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.

Can I Do My Own PR?

Last week I was in New York City to speak on a Fashion PR 2.0 panel about the use of social media in PR and marketing for the fashion industry. During the course of the evening, many interesting questions were asked. One in particular that stood out was from a budding fashion designer who asked, “Can I just do my own PR?”

Let’s take a quick look at a few things you can do yourself:

- be your own legal representative

- bake your own wedding cake

- file taxes

- be your own Realtor

- sew your own clothes

Obviously, there are many more things you could do yourself. But you choose not to because it’s not your area of expertise, you know someone else can do it better (i.e., the professionals), you don’t have the right amount of time or resources to do the best job, or a variety of other reasons.

With the rising popularity of social media, many people are implying – or outright stating – that PR as a profession is dead and that everyone can do their own PR. This sentiment is just silly. PR is not dead. It’s not a dying profession. Social media isn’t killing it – if it were, PR would just be about the tools, and not the people. If anything, social media is simply forcing an improvement in PR – thankfully.

That’s a key point people are missing – PR is about the people and how they execute their professional skills, not the tools they use. Think about it – social media is just making it easier to connect with more people, more often – but even before social media, the main tools for PR professionals were mail and phone, and before that, postal mail and fax. These are tools that – like social media – anyone could have used to execute PR in the past – so why suddenly does everyone think that just because it’s easier to communicate, everyone is good at it?

Trust me, I’m well aware that there are many, many PR professionals that do a bad job. I’ve received horrible, off-topic pitches myself as a blogger. But is this really different than any other industry? Or is PR as a profession just more visible to the outside world and thus more of a target to have bad work exposed?

PR isn’t brain surgery. I’ve always said that. It’s not impossible for anyone to do. Of course you can do it yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it, or as lucky as Jason Calacanis was, and it might take time away from what you’re really good at – or worse, you might cause yourself more damage than good. So while hiring a full service PR and social media agency isn’t right for everyone – certainly a budding fashion designer would be better off hiring a consultant to start – it doesn’t mean that doing it yourself is the right option either.

People seem to view it as an “either/or” situation. Just because you hire a PR firm doesn’t mean that they are the only ones promoting your company. it also doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in your brand, understand or even use your product. We use plenty of our client’s products and are avid brand advocates even before – or after – working with them.

Good PR and marketing firms help everyone involved to properly promote the company – and to keep messages honest, transparent, consistent and persistent. It doesn’t mean the CEO shouldn’t also be participating in conversations – together, PR firms and their clients can all work together to spread brand enthusiasm and “be amazing, be everywhere and be real.” PR isn’t a synonym for fake – and the implication is tiring.

Rather, if you are already involved in social media, use it to ask the community about good PR firms or some great consultants. Keep in mind, however, who you are asking – be sure they are either reporters who work with these executives, or that they are industry executives who have had more than one job and truly understand both sides – corporate and agency – of PR and communications.  Just because someone has a lot of followers on Twitter doesn’t mean that they know corporate communications or how to help with other areas of PR such as crisis communications, marketing and sales positioning, corporate branding (as opposed to personal branding), and other crucial facets to great and successful marketing. Trust me – personal brands are one thing, corporate expertise another.

What do you think? Should everyone do their own PR? Can they?

Not Everyone is as Amazing as Jason Calacanis

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?