Employees get hired to say "yes" and consultants get hired to say "no." Public relations is not marketing or advertising, though it could reside within marketing. The fact is that the relationship between PR and marketing is akin to the relationship between three-dimensional chess and checkers. Well-designed public relations are extremely difficult in any vertical, and in the world of online advertising, that difficulty is compounded by the teacup-sized window of opportunity.
That's why so many big firms fail and so many of the well-regarded boutique firms drive great results. It isn't about each firm's Rolodex, per se. It's about knowing how the entire ecosystem plays on every pitch. The online advertising industry is extremely dynamic and complicated, with alpha personalities playing major roles atop numerous sub-verticals.
It's plenty difficult to keep up with everything if you're on the outside, and if someone is speaking to the media on your behalf, they had better be able to speak about our industry's entire ecosystem and not just your company -- and I have no idea how anyone could keep up from the inside of any one company. I guess that makes me a C+ performer; maybe that freshman dean was right all along.
Over the past month or so, I polled some of the people who cover our business for a number of industry and general business publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Advertising Age, Ad Week, iMedia Connection, MediaPost, and others to gage their opinions on interactive's PR efforts. I won't reveal who said what, so don't bother asking, but these remarks by our industry's gatekeepers say more than I ever could. I'll augment their words in a minute, but first, here's what they said:
- "What PR people need to understand is that the press release is dead. It's actually been dead for a long time."
- "I get more than 500 emailed story pitches a day, and I have my email preferences set to purge at close of business. If I haven't gotten back to you by then, I won't. Why don't any of the PR bunnies understand that?"
- "The only thing you're telling me if you send me a press release dated for today is that you don't think it could possibly mean very much to me."
- "Why does anyone ever say 'industry leading' in their pitches? Does that make them feel better or something?"
- "Don't tell me about your clients. Tell me about their industry segment. Give me facts -- not fluff. Help me build a story."
- "What I need is facts about ways brands are using technology to reach their customers and consumers. That is all I need. Anything else is superfluous."
Public relations -- specifically media-driven public relations -- might just be the most misunderstood professional discipline in existence today. With regard only to the interactive media industry, there are literally hundreds of PR firms and individual consultants battling for mindshare on behalf of their clients. So, how can you measure one against the other? And, once you're paying them, how can you tell if they're doing a good job?
I numbered the editor comments above as I did because they can be very illustrative, taken from the simplest tactic to the most sophisticated strategy. Let's respond to each individually, and keep in mind that some of these tips are written for PR practitioners, while some are aimed at would-be clients.
1. The press release is dead. If the firm you've selected can write a good press release, good for them. That matters if you're a publically traded company, with federal regulations on disclosure being what they are. Except all but a few of the companies in our space are private, and more than 90 percent of the stories you read every day in the trades and major publications have nothing to do with a press release.
All a press release provides is collateral for your sales team and website. It could provide collateral damage if a reporter thinks you're sending it somewhere else. If your firm or PR department needs a press release to organize your thoughts into a story, then take the "who, what, where, when, and why" from its lead and put them into an advisory that is personally contextual to every single reporter you send it to.
Clients, ask your firm to walk through how they're pitching your stories, to whom they are pitching them, and why they are pitching them that way relevant to the reporter's recent byline. Ask them if they're using Google News to see what's relevant to every reporter they pitch. Who knows -- they might be wasting the time of reporters who are important to your business, perhaps even spamming them in your name.
2. Don't beat a dead horse. If your firm has not heard back from a reporter, it might be because that reporter thinks the pitch isn't any good, or it might have nothing to do with that. Reporters in our space get hammered every day with pitches. We all get too much email, but if your PR person/firm is being shut out, or if that person is you, don't push harder, push somewhere else.
If you can't get a story in one journal, try a secondary blog like TechCrunch, or another influential, non-primary source. Then, once you have the placement you're after, you'll find using that for more story pitches elsewhere will bear fruit.
3. Be considerate of reporters' time. If you had seven 350-word deadlines today, received more than 300 emailed pitches every day, and just received a press release from a PR firm that was dated today, would you even bother reading it?
Think about it; the PR firm's primary job is to build relationships and mindshare with your brand among the gatekeepers in the space, especially editors. If that firm does not treat these editors with enough respect and makes their jobs more difficult, rather than easier, then the firm won't get much in the way of results, no matter how powerful it is or how deep its Rolodex is.
4. Please, no hype. As my friend, the widely respected PR exec George Simpson, told me, "Don't allow or encourage your PR firm to write releases and/or pitches that are full of marketing hyper-speak. You know, all those stupid phrases that no one will buy anyway like 'industry leading' and 'trendsetting' and 'landmark.' If they ever start off a sentence with 'Finally,' fire them immediately. If they use an exclamation point anywhere in their copy, cut their retainer by half."
Amen, George. Generating credible mindshare is about news, which had better be about facts. Hype is a big red flag to a reporter. It's hard enough to get some of the people who cover our space to even understand some of the byzantine business models in play.
5. Help reporters build a story. Reporters will seldom prefer to do a feature on a particular company, and when they do it's usually because that company is defining a new segment, or a new way to look at an old segment.
If you want to actually get down to the business of media placement, try to add value for an editor or reporter some time. Engage them about how they covered something before, something not at all relevant to your pitch. Learn from them and see if they'll let you get close enough so they can learn from you. This will require not pitching all the time. It will require doing the reading, and getting smart in industry segments. It's not that complicated. It is, however, pretty much work.
6. Don't rely on press to drive sales. This response is my favorite one, and it's the most essential from one of our industry's most respected editors. I hear it all the time, within broader complaints.
Do you think your company is adding value to your segment's ecosystem? Or, do you just want press to drive sales? If it's the former, then build your pitch along these lines. If it's the latter, consider buying some advertising. Meaningful PR requires more than that.
Meaningful PR for our space requires far more time and labor than just about any other marketing discipline. If you do hire a PR firm, do what the best in the business recommend -- ask the editors from the publications at the top of this column, the ones who provided our six axioms, who they would recommend you work with. You may or may not be surprised. But at least you'll know whose calls and emails have a better chance of being answered.
When these calls start reaching their targets, you'd better get busy, because your work is only beginning. Getting calls answered by reporters is hard enough. But that looks simple when you compare it to getting client sources lined up to go on the record and third-party stakeholders to hammer home your messages. Ask your PR professional how they do this, and if they don't know what a stakeholder is, show them the door.
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