the case, I’d say PR people should stop emailing you and let their colleagues in media buying drop you a line. Out of curiosity, does that bias what you write about, focusing on who has money to pay instead of who has worthy things to talk about?

  • http://www.perkettpr.com Christine Perkett

    Joel, David – thanks for reading and for joining in the conversation.

    Joel – some bloggers may want to write about products, companies or people because they believe what they discover would be of interest and/or resourceful to their readers. Sometimes PR helps unearth new things. But bad, off-topic pitches only waste your time and turn you off, so the next time that PR executive might have something that actually is of interest to you, you have probably stopped listening to them – and that’s unfortunate for them.

    David, you make some really good comments here about bloggers and their ability to be a bit more free wielding with their thoughts. I agree that it’s an important evolution – the PR industry must improve – and if bloggers can help make that happen, I’m all for it. I’m just not sure I’m a fan of some of the approaches – like calling out individual names, for example.

    I hope in the end, PR executives will heed this lesson: Take the time to do it right and do it better – and help educate clients that it’s the quality that counts…. although I’m afraid that’s a long time coming.

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  • http://www.schmult.com Nick Schmidt

    Interesting post. It caught my eye because I saw a book in Barnes & Noble that was titled PR 2.0.

    I hope to be more a part of PR 2.0.

    P.S. Your blip.tv link doesn’t work.

  • http://www.perkettpr.com Christine Perkett

    Nick, I’m glad you found it of interest. Would be interested to hear your thoughts and learn more about why you are reading PR 2.0. I am on a panel for that very subject in October at the New Marketing Summit – can you join us?

    http://tinyurl.com/5prdtb

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  • http://katesays.org/ Kate Olson

    As someone outside of the PR industry (and one of your co-writers on This Mommy Gig) I love your description of a Web 2.0 PR Agency. It's the same as anything else that “Web 2.0″ is thrown in front of – in my area it's education. It really isn't about the tools, it's about the people and how they use those tools!

    As the one receiving numerous pitches for This Mommy Gig, I'm appalled at the number of pitches I get addressed to the wrong person or without at all. On Friday I received 25 emails, all to the same email address, all with different Dear ____________ names…..one for each writer on our site. Now, this has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a blogger, it has to do with the fact that the person sending those emails did NOT take the time to think about the fact that 25 emails sent to the same address would, in fact, all arrive in the same inbox. Regardless of what product she was pitching, I didn't take the time to find out because it irritated me so much that this supposed professional was obviously not pitching ME, she was pitching the IDEA of me. She wanted a blogger, supposedly the “it” thing.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for making this about the most important thing – people and the relationships involved in quality PR.

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  • http://soxsoftware.net SOX software

    A “Web 2.0 PR Agency” is simply one that understands the new ways that people are connecting and building relationships.