Running a PR Agency – Big or Small, Challenges Remain the Same

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Council of PR Firms‘ Boston roundtable, to discuss industry and agency issues with fellow Boston agency leaders. This was my second time attending this annual event, and I again came away inspired, energized, reassured and enthusiastic. The folks I was lucky enough to sit around the “asylum white” Board room with at Weber Shandwick included agency leaders in executive management, HR and business development from large, global firms such as Porter Novelli, Weber and Fleishman-Hillard, to midsize and smaller agencies such as CHEN PR and March Public Relations. In all, there were about 20 of us who talked about what’s looking up in the PR industry, how PR has evolved since the advent of social and digital media, HR and recruitment challenges, the integration of advertising, digital, social, mobile and video into PR campaigns and much more. We spent a great deal of time talking about measurement – what clients want, how we provide it and what tools and strategies we are using to get there.

The thing that I always find most interesting about meeting with my industry colleagues – some of them even competitors – is that we all face similar issues. Large or small, focused on tech or healthcare or consumer PR – the agency challenges are always along the same lines. As the owner of one of the smaller agencies, I love to hear that we are successfully navigating the same issues that agencies of any size do – how to motivate staff, how to identify and hire the right people for our culture, how to juggle client demands with realistic budgets. It reminds me that sometimes getting together with your “frenemies,” as I like to call them, benefits everyone. Here are some of the issues that resonated across the board:

Recruiting. Currently, the biggest challenge is finding social and digital experts who understand communications strategy and PR. It’s easy to find one or the other, but the combination of both is valuable and rare. PR folks –that’s an open invitation to you to hone your social and digital skills and surpass those “social media experts” for jobs that require knowing more than how to Tweet. What’s the real value in using these tools in a strategic communications campaign?

HR. One of the big issues on the table was telecommuting and virtual work. I am obviously – as an owner of one of the first and most successful virtual agencies – fortunate to not have to deal with a traditional office environment where executive staff is trying to figure out how to provide the opportunity for employees to work from home some of the time. That balancing act can get tricky – providing the perk without it getting out of control, managing expectations between management and staff and still keeping employees motivated and happy. Almost every agency provides the opportunity to work from home some of the time for some of their employees, but much was discussed about how this affects training of junior staff, expectations from clients, and the overall culture. Apparently the new wave of workers expects this perk, so agencies are navigating their way and trying some interesting combinations of integrating virtual work with traditional office environments. Other topics on the HR front were how to manage employee demands for more and better perks, investment in training and opportunities for growth from within, as well as the return of bloated salary requests. We were all enthusiastic about joining an HR roundtable next to continue to inform one another and discuss these issues – helping to keep the industry in check.

Client Expectations. This is always a topic of discussion and I was glad to hear that budgets all around are returning to a more realistic level to align with the results desired by clients. Remember, you really do get what you pay for in PR. You can’t expect to saturate the market if you don’t put the proper investment behind that (money, time and executive commitment and belief). Remember what Bill Gates allegedly said about his last dollar

Measurement and Proof of Value. Speaking of client expectations, the burden of proof of reaching those expectations continues to drive discussions within all agencies. We talked about using tools such as Radian 6 and (our PerkettPR client) uberVU. We discussed the value of measuring how our promotions are driving traffic, sales leads, brand awareness and more – but the challenge remains to find the exact best way to do this. There is no PR industry standard and furthermore, clients don’t want to pay extra for it. The burden of proof is on PR firms – and how the different agencies handle that is all over the place. (On a self promotional note, our agency is working on a tool that fellow firms will definitely find of value – stay tuned for our launch this Fall.)

Competition. A great deal of discussion was spent on how PR agencies are taking business not from each other, but from other entities such as advertising agencies, digital houses and even the new found “social media” agencies. The common belief – and trend we’re all seeing – is that the shiny new ball syndrome of hiring an entire agency to execute social media is quickly fading. Social media is simply a new set of tools, not an enlightenment of communications strategy for newbie professionals who have never dealt with brand strategy, corporate crisis and more. The competitive landscape is wider, but PR is holding its own, as effective communications that illicit the proper actions continues to be key. Also hot for PR agencies is adding staff for mobile, digital and video content. Most agencies are moving from outsourcing this type of position to owning it in-house with a dedicated team or position.

I do believe there were a few laughs when I mentioned that the telephone has been around for quite a while, but it certainly doesn’t make everyone good at communicating. It’s true – and neither do social media tools. This is why the PR industry is not dying. We’re thriving – and our 2012 budgets and client rosters continue to reflect that truth. I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to us as an industry.

If you’re a PR executive or agency, what trends are you seeing in the above areas? How are you navigating the changes discussed (or the traditional issues we all still face)?

Thanks to Weber for hosting, and to Matthew Soriano and the Council for including me. And of course, to my industry colleagues for participating. It’s always a pleasure learning from you all.

PS Head on over to the Council’s website for more industry stats, insights and information! It’s  a great resource.

Introductions, Referrals, Recommendations and References – Not Created Equally Online

In these days of social media madness and online relationships, it can take even more work to be sure that who you’re talking to is genuine, qualified and credible. I’ve noticed that people ask for things online in a more bold way than they used to, when face-to-face relationships ruled. Just this week I’ve been asked to write references for people I don’t know, link to and “check out and promote” several products – ranging from consumer goods and business apps, to social media training services – all of which I’ve never tried (PS you know this is what companies pay me to do, right?), and to make introductions for someone to another person who I’m not even connected with or know. What is it about digital relationships that make people so bold? How much clout do you give referrals or recommendations on networking communities and online reputation graders such as Klout, BranchOut, RateStars, Namyz and countless others? How do you handle it when a near (or total) stranger asks for a referral or other validation? Sometimes you might not even think too much about it because social networks make it so easy to just provide a recommendation without really thinking it through.

Managing your personal brand is important, yes. Ensuring your online activity is of positive quality – absolutely essential in business. Showcasing a robust online “rolodex” and “Klout score” is also key for most business professionals – especially in social marketing. But asking for and displaying recommendations or “references” from folks that really don’t know you or your work is a little misleading – and in my opinion, getting to become a disturbing “norm.” Asking for an introduction is one thing, but introductions, referrals, recommendations and references are not created equally. Do you know the difference?

  • Introduction – offering to introduce someone to a professional who works in a certain industry or could provide services that a company is seeking. Perhaps you just know of them and are connecting them with someone seeking vendors.
  • Referral – similar to an introduction, a referral could include someone you haven’t worked with, as long as you make that clear, such as, “I see you are seeking a socially savvy PR firm. I have heard that PerkettPR is great, although I’ve never personally worked with them.” These are also often made as a result of being connected online in communities such as Namyz or BranchOut.
  • Recommendation – usually involves knowing the work of a particular person, company or product, such as “I recommend PerkettPR because I’ve seen their digital work and am always impressed,” or “I tried this product and it worked for me.” Recommendations are big on Linkedin – but it’s important to note that many times people ask others to provide them without actually having worked together. It’s kind of like “link love” – I’ll give you one if you give me one. Make sure it’s a legit recommendation.
  • Reference – this is key. A reference is usually what someone asks for when they’ve been through all of the above… Such as, “Okay, I was introduced or referred to you, I received or read a few recommendations from folks in the industry who know of you and have seen your work, now I’d like to talk to someone who has actually worked with you and can talk to the results that you delivered, your work style, etc.”

And why should you care? I can think of a few reasons – both personal and professional:

  • Are you hiring employees?
  • Qualifying a vendor?
  • Hiring a services firm (like PR)?
  • Comparing products?

These are important business developments and should be vetted appropriately. Make sure you know the difference between someone providing a recommended vendor or individual based on word of mouth, and an actual reference based on experience. Online relationships have blurred the lines and sometimes people are providing recommendations to others just for popularity points, unfortunately. Be sure that you speak to actual references when hiring an employee, vendor or services firm, especially. The online world can still be misleading.

I also suggest doing some of your own digging to find people or companies who have worked with the person or vendor before – that aren’t on their reference list. For example, if you’re seeking a new PR firm, Google who a specific firm has worked with and reach out to someone there to ask about their experience. Sometimes the unlisted references are the best references.

Five tips for finding your writing mojo

We’ve all been there before: Under an impossibly-tight deadline, in front of a blank page, hypnotized by the unrelenting blinking cursor staring back at you. You’re desperate for inspiration to hit and the words to start flowing, yet the harder you try to force it, the more frustrated you become, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle otherwise known as “writer’s block.”

It’s no secret that some of the best writing comes from having the ability to let your mind wander to more creative places…but when you don’t have the luxury of time during a busy work day, what’s a pressed PR person to do?

First, know there are no shortcuts or surefire routes to producing good copy; it will take a bit of time, effort and good old-fashioned concentration (something that can be tougher and tougher to come by in today’s age of 140-character attention spans!). But on the flip side, also know that it is possible to regain your writing groove, regardless of any momentary lapse in ability.

Here are five of my favorite tips for unblocking the writer within:

Move. I’m not talking about the pack-up-your-house kind, but the need for a change in location if you feel “stuck” in one spot. Whether it’s across the room, out of the office or through town to your favorite coffee shop, a fresh perspective and some new scenery can work wonders.

Unplug. I know, I know; this might as well be a four-letter word in PR. But try turning off your phone, waiting to respond to email and closing down other distractions on your desktop – just for a bit. I promise you’ll be amazed by how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time without constantly trying to multitask.

Condition. Much like Pavlov’s dog, we can often train ourselves by pairing one stimulus with another. Have a spot in which you’ve been super productive before? Save it for when you need to get important work done, and eventually you’ll associate being there with tackling even the most complex projects with abandon.

Listen. Some people need silence to get work done, while others need to drown out the thoughts bouncing around in their heads. Whether it’s to the silence of an empty room, the ebb and flow of instrumental music or the energy of top 40 tunes, go with whichever noise strategy works for you. I happen to prefer classic rock and 90’s hits at a low volume for background noise, for example – so keep turning that dial until you hit on something that strikes a chord.

Experiment. Everyone’s writing process is different. If something isn’t working for you, don’t force a round peg into a square hole; instead, try another approach. And if that doesn’t work, try something else until you eventually stumble upon something that does work for you. But whatever you do, don’t stop investigating new avenues to unleash your inner creativity.

Have any other tips to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Flexing your social savvy: Do you ‘THINK’ before you tweet?

We’ve all committed social gaffes at one time or another, saying something in the heat of the moment that we immediately wished we could take back. But thanks to today’s public social media platforms, ‘what happens on Twitter’…can really stick around to haunt you.

The most recent case in point: This year’s Miss Seattle, who proclaimed her annoyance with the city of Seattle, its residents and its weather one dreary day in December. A local reporter caught wind and blogged about the blunder, which became a veritable viral sensation. An honest mistake, by all accounts – Jean-Sun Hannah Ahn, 22, a Seattle native, said she was merely missing the sunny weather in Phoenix, where she attended Arizona State University and was crowned Miss Phoenix – but damaging nonetheless.

Ahn has since spent the majority of her time in the position apologizing for her social media misstep. Most recently, she spent a day educating school children on her new platform: “THINK Before You Post,” which stands for Truthful, Helpful, Inspiring, Needed and Kind to remind them to make sure their online posts fall into those categories.

And so she joins the ranks of other famous (infamous?) faces who have failed to recognize that a public social media platform is just that…public. But they’re not alone; even though it may not be breaking news, there’s a good chance that many of us are also guilty of the same faux-pas. In fact, a recent Daily Mail poll revealed that approximately 25 percent of people have tweeted something they regret, and approximately the same number of people said they have posted something on a site that they never would have said to someone’s face.

So while there are no official ‘rules’ for using Twitter, we thought it might be helpful to review a few tips for projecting a more professional image, regardless of whether you use it for work or personal purposes. After all, you never know just who is watching…

  1. Have a goal. Decide what you want to get out of having a Twitter account before you set it up. Make a plan, have a purpose, and direct your actions accordingly.
  2. Mind your grammar. Capitalize only when needed (DON’T SHOUT IN CAPS!), use active language, refrain from using numbers “2” replace words, and use abbreviations wisely.
  3. Focus on value. What can you offer followers that others cannot? Post quality content regularly, – take an active interest and you’ll keep them connected, interested and engaged.
  4. Be edgy, not offensive. There’s a fine line between pushing the envelope and pushing the limits of good taste. Take your followers into consideration, but – above all – use common sense.
  5. Think before you tweet. This is definitely worth repeating. And when in doubt, wait. Give yourself a window for cooling off when you may be emotional.

Got any Twitter best practices? Or pet peeves? Feel free to share in the comments below!

UNSUBSCRIBE ME….Yes….really…please…

As part of my New Year’s resolution, I have embarked on a new project – unsubscribing from all newsletters, offers and company emails. I started out with the intent of unsubscribing only from the ones I haven’t read in months, but I decided to wipe them all out and start over fresh, only subscribing to relevant and interesting newsletters. It’s not that I hate email marketing, in fact I still find it effective, but over the last 12 years in PR, apparently I’ve not been very judicious about subscribing, nor good about unsubscribing once I am not getting value from them, and my guess is neither have many of you.

This has been a very interesting project for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the shock of finding out I subscribed to more than 200 newsletters that I was just deleting every day. Being in the marketing/PR field, what I found even more interesting was the way that organizations handle unsubscribes. Some have you email them, some are quick one-clicks, some want to ask you once or twice if you are really sure, some bury the unsubscribe on the page you click to, others actually ask you to log in with your password.

I decided to check on the rules for opt-out – I looked at the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protections CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business, and I also found a link to the explanation of the latest CAN-SPAM act, an excerpt of which is:

1.     Opt-Out page:

An opt-out link in an email must lead directly to an opt-out removal form.  A login preference method is not permitted for unsubscribes under the new CAN-SPAM 2008 provisions.

2.     No complicated pages or persuasive advertising

The opt-out link must lead to a single landing page and not to a complicated set of navigation pages or require additional links to get to the final opt-out page.  The opt-out landing page must not contain any persuasive text to keep the user opted-in.

3.     Simple email address entry only

All unsubscribe / opt-out mechanisms must require only the user enter their email address for removal.  No additional information may be requested or required on this opt-out form for removal.

Throughout the last few days I have found many organizations that do not follow these rules. I have been asked to enter log in information, I have been asked if I was sure many times, I have encountered many forms of persuasion, and I have been asked for my address, phone number and much more before being allowed to unsubscribe. In fact there are still a few from which I have not been able to unsubscribe as of yet. Most surprising though is that the sites that are making the opt-out most complicated are not random small businesses; many are well respected publications and organizations that really should know better.

There has been a lot of debate whether “email is dead” and personally I find that ridiculous or at least pre-mature, but I do believe that email overload caused by the inability to easily unsubscribe from email lists is making that a more likely reality as people become more overloaded and frustrated. I understand that marketers are under a lot of pressure to have large lists, but marketing to hostages stuck on your email list isn’t going to get you the results you need.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and on how you handle unsubscribes? Also if there is one e-mail/newsletter that you think I should subscribe to, what should it be?

Also, as a reward for reading my entire post, here is a link to the best post-unsubscribe I have seen yet: thanks for the laugh Groupon: http://www.groupon.com/unsubscribe