I’ve been reading and re-reading this post by Jason Calacanis from last Thursday, advising companies to fire their PR firms, in order to get PR for their startup. (Note, on Twitter, Calacanis claims, “For record, I didn’t say “fire your PR firm” – Alley Insider added it (although I do think most PR fees are wasted). I don’t link bait.” [sic])
As his post is yet another of what seems like a trillion blog posts about how everyone hates PR firms, and I just wrote about Arrington’s piece on a similar subject, I wasn’t going to address this one. But Friday evening my employee, Fred Han, implored me that I should have something to say. And I do – as did Fred. Our collective thoughts are below.
First off, as I read the piece I couldn’t help but think what a brilliant marketer Calacanis is. He had some great promotional ideas in this post – advice more likely to resonate with PR executives, ironically, than startup founders and CEOs.
Like Marc Benioff, Madonna, Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, Calacanis knows how to spin his passion, ignite controversy and glean coverage for himself and his company. That being said, my second thought was that his summation of PR, “be amazing, be everywhere, be real,” was at the same time, brilliant and ridiculous.
It’s brilliant because yes, that’s what PR needs to accomplish – being everywhere and being “amazing” enough to stand out in a sea of overhyped, over-funded startups. Ridiculous because a) not everyone is capable of being “amazing,” b) most people hire PR firms because they don’t have time to be everywhere themselves, and c) just because someone is in PR doesn’t mean they aren’t real. To imply that those of us in PR are any less human, sincere or impassioned about our work is insulting and tiresome.
So his advice, while full of gems, is not realistic. As I Twittered myself last week, yes, CEOs could do their own PR. But trust me, most don’t have time for it (not enough to do a good job at it) and most do not have the ego and showmanship that it takes to be as successful as Calacanis has been. Madonna doesn’t have the best voice, Benioff did not create SaaS, Lohan is not the best actress or singer and, well, no one really knows what Hilton does – yet, they are “amazing” because they are brilliant at PR and marketing.
Not to mention that most CEOs are busy doing other things like, oh, running the business. I know Calacanis was too – but he seems to be the exception, not the rule. Most Founders/CEOs could do their own PR, sure – they could also take out their own garbage, book their own appointments, order their own coffee, keep their own books – heck, a lot of them could even fund their own companies. But most don’t. For a variety of reasons, they don’t.
I’ve said it before – PR is not brain surgery. It is a combination of common sense, passion, intuition and awareness. (Just as some athletes play but don’t excel, not all PR practitioners possess these attributes.) It is also very much about time. The biggest problem with PR is that PR firms try to squeeze higher profit margins by pressuring executives to do as much as possible in as little time as possible – hence the off-target pitches and other seemingly “lazy” tactics. PR practitioners don’t take the time to read enough, relate enough or participate enough because of the pressures from clients and agency leaders around billable time.
Calacanis is on to something by saying PR is “being everywhere, being real and being amazing,” but PR firms – believe it or not – can and do help with this.
How, you ask? BS, you say? Fred had some good points along these lines:
1. Be the brand
Calacanis says: If you look at any of the successful brands out there, chances are their leader is banging the drum: Mark Cuban lives for the Mavs, Kevin Rose lives for Digg, and you can’t get Loic to shut up about Seesmic. That’s how it should be. If you don’t love your brand why should anyone else.
Fred’s take: CEOs can love their brand but be horrible communicators – often using every buzzword in the book, yet not really saying anything. They often need help crafting messages and communicating differentiators that anyone can understand. PR can help identify and articulate messages that enable companies to stand out from the sea of competitive offerings. Good PR executives add a level of clarity and polish.
(Chris’ note: By the way this reminds me that PR, as many have implied, is much more than just media and blogger relations – there’s a whole other blog post pending around this topic!)
2. Be Everywhere
Calacanis says: If you and your team have committed to being the brand, the next step is being committed to being everywhere. Your job is to transfer the enthusiasm you feel for your brand to everyone you meet.
Fred’s take: Calacanis had a partner to help “hold the fort,” while he acted as a professional socialite. Many CEOs that I have met do not have this luxury, as they are the sole leader for their organization (at times, the sole employee).
PR helps the CEO “be everywhere” by being the eyes and ears of the organization, reading, researching and evaluating relevant articles, blog posts and content; and bringing the most relevant to the attention of the founder or CEO, with a recommendation on what to do with it – if anything. For example, commenting on a blog post, Twittering, reaching out to a reporter as a resource, etc. Good PR executives also recognize when the CEO or founder needs to be somewhere, and ensures he or she doesn’t miss the opportunity – and likewise, doesn’t waste time on irrelevant initiatives.
(Chris’ note: I think these two statements by Calacanis are two different things. Founders/CEOs can always transfer enthusiasm to everyone they meet; many are challenged to be everywhere without some help.)
3. Be a human being
Calacanis says: 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.
It’s a much better strategy to just be yourself and develop relationships with people in the industry slowly and organically. If you’re a good human being who is capable of both listening to people and engaging them in a dialogue then the “pitch” will just happen.
Fred’s take: The team at PerkettPR spends a lot of time establishing solid relationships with the community at large – from reporters and bloggers to business partners, customers, analysts and even relevant vendors. We have worked hard to develop a good reputation in our field for bringing value to both sides: clients and industry influencers.
Calacanis’ comment, “journalists and bloggers despise PR people,” is a little blind – like any profession, there are some PR executives that give this profession a bad name – unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in many professional services (imagine how big a hit the world of accounting took with the Arthur Andersen scandal) and not exclusive to PR.
4. How a CEO should e-mail a journalist
Calacanis says: The best thing for a CEO to do is to stay in regular communication with journalists and bloggers in their own, authentic voice via email…. If you do that once every other day for a year or so you’ll develop relationships with 50 to 100 important folks.
Fred’s take: The demanding nature of the CEO’s job makes it hard to communicate regularly with all employees and business partners, let alone journalists. This is very shortsighted and can only apply to those who have the luxury of being a professional socialite, as mentioned above. At the very least, PR teams can help a CEO stay on top of what each journalist or blogger is writing and what industry trend influencers are saying – and communicate his or her thoughts in response while, yes, remaining true to the brand. This ties back to several earlier comments around PR as extra eyes and ears, PR is not brain surgery and time is money.
(Chris’ note: We also help CEOs get comfortable – despite what Calacanis says, many CEOs freeze up at the thought of talking to a journalist. We help them to realize that bloggers and journalists are just people too – and we give them some of the very advice Calacanis is – mention something personal or comment on their latest article – or, in some cases, realize that the reporter is not into bonding and is all business, and go into the conversation accordingly.)
In summary, good PR executives are doing exactly what Jason is suggesting for CEOs and startup founders. We are being ourselves, developing relationships and are capable of both listening and engaging. I’ve built some extremely solid relationships this way through the likes of Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn and more. Granted, too many PR executives haven’t progressed to this way of thinking and are still executing what I like to call “traditional PR.”
Lumping us all into one despised, awful category is getting tiresome. We work hard to “be human” and for the most part, our agency, as an example, seems to “get it.” In Mike Arrington’s post comments, he said “Perkett is one of the good guys that I refer to in the last paragraph. When you guys call we pick up the phone. I’m surprised you thought this was aimed at you. Perhaps that sensitivity is what puts you ahead of most of your competitors.”
We hope his comment points to the fact that some PR executives do provide significant value. Then again, according to Calacanis, maybe Arrington was just being diplomatic.
What do you think?