Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Role of New Platforms in PR/Marketing Programs

You knew it had to happen. First it was blogs, then video blogs (or vlogs), as well as social media releases, all leading up to the much-touted Web 2.0, which PR and marketing pros are predicting will have a profound impact on companies and their ability to market.

Rather than presenting this blog post as a primer on any of the technologies, I wanted to discuss for a moment what this might mean for PR and whether it will be good or bad. From a client perspective, more venues to present a marketing message is probably viewed as a good thing. But, there's a bigger question, which is what, if any, impact this will have on the effectiveness of a company's PR/marketing campaign and whether that's being addressed at all in any of these initiatives. History is littered with examples of inventions that, while technically sophisticated, didn't really present a compelling enough advantage to bring about the once-touted sea change. In all cases, it simply ended up being a case of a lot of "gee whiz" and very little substance.

Not surprisingly, a lot of PR firms are on board with the social media release, blogs, vlogs and other advances even though there's little evidence to point that people will take a proactive attitude when it comes to marketing messages. Why? Well, there are many reasons, including the need to be seen as a company at the forefront of new technologies, but when it all comes down to it, all these new "innovations" represent billing opportunities. Why just do conventional media relations when a program can be expanded to blogs, vlogs, and other services?

I'm not necessarily saying anything is wrong with any of these, but that it all has very much of a "dot-com" feel to it. Remember when PR pros were sending out releases with buzz words like "leading community site on the Web," or "value-added solution?" (who'd ever say something subtracted value?) To me, if there's not much "value add," then what's the point? One of the taglines I use in explaining my philosophy on PR is "it's the message, not the medium." By that, I mean if a message isn't compelling, it doesn't matter what venue is used to transmit it, it will likely fall flat.

I've also been skeptical from the beginning that the consumer will willingly seek out marketing messages. After all, there's not exactly a "PR News Network" or a "Commercial News Network" on any cable system I've ever seen. Obviously, there are times when youth-oriented venues like YouTube or MySpace are an important part of a campaign. But overall, I think rather than continually reinventing itself every time a new technology comes along, the PR industry would be better served by getting back to basics. As we've seen in a wave of ethical issues involving a number of PR firms, the basics aren't always mastered. Until we've done that to the point that our reputation is much higher, I'd suggest a regimen focused on basics might be best for everyone.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint

One of the toughest things to do in the public relations world is to honestly discuss the concept of expectations. While reasons vary, it's likely to have something to do with our society's increasing reliance on things that deliver some form of instant gratification. Want a movie now? Tune to your cable provider's video-on-demand service. Want to avoid holiday crowds and complete all your shopping? Go online and you can be done in a few clicks.

The increasingly fast-changing world has also influenced the PR world in terms of how the services practitioners offer are sold. Clients are more than ever before expecting immediate results, in part because agencies pitching new business are quick to promise them thanks to the fact that many have developed a sort of of "let's win the account and worry about results later" philosophy.

I personally think that approach couldn't be more wrong, and I think it's up to PR practitioners themselves to change it. You wouldn't see a top 100 law firm go in and guarantee any particular result to a major corporation, so why would any reasonable PR pro do it either? The answer to this question eludes me, but I think it may have something to do with an inferiority complex that the industry has, which has stuck partially because people think there's nothing difficult about PR or that it's just a matter of "the right spin." Success in PR is achieved through a medium to long-term approach that involves a combination of the right messages sent to the right people at the right time.

If PR pros truly want opinions about the industry to change, then they have to lead the charge. As sales training materials often say, confidence breeds confidence. In other words, if you can successfully communicate to a current or prospective client that you know your business, everything else will take care of itself.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Survey Questions Efficiency of E-mail for PR Communications

As with any professional service, there are different tactics used by agencies and the individuals who work on their behalf to carry out public relations campaigns. While conventional media relations is just one of many potential elements to a PR campaign, it's often the largest and in some cases the only element of a company's campaign, which it makes its success vitally important to a client.

Until the proliferation of e-mail, the predominant ways PR practitioners used to communicate with journalists were either sending printed material through the mail or just plain old pitching using the telephone. Pitching changed a lot when e-mail became commonplace, as it brought a lot of communication that used to be phone-based and moved it to e-mail. This has occurred not just with PR pitching, but with mainstream business communication in general. Take a tour through a major office these days and, unless it's a call center, you'll likely notice it's much quieter than it used to be.

Obviously, opinions on e-mail for PR communication are divided. Some claim it's not effective, while other practitioners such as myself have found it works wonders. The fact that opinions do remain divided means it's one of those issues that are the subject of surveys and studies, the latest of which was released today by the International Association of Business Communicators.

A total of 85 percent of respondents said e-mail overload is having a negative impact on their productivity, a number that jumped to 93 percent in the case of users of PDAs like Treos and Blackberries. Sixty-two percent of the respondents as a whole said they were getting too much e-mail, while 75 percent of PDA users responded likewise. The two largest culprits were identified as "external news sources" and professional subscriptions, such as e-mail newsletters the recipients willingly sign up for.

Some PR practitioners and those who write about the profession will look at this survey and say, "dump e-mail, it doesn't work." However, I'd say it says nothing like that at all. As anyone who's served as a journalist at a major outlet and they'll tell you the problem isn't how the communication is sent, but rather the volume as a whole. In other words, there's just too much stuff sent around that the recipient has no interest in. It would make as much of a bad phone pitch as it would an e-mail pitch, only a voice pitch would take up more than twice as much of the reporter or editors time. Multiply that by the 100 or more e-mails received in a day and then you'll get an understanding of what it means to have an impact on productivity.

So what's the answer? Stop sending so much stuff to people who have no interest in it. Rather than using a media database alone, here's a thought.... actually read the publication you're pitching and find out who's specifically been writing on the subject germane to what your client has to say. If you follow this approach, you'll have a higher rate of success no matter whether people are using the phone or whatever the successor to e-mail proves to be.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Clearly Communicating the Role of PR

One of the downsides in working in a profession like public relations is it that many either don't understand what the heck it is or what role it has in a company's overall marketing plan. You can't blame people about the former: fact is, the vast majority of American professionals will never be in a position to retain a PR professional. However, when it comes to the latter, it's the job of practitioners themselves to embark on an ambitious education campaign.

I've often written, both on my blog and in professional forums, that one of PR's biggest problems is self-created. By that I mean expectations for what PR can do for a company are often too high, and the reason for that has to do with the fact that many practitioners and firms oversell in their efforts to get the business. Without naming any names, I can tell you that I've been on many a sales presentations at other firms where the lead executive expressed abundant confidence in being able to deliver what a prospective client wanted.

You might be saying "what's wrong with that? It's just good salesmanship, right?" Well, it is good salesmanship, but as we all know, getting the account is only half the battle. Once it's won, you have to keep a company a client by giving them the service and results they expect. This is complicated by the fact that most PR firms do a poor job of explaining to clients that it's not necessarily reasonable to expect a constant stream of hits, but just because you don't have them doesn't mean your program isn't working.

Once PR hits are delivered, savvy clients will package them and make them part of marketing material and/or new business presentations. They won't just wait for a new article to hit an outlet covering a specific geographic market or industry segment they want to target. Following this approach not only makes the best business sense, but it also maximizes the value of one's PR program and the money spent on it. The latter is part of a comprehensive marketing program, but unfortunately many companies see PR as being the only part of their marketing program that is held to high expectations.

These expectations, which I know are unreasonable in many cases, are part of why PR has a poor client retention rate when compared to professional service providers. That retention rate really hasn't changed much in the past few years, yet unfortunately neither has the way PR practitioners explain what PR can and can't do to both prospective and current clients. If we as practitioners want to solve the retention problem, it's to our advantage to address the issue of reasonable expectations.

I can honestly say I do my part on that front and I'm encouraging any PR practitioners who may read this, regardless of who they work for, to do theirs as well.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The News Release and Its Role in PR

One of the most oft-debated topics in public relations is the news release, it's purpose and whether or not there's any future for it left in PR. Like most contested issues, ask a half dozen PR people for their opinions on the issue, and you're likely to get half a dozen answers.

While there hasn't been much new in terms of news releases in quite some time, there are movements afoot to change it, most notably with the social media news release. In a nutshell, the social media release revamps the traditional version to address new technologies through the use of linking and multimedia elements, add context about the issue being discussed, make news more search friendly, and help build community.

Do these efforts matter? I suppose that depends on one's assessment of a news release's value. There are many journalists that deplore blanket e-mail blasts of news releases they'll never read. While some in the PR community think those sentiments are harsh, think of it this way: you're getting 100 e-mails a day from a PR person, each with a news release that's 2 pages long. If you even tried to read it all, there would be 200 pages of material every day. Now, ask yourself who would possibly have time to read all that?

There are certainly times when a news release has value. Some examples are personnel announcements, mergers/acquisitions, and other routine news. But PR pros are wise to remember that most of the outreach we do on behalf of clients doesn't involve something that's definitely going to get covered because of its newsworthiness. Rather, it involves news that will interest some reporters and not others. If PR practitioners spent more time developing a pitch that answers the age-old "why should I care?" question and targeted only reporters interested in that topic, the profession would be better for it.

Like everything, a news release will continue to have its place, simply because the emergence of a new medium/technology rarely means the complete death of something else. But as with any element in a PR campaign, careful thought should be given as to whether it adds value to a client's program. For it's those elements that add value that make clients feel their expenditures on a PR program is money well spent.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Public Relations and Writing

Unfortunately, if you were to rank the skills that a public relations agency or practitioner is judged upon, writing would probably be eclipsed by one's ability to get media placements.

It's not surprising, since most people see the value in a public relations program as being demonstrated by the media placements secured and set a benchmark for their value based in part on the publication in which they appear and its importance to their current and potential customers/clients. That said, we'd do well to step back and take another approach that views the whole public relations process as more of a communications medium, and less of a sales medium.

To see examples of how PR is dominated by a sales culture, all one has to do is read some of the written material put out in conjunction with campaigns. You'll see sentences like "value-added solution," "best-of-breed," etc. What's the problem here? These phrases and the writing that often accompanies them is seen as being so sales focused that the perception of its total value is decreased.

Companies wanting to raise the value of their writing and their overall PR program should instead construct their written communication much like a typical inverted-pyramid news article. Start out with a lede that addresses the main points and from there, provide more detail on each and how everything ties together. Taking this route will give your written communication much more credibility and, most importantly, would decrease the chance that what you send out will end up in the proverbial "round file."

I can't fault PR agencies alone for this phenomenon because, after all, we're in the client-service business. Any smart practitioner in a client-service business knows that the fastest route to success is to give the client what they want (e.g. are willing to pay for). So, how can we really bring change in this area? PR practitioners should work with their clients to get them to see the value in reconstructing their written communication. They should show them how hype isn't the only direction to take and, most importantly, how toning things down won't decrease the attention your written material receives, but increase it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Pay for Performance And Its Continuing Impact on the Profession

There's a small, but vocal number of practitioners that endeavor to make a living under a system they call "pay for performance." Although the arrangements differ by company, basically the fee paid to a PR firm under this model is directly related to the circulation of outlets that run your news.

The model isn't new and has been around for a while. What is changing is a small number of companies that are endeavoring to compete aggressively in this area, under the guise of "challenging" PR industry norms.

I had a discussion last week with a representative from one of the leaders in that field, Publicity Guaranteed. The conversation came after I sent an inquiry following an ad I noticed in a local edition of Craigslist. The ad didn't mention Publicity Guaranteed, but rather its parent organization, KMGI. And when I asked the person who placed the ad -- KMGI founder Alex Konanykhin -- why he didn't mention Publicity Guaranteed, he indicated that it was because he wasn't planning to compensate people who worked on the project for each placement, but rather using an hourly rate. He also indicated he knew there were no guarantees. Yet, when I asked whether a typical subcontracting rate was in his budget, he indicated he was not.

Now, I have no idea whether or not he is actually planning to pay people an hourly rate and NOT based on placement, but it seems to me that if you can't make any money if you pay those who work on the project a typical rate, then something's up. I also sent word to several PR lists I subscribe to so that anyone who might inquire would know the full drill. That's when I provoked the ire of someone who claimed to do writing work for the company. In a nutshell, she went on to say that my criticism was based on a failure to understand a new model, based on old ways of thinking and that I was behind the times.

Now, I've never claimed to be a futurist in the mold of Paul Saffo, but getting paid on what is essentially a commission-based system doesn't seem that futuristic to me. My main gripe with these structures is they devalue the PR profession to something akin to a sales model isn't that innovational. I also don't understand why, if something is so innovational and cutting edge, that anyone would get so steamed about discussing the pros/cons of it. A great thing stands on its own and doesn't need anyone's endorsement.

To those wondering why I object to the system so much it's because I believe anyone performing something that's valuable should be paid that way. You can't expect lawyers at top firms to only get paid if they win a case/judgement/action. Similarly, doctors don't only get paid if you're cured. And lastly, a well-run media outreach campaign is more like a marathon than a sprint. A reporter or editor may not be interested and/or have time to do a story you're suggesting when you first make contact, but if they like the idea, they'll come back to you. And if you have enough ideas in the pipeline, you'll likely be getting regular placements for clients.

Also, it's insulting to PR professionals and journalists at well-respected publications to assume that you'll be able to guarantee placement of a story. I can certainly guarantee you the chances of doing that with The New York Times or a similar outlet is small.

I'm continually bothered by the fact that the PR profession is in many ways its own worst enemy. Engaging in this kind of practice makes everybody look bad, just as it does to pass off advertorial copy as news. We should be proud of the work we do for clients, stand by our results and provide the kind of counsel that makes us more than commission-based performers, but partners.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Public Perception of PR Continues to Decline

There are certain professions that are always going to have a large number of people that hold a fairly high negative view of it; among them are teachers, doctors, lawyers and certainly public relations professionals. The reasons for those opinions obviously vary, but it probably has something to do with the fact that many of these professions are either seen as only operating because of there's a negative situation or because they get the spotlight during those times. They're also generally misunderstood because the average consumer rarely deals with them.

I and many others who follow public relations have written extensively on the need for public relations to have a strong advocacy organization, if for no other reason than to challenge and attempt to correct the negative misconceptions about the industry. Unfortunately in PR's case, efforts to do this are fragmented, in part because there are a number of different organizations serving the industry with different philosophies, and because the Public Relations Society of America, seems to have so much trouble managing its own reputation that it really can't be much of a strong voice for the profession as a whole.

Not surprisingly, there's new news that paints the public relations industry in a negative light. A recent Harris Interactive/PRSA Foundation survey indicated that 79 percent of respondents believe public relations practitioners are only interested in disseminating information if it helps their clients make money, and 85 percent believe PR pros sometimes present misleading information to journalists in an effort to further their clients' cause. On the bright side, 71 percent believe PR pros help raise awareness of issues that might not otherwise receive attention, and 56 percent believe PR agencies work with their clients to present fair and balanced information.

To anyone who works in the profession, the results aren't likely to be surprising. However, that doesn't mean that the industry shouldn't do a lot more to turn those opinions around. The PRSA would be the natural organization to help do that, but so far, it's generally been a no show. The best they've done so far, is to say the results show a misunderstanding of the profession. If that's not an understatement, I don't know what is.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Blog Bubble?

Nobody’s uttering the phrase "irrational exuberance" yet, but even in the relatively nascent area of blogging, there’s already talk of a bubble.

In a story in the July 3 edition of The New York Times, media reporter David Carr wrote that Nick Denton, whose Gawker Media has assembled more than a dozen sites on a variety of topics, is closing two of his blogs, laying off an undisclosed number of writers and reorganizing other properties.

In the story, Denton said he was making the moves now to avoid a more painful situation later. He also attributed the move to the fact that blog publishers are becoming more "old media" in terms of their view of economics and the need to deploy resources where the growth is. He went on to say that the fact that some well-known names, including America Online, are getting into blogs has led to a lot of hype and an explosion of money from venture-capital firms and other sources.

I’ve written extensively on what I see as the future of blogs and how I also believe that those who believe them to be the next incarnation of media are, in my opinion, off the mark. Anyone who needs an example that would back this up would be well to remember Yahoo!’s $4.3 billion purchase of Broadcast.com. It sure made Mark Cuban a lot of money, but I don’t think even people inside Yahoo! would call that the best business decision they’ve ever made. In fact, most of the content that was available on Broadcast.com — conventional terrestrial radio stations streaming over the Internet — has since been taken in-house by the major radio chains, including Clear Channel.

To bring this back to public relations, in my opinion, blogs aren’t worth much time and attention until they attract a mass audience. Some certainly have, especially in certain verticals, but they’re still not a household name. I also have a lot of people who’ve told me that blogs represent a great opportunity for corporations to get their message out to the public, in particular, young Web users. In theory, that’s true, and maybe they’re right. I just don’t see a lot of people beating down any company’s door to read what they know is a well-rehearsed message.

The power in blogs lies more along the lines of “citizen journalism,” and it’s there that I think there will be a bright future. And it’s certainly possible that PR pros might one day dialoging with influential bloggers the way we do certain columnists in the industries we work with. But just as columnists aren’t where most of our messages are going to find a home, blogs aren’t likely to be either… at least in my sometimes humble opinion.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Is Credibility PR's Missing Ingredient?

Credibility. It's one of those virtues that almost everybody in business would say that they have, but when it comes to credibility, surveys and other meters of public/customer/client opinion almost always paint a different picture than businesses might like to admit.

Obviously, PR is no different. In fact, if you asked a lot of people whether or not PR was down close to or completely at the bottom of the heap in terms of credibility, people might give it one of the worst scores. (That said, you could substitute PR with any number of other professions, including journalism -- the profession whose members many of us most regularly interact with -- and they'd get a poor score too, which I guess really says we're a skeptical lot.)

I bring this issue up because it's the subject of the latest entry in Richard Edelman's well-followed blog. In a nutshell, he confronts the PR industry for its hand in allowing the industry to be known as a collection of spinmeisters, rather than purveyors of truthful, valuable information.

I won't go into every issue addressed in Richard's post, because he does it very well. I just think it's very encouraging to see people at well-known firms tackle these issues head on. Sure, I could say one thing and maybe a handful of people will read it. But when an industry leader promotes a particular thought, it will get much broader attention. And the issues Richard brings up benefit our whole industry.

Now I just hope the PRSA and other industry executives will take the mantle and run with it as well.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Is the PR Industry Too Ga Ga Over Blogs?

A survey sponsored by the Manhattan PR shop Makovsky & Co. and conducted by Harris Interactive, showed only a tiny percentage of Fortune 1000 leaders are using blogs to either communicate to their customers or build brands.

In writing on the issue after the study's release, Makovsky chief Ken Makovsky says that "given the fact that blogging can help to make or break a company's reputation, it continues to surprise me how few corporate leaders are taking the control of their destiny in the blogosphere." (As an aside and a point of disclosure, I worked at Makovsky for a time just before the bottom of the technology market).

It seems to me that this whole hoopla over blogging and its potential financial ramifications for PR has dot-com era written all over it. I think more PR pros, especially considering many are in NY, should go to the middle of 42nd/Broadway and ask people passing by how many of them actively read blogs. I would posit the number would be quite low. And if you also asked them whether their opinion of a company was influenced by a blog, I think the number would be even lower.

I bring up that last point because before anything is going to be anywhere close to revolutionary, there has to be a significant uptrend in interest. Yes, blogs are read by many, but I wouldn't go as far as to call them mainstream at this point. In my opinion, the main promise blogs currently offer to consumers is the ability to easily publish to the Web. At the heart of it, a blog is a specialized Web site that can be launched in minutes, requires no real knowledge of HTML or Web editors, and is relatively simple to administer.

All those benefits are nice, but they don't generate any money -- at least not yet. Please note that I'm not lumping blogs together with communities like Myspace. The latter has much more potential, since it's a destination of sorts, just like Yahoo!, only with the aim of serving a particular demographic.

Am I the only one that thinks the industry is going a bit too "ga ga" over both the PR and financial implications of blogs? I welcome the opinions of all interested parties.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Blogging's Financial Impact on PR

Not surprisingly, every time a new innovation comes out, it's immediately followed by a hail of predictions about both how the offering will both change the face of business and how that innovation will allow people to make scads of money.

Blogging is no different. First, the social activitism it affords most anybody with a 'Net connection and the time/inclination to do it, meant that mainstream journalism as we know it was on the way out. This smelled so much like dot-com era hype, I just had to laugh a bit, but at least on the surface, it potentially had some truth. The only real thing that was likely to stop it from happening is the fact that in a country where you can't even get 50 percent to vote, I don't think you'll have "average Joes" starting to blog en masse.

Nevertheless, a number of both well-known and not so-well known people within the PR industry have started blogging in the last couple of years, ostensibly to help further position themselves and their firms as thought-leaders in the industry. Like everything, I believe there are some good blogs and some that aren't exactly must-reads. However, I think anybody who wants to blog should contribute to the overall discussion of the industry.

The issue of just who is best qualified to represent the industry in the blogosphere became rather heated issue, after a guest columnist on former FT journalist Tom Foremoski's blog appeared to suggest that because blogging represents, as he put it, the "delicate olive branch of PR," it should only be handled by a few industry luminaries. Bite Communications' Andy Bernstein did happen to mention that his boss, Tim Dyson, would be one of them.

Not surprisingly, he encountered a hail of comments, and later redefined his views to be that some sort of quality-control system should be instituted, likening blogging to an open-source movement such as Linux where it's necessary to make sure that things function in a proper way. However, even after that redefinition, I'm still not sure I get it. How do an OS and PR compare? An OS has to function correctly or everything else that's dependent on it will not. Instead, PR is more of an "art" where things are continually refined, in part because it's a very subjective industry. In other words, you might have an idea, a client or a pitch that you think is just "the bomb," but it fails to float when you actually start to pitch. When that happens, you have to go back to the proverbial drawing board and come up with a new approach. Jokes about Microsoft functionality aside, you don't see software makers doing that very often.

In addition, Bernstein calls blogging a "killer app," again recalling visions of the year 2000. What's killer about it? Is it nice? Yes. Liberating? Yes. But does it make any money for anybody? Change who anyone votes for or buys from? Not likely. Bernstein seems to be among those in the camp that blogging stands to make a lot of money for PR firms, and that only a certain few are likely qualified to be thought leaders in that area. Again, this harkens back to 2000 when PR firms were putting out press releases about the next "value-added solution," and while that generated a large temporary increase in revenue, it also caused many shops to encounter very choppy waters over the next few years.

My suggestion: How about we just keep doing what we're best at? At the end of the day, when you put all this fancy jargon aside, we're called upon to advance the work of our clients in a way that best fits their business models and goals. Perhaps at some point that will mean blogging, but as long as you have millions reading and viewing traditional media outlets and a relatively small percentage of the overall 'Net audience blogging themselves or even reading blogs, I don't think it should be out biggest concern today.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Implications of Podcasting Still Uncertain

As was the case with the emergence of blogs, the debut of podcasts prompted many in the public relations industry to herald the new medium and challenge practitioners to find a way to capitalize on it or risk foregoing opportunities that would be awarded to first movers. However, a new survey shows that while most PR pros know what podcasts are, a much smaller minority are actually using them on a regular basis.

For those unaware, podcasts function as a sort of "audio blog," allowing subscribers to sign up for audio content that can be automatically delivered to computers and portable audio devices, often for free. These are most commonly offered by purveyors of audio content, such as technology news, as a way to bypass traditional distribution channels like terrestrial radio and reach consumers directly.

Sponsored by the Dallas chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, the survey found only 8 percent of the 109 survey respondents had published a podcast. An equal number said they were unaware of what podcasts were, while 61 percent indicated they were aware of podcasts, but hadn't published them, and 23 percent said they had listened to or actively subscribe to podcasts.

Despite the low number of corporate communicators using podcasts, there are several Web sites dedicated to communications-related podcasts. These can all be found at the Podcast hub Podcast Alley.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Follow Up to Bad Pitch Blog Post

I urge everyone who read not only my post on the Bad Pitch Blog entry commenting on a pitch that had not yet been sent to the media to visit not only the comments section of my blog for an update, but also to visit the Bad Pitch Blog itself for additional comments from Kevin Dugan.

I mention this in my comments, but I also want to point out the fact that I missed where the BPB itself mentioned that the post was a proposed pitch. Part of this confusion was due to the fact that, as Kevin admitted, the BPB has not set out a "rules of engagement" policy for what it publishes and does not publish. However, the BPB does consider a proposed pitch fair game. As long as that is known, then that’s their option.

I hope this post clears up any confusion about the entry, and I again urge any practitioner to regularly visit the BPB.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bad Pitch Blog Goes Too Far

The Bad Pitch Blog was launched earlier this year with considerable fanfare, as people both inside and outside the industry were curious to see the impact that a blog promising to call people out on bad pitches would have on the industry.

While reaction to its launch was mixed, most PR professionals recognized the value that the blog could have in highlighting the mistakes made by a few practitioners that on occasion manage to tar an entire industry. And since its launch, the blog has been filled with examples of pitches that any honest and/or capable practitioner would admit were hardly “ready for prime time” to put it mildly. As is the case with any critical body of work, there will be times when someone’s efforts go too far, and The Bad Pitch Blog made its first misstep of that kind this week.

An entry on the blog on Monday chronicled a pitch that carried the subject line “What Do Katrina Victims and Osama (Bin Laden) Have In Common?” The body of the entry contains the words “here’s what I’m considering,” which was probably confusing to many, but speaks volumes. Why? The entry, which someone who subscribes to any one of several PR-related Yahoo! Groups forwarded to The BPB, merely makes an effort to sound members out about what the contributor said was admittedly a risky approach to a PR pitch.

I, and several others who are members of those groups, cautioned the contributor against using it, and in the end, he rewrote the pitch so that it would carry a different headline that better emphasized the work his non-profit client was doing in a more straightforward way.

The big problem with this blog entry is nowhere does it contain any phrasing to identify the fact that it was lifted from a Yahoo! Group and that it never made its way to any reporter or editor’s inbox or voice mail. I and several others have submitted comments to the BPB since discovering the snafu to clarify the situation, but as of yet, none have been posted.

Again, I want to emphasize that I approve of the concept of the BPB and respect the co-creators of the blog. But just as it’s important to call PR pros out on mistakes, the BPB needs to develop a system of standards that ensures everything’s being done in a forward and proper manner.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Positive Effect of The Bad Pitch Blog

Ever since it was launched in January, the PR world has been abuzz about The Bad Pitch Blog, an effort by Richard Laermer and Kevin Dugan to "showcase" the worst the PR profession has to offer.

Not only did news of the blog's launch receive mentions in BusinessWeek, CNET and a host of PR-related publications and blogs, it also got well covered in the blogosphere. From what I read, most of the comments were positive, although some of that had to do with the fact that they came from journalists rather than industry professionals. Please note I'm NOT saying those opinions should be taken with a grain of salt; rather, I believe in reality the opinions of journalists matter far more than those that come from within the profession.

I've gotten into a lot of heated discussions over this point through the years, but I've never really bought into the supposed "symbiotic relationship" that some say exists between PR professionals and journalists. Don't get me wrong, journalists at all levels and outlets appreciate the assistance of a good PR pro. But, by the same token, any good reporter likely doesn't need assistance from anybody to do a story. In other words, if a company won't cooperate, because of the controversial nature of a story or any other reason, the reporter will find a way around that through the use of anonymous sources, regulatory and/or legal filings, etc.

Given that fact, I think the best hope for PR professionals and the industry in general is to position ourselves as a value-added service. By that I mean, we should work with reporters and view them as our friends, rather than the enemy, and do all we can to make their jobs easier. If we do, the relationships will go far. Journalists will understand that our hands may be tied by a situation beyond our control, and PR pros will appreciate the fact that journalists generally go out every day and do the best job they can. Obviously, that means a negative story will sometimes result. But, as long as the reporting is accurate and fair, we really shouldn't expect to ask for anything more.

Which brings me back to the Bad Pitch Blog... Anyone in the profession owes it to themselves to stroll by and read some of the entries. I should sincerely hope you'll be smacking your heads in amazement that stuff this bad actually went out. For I think we have less to worry about someone shining an unfair light on PR than we do about improving the work of the industry's professionals as a whole. Obviously, there's no way to know whether the bad pitches came predominately from "green" PR pros, but let's hope the attention will bring changes that will be truly good for everybody.

I gave a presentation last week to about 30 students at Farleigh Dickenson University, as part of a panel discussion on how writing is used in careers. One of the reasons I urged the students to develop the ability to write well is that writing is a skill that will serve you well, no matter what path your career may take, because good communication skills are necessary for most any job today. When asked about ways to improve one's writing, one tip I gave the students is to read all they can in the areas that interest them because reading good writing is one of the best ways to improve one's one writing.

Well, let's hope the same thing goes for pitches. Hopefully reading bad pitches will get the profession as a whole to re-examine this widespread notion that everybody's out to get PR and that journalists don't give PR pros a fair shake. After all -- if you received some of the e-mails in your in-box that have been prominately featured on The Bad Pitch Blog, would you have an opinion that was any more favorable?

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Shifting Media Landscape

Much was written on PR blogs following last week's announcements by Dow Jones Co. that it would merge its print and online operations. In its announcement, Dow Jones said it was making the move to essentially become a platform agnostic content messenger; in other words, the company would not favor one venue over another in the delivery of its content.

Following the announcement, many respected PR bloggers -- among them Richard Edelman, CEO of the largest independently-held shop in the business -- penned an article on his blog that examined whether this announcement would hasten the death of the traditional media model. He concluded, after speaking with representatives of Forbes and other media outlets, that while it will have more of an impact on daily outlets, like The Wall Street Journal than bi-weeklies, PR pros will have to adjust their approach to one that takes into account all available outlets, be it a traditional newspaper or PDA/cell phone screen.

While I certainly won't attempt to argue with the essence of his assertion, I don't know that we'll see a sea change from this. The main reason is because traditional outlets like The Journal have a reputation that other outlets have yet to achieve. That makes what they publish, and opine on their editorial pages, by extension, more valuable. Even in the heydey of the "dot-com boom," when Internet messaging boards like The Raging Bull got lots of coverage, no media offering could move markets more than a Barron's cover story.

All this is basically comes down to the fact that the age-old saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same." While I was one of a relative few who were downloading digital content from The WSJ via a custom software product and a dial-up modem some 10 years ago, Dow Jones' electronic offerings didn't take off until the launch of its Web-based edition.

What does that have to do with changes in PR? It means that, just as WSJ subscribers haven't abandoned the newspaper product, it's doubtful that clients of PR firms will abandon their quest to appear in top-tier media, even if appearing in a well-read trade would be better for their business. The PR business itself is responsible for this in large part, because everyone promises this kind of coverage in sales pitches for new accounts. So, if it doesn't take hold, to a degree, we only have ourselves to blame.

Debunking a Continual PR Myth

I was listening to a well-known technology pundit’s Web cast today when the subject of achieving publicity came up. The host indicated that press releases were the primary way that a company communicated news regarding its products to journalists and that basically all it took to achieve news coverage was putting out a media release.

For better or worse, this is one of the most widely-held beliefs related to a public relations campaign. Basically, many people believe that all it takes to achieve coverage is putting out a press release and, by extension, most anybody can steer a public relations campaign. However, anyone who’s actually been involved in a campaign can tell you first hand how nothing could be farther from the truth.

For starters, there are literally hundreds of press releases that cross BusinessWire and PRNewswire every day. There’s absolutely no way that a major journalist has time to read them all and cover the breaking news of the day. That’s one of the main reasons that I advise clients to use press releases sparingly. They’re a great fit for certain types of news, including executive appointments and announcements about a new round of funding. But in the vast majority of cases, a press release is going to be a poor way to communicate to journalists just what makes your news worthy of their attention.
In those cases, nothing is better than a simple, short, well-written pitch that quickly tells a journalist who your client is, what they have to say and why it merits their attention. It’s quick, simple and to the point. Better yet, there are no cumbersome attachments to bother with and journalists will love the fact that they don’t get any of those annoying “Did you get my press release?” phone calls.

It surprised me that someone whose supposedly on the other end of PR pitches would think there’s all there is to it, because I assure you that as someone who was on the receiving end of pitches for years, there’s lots more to getting good coverage than meets the eye.

Is Money the Way To Silence Annoying Messages?

By now, many of you have probably seen reports that America Online and Yahoo! have jointly discussed enacting a new “postage-based” system for Internet e-mail that would allow trusted messengers to be assured their e-mail arrives at its destination.

On the face of it, this sounds great. All of us have “in-boxes” that are swamped with spam and would love to have less of it. A technological solution is obviously appealing, because it eliminates the time-consuming chore of going through each message and deciding how to handle it.

While there will be considerable debate on this issue and how to best handle it, it brings up a broader point related to marketing messages. Companies like AOL and Yahoo, who both depend on the messages marketing and advertising generate for a large chunk of their revenue, risk devaluing those messages by charging, not for better or more costly content or other services, but for the right to exist without those messages.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Former FT journalist takes PR to task

Many of you have probably read about the comments made by former Financial Times reporter Tom Foremski regarding the future of public relations.

As you can see from his post, Foremski predicts that the public relations industry will be thwarted in its efforts, thanks in part to technologies such as search engines that allow companies to take their messages directly to consumers. He goes on to say this ease of reaching these customers devalues both media outlets and public relations. Foremski also makes the claim that PR is only good for egos, and does nothing for sales.

Now, none of this is really surprising. As I've written before, there's always been an uneasy relationship between the PR and media industry. And I've also been the first to say that the PR industry is responsible for a lot of the hurdles it faces in its dealings with the media. I've long thought that too much attention is focused on the "sizzle" and not enough on the message. As many of you know, I come at this from the perspective of having been on the journalism side as well. I spent a considerable portion of my journalism careerwas gained at CNN -- not exactly a hinterland existence. As such, I know what it's liked to be pitched constantly, and with a lot of stuff that's just not interesting.

But I believe Foremski's assertions on PR contain many inaccuracies. First off, there are many people in the industry who have no connection to products whatsoever. I don't do any consumer PR, so I'm not worried about hyping a product that may or may not be here tomorrow. It's precisely because there are relatively few innovational products that I don't do consumer. Also, Foremski's way off when it talks about ROI. Public relations gives clients an opportunity to reach the audience that's most suited for them rather than throwing as much stuff at the wall as you can, and hoping some of it will stick. That gives PR a much better chance at advertising for driving sales and revenues if you're a business-to-business firm.

I have high regard for Tom's former colleagues at the FT. They're very good journalists and they also have been very pleasant to deal with. I always stress that PR pros have to do their part by taking top-level journalists only things that they may legitimately be interested in. I fully realize everybody has more information to consume in a day than there is time, and I try very hard not to contribute to that overflow.

But I am also very proud of the many stories that I have taken to media outlets, on such important topics as homeland security, immigration, law, and other important matters, that may not have gotten published or received as much attention were it not for my efforts. I fully believe that the ideas I take to reporters are worth reading about, and I believe my success in securing front-page placements for clients in the FT and other outlets prove that point.

I noticed on Tom's blog he says he regularly speaks to PR firms and other groups to enlighten them about the subject of blogging. It seems odd to me that he would take the time to address an industry that he claims in another breath to be, for all intents and purposes, dying.

I suspect Tom either is going a bit far to make his point or perhaps got swept up in sentiment that was evoked by past dealings with PR pros. And again, from being on the other side, I can certainly understand that. It was painful to hear a great many of the technology pitches from PR pros during the dot-com boom. But that in no way should tarnish the whole industry. It will evolve like any other market, with those that provide value flourishing and rising above those who do not.