Thursday, November 01, 2007

Wired Editor's Rant Exposes Weakness of Traditional Big-Agency Model

As the fallout from Wired editor Chris Anderson's post on lazy flacks continued, with both journalists and PR pros taking both sides of the coin, a thought struck me that's been missing from this debate.

Although it may not be acknowledged widely, one of the main reasons that the poor pitching practices continue in the PR industry is because of practices that are especially prevalent at big agencies. Those agencies, many of whom represent some of the largest corporations in America and charge five-figure monthly account balances, rely on a ready supply of young talent to pitch media. They do this because they come cheaper and are more profitable. How is this? It's simple math: the profit margin on an account executive who might be billed out at $130 an hour is much higher than an account supervisor, who might go for $200 an hour or more since the former can be had for a salary in the low 30s(K), in contrast to the $75K an up an account supervisor will earn. Simply put, the profit margin on each hour is much higher for lower-level practitioners.

PR is quite different than other professional services in that lower-level employees are often given very specific tasks that separate them from high-level employees. In contrast, aside from crisis communications planning and the design of PR programs themselves, much of the core day-to-day work in a PR program isn't performed by someone in a supervisory or advanced career stage at all.

In theory, one could say the practice engaged in by typical, large PR agencies was good business. After all, theoretically every business is in business to maximize the revenue potential of its products or services. This theory quickly breaks down when PR campaigns are executed, however. As I mentioned, my former "life" was a journalist for CNN and other outlets. I can tell you without a doubt it was beyond painful, both for me to listen to and I'm sure for the junior PR pro, to weather pitches during the start of the tech boom. Much of the stuff being promoted then had very little in the way of compelling advantages, making it doubly harder for a junior staffer to explain why it was the latest, greatest "value-added solution."

The staffing phenomenon I describe also has a lot to do with the above-average turnover rate for PR accounts, at least when compared to other professional service sectors. In short, clients hate being sold by high-level practitioners and serviced by junior ones. I hold little hope for this situation to actually change as long as the big agencies are the model for change in the industry. Since they contribute much of the money to professional associations working to advance the industry and supply a large portion of the industry's overall jobs, no one really wants to rock the big-agency boat. Sad, since we all suffer for it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Unsolicited E-mail Debate

As many of you are probably aware of by now, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson kicked off a firestorm of debate earlier this week when he essentially published a list of PR practitioners who had violated his "one strike" rule pertaining to sending him unsolicited pitches.

Anderson goes on to say that all too many PR people send him the material in his position as editor-in-chief, without first bothering to discover who actually writes stories on a particular topic for the publication. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given the fact they all have well-known technology clients, the list reads as a sort of "who's who" among tech PR firms.

Since the blog's publication, many people -- particularly freelance writers who also loathe the unsolicited pitches -- have written in support of Anderson and his publication of the list. The publication has also received support from a number of PR-related blogs including The Bad Pitch Blog.

While the problem has been well-documented, very little has been written about why it's happening and the impact it will have on the profession. One could perhaps understand how it might occur more often at very small firms that don't have the time and money to invest in professional education. But the fact that some of the biggest firms in the PR business, both in the U.S. and abroad, are represented on the list, points to the apparent ineffectiveness of those programs.

As a former journalist, whose outlets have included CNN, I can understand Anderson's frustration. Some have said he 's going too far when he rails against unsolicited pitches. Others have pointed out that a good pitch can add value both for the client and the publication and that the pitches are being sent to Anderson in his capacity as a Wired editor using company resources. That said, anyone who knows anything about journalism should know the EIC isn't the person to receive this kind of information and that is Anderson's core point.

So while it may be painful to read posts such as Anderson's, hopefully they serve to advance the PR profession and the work of professionals. Yes, ideally that would be done at the industry level, but we all know all to well it's not.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Good PR Is More Than A Handbook

If you're reading this post, you're likely noticing that this blog hasn't been updated in ages. There are a variety of reasons for that; chief among them is the fact that -- happily -- business has picked up dramatically for me over the past few months and I simply just don't have as much time. Secondly, I feel that the real power in blogs is in not just spreading a message, but a good one. When I don't have anything compelling to write, I don't. There are countless good PR blogs out there written by industry pros who do a pretty darn job at keeping their content compelling. So my thought is, "why reinvent the wheel?"

All that said, an exchange I had with a professional acquaintance a couple of weeks ago got me thinking and proved to be the genesis for this post. The fellow came up to me before the start of a meeting we're both involved in and showed me a book authored by a former TV journalist describing how easy it was for anyone to execute a PR campaign (after they read his book, of course).

At first I was a bit taken aback. For starters, I wondered if the person had thought about how he'd feel at being told darn near anybody could do his job? Rather than give much of a response, I just chalked it up as one in a continual line of "I can do your job better than you" sentiments that pervade not just PR, but education and countless other professions.

While the sentiment about PR irks me, I can also see why people believe it's true. Why? Because there are scads of examples where supposed PR professionals unleash crap on the world that makes us look bad. It could be because the information is poorly written and/or doesn't convey much of a point, because it's sent to the wrong person/outlet, because a PR pro pretends a journalist (s)he's never met before is a long-lost pal, and on and on.

I know from my experience as a journalist that this kind of approach isn't as limited as some in the profession might like to imagine it to be. Being a tech journalist during the dot-com boom was a brutal experience at times because it seemed like everybody had the next Swiss-Army knife, but no one knew how to get to the point in regard to why it was so great. For better or worse, most of those companies have long since vanished from existence.

Now that I've been on the PR side of the aisle for a good number of years, I obviously look at this issue from a different perspective than when I was a journalist. It presents a quandry of sorts, as another person's bad work gives me a chance to go in and show how my experience and methods make me a better fit. Unfortunately, the situation is so pervasive that it's hard for a small shop to really make much of a difference. While I'm out there beating a "no-hype drum" and actually saying that fewer words are better, I've got scads of other competitors saying just exactly the opposite. Take a look at a typical press release and you'll see what I mean.

While it will take a lot of time and effort to truly change this sentiment, it's never too late to add to the efforts of those who are. All of us can start by truly educating current and prospective clients on just exactly what PR is, keeping in mind that many of the people we come in contact with in a given day may have never hired or worked alongside a PR professional in their lives.

I have to believe that if everyone who buys one of those "you can do PR too" books or goes into those "PR Store" shops were to truly observe an award-winning campaign or one that's the subject of a case study in a major PR publication, they'd start to understand there's more to good PR than meets the eye. Once they realize it, hopefully they too will start to be evangelists for a better way. Over time, hopefully we can change some of these perceptions and truly make a difference to all our fellow PR practitioners.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Longtime PRSA Member Advises Organization to Listen to Critics

The Public Relations Society of America continues to come under scrutiny over a governance structure that critics continue to say suppresses debate and dialogue on a number of issues vital to the profession.

In an article written for O'Dwyer's PR Report, Stuart Goldstein, managing director of corporate communications for Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. urged PRSA President Bill Murray to "fling the door open and embrace critics."

Goldstein faults the organization for requiring accreditation from the organization before allowing a member to serve on the group's leadership team. He also says the requirement restrains comments from corporate communications professionals who see the accredited public relations (APR) designation as irrelevant.

As many know, the PRSA has taken an aggressive stance against individuals that criticize its leadership practices, a practice that Goldstein says leads to an organization that's closed to new ideas and doesn't advance the profession. Goldstein's stance against PRSA practices goes back to 2003, when he wrote an article for the flagship Tactics publication that was delayed until someone was identified to write a rebuttal that appeared adjacent to his article.

I can't speak for other bloggers, but I know that one thing the PRSA is actually good at is finding articles or blog postings that are critical of its practices. What it doesn't do is quickly come out against practices that harm the profession. To look at a good contrast, one should examine the Legal Marketing Association, which adopted a lengthy position statement in opposition to new advertising rules formulated by New York ethics officials that greatly changed the way lawyers and law firms would be able to market themselves. The rules would have affected not only New York-based attorneys and firms, but also lawyers who were licensed to practice in the state, but based elsewhere in addition to satellite offices of firms headquartered in other states. In part because of that effort, the final versions of the rules that took effect early this year were much less stringent, resulting in a scenario that was much less cumbersome.

One of the major problems that PR faces in the opinion of myself and many seasoned pros is the negative attitude the profession holds. Sure, one could say there's not much you can do about that, and to a large extent that's true. But if PR had an organization that was a more aggressive advocate for the profession, it would likely bolster PR's overall reputation and make the industry better as a whole.

Hopefully that situation will improve, but until industry leaders are comfortable at debating the issues that threaten the profession, the prospect is dim.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Some Practices Never End

As some of you may know, my career includes nine years experience as a journalist at outlets ranging from small dailies to CNN Financial News. I've found that experience invaluable in my current role as a PR consultant, especially when it comes to having a good sense of what works and doesn't.

It's no secret that journalists and PR reps have an uneasy relationship; that exists for numerous reasons, but honestly, most of it is the fault of PR professionals who, when it gets right down to it, just do things to shoot themselves in the foot.

The latest example comes from Waggener Edstrom, which is one of several agencies that handle a piece of Microsoft's business. Waggener was working on behalf of Microsoft to schedule an interview with a Wired contributing editor, who was writing on a video blogging initiative the software giant was working on. In the course of that work, Waggener compiled what is commonly referred to as a briefing book for a Microsoft executive that consisted of previous stories from the editor, along with advice for the executive on how to handle the interview.

While this is a common practice done by PR firms, often at the behest of clients who are nervous about potentially being unprepared, what got Waggener attention it probably didn't want was additional information about the editor that would be involved in the interview. Fred Volgelstein, a contributing editor for Wired was described as "tricky" and someone who would make an effort to throw an interviewee off guard. They went as far as to say "It takes him a bit to get thoughts across, so try to be patient" -- not something that most people would find flattering. It ended by promising that Microsoft executives would have a chance to vet the article, something both sides deny was ever said.

You might wonder why this practice exists. If you were to ask a group of industry professionals, they would probably tell you that it's because they don't want the client to be put in a situation they didn't expect. And while that is part of it, a great deal also has to do with the fact that PR firms and many who work in the profession generally don't trust journalists very much and think that without their handholding, a journalist couldn't do his or her job. Of course, they'll never admit it, but if you work in PR long enough, you'll find people who think they can do the job better than the journalist can.

The craziest thing about all this is the only people hurt through this practice are PR professionals and the industry as a whole. I always advise clients that they should never ask to review any article before it goes to print, let alone expect someone will provide it for review. In addition, I always tell clients that, whether they like it or not, they need the media outlet more than the media outlet needs them. On a given day, there are hundreds or more messages competing for a journalist's attention, making it vitally important that messages be well constructed and quickly get to the worthiness of the pitch. If a company or someone working on its behalf can't quickly get to the point, it will go in the proverbial round file.

Rather than worry so much about leveling the playing field between PR reps and journalists, how about we spend more time teaching junior PR execs how to put together a pitch, how to properly follow up on the phone and other techniques that will benefit both them and the profession? That will pay dividends that will go far beyond anything that could come from controlling a single story.

Nonprofit Group Takes on the Mission of "Outing" PR

You may have heard of the Center for Media & Democracy, a Washington, D.C. think tank that has made its mission "investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda" in an effort to allegedly increase interest in the democratic process.

The company hit YouTube last week with a video that equates all forms of public relations as propaganda and basically says that public relations involves nothing but spin and is the reason that more Americans don't really know what's going on in their country.

John Stauber, founder of the organization's PRWatch initiative, says PR is all about media manipulation, perception management and putting hidden messages into the mouths of people we trust. Implicit in this comment is that most of what constitutes PR messages is untrue. Stauber also makes the big mistake of comparing advertising messages with PR campaigns. While it's true that both of them are part of marketing campaigns, the two worlds operate quite differently. A good PR campaign is about telling an honest message involving a client and letting a journalist decide whether it's worth the merit of a media mention. In contrast, advertising messages are clearly an attempt by companies to get you to believe what they see as compelling features of what they're trying to sell. The vast majority of America is intelligent enough to know the difference.

In his video, Stauber mentions some of the most well-known PR firms in the country, who he claims nobody knows about, this despite the fact that many of them are part of large, publicly-held companies. As brought up in a post on this issue by Richard Laermer and Kevin Dugan, it's embarrassing to say that some of the allegations in the video are true. That said, anyone wanting to present an issue gets a lot more credibility when they present both sides of an issue. In the case of PR, it would be well worth anyone wanting to present an objective look to point out all the new products, services and issues that come to the public's attention through public relations. One of the most recent ones I was involved in concerned a push in New York State to dramatically change ethical guidelines concerning legal advertising. Until the rules were scaled back following public comment, the initial rules could have had a chilling impact on the public's ability to get information about legal providers and the services they offer.

So while there's always plenty of blame to go 'round when it comes to the negative side of most any issue, a balanced approach will always lend more credibility. In the case of public relations, we'd also be better served if we had an organization that would produce more of its own educational material confronting these kinds of issues. But I'm not holding my breath on that.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Public Relations Rises from Ashes of "Dot-Com Bust"

While most people will remember the dot-com bust for the demise of technology and e-commerce companies like, one of the sectors that suffered most dramatically was public relations. Perhaps nowhere was this felt greater than at agencies that had ramped up their technology practices to handle the accounts of the many new e-marketplaces and promising new business and consumer products.

The resulting bust that followed in 2001 was painful across the board, but especially at small and mid-size agencies that didn't have a large enough account base to weather the storm that resulted in the loss of many technology accounts. In some cases, small and mid-size agencies had a technology practice in name only for a good period of time following the dot-com bust.

While the "good old days" of $30K budgets across the board, combined with the almost limitless optimism that accompanied them still may seem in ways like a distant reality, recent statistics show that public relations has indeed recovered nicely and is competing well with advertising for a company's overall marketing dollar. As chronicled in a new story in Adweek, after hitting a bottom in January 2004, employment in the overall marketing sector has grown 12 percent. What's more, since 1990, employment in public relations has grown 44 percent, compared to advertising's overall 14 percent. So overall, while PR remains a very volatile sector save for a few very well-established names that have secured the business of multinational corporations, things for the industry as a whole are definitely on the rise.

Not only does this point to an increasing economic influence of public relations, but it hopefully will also bring about a coalescence around best practices and standards that will keep the next inevitable downward business cycle from business as painful as the "dot-com bust." Unfortunately, PR agencies can in many ways blame themselves for that; sure, it's not like we told people that selling pet food over the Internet would be a billion-dollar business, but we did in many ways promise more than we could deliver to get business in what was at the time a fiercely-competitive race to win the next hot company.

Hopefully, the industry's growth will make major players realize that we don't have to do that anymore. Instead, we should see the value in giving better, more objective counsel that will not only help viable companies prosper, but will keep agencies from banking their futures on companies that we can all sense aren't likely to pan out.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Public Relations Industry Continues to Suffer From a Leadership Vacuum

It seems as if the Public Relations Society of America can't even get out of its own way these days. For those who haven't been following the issue, over the past year, the organization has faced a deluge of criticism, both from PR pros themselves, as well as from industry observers. One of the many complaints centers around the fact that, while PR continues to suffer a bad reputation, the organization never really comes out swinging in its defense, nor does it avoid getting into PR flaps of its own on many occasions.

One of the biggest thorns in the side of PRSA has been newsletter publisher Jack O'Dwyer. O'Dwyer has criticized many of the organization's decisions, including the fact that the organization hasn't operated transparently in quite some time and generally avoids answering any questions publicly about the way it operates. There were high hopes that this would change with the arrival of a new president and chief operating officer, Bill Murray. However, if anything, the first few weeks of Murray's tenure has been as rocky as his predecessor's.

In an internal letter addressed to the organization's leaders that was leaked to O'Dwyer and others, Murray takes on O'Dwyer, calling his editorials on the PRSA "inaccurate." He goes on to label O'Dwyer's coverage of the organization as containing stories that are "unsubstantiated," "misleading" and "erroneous," yet does not give any examples. He also refutes O'Dwyer's contentions that the organization's finances are anything but healthy, although separate analyses conducted by independent college professors maintain that the organization doesn't fully report its expenses, including rent for its Manhattan headquarters and costs associated with the annual PRSA conference.

O'Dwyer goes on to criticize the organization for ceasing the publication of its annual printed membership directory, in factor of an online only directory -- a decision that was said to have been done to hold down costs, yet raised the ire of many members.

All this comes as the organization lost two key executives last week, both with long tenures. Communications chief Cedric Bess left after five years and CFO John Colletti left after six.

The most baffling thing about the PRSA has always been the way it responds in a time of crisis. One would think an organization of PR leaders would know how to respond in such situations, but rather than keeping cool and on point, the PRSA seems always and only to attack the messenger, as if to say they're above reproach and the only reasons anyone attacks them or one of their positions is they just can't understand.

Let's hope at some point the PR profession can get an organization that will understand the battles those of us in the trenches face every day, in terms of the impact the profession's poor reputation has on everyone. What the industry needs more than ever is not an organization that's not always on the defensive, but one that will take stances that will actually advance the profession's standing and will enhance its reputation.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Technorati/Edelman Study And The Value of Blogs

One of the issues that I often have with the PR profession is our tendency to regularly put our focus on a variety of new initiatives at what can be in my opinion at the expense of our core areas of practice. Although I often feel I'm relatively alone in this regard, I've blogged before about my suspicions regarding the supposed value of blogs to a business and how, despite claims to the contrary, I believe the jury is still out on the value of blogs.

One of the reasons for my skepticism is a barrage of studies that continue to trumpet the value of blogs, only to have little information to bag that up. The latest came in a joint study conducted by Edelman Public Relations and Technorati. In a Jan. 5 posting on his well-read and often very useful blog, Richard Edelman says "blogs matter and we have the data to prove it." He goes on to write that the joint study surveyed blog readers in 10 nations, including the U.S., as well as several Asian and European countries, and found that blogs are frequently quoted in the media, spur readers to attend public meetings and become more active politically and socially, are more often read in Asian countries than the U.S. and that multinational companies draw more blog viewers in a particular country than companies based in that country.

As a point of clarification, I'll note that the information upon which I based this posting came from Richard's own blog and that while more details were supposed to be released Jan. 12, I could not locate any additional information on either Speak Up! or the Edelman corporate site.

While I have no reason to doubt any of these findings, I'm not sure how they justify the claim that "blogs matter and we have the data to prove it." Sure, most anything matters to somebody, and I don't think anybody will deny that there's a lot of value to be found in a medium that gives most any Internet user the power to be a publisher of sorts. But the more central question, I believe, is How does that translate into value? I think a typical PR client would define value as money spent on an initiative that delivered better-than-expected results, however there's nothing in any of the data above that would lead me to assume value will be delivered by a blog.

When it comes to financial impact on a business, I think of blogs much as I do a company's Web site; it is another tool to get information about you and your business out to prospective buyers of your good or service. Blogging is not going to change the financial fundamentals of that business and it's uncertain at this point whether blogs will go on to play a long-term role in a company's public relations or marketing plan.