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 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 — 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.