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How to get the most out of your PR firm

How to get the most out of your PR firm Kendall Allen
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The first step in this "how-to" is to focus on the entity for a moment: The PR Firm. You've heard you need one. You've considered hiring one. You believe you know what one is. The firm fires out press release after press release to editors and reporters. It manages a huge database of industry journalist contacts, slicing and dicing according to tiers of perceived influence. It monitors your social accounts and writes clever touts. It manages your in-house company client cocktail and panel event. It gets you on stage. It gets you famous by "cutting through the clutter" and making sure that all your peers and prospects know you – yes you – are the one who "changed the game."

But you see, the "firm" in question is as much a hollow concept as it is an outdated entity. It won't get you where you need to be. So, after going through those cliché visualizations, and unshackling yourself from them, the first real step is to get clear on the new breed and how to work with the firms that best reflect that breed.

As with any good strategic client engagement, the conversation with the right firm begins with confirming and refining market position and objectives -- so that those servicing you can develop a strategy and tactics to roll up to this. If you are playing in the ad tech or mar tech space, it is noisy -- M&A and consolidation are rampant, and the clutter is very real.

So, assuming for the sake of this discussion that your objectives are visibility and differentiation in your respective space, ultimately leading to new business and a more mature client base -- you'll need a sophisticated partner. Not a press-release-peddling, database-wielding army of foot soldiers. You'll want a team that plays as a partner, can guide you strategically, is willing to push back and provoke you, who has deep relationships with editors, reporters, and influencers -- and can dial in the tactics accordingly.

It's not simply PR. It's strategic media and industry relations. Your ideal partner will position you as thought leaders in your space, help you craft a narrative, pinpoint and articulate ideas you can own, and then play all coverage, content, and stage opportunities back into that narrative and those idioms. And they've got the relationships to get it done -- that is, editors, reporters, influencers, analysts, and conference programmers on speed dial. If a press release ever happens, it's merely punctuation that serves an SEO purpose in the background.

To give you sense of how this breed thinks, here are words of wisdom from some of the media and industry relations pros that reporters and clients trust the most.

Put yourself in a reporter's shoes

Bill Brazell, WIT Strategy

When I prepare to approach a reporter about a client the reporter doesn't yet know, I imagine what it would feel like for me to be approached about that client at a cocktail party. Would I enjoy hearing someone insist on his friend's greatness before giving me a reason to care about that alleged greatness? I wouldn't. And neither would most reporters.

Although I've had a client or two who might disagree, reporters really are like the rest of us: If they are approached politely, with a story that's relevant to their interests, and they have time, they may want to hear more.

They're unlike the rest of us in that they are emailed and called with aggressive pitches all day long, every day -- so they learn early to tune out the nonessential. Good PR people remember that, and strive always to be useful. Columns that demonstrate genuine thought leadership -- that take a stand on a controversial issue, and educate readers about industry trends -- help a reporter see the possible value of a longer conversation. Promises to say more about the industry -- maybe on background -- can entice a busy reporter to spend time with a client.

If you show a reporter that your client can be a useful resource, he or she may show interest. If all you want to do is promote, though, why should a reporter cooperate?

Understand what you're paying for

Rich Cherecwich, Off the Record Media, LLC

As with most service-related businesses, there may be a difference in expectation between the service-provider and the customer. There are the terms of the contract, but there are also the moonshot ideas that some companies have when they bring an outside PR agency into the fold. Sometimes it's ego driven, as the entrepreneur CEO feels that he deserves a pixelated Wall Street Journal headshot simply for running a company. Other times, there's simply a gap in understanding between what's desired and what an agency can actually provide.

Both the agency and the client need to mitigate this by defining expectations and outcomes as clearly as possible from the start. When client and agency share their expectations, they can agree on some common goals. Yes, the Journal is a great outlet and sure to raise a business's profile, but there are a number of steps that have to come first to build an appropriate and worthy story.

It's within a PR agency's best interest to lay this out and walk the client through the steps, but clients also must buy into the process and maintain a realistic expectation of what their agency will be able to accomplish, and what they, as a client, need to provide to help the agency's efforts.

Turmoil comes quickly when clients don't understand what's truly achievable, or when a PR agency fails to explain a reasonable outcome. The best way to avoid this is through an exploratory session early in the process. The brand can outline why it's exploring a PR campaign and explain some of its goals. The agency can discuss what it needs to help the brand achieve those goals, and also propose alternatives and educate the client on what's possible, both short- and long-term. If you don't have PR goals in mind, then this session with the agency is all the more important.

In the end, when you know the reasons you're working with a PR firm, what the PR firm is doing to help, and what the firm needs to succeed, you'll be better able to explain what they've done to the business and have a smooth, harmonious relationship going forward.

Drop "game-changing" from your vocabulary

Nikki Reyes, Three Bears Marketing

As the company's chief evangelists, founders and their executives understandably resort to describing their platforms and products as "game-changing." But that practice of hyperbolizing the company needs to cease from PR discussions and external communications altogether. To give some context, let's consider what types of technology have been covered in the press this year as "game-changing:" 3D-printed biological tissue that produces retinal cells to form complex eye tissue, or a sensor that allows athletes to detect concussions; data-driven plant-based proteins that can replace meat; and an omniprocessor that can convert waste from 100,000 people into 86,000 liters of clean drinking water and 25 kilowatts of net electricity a day. Does your company's product really belong on this list?

It's incumbent upon a company's leaders to carefully scrutinize their words, stay anchored in reality, and focus on building specific proof points that tell a provocative story no one else has heard before. Good PR firms that understand the underlying fabric of your category will quickly detect whether a story will pass editors' sniff test and help you articulate what matters. Good PR pros will also manage expectations and offer alternative ideas to building more compelling, defensible narratives.

So what makes your company or platform unique? By providing substance to this question, reporters and analysts will come to respect you as someone who is driven by data and intellectual charity, rather than flashy marketing.

Turning gospel into content

Emily Riley, Riley Strategic LLC

I don't subscribe to the theory that all press is good press, especially in digital media. Work with a PR team to figure out how communication with the outside world will be perceived, and how to maximize and amplify the important elements while suppressing things that are less beneficial. The best PR relationship is one where the PR team is employed as a guide and voice of reason that sits comfortably outside the company "bubble." They should be well-versed in the news and innovation in the market and should be asked about it often. A lot of executives are used to evangelizing to interested prospects and investors. PR helps turn that gospel into content that excites a wider audience. The only way they can do this is if clients are willing to hear their ideas without an ego involved. It needs to be a two-way street.

In addition to media coverage to drive client interest, PR can help focus on a key theme, turn jargon into English, help determine what thought leadership topics will help a company stand out, or how to position particular executives in the company to become influential players in the market. They should advise on where to spend time to get the most value and steer clients away from activities that are time sucks or that hurt their profile. They should push clients to take a few risks that force their target audience to think in a new way. PR might help shape marketing material with the marketing team, or advise on a social media strategy. Employ them as part of the team that "gets" what the target audience needs to hear.

Get ready to earn your earned media

Alex Wolf, Phaedrus LLC

Communications strategists are hired to help their clients get earned media, but too often the client isn't prepared to do what it takes to earn it. It's called "earned media" for a reason: it takes serious effort.

Your company and its developments are going to be newsworthy at times, other times not. Either way, it's not for you to decide what's newsworthy and what isn't. That job belongs to reporters and editors, who get paid to maintain high standards which dictate whether something is news for their audience or not. No communications strategy firm of any size has the power to put you in the news all by itself, no matter how much you pay them.

Instead, the role of your communications firm is to help you to consistently meet a publication's standards, not to help you circumvent them. And meeting those standards won't happen automatically. It involves a lot of effort and collaboration from both you and your communications firm -- effort identifying trending topics, setting the appropriate context, and assembling the third-party testimony that makes what you do interesting and relevant to a reporter, and that proves what you say about your company is actually true.

Sometimes the most newsworthy thing about your company is not "news" in the proper sense, but an incisive and timely opinion expressed in a well-written op-ed column. In either case, you can't expect that you will have all the pieces in place all of the time. Nobody ever does. It takes a lot of strategy and ingenuity to make a real contribution to the press, and it takes bit of patience, too.

A good communications partner will find creative ways to take what is newsworthy about your company and turn it into earned media placements. That's what they're good at, and the best can find news from your company that you may have never even considered. But hiring communications consultant will not make you newsworthy all by itself, and you shouldn't expect it to.

So, what's newsworthy about your company? That depends on a myriad of subtle factors that your communications partner understands better than you do. Listen to their honest assessment, and prepare to adjust your expectations accordingly.

Remember: hiring a communications firm is not a shortcut to newsworthiness. There are no shortcuts. If you want earned media, get ready to earn it.

Conclusion

So, there you have it. Once you've identified a PR need -- and opened your mind to a more strategic possibility, you are already prepared for a more encompassing engagement. One that offers a proper scope for your objectives, sets a strategy and then the course; keeps you honest on your differentiation and your narrative; and promises as well as delivers on a well-organized execution against all key categories: Coverage, thought leadership content, and a bit of stage time, if you are so inclined. You'll have an engagement, in which your partner in media and industry relations eschews the press release as the go-to and instead takes you down your best possible strategic path to the proverbial next level, making sure you have just the right amount of skin in the game all the while.

In addition to servicing media and data tech clients for WIT Strategy as a Senior Associate in corporate affairs and media relations as her primary engagement, Kendall runs collaborative pursuits through her company, Influence Collective, LLC. --...

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