The Article I Want to Read on PR

Yesterday morning I woke up to the same New York Times article that the rest of the PR industry did – although I had known that it was coming. Whenever there’s an article on our industry, it seems to cause a huge hoopla – I guess we’re not used to being the ones in the spotlight – so I suppose I would be remiss to not mention it. I sat on it for a day to decide what I wanted to say and I’ve concluded that I’m not going to give my assessment of the article or the PR strategy because a) that’s been done and b) we have a connection to one of the subjects in the article, Brooke Hammerling, in that we share a client and I wouldn’t want any of my comments to be misconstrued.

Instead, I’ll say here’s the article I would have rather read – or would like to see someone take the time to write – about PR. Let’s follow the next PR subject and his or her clients around for a good six months to a year. Let’s get past the launch phase and the initial hoopla (if done well), and watch how the PR team tackles strategy during the tougher times. Let’s follow a PR executive or firm that has to promote completely new concepts and companies, vs one that works for say, Facebook or Microsoft. And let’s see what else PR executives do besides “spin.”

Hell, let’s see if PR executives even know strategy, right? Michael Arrington says in his post on the subject that we (PR executives) just “Smile, Dial, Name Drop and Pray,” that we’re “frustrated by always being in the back seat” and that we’re just “there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible.” Jason Calacanis has said in the past that anyone can do it and you should fire your PR firm. Robert Scoble says in his post that “PR companies haven’t figured out yet that the traffic has moved onto social networks and that journalists and influencers are watching those like a hawk.”

First of all, some of us have, Robert, and have likewise been involved in these social networks for years. Secondly, these are all yet again sweeping statements – sparked by the moves of one PR person and then applied to the whole of our industry. They are also very focused on one thing: coverage. Even if Ms. Hammerling’s strategy was to leave the tech blogs out and instead garner online mentions from the “Who’s Who” of tech, the story still began with “Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour…” And anytime bloggers and reporters seem to assess the PR industry, the viewpoints usually only take into account only that one element of what our job is – and that one thing that happens to be what they do for a living: writing on and assessing products, services and companies (and I include blogs in that).

But let’s remember – I’ve said it before – PR is so much more than media coverage – it’s more than promoting a product or service. It’s more than pitching and praying, smiling and dialing or spinning and dancing. And it’s much, much more than name dropping. (Just for the record, I’ve never been much of a name dropper – I know the right people to reach when it’s important and if I don’t, I’ll quickly find out – and I seem to be doing “ok.” As I have written in the past, my approach is not only about how many existing relationships you have, but rather about the ability to connect with others in a valuable and meaningful way – journalists or otherwise. The “meaningful” way is what traditional PR agencies are struggling with – it doesn’t exactly fit the “process, repeat” model of yesteryear that likely sparks comments such as Arrington’s “smile and dial” assessment.)

Arrington is right when he says PR executives aren’t who a CEO calls “when wondering what she should do next to drive her business forward.” However, to imply that we as an industry do not influence our clients’ “strategic actions”at all is inaccurate. In fact, we do help to shape the directions of some business decisions based on what we believe the communications outcome or impact will be. We have helped to name companies, products, events and even product categories. We very carefully think about timing – and influence business actions based on it and a host of other elements. We help tongue-tied entrepreneurs to better communicate not only with customers or partners, but with  media, analysts, employees and even VCs. To focus on media coverage or “influencer” tours – or just this one PR strategy from Ms. Hammerling – as “the new world of promoting start-ups” is telling only part of the story.

So again, I’d love to someday see a real analysis of the PR industry – more than a press tour, more than a product launch, more than a stereotypical pretty blonde executive working the room at a trade show. How about the daily life of a PR executive handling both small start ups and major corporations – and how the PR strategy for each not only exists, but entails much more than reaching out to media and bloggers, and how such strategies for each type of client varies greatly. And I’d prefer that the story show different types of PR executives so we don’t end up with another Lizzie Grubman MTV-style show representing our entire industry.

Persuasive Picks for the Week of 06/28/09

Top 10 Productivity Basics Explained
Every once in a while I like to include a non-social media, PR or marketing pick. This is one of those times. As a virtual worker, I continually find motivational inspiration in productivity-based posts. Here’s a nice basic one from

Comment Marketing for Beginners
Shannon Paul applies a fun “red light, green light, yellow light” approach to the basics of “Comment Marketing.” Be sure to read (and contribute to) the comments for more insight.

HOW TO: Get Retweeted on Twitter
Pete Cashmore posts some interesting data (via Dan Zarrella) on re-tweets and re-tweet behavior. Good food for thought when using Twitter as part of your social strategy.

Timing Is A Critical Success Factor for Blog Posts
Michele Goetz expands on the importance of blog post timing and shares an example of how the great posts can fizzle out of the gate, but come back to life when the timing is right.

Buy Twitter Followers: 100,000 for $3479
It was only a matter of time. Once Twitter started to make a routine appearance on nightly news and mainstream media channels, the scammers and low-end profiteers started coming out of the woodwork. Got some extra cash laying around to buy followers who have absolutely no interest in what you have to say? Read on for pure comedy.

Beating a Dead Social Media Horse

I’ve been suffering a bit of blogger’s block lately – finding a motivational topic difficult to come by and even harder, something everyone’s not already talking about. So I reached out to my Twitter community and asked for ideas. I received some interesting feedback but one that caught me by surprise was from @Britrock, who suggested I write “about topics that are beaten to death and why the subject is so popular?”

So here I am and the subject is of course, social media. It’s absolutely beaten to death – yet unsolved – and it’s so popular because no one can quite agree on its definition, its impact, its value, its future or even its present. Not everyone is bought into the “concept” and even when businesses are, they are unsure who to trust – who really “gets it” from a business value perspective and understands that it’s more strategic than creating a Facebook fan page and some cool videos?

We do know that it’s currently the hot buzzword in business. Oh, and it’s supposedly killing off entire industries such as PR, advertising and traditional media.

Social media is such a broad term, subject to the individual definition of everyone who mentions it. Some people think it means digital production, others think it means blogger relations and currently, Wikipedia defines it as “online content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies.”

Businesses are trying to define its value, executives/celebrities/political figures are trying to understand how to use it, and “experts” galore are casting the FUD factor all over in hopes of capitalizing on the currently-hot trend. It’s talked about so much but in the end, I think it’s simple.

Social media is talking with – not at – those who matter to you, your brand, your business. It’s such a simple concept but it’s difficult for businesses to embrace because we’ve spent so many years just pushing messages out one way. Brands didn’t necessarily want to listen – they just wanted to dictate thought and influence opinions. Ad agencies would create sleek – and sometimes stupid – ads that people would mostly chat about the day after each year’s Super Bowl. If brands got lucky they’d hit a word-of-mouth winner like “Where’s the Beef” or “Aflac.” PR teams wrote press releases full of fluffy words that real people would never say, and no one really cared as long as it grabbed some attention and resulted in media coverage.

But now, things are different. With “social media,” consumers can not only post, dissect and analyze your words, they can create their own commercials about your product. They can write full blog posts about your press release and how silly it sounds and encourage others to create their own “fluffy words list” underneath it. They can create and promote “I hate your product” fan pages on Facebook and in just seconds, tell 25,000 people with 140 words how frustrated they are.

Or, how happy they are.

And here’s the thing – because they’re not actually trying to sell anything, they’re probably going to get more people to listen to them than a big brand standing on its own soap box. (Hence the illusion that PR and ad industries will suffer – rather, they will evolve – but that’s another blog post.) So what can you as a brand or a business do?

This brings me back to my definition of social media – talking with and not at. Clients very often come to us when something negative is said about them in a blog or on a social site like Twitter. Of course we analyze each instance but very often we encourage clients to engage with the naysayer – and this is a very difficult thing for businesses to get comfortable with. They don’t want to stir the pot or seem disingenuous. But when you have an issue with someone in your life, don’t you address the situation? Communicate? Discuss? That’s what social media is allowing us businesses to do in a way never before possible. You can fight or ignore it, or you can embrace and benefit from it.

Social media allows you to communicate directly with your customers and prospects. It gives you a platform to spark discussions that showcase your thought leadership or tell a customer story in a more visual and interactive way than ever before. It gives you a chance to share content among a community that you can see is relevant based on the discussions already taking place.

No, you can’t control it – but you can participate in, and positively influence, discussions. And if having happy customers tell others about you is valuable to you, (or showing prospects that you care about their opinion, or fixing a problem someone is having with your product, or lowering attrition, or showcasing your thought leadership, or winning a new client because they see so many other influencers engaging with you, etc.) then there’s your answer to social media ROI.