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.