Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Lois Whitman Hess Debate Continues

As many of you might recall, the blogosphere was set abuzz earlier this year following a backlash against publicity tactics employed by one tech agency. Three months later, the firm is again making a name for itself -- and not in a good way.

Earlier this month, HWH Public Relations sent out a press release in December regarding booth appointments for client Samsung HDD at the upcoming CES consumer technology tradeshow. Among the recipients was Phone Scoop, a well-respected blog that's widely followed for all the latest news on mobile devices and carriers. Phone Scoop founder Rich Brome sent an e-mail in response to the e-mail asking HWH's Lois Whitman-Hess to remove his name from the list, saying his blog didn't cover the type of products Hess' client was promoting.

Instead of replying with an "I'm sorry," Hess shot back with an angry e-mail whose text included:

"CES publishes a list of press … As a PR agency we use that list so we can solicit press for booth appts. I hope you can appreciate that. If you don’t, let me introduce you to the 'delete' button. Or in the future do not sign up as a press person for CES.

"Furthermore, do not make any threats to my company. I don’t need you to tell me what is right or what is wrong. I have been in the CE business for 42 years. I have seen nasty people like you melt away faster than a snowball going up hill in the rain. I am waiting for an apology. Maybe we can meet at CES for a hug or a slug.

"P.S. I just visited your web site. I would hardly call your blog a publication."

By the next day, the blogosphere was abuzz with the exchange with personal attacks and PR bloggers taking various sides over the issue. Interestingly, one of her defenders was POP! PR Jots!' Jeremy Pepper. While he was quick to point out he wasn't defending Hess' actions, he said that sending off-topic messages to outlets in advance of a trade show was one of those unavoidable things that happen under pressure to line up appointments for clients.

Pepper is, of course, right. But his explanation also points to another key issue in PR. Practitioners are all too often guilty of not realistically telling clients what can be expected in response to a request or demand. Instead, we work to move mountains, often embarrassing both ourselves and the client in response. If both the agency and their client work together in advance of a major initiative to prepare a clear strategy, this kind of stuff doesn't have to happen. Failure to prepare should never be labeled a media problem.

Monday, December 08, 2008

What to Make of "Web 2.0" From a PR Standpoint

It's almost impossible to read anything connected to the practice of public relations without quickly coming across the phrases "Web 2.0" or "social media." While platforms of these types have no doubt spawned many valuable exchanges, in many ways I question the efficacy of ways they're being thought of in regard to public relations programs.

Quite simply, it seems there's a notion out there that social-media platforms are the new media and that the most valuable conversations will start taking place on platforms such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. What all the proponents of this "second coming" of communications seem to overlook, however, is that good public relations programs aren't akin to beating a targeted audience over the head with a marketing message until they're motivated to take action. Instead, well-executed public relations programs communicate a value proposition in proven ways that, once explained, is easily understood by the target audience.

One of the things I've railed against continually in terms of the practice of public relations is the fact that so many campaigns and practitioners take the lazy-man's way out. They spend so much time looking for the lowest-hanging fruit and targeting it that their only real accomplishment annoying people. Taking the "mallet" approach isn't based around any kind of dialog at all, whether the conversation is taking place with an editor/reporter at a traditional outlet, or with an audience on a social-networking platform. I've personally noticed an increase in hostility among users of social networking platforms at the veiled attempts at promotion that have begun taking over discussions.

I think this is the latest in a series of developments that are challenging the prevalent notion that "Web 2.0" (whatever the heck that is) is rendering PR useless and/or meaning that dialogues have moved away from traditional media channels entirely. I find it amusing that something that's done through the same browser-based technology that we've had since 1994 is even called Web 2.0, but I guess I'm a curmudgeon in that sense.

One of the big things that PR pros need to grasp is the fact that a dialog is what everybody wants, and it's not just those who are on social-networking platforms. Journalists too want to know that you understand their needs and are willing to help them when you can, even if it's not necessarily on behalf of a client.

I know people who are looking for jobs/clients want to do the best they can to meet their client's/employer's needs, but I hope at some point we can get to a rational discussion on this as an industry.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Why Is PR So Often Behind the '8-Ball'?

It seems every day, I either find myself in a conversation with a PR pro or read something in a trade publication that's acting as if the recession that we're now officially in is only now something that deserves reaction. Given how well PR budgets hold up once times get tough, frankly I'm amazed.

Following last week's post on debate within the Public Relations Society of America regarding licensing, I was involved in an online discussion with PRSA PR chief Arthur Yann. Basically, Yann indicated that the licensing debate was part of a discussion exercise at the annual conference in preparation of next year's bylaws rewrite. He said the topic of licensing didn't mean the organization is formally discussing the issue.

Over the course of the conversation with Yann, I mentioned to him that I've consistently thought the PRSA should serve as more of an industry advocate. Any practitioner who's had a conversation with someone who's never worked with a PR professional will tell you that many people have absolutely no idea what PR is or what a PR person does. The closest most come is work that most closely resembles celebrity representation, which is something the vast majority of PR practitioners aren't engaged in. Nowhere in people's knowledge in connection with PR is mission-critical communications that help companies drive their business. In an effort to remedy that situation, I suggested to Yann that the PRSA conduct surveys that would illustrate the cost effectiveness of public relations in comparison to other forms of marketing. No word on whether that's something the organization will consider.

I close by asking all professional PR practitioners -- and even students -- to PLEASE band together and lead an effort to change this. We complain about having to fight hard for a seat at the table, but all too often we don't back up that need with any kind of supporting information as to why we merit one.

Monday, December 01, 2008

PR Licensing Debate Flares Again

Over the years, there have been a number of proponents of licensure for PR professionals, both in and outside the industry. The reasons vary, but proponents generally argue that licensure does a better job of ensuring standards consistency among practitioners in a way that accreditation, since it is controlled by one body, does not.

Now it appears the Public Relations Society of America is at least discussing the idea among its membership. Attendees to this year's national conference reported that PRSA Chairman Jeff Julin led a debate and discussion on this issue, although details were sparse since the PRSA didn't release a transcript of the conference or issue any other details on discussions to non-attendees.

Some like O'Dwyer columnist Wes Pederson seem to indicate that the First Amendment would be relevant, although it's hard to say what it's impact would be since commercial speech -- which is what PR would most certainly be considered -- is given far fewer protections than individual speech.

Since the disclosure of its discussion at the conference, several columnists have weighed in on the issue, on both sides of the fence. Most feel there's nothing inherent in licensing that leads to an assurance that either the quality of the provider or the service they deliver will certainly be higher.

It's difficult to fully comprehend what proponents of licensing would hope to achieve in the field of PR. For example, if an agency or consultant is charged with developing and executing a media relations campaign, they can't realistically guarantee any outlet or reporter will find a particular story angle interesting. While some might try to guarantee that in advance, which poses an ethical issue of sorts, it's hard to imagine how licensing would guarantee a higher level of success in media campaigns.

While it's easy to understand why licensing is preferred in certain professions like law, where a single mistake can cause tremendous and in some cases irrevokable damages, since most PR firms or consultants work on short-term contracts, it's fairly easy for a dissatisfied client to seek new counsel. Given that fact, perhaps it's best to let the free market rule.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Link Shown Between Startups Who Use PR and Successful Funding

A new study published in the most recent PRWeek magazine once again provides stats proving that public relations is the most beneficial marketing tool for new businesses.

A survey conducted by BIGfrontier Communications Group of Chicago showed that startups who used public relations were 30 percent more successful in getting funding within one to three months than companies that did not. In all, 44 percent of companies who used PR received funding within one to three months of their launch, compared to 14 percent of companies who did not.

Despite the advantages PR is shown to have for startups, however, only 18 of 300 surveyed by the group undertook a public relations program during their funding search.

The survey was conducted between September and November 2008 via polling on social networks and direct solicitations through e-mail to CEOs and CMOs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Now Is PR's Time to Shine

While it's undoubtedly going to be a tough road for the next 12 months or so for public relations and most anything connected to marketing budgets, there are important distinctions that can be made about PR that could help the profession stand out from other tactics.

Conventional wisdom is that all companies cut their marketing budget during a downturn and that will inevitably lead to a tough time for PR firms. While that's certainly true to an extent for those who rely on major corporations, there are a lot of businesses that continue to grow in a downturn -- particularly those who have an efficiency proposition.

This downturn gives public relations practitioners a great opportunity to let people across small and mid-sized businesses know that PR can be an affordable way to market one's goods or services and that a well-executed PR plan offers efficiencies in comparison to other types of marketing. One of the reasons ad firms are especially hard hit in a downturn is because their model relies on commissions from a total ad spend. Thus, when ad budgets go down, their revenues fall. In contrast, a good PR plan often doesn't rely on the purchase of any expensive supplemental service or product, which means that PR firms have the flexibility to work with a wider range of budgets.

While few people in their right mind would tell you this is a rosy time in the PR and marketing world, it does present a great opportunity for PR practitioners to trumpet PR's advantages and to put them to work for the entrepreneurial companies that will likely lead us out of the downturn.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Reflection

About a year ago, I was in an office at a mid-sized public relations firm in Manhattan having a conversation with two agency principles that hinged, in part, on the outlook for the business and the economy in general.

I remembered them being quite surprised when I indicated that in 12 to 18 months, things were going to get quite ugly from an economic standpoint once people were no longer able to take equity out of their homes to fund a lifestyle that had grown larger than their take-home pay. The response I got was one of surprise and, at least to some degree, disbelief.

I say that not to prove that I'm an economic soothsayer. In fact, I have no special talents in that area other than those I acquired from my work as a financial journalist for about a decade that include being able to read company financial statements and understanding various economic indicators. My thesis was built entirely on the fact that spending was outpacing wage growth and the spending increase was largely built on home-equity bets.

To bring this back to public relations, I urge all practitioners, financial or not, to gain a better understanding of the economy and what it means to their business. Often we as an industry are very guilty of chasing the latest booming trend only to be burned to a crisp when it goes south. By understanding the economy, practitioners can get a better grasp on which trends are sustainable and worthy of an investment of time or energy.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Loic LeMeur Again Shakes Up Social-Media World

Loic LeMeur, the entrepreneur behind the video community seesmic again made news across the social-media world this week when confronted with rumors about his company's decision to layoff staffers in this difficult economic environment.

Those who follow PR blogs may remember LeMeur's rant about the uselessness of PR, chronicled here. Basically, LeMeur took a shot at PR, saying the whole industry essentially peddled a false claim that there was a "secret" to effective PR and that no outside consultant could do as effective a job at representing a company as its CEO. He went on to say that PR is no science and it's no longer complicated since social media platforms allow companies to manage their reputation directly.

Unfortunately for him, he found out that the situation might be a little more complicated than that following an announcement that his firm was laying off seven people. While that's not exactly newsworthy in this environment, what was interesting was the firestorm of comments that were unleashed following the announcement, including one disgruntled reader who accused the company of failing to have a business model and LeMeur of grandstanding and pursuing personal engagements more than ensuring seesmic's survival.

Of course, there will always be disgruntled individuals in the wake of an action like that taken by LeMeur; the key issue is how you confront the issue itself. On that front, LeMeur took a bold move by addressing the issue head-on and not letting rumors continue to surface. The wrath he encountered probably changed his attitude a bit about the ease with which public perception can be managed; hopefully he understands now that managing public perception isn't as simple as he first laid it out to be.

Monday, November 03, 2008

PR's Image Problem Continues

Anyone who practices in the industry knows that public relations has an image problem. One place you wouldn't expect it to crop up is the annual conference of the Public Relations Society of America.

Penelope Trunk, a career columnist for The Boston Globe reportedly had attendees squirming in their seats after saying "You guys know how to spin anything.... we should all be as good with spin as you are."

While PRSA Chairman Jeff Julin interrupted Trunk to say that spin isn't something practiced by PR professionals and that the true practice of public relations involves building relationships, the sad fact of the matter is Trunk's speech -- at a PR association industry event nonetheless -- shows what a poor job the industry does in explaining to people what it is we do.

Sure there are other professions, such as lawyers, that often fall victim to many negative associations, but because the public as a whole understands what they do much better, they also assume that most of the apples in the barrel are good ones. Not so with PR unfortunately; most people think the average PR person spends his/her time explaining the misconduct of the latest celebrity gone crazy or trying to make a guilty party or company look innocent.

Hopefully after hearing these words, PR practitioners will put themselves on a mission to explain what they do and how it's valuable. It's amazing to me that The Society for Human Resource Management is a heck of a lot better at doing PR for its organization than the organization that represents public relations. Anyone who's watched a primetime show or a Sunday morning program with a highly sought-after demographic has likely saw their ads.

In this time of economic downturn, those who can explain what they do and why it's valuable will succeed. Those who can't will fall far, far behind and potentially even witness failure. It's time for everyone in the industry -- especially the PRSA -- to take the mantle and start defending the profession.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Determining Social Media's Value Can Be A Difficult Proposition

Ever since the first blog went live, PR pros have been trying to figure out how to capitalize on the medium on behalf of clients. And while social media is in many ways no longer an experiment, determining its actual value largely still is.

There are lots of great social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others. Some have a decidedly more business-oriented focus like LinkedIn, but basically they all purport to bring like minded people together in the name of establishing valuable relationships.

Although it took some time from the emergence of MySpace and other networks for businesses to pay close attention to the trend, soon companies started trying to figure out is what value should be placed on the trend as a whole and which networks should receive priority in their marketing efforts. Once that happened, PR agencies started opening new media practices and there were also a host of social media evangelists that hit the Web espousing their value. And while some of them have certainly proven popular, the jury's still out as to whether social media is a trend that's worth a significant investment of a business' time and/or money.

In a recent report titled "Exploring the Link Between Customer Care and Brand Reputation in the Age of Social Media," the Society for New Communications Research examined how consumers are using social networks and which ones they value. While 74 percent of respondents say they choose companies and brands based on the experiences shared online by customers, most still indicated they used conventional search engines for their research rather than social media networks. In fact, several leading social networks scored poorly when it comes to consumer influence, with only 39 percent saying they used micro-blogging sites like Twitter or Pownce; 27 percent used YouTube and 22 percent turned to Facebook and MySpace.

Not surprisingly, technology and e-commerce companies tended to dominate the online discussion landscape, with Dell Computer Corp. and Inc. taking top honors as the companies most often discussed by consumers online. That said, those who do turn to social media networks are a desirable demographic, with an average net income of more than $100,000; most are college educated and range from 25-55 years old.

As with all things new, especially those involving technology, there's been a rush to adopt social media networks. One of the problems, however, is the fact that the social media sector is still quite decentralized, with several companies trying to jockey for the lead spots in the marketplace. This makes it especially hard for companies to know which investments will generate reliable returns. Historically, in the early phases of a new trend's emergence, this factor hasn't mattered very much; however, the fact that little attention has been paid to a return on investment has meant that technology-related trends have experienced harsher than normal boom and bust cycles.

I was in a discussion earlier today with a group of legal marketing executives and a consultant who helps law firms set up their own blogs. The discussion originally started when an executive asked others whether they used Twitter, and if so, how? That spawned a lengthy conversation as to whether social media is judged in the same vein as other marketing activities and, if so, how a return-on-investment can be reasonably calculated. Even though the cost to set up a social media presence may be minimal, there should still be goals set and those should ideally be linked to a positive impact on a company's bottom line; after all, no matter what business you're in, time really does equal money.

The blogging consultant was of the mind that people responsible for bringing in business do the best when they're engaging in activities they truly enjoy under the theory that the use of these mediums mean a firm has the opportunity to reach potential customers that their competitors, who aren't embracing the platforms, are missing. That's certainly theoretically possible, although I suspect it will be some time before we really know for sure.

In the meantime, I still encourage companies – especially small and mid-size firms with limited PR and/or marketing budgets – to continue mining opportunities within conventional media channels. Those channels may not be as “sexy” as social media, but they still deliver an audience of many potential customers with desirable demographics.

Do It Yourself PR Isn't The Value It May Seem

Anyone who practices public relations has probably run into a business owner of some type who started chatting them up about a new, "do-it-yourself" book on public relations that makes PR out to be something almost anybody can do with only a little reading. If only it were that easy.

As with many professions that don't require licensure or advanced credentials, PR has come to be one of those things almost everybody thinks they can do as well or better than those currently doing it. It seems almost every month, there's a new book by a former TV or print journalist or some type of business expert that promises to tell you all you need to know about PR in about 200 pages. While these books may do a decent job of touching on the basics, they leave out a lot of details that are key in determining the success of a campaign.

The biggest problem with the "do-it-yourself PR" view is it completely overlooks the fact that a business owner will almost never be able to look at their business subjectively. By that I mean, if they were to talk to a journalist about their business, they'd hype to the extreme and often make it difficult for a journalist to tell what their compelling value proposition is. In a world where at best you have about two or three minutes to make your case, a bad approach to a journalist can blow a potential opportunity quickly.

Also, business owners have no formal experience in putting together a message that's part of a larger trend. Anyone whose been successful in PR will tell you that's the difference between success and failure; in other words, don't position your company in a self-serving way, but rather in a way that will have readers and viewers feeling it's "news you can use."

This will certainly be no surprise since I'm in the PR business, but I firmly believe that there are enough "mission-critical" things for business owners – especially small-business owners – to be doing that they should focus on the day-to-day tasks associated with administering the core function of their business.

While it may seem simple to fire off an e-mail or make a phone call to a reporter you've seen write stories on subjects that are similar to your business, a poor approach will not only cost you time, but will potentially leave the reporter with a negative feeling that might be very hard to recover from. As someone who spent a decade as a journalist, I can honestly tell you I remember people who made very bad PR pitches and once I was put through a bad pitch or two, it was very unlikely that I'd consider doing a future story on the company in question.

I also realize that entrepreneurs are often tempted to handle almost everything on their own. Their reasoning is nobody can do things as well as they can and/or no one can understand their business as well. While it's not always easy to think of someone else helping to market your own company, it can often be a smart move. Your options are two-fold: either bring someone in-house to handle the efforts or hire a consultant. The chief benefit of the latter is you'll get a higher level of experience for the fees you pay than if you were to use an equivalent amount of money and put that toward a full-time hire. Not to mention the fact that you'll be relieved of payroll taxes and other burdens associated with employees.

Ideally, you'll locate someone to help you who has substantial experience working with small companies and/or start-ups. They'll be able to sit down with you and help determine what your compelling advantage is and how best to communicate that. You should also be willing to accept honest feedback about your messaging and be willing to put into place the recommendations that your consultant makes. While it's never easy to hear anything that resembles a critical word, it's better it comes from someone working on your behalf than a journalist or other key stakeholder.

When meeting with a prospective PR counselor, make sure you're clear with him/her about what you want to achieve and give as much information as you can that will help the counselor. Even though a seasoned PR pro will be able to give you a lot of guidance on how to structure an effective message, their success will depend on large part on the quantity and quality of information you supply them.

If you retain an outside PR professional, make sure they're kept up to date on new hires, new product/service launches, new office openings and other events that can be translated into stories and briefs in business and trade publications. Most any successful PR pro will tell you the more information they have, the better. This will allow them to respond quickly to journalists they know are working on stories for which you're company will be a fit and/or to answer requests from reporters who might be considering a story on your company but need more information first to seal the deal.

Lastly, when embarking on a new PR campaign, remember to give it time. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, it's not realistic to expect hits to start rolling in immediately. While I've scored major media hits for new clients right out of the gate, I would never tell a prospective client that it's likely, simply because if relatively few people know about a company and what it does, it takes time to educate them on who a company is and why they're worthy of media mention. However, with the right blend of cooperation and experience, the hits will come.

Trades Can Often Be A Good Sale

To public relations professionals, dropping the names of top-tier outlets in which they've secured clips for their clients is a sort of “A list” approach to selling. While it does indeed make for an impressive feat in many ways, it's not always the best method over the long term.

It's understandable that clients like to see their names in top-tier publications like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Simply put, meeting that bar gives a sense of validation to a company that sets it apart from its competitors. While they will unquestionably raise a company's visibility level, their impact on sales in many cases won't be all that dramatic.

To put it in simple terms, let's reflect on the old, familiar slogan used by USA Today, which is "not the most words, just the right ones." I think it makes sense to look at media outlets and campaigns in the same way. While it's natural to take pride over having your name seen by hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions of readers, stop and consider how many of those readers are prospective customers of your client's product or service? In all likelihood, there's a good chance that number is relatively small. This, of course, is especially true in the case of a company that sells primarily to businesses and not consumers.

Trades serve a much narrower, more focused audience; while their circulation is definitely smaller, many are widely read in their industries by key executives who turn to them for the latest in product developments and a whole host of industry news. Another big benefit of trade publications are reader-service cards. They provide actual sales prospects because readers actually go the extra step of volunteering to receive more information on a featured company's product or service.

Even better, most publications will send you periodic reports containing a detailed list of sales prospects who've submitted those cards. This information can easily be imported into a company's database for sales tracking purposes. In addition to the obvious benefit of having actual names and contact information for prospective customers, the feedback allows a sales team to put together a sort of “geographic hit list” based on the sales inquiries. This allows them to spend more time chasing qualified prospects rather than cold calling or some other method that doesn't yield much efficiency. So, for example, a client can often say that a specific story in a trade publication generated X number of leads and that translated into X number of sales.

Trade publications also often make for great case studies, since placements in them will generate qualified leads and sales. For example, I've been able to craft a number of successful “David vs. Goliath” story pitches that have resulted in stories chronicling how a small company in an industry vertical dominated by one or more large companies found a niche that separated them from the competition. By using a time-tested formula that presents a problem and goes on to describe how a company solved it, case studies serve as a sort of “how to” road map that other companies can follow. Think of it as the corporate America version of “news you can use.” Just as traditional media outlets love those kinds of stories, business and trade publications often do as well.

Another obvious benefit trades provide is the opportunity to expand your media target horizon. For every sector that a company sells to, there's almost certainly a fair number of publications that track the industry. By getting to know the publications, their editors/reporters and what they write about, you can create several pitches with each one containing specific information about how your client addresses a key need businesses in the industry have.

Unfortunately for PR pros and their clients alike, many PR counselors are afraid to give any kind of counsel that does anything but parrot and cheer on what the client says they want. So, for example, if the client says they want The New York Times, their PR pro in most cases says, "sure, we'll go get it." Again, high-level placements can indeed be very valuable; that said, just as much time should be spent ensuring your reaching a proper target audience and that's where trades play a key role.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Client Does Some Negative PR On Its Own Agency

Every public relations agency around has at one time or another helped one of its clients handle a situation with a negative consequence. While that may be a staple of the business, the industry was abuzz this week following a well-publicized efforts by one agency's client to flip the situation around.

Clean Air Gardening, a Dallas-based retailer of environmentally-friendly gardening and lawn-care supplies, went public this week with its battle against Christie Communications, its public relations agency. The company claims it was a victim of poor reputation once Christie Communications sent out a press release without its approval and created a press kit that, as Clean Air Gardening puts it, "was so badly designed and riddled with errors, that it looked to me as if a middle school student had created it for a school project."

These issues led Clean Air to decide to fire the agency immediately, which set off a back and forth tussle between client and agency. Basically, the company is alleging that it should receive a refund for the $12,500 in fees paid to the firm based on the poor quality of work provided.

CleanAir President Ron Hundley says he tried on several occasions to work things out with the firm, but couldn't get company executives to return his phone calls and e-mails. After going public with the dispute, he did receive a response from the firm that detailed the work that had been done on his behalf, which he took issue with.

Upon receiving is latest complaint, the company reportedly accused him of libel and defamation as a result of claims made on the Web site he uses to air his dispute. In his latest response, Hundley has advised the firm to send specific examples of factual inaccuracies on the site and he also claims he offered to take the matter to mediation in mid-September.

While this is certainly an extreme example, it points to issues that can quickly spiral out of control when there's a dispute regarding work done for a client. Although no assurances can be made that these situations can be avoided in all cases, if the client's allegations that the firm stopped responding and/or making an effort to resolve the dispute are true, they illustrate how important it is to not only handle such issues as both quickly and cautiously.

Monday, October 06, 2008

This Is a Chance to Reinvent

By now, most everyone who follows business and economics concedes that we're likely in a recession. While it's unknown just how deep things will go and what it will mean for individual sectors and businesses within them, it's important to note that it presents opportunities as well as challenges.

One of the things I've always maintained is that the business world, and the U.S. in particular, needs to refocus the way it thinks about work. Although the majority of American workers are now white-collar or "knowledge" workers, the way we go about our day largely reflects an approach that's rooted back in the industrial age. We have set work days, devise uniform policies that treat large groups of workers alike and don't really have any systems in place to reward superior individual contributions, apart from one-time "atta boys."

Worse still, refusing to change the way we think about work has led to many outmoded models that reflect increased costs. While sales professionals and client-facing personnel are often out of the office as part of their duties, we cluster everyone who has administrative or management tasks into expensive office space that accounts for one of any company's largest expenses.

There are some companies that have shifted away from this model, particularly companies that are based on the "freelance" consulting model, like Axiom Legal; that said, there's no reason more can't adopt it. Now's a perfect chance to do just that and not only bring about a scenario that's a lower-cost environment, but one that's more productive as well. Study after study points to increased productivity gains when more flexible work arrangements are adopted, pointing to a scenario that's truly a win-win for everybody.

Since it's usually the case that by the time an economic downturn brings a panic-like scenario, such as we're seeing even today on the world market stage, there's a good chance that we'll be in this mode for a while. Let's not miss this opportunity to stop talking about superficial methods of streamlining and gaining efficiency and truly taking a look at the way we look for the better.

Monday, September 22, 2008

We Honestly Didn't See This Coming?

It's been almost impossible to pick a newspaper, watch a news or financial-oriented television program or network or even in many cases watch a local newscast, without seeing a report on the chaos that is wrecking Wall Street. While this is certainly a tragedy, one has to wonder why we didn't see it coming.

Because this blog isn't intended to be a financially-oriented outlet, I'll skip over all the arcana that's inherent in things like auction-rate securities, credit default swaps, etc. While all those things, in addition to housing certainly played a role, the elements involved aren't as important to note as the behavior.

Basically, what happened is that we all got swept up into euphoria over a trend that reality was really telling us wasn't based in fact and wasn't likely to hold up. Unfortunately, our society tends to be one that favors riding a wave until there's a big wipe out, which results in an end that's much more chaotic and has a much bigger impact on our economy and society. This trend was rooted in the fact that many of us, both businesses and consumers, were relying on assets for our economic well being that were either overvalued, improperly valued or suddenly had no market.

All of this is a symptom of our desire to concentrate on maximizing immediate returns, often at the expense of overall stability and long-term results. An examination of long-term financial trends after all this is over will likely show this crisis will rank at the top of near the top of all the nation's financial calamities.

At this point, you're probably saying "All that's fine, but how does this tie into PR?" I think our industry is exactly the same way and that basically the same behavior causes much more cyclicality than would otherwise occur. It's also important to note that until this crisis and the economic upheaval its causing in sectors far afield from finance is over, marketing budgets will be squeezed like they haven't been in more than a decade. This makes it all the more important for PR pros to clearly communicate the advantages the discipline presents over other forms of marketing and to specifically communicate with current and prospective clients regarding what can be expected in a PR program.

By using the current climate to once and for all alter the playbook that's come to dominate PR, we can put the industry in a position to better weather the next crisis that arrives.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Does the "P" Stand for Politics Now?

As I've written about extensively, one of the reasons I believe public relations has a hard time gaining the respect it deserves is because of the weakness of the Public Relations Society of America. Unfortunately, despite a regime change recently, it seems that as far as the organization is concerned, the more things change the more they stay the same.

In its infinite wisdom, individuals associated with the organization decided it was in its best interest to get into the political season. Thus, PRSA CEO Jeff Julin issued a challenge to the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain, asking both campaigns to sign pledges to abide by the PRSA's Member Code of Ethics.

In a letter sent to the campaigns, the association says the society feels part of its duty is to "intensify our organization’s advocacy for a clean and fair campaign modeled on the principles of the PRS Code of Ethics, which could help strengthen trust in the U.S. and its electoral process."

A couple of things make this appeal smell very fishy. For starters, neither communication chief for either campaign is a PRSA member; thus, it seems odd that they would ask individuals who didn't willingly commit to those standards to sign a pledge now. While I don't have any issues with a code of ethics, I do have issues with the comingling of PR and politics. Too many people out there have a tough enough time understanding what we do, which is why we fight so hard for that "seat at the table." Given that, don't we as an industry have bigger fish to fry?

Julin goes on to state that a founding principle of the PRSA is "protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information… and open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society." This despite the fact that much of PRSA's own business isn't done in the light of day in front of its members, but is rather overseen by a relatively small number of people who do much of the organization's most important work in secret.

Finally, this to me seems like another example of how the PRSA is just plain out of touch. In an economic slowdown, PR has to fight like mad to retain its budgets and avoid being seen as something other than a cost center. Given that, it seems to me a better use of their time and a better way to advance the profession would be to educate the public on how public relations provides a quantifiable return on investment and how it compares to other marketing-related disciplines, such as advertising.

Needless to say, I'm not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

This Is Why We Have Trouble Getting A Seat At the Table

One of the things that's always concerned me about PR and the opinions of the profession is the fact that, unlike attorneys and counselors of various types, PR practitioners seem to be consistently fighting for a place at the table.

While it's true of many professions, PR is one of those that everybody thinks they can do better than those who are actually in the business. It's one of those arguments that anyone who's been in the industry for any length of time has probably had with a friend, former/prospective client or some other associate at one time or another. Unfortunately, with every positive example the profession has to offer, we seem to be held back by the fact that there are also a large number of negatives.

Case in point, the latest example from the well-regarded Bad Pitch Blog. The pitch chronicles several mistargeted e-mail pitches sent by HWH Public Relations on behalf of some well-known names including Samsung and Westinghouse Digital.

The issues with those pitches are numerous; however, chief among them is the fact that the blog's area of coverage means it has no interest whatsoever in pitches from HWH on behalf of their clients. And unfortunately for those clients, HWH's tactics have even raised the ire of bloggers and others for using sexism and little creativity in its pitches.

Honestly, I would love to understand the motivation behind this kind of approach. Unfortunately, no one from HWH would respond to the BPB, so we may never know. It's just amazing to me that, at least in some circles, we can't do better.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Calcanis Provokes Ire of PR Blogosphere

PR blogs were abuzz this week with missives in the wake of a posting by Jason Calacanis, the entrepreneur responsible for Silicon Alley Insider and Weblogs, the latter of which was sold for a hefty profit.

In the post, Calacanis basically suggests the best PR strategy involves not retaining a PR firm; instead, he opines that CEOs take on this task themselves. His exact prescription: "be amazing, be everywhere, be real." Now, imagine for a moment that some unknown entrepreneur went into a meeting with a VC. Next envision a managing partner asking the entrepreneur their strategy for success. Finally, picture the look on the partner's face is the entrepreneur used Calacanis answer for a PR strategy as a response to that question.

My point is I've never understood why simple answers to questions that involve complex matters are supposed to be OK when it comes to PR when they would never work in the real world. I think it's safe to say Calacanis is glossing over some things when he relays the success he's had without a PR agency. Chiefly, he was able to get a lot of free publicity when his company Weblogs was sold to AOL for $25 million. Reports are that he gets very annoyed when people discuss the collapse of his first company, Silicon Alley Reporter.

Don't get me wrong, every good entrepreneur fails and sometimes on multiple occasions. But if the strategy he speaks about were as bullet proof as he makes it out to be in his latest missive, he should have been able to generate so much buzz about SAR that no mainstream publishing house could have seen how their world would function without it as part of their collection.

Just as that didn't happen and can't be expected to happen in every case, even when it's justified, these "cut and paste" prescriptions for PR don't always work either.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Announcing The PR Tipsheet

As I alluded to last week, one of the issues that has always concerned me with public relations is how there's a dearth of quality, educational information aimed at entry- and mid-level professionals.

Given that those two groups do much of the actual, hands-on tactical work of the profession, it would seem to me that providing quality, educational information concerning effectively media relations practices and tactics would be a no-brainer. While there are courses offered by both PRSA and companies like InfoComm, most of them aren't aimed at these two groups of professionals; secondly, since these are the folks that actually do most of the profession's tactical work, agencies usually don't send them to continuing education seminars.

In an effort to address this issue, I'm announcing the launch of The PR Tipsheet, a weekly e-zine that will feature topics that will help entry and mid-level professionals succeed in the business. The goal is two-fold: 1) Increase the quality of media relations practices in the industry and 2) Increase the retention rate of professionals in the business, and by extension, hopefully address the abysmal client turnover rate that's endemic in PR.

While the publication will be subscription based, which will support content of a higher quality level, the fee will be reasonable, since I realize there will be many who might be footing the bill out of their own pocket. As soon as details on this front are finalized, everything will be announced in a more formal release, so please stay tuned.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Blogosphere and PR; Defining the Tail and the Dog

Ever since blogs came on the scene -- and yes, even before the whole movement was defined as social media -- perhaps no topic has raged on as much as how this will impact PR.

There have been blogs launched to out poor PR practices, blogs and wikis devoted merely to publishing e-mails and domains of PR firms that send misdirected e-mails and scads of predictions that only those who succeed at understanding social media will make it in PR.

The latest "smack down" of sorts came this week when Edelman blogger Steve Rubel opined that the future of PR is in peril because most bloggers feel no need to work with PR firms and because most PR practitioners who correspond with social-media writers send them mistargeted e-mails and unwanted information.

As Jeremy Pepper wrote, it's almost as Rubel forgot he works in PR, let alone at the biggest independent firm in the business. Surely the firm has the resources to devote to turning this trend around, at least when it comes to its own associates.

Whether or not you agree with any of these predictions on the future of PR, one thing is terribly clear: Despite internal efforts to educate, often with clever names evoking an educational mission, there's very little educating being done in PR. Why? The people who need the most educating are also the most profitable, since the ratio between their billing rate and annual salaries mean it's to an agency's advantage to keep them as busy billing as possible.

That's not to say there aren't others offering bona fide education programs. The Public Relations Society of America offers them to their members at discounted rates and numerous other private providers, such as Ragan Communications and its publications do as well.

That said, given the large number of people who work for small firms that likely can't/won't either make the investment or can't spare their staffers for the time it would take to complete the programs, this isn't likely going to cut it. As a profession, we simply have to do better, but the best way to do that is to offer solutions, not just scathing criticisms of the status quo.

To that end, I'm in the process of developing a new platform specifically developed for entry-level professionals. More on that soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Recessions and Their Relationship to Marketing

While a debate rages on as to whether the U.S. is currently in a recession, to a large extent that debate is a moot point if you're in and/or serve clients in one of the areas that are customarily impacted by a recession.

Along with finance and most other industries except consumer staples (e.g. the things that you need to live on a daily basis), marketing and PR certainly sees a big impact from recessions. Most notably, the industry contracted for a multi-year period following the 2001 recession that was exacerbated by the terrorist attacks.

Generally speaking, the reason marketing tends to suffer during a downturn is businesses tend to take the view that it makes sense to cut every cost possible that's not essential to the daily running of the business. In some cases, this allows them to avoid layoffs or taking other painful steps -- at least for a period of time. While this strategy may make some sense from that standpoint, in the long run, it may cause substantial damage and/or delay a recovery.

To fully understand why, perhaps putting things in simple terms may fit the bill. While effective marketing almost always delivers results, people tend to associate marketing with success during good times but view it only as a cost item in bad times. This mentality was summarized in a good quote I saw recently that said "Go ahead and cut your marketing budget. That's like saying I'll put some logs on the fire when it warms up in here."

That may be simplifying things a bit, but the attitude the quote conveys makes a lot of sense. Broadly speaking, if a business isn't getting returns from its marketing program, it's not marketing and the expense of it that's to blame, but rather the design and/or implementation of the plan.

These factors can be alleviated by picking strategic partners that are good fit, both from a tactical and personal standpoint. Make sure both sides agree on the scope of the program, its goals, cost and other important factors. Next, companies need to realize that a marketing effort is in some ways like a living organism; it's something that will take different forms as a company reaches different stages and/or has changing needs. A good consultant will help you reshape your plan as needs require.

In closing, since PR firms are a vital portion of the marketing equation, we've got to do a better job of thinking of and properly positioning ourselves as strategic partners that deliver value. Firms that can successfully do that won't just be seen as a cost item when things get tough; rather, they'll be seen as a value-added partner that can help a business improve its recognition, generate valuable sales leads and stand out from the competition. These are all vitally important to any business, especially in a tough economic climate.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Subcontracting Carries Perils Too

Many sole practitioners and even small agencies occasionally supplement their ongoing retainer client load by subcontracting with other agencies and consultants. While such a move can help bolster the bottom line, especially in tough economic times, it's also fraught with perils -- and not just for the lead agency.

The attractions of subcontracting, both for the lead agency and their subcontractor(s) are obvious: For the agency, taking on additional talent on a project-by-project basis allows the lead agency to broaden their breadth of experience and to overcome any disadvantage from its small size. Likewise, for the partnering consultant or agency, they also get an experience and increased revenue, even when you take into account the fact that a subcontractor almost always lowers their rate.

There are many cases where individual counselors and/or small firms have worked together for years and have cultivated relationships that are fruitful for both. However, what's not mentioned nearly as often is when the inverse happens, and a subcontractor and/or agency partner is penalized as a result of actions taken by their lead partner.

For example, if a client has any kind of issue with the lead agency/partner that leads to a termination of the account, more times than not the subcontractor/partner is also out the door too. There are times when the partner can resurrect the relationship, but just as often as not, the former client will be angered enough by the actions of the lead agency that resurrecting the relationship becomes impossible.

So while it may seem that only the lead partner has any vetting to do before a new partner relationship starts, in reality the subcontracting partner should do vetting as well. Take note of actions done during the sales process, if you're brought in that early, that are red flags. These are often good indicators of issues that will linger even if the account is won. Also, insist that any partner will listen to your views too because often a subcontracting partner is doing the lion's share of the actual tactical work. Given that, it only makes sense that they be willing to take your views into account.

Both sides of any partnership should address any conflicts and/or crises as soon as possible to avoid them from causing irrevocable harm. Also, make sure that both sides agree on philosophy. I can't say this enough. There are so many consultants and firms out there that believe their philosophy is the only way and that's honestly a tough situation to be in from a partner's perspective. In the end, what should really matter are the results, not how you got there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Seat at the Table Has to Be Earned

Much has been said over the years about the importance of companies giving their PR counsel, be they employees or consultants, a "seat at the table," making them integral partners in decisions that go beyond the communications strategy. Whether or not we've earned that consideration is very much an open question.

It's no secret that the opinion of PR firms is generally not that high in the business world. One of the reasons that's the case, in my opinion, is because many things we do reflects too much marketing and not enough business acumen. This is readily apparent from the beginning of the sales cycle since in many cases the moon is promised to win an account, even though that will only lead to problems later.

I was in a meeting recently when an industry colleague, who was discussing a potential PR plan with a company was asked a question that while not related to PR, was something that the respondent should have known based on the knowledge of the prospect and what they viewed was important. The response to the unexpected question was something along the lines of "we'll study up once we get the account."

I was honestly flabbergasted; this goes back to business communication skills 101. There will certainly be cases where every potential answer won't be known before going into a meeting, but sometimes the way someone responds to a situation like that is as important as the answer itself.

Sadly, the most recent experience wasn't my first. Before going out on my own, I was also at a meeting that involved a senior-level practitioner with more than 30 years where virtually the same exchange occurred. Oddly enough, the account was won in both cases, but I submit just as likely an outcome would have been executives walking out the door. Let's hope fewer agencies and PR consultants take that risk in the future and do their homework in advance.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Is Twitter the latest media relations tool?

In creating one of the most simplistic social-media platforms out there, Twitter seems to have succeeded at catching its share of the buzz factor. Now, some PR and marketing bloggers are going as far as to call it the latest and greatest media-relations platform.

For the uninitiated, Twitter allows you to send short, simple messages to friends and colleagues. It allows you to "follow" people you choose and allows anyone else on the platform to choose whether or not they wish to "follow" you or anyone else. Unlike LinkedIn and other social-media platforms, the relationships don't have to be reciprocal; in other words, you can follow people without them giving you their permission.

For the past few weeks, a number of listservs and trade publications, including Ragan have been asking is Twitter going to become the defacto tool in media relations. The theory is that as more journalists join the network, they'll send short updates describing the stories they're working on and that will support a wide range of pitching opportunities for PR pros who subscribe to their feeds.

Some have said Twitter is destined to replace the conversations that used to take place between journalists and PR pros at the local watering hole. That's theoretically possible, but as someone who was on the journalism side for 10 years, I never really saw that many journalists hit watering holes eager to shoot the breeze with a PR rep.

That said, there are some well-known journalists using Twitter as an interaction platform, although as expected the list is tech-heavy. However, if Twitter really does foster trusted relationships, then it could become one of the most valuable tools a PR pro uses. And you sure can't say the price isn't right!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Viral Media Predictions

In a recent post, Richard Laermer, one of the authors of the excellent The Bad Pitch Blog wrote an entry predicting that the Internet and social-platforms in particular will continue to wreak havoc on the PR world, making commonly-used tools and methods obsolete.

Laermer maintains that in this world a written pitch will be considered spam, whereas media outlets and other consumers of information distributed by PR pros will view multimedia pitches as informative and engaging.

The post was essentially a warm-up for Laermer's latest book project, 2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade, which examines the impact a number of emerging technologies and trends will have on us all and gives some insights into his predictions on which of these trends will go on to be hits and others misses. While I haven't had a chance to read the book, in the interest of full disclosure, it's generally been positively reviewed by those who have. That said, I think one future trend that may be a bit off the mark is the notion that PR, and marketing as a whole, will evolve into something that's dominated by the consumer rather than a company or one of their consultants or agencies. Basically, if someone likes your idea, Laermer believes they'll become an evangelist, much as the way Apple Computer Corp. has always had a core group of evangelists going back to before the company was hot again.

While Apple has certainly had that, something I can attest to having spent many years as a tech reporter and written a few stories that had negative Apple news, I don't think that means most companies can expect to achieve it and/or that most companies will want to market themselves that way. Certainly, some consumer-oriented companies might, but the world is full of successful companies doing all kinds of things that may not be "social-media worthy," but are important -- and profitable -- nonetheless.

So for now, while viral marketing may have some influence on a few campaigns, I'm not sure it's going to be a game changer in the PR world as a whole.

Monday, June 16, 2008

PR 'dean' calls for renewed focus on ethics

Howard Rubenstein, who in many ways is the modern dean of public relations having been a professional practitioner since 1954, made news recently when he called for a renewed, grass-roots effort to help the PR profession restore its lost credibility.

In an op-ed for The Bulldog Reporter's Daily Dog, Rubenstein highlights the fact that too many PR professionals thought practicing PR was synonymous with "spinning and inaccuracies." Since it was the very professionals that were in large part responsible for that belief, Rubenstein believes it's incumbent upon them to help lead the charge to change the reputation of PR and rid the industry of shady practices.

One of the catalysts that leads to the problem, Rubenstein notes, is the way many companies respond to a crisis. Rather than taking on a crisis and dealing with it in a straightforward way, he notes that most companies first insist on a string of denials rather than getting at the crux of the problem. It's up to responsible PR pros, he notes, to push clients to be both ethical and accurate. Those who aren't, he maintains, are failing to perform their true jobs as a company's trusted advisor.

Another reason ethics are not often practiced, Rubenstein believes, is that even professionals who receive accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America pay very little attention to the society's code of ethics in their daily practice. A better solution, Rubenstein believes, would have the PRSA offer a certificate on ethics and have something that agencies and their practitioners could promote.

I have no idea whether Rubenstein's call to arms will be answered, but I dare say anybody who is responsible for selling PR services knows what we're up against. In too many cases, there's a notion among the general public -- including the marketing departments and the entrepreneurs that purchase our services -- that PR involves spin rather than the truth. If we can't explain better just what it is that we do, I'm not sure how we can purport to explain what a current or potential client does and why it's worthy of attention.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Social Media Enthusiasts and Their Views on PR

It may seem silly to take issues with social media platforms via a blog, but regular readers of this blog know that I've done that on several occasions when I feel that enthusiasm goes from being a promoter of the new at the expense of the old.

The latest blogger to take issue with public relations and its tactics is Loic Le Meur, a Frenchman who has been involved with a number of Internet startups, including an interactive ad agency, which was later sold to BBDO in 1999.

Le Meur starts off his post by basically saying that PR pros claim to have a "magical sauce" when the precise notion is, in his words BS (to put it nicely). Instead of engaging a PR pro and going the traditional way, Le Meur espouses an updated approach that basically capitalizes on using your social network to the utomost. By doing this correctly, he believes you can do everything yourself better than anyone else could do for you.

He also claims the PR industry holds a number of believes that are patently untrue, including the notion that traditional journalists and media channels hold more influence than social media at large and influential bloggers. Rather than relying on a PR agency to get the word out, he advocates relying on your users and customers to do it for you. In the end, he believes, their fanatical enthusiasm will lead journalists to circle back around and give a company coverage, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

He also advises CEOs and other key executives to be their spokesperson behind their brands. He reasons that the CEO should be the brand, much akin to the way Richard Branson is associated with the Virgin empire.

While there's some validity to the notion that a trusted CEO can be the best person to speak for a company, he completely ignores the fact that messages issued by a company are only one very small part of a communications program. It's not surprising that a serial entrepreneur would view CEOs as the best spokesperson, but he completely ignores the fact that a journalist will see them as a biased source that will only say what they want people to believe. Yes, there are cases where CEOs bluntly and honestly deal with their firm's problems, but even then, they're not the architect of a response in most cases, just the face delivering it. He also ignores the fact that if they're busy serving as the architect of the response, they've diverted their resources from actually dealing with it in the first place; honestly, that's what their customers, clients and investors want them to do.

PR certainly has its problems on occasion, and one of those is the fact that the profession as a whole has done a pretty poor job of educating the public at large in just what the heck it is a PR person does. But equally as disturbing is the fact that there's still this pervasive notion that while you need qualified individuals handling your business' finances and legal needs, PR can be done by almost anyone with the right connections.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Outrage Against Poor Media Relations Practice Continues

When debuted in 2006, the excellent Bad Pitch Blog had the PR community buzzing, as it was the first outlet to aggressively confront poor media relations practices. Unfortunately for the PR industry as a whole, it was only the beginning.

Over the months that followed the blog's debut, it was the subject of articles in many PR trades and was responsible for launching a broader discussion on media relations practices and how they could and should be changed for the better. At the same time, a move grew to "modernize" many media relations tools, including transforming the media release into a new format that would allow the incorporation of multimedia tools and other content and features. The resulting Social Media Release template, which you can read about here is still a work in progress of sorts.

Unfortunately, while the debate over media relations practices and how they should change or adopt is occurring, the reputation of public relations continues to decline in large part because of poor media relations practices. Witness the prspammers wiki, which is basically a collection of e-mail addresses contributed by leading blog authors and other social media enthusiasts containing the names of PR pros from some of the industry's most familiar names.

Problem is, this isn't a good list to be on. The list itself denotes off-target pitches sent to leading bloggers over the past few months, and it reads like a virtual who's who of the biggest firms in the industry, ranging from Atomic and Bite to Shift. The latter is particularly unfortunately because it's Shift that's been one of the main drivers of the social media release.

Ever since the emergence of blogs and other social media platforms, I've become concerned that the industry is too concerned on cashing in on the craze at the expense of strengthening its core competencies. To me, PR as a whole pays too much attention to the development of "new and improved" ways to get its message out and way too little attention to developing messages devoid of hype that clearly communicate what a company is about and why it's worthy of attention.

It's always bugged me that PR is considered a "buzz creating" industry, when I personally believe that if you correctly position a useful product or service, the buzz will come on its own. I also believe this need to always create new and improved tools, while it may be good for the bottom line, is also disproportionately responsible for the industry's high client turnover rate.

Let's hope we start worrying more about the message and less about the medium.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Debates Rage About Usefulness of Twitter

At one time, the phrase social media was synonymous with the blogosphere, since that was the first platform that enabled virtually any Web user the opportunity to easily take a message to the masses.

Since that time, however, there have been a lot of new entrants, including twitter, which is basically a Web-based instant messaging tool that allows any twitter user to follow another, with both having the ability to share updates on what they're doing at the moment.

I started checking out twitter after some technology consultants on a listserv sponsored by a professional organization to which I belong asked others if they were using twitter for business development purposes. At the time, it amazed me that twitter would even be considered something that an attorney or legal marketer would use to reach current and prospective clients, although some in the discussion took up the view that every emerging platform generally has an uphill battle to climb in terms of both adoption and acceptance.

Then today, I was spending some time on MyRagan, a social media platform for communications professionals, and noticed a community member there had penned a blog entry also questioning the value of twitter. Add to that, most of the comments on twitter echoed the view that at this point, most of the "buzz" about twitter consists of stories about its usefulness, or lack thereof, and not much about how anyone's using it in the course of their overall communications strategies.

While that's true, the same could be said about the blogosphere in the beginning and it's certainly evolved to be a useful tool in PR programs, especially when it comes to companies that sell directly to consumers. It will be interesting to follow twitter's evolution and see whether it emerges to become much more than a "new fangled" instant messaging platform or something truly beneficial to business.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Views on Agency Compensation

One of the most hotly-debated issues in public relations has always been compensation; by that I mean what agencies should get paid, not what they should pay their people. This is especially now that we're in an era of push-button publishing and "how to" books purporting to make everyone instant experts in virtually any subject. While the debates rage on, I'd like to suggest they mostly miss the point.

For some time, there have been agencies and consultants touting a pay-for-performance model in public relations. In most cases, this simply means that agencies get paid based on how well they perform for the client. While that sentence may have been simple enough to parse, such a change in strategy is anything but simple and, in my opinion, not as great as it may sound.

In most cases, pay-for-performance models have scales that award the agency a fee based on the circulation of a publication or some similar metric. For the most part, such model changes have been suggested mostly for public relations, since there's always been a perception that it's in the best interest of a business to pay based on media coverage. However, one ad agency chief recently raised some eyebrows for suggesting a new approach that would extend to ad agencies.

In an AdWeek story, Andy Fletcher, chief of the Atlanta ad consulting company Fletcher Martin suggests one of the problems with the conventional agency compensation model is that agencies are rewarded the same for success as failure. Instead, he proposes a two-tier model: the first part of that model would involve clients paying a set fee for a program strategy; the second portion would be based on the results the client receives as a result of the strategy itself. Fletcher proposes that agencies should be willing to risk all their execution-based compensation because, if the client wins big, so does the agency. Again, Fletcher's not specifically mentioning PR in his piece, although such a methodology could theoretically apply there as well.

Fletcher's idea is certainly better than the pay-for-play approach that's traditionally been espoused in PR. The key question, however, would be whether such a model could really be effectively adopted by PR agencies. For example, there are certain scenarios where no agency could succeed, regardless of the quality of the strategy. These could include a flawed product design, poor program implementation, etc. While the agency would still receive a program fee, one would assume that their overall upside would be tilted toward execution rewards. In this case, those rewards would likely be muted by the aforementioned issues.

As someone who's spent a lot of time working with attorneys and other professional service providers, it's always struck me as odd that some PR pros devalue their services in an effort to compete. For example, you'd never see well-known corporate attorneys adopting a "winner take all" strategy when it comes to a piece of complex litigation; and they certainly wouldn't call a business model like that revolutionary.

For better or worse, however, PR has always seemed to do a poorer job of positioning itself than its clients. So if we're going to talk about alternatives, in my opinion, a model based along Fletcher's thinking is at least a step in the right direction.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Company Goes to Bat With Google Over Anonymous Blog Posts

Since it's launch, one of the things most lauded about the blogosphere is not only its ability to give practically anybody the ability to speak their mind on whatever they wish, but if they so desire, the right to do it anonymously. In yet another case pitting existing laws against emerging technologies, that may soon change.

Aircraft company Eclipse Aviation has subpoenaed Google in an effort to secure contact information for several anonymous posters on the Eclipse Critic blog hosted by its Blogger service. The legal action comes as a result of several comments made on the blog that question the features and characteristics of the Eclipse 500 Very Light Jet.

The company says that while it has no desire to shut down the blog, it feels compelled to go after the unnamed authors that it feels have defamed the company and its products.

Of course, it will likely be a while before this issue plays itself out in court. And while I'm not an attorney, it seems to me there are legal precedents at play that could make this issue rather short lived. In the recent past, there have been several cases regarding Internet service providers and the content they transmit; this issue was widely followed when the original Napster was still around and scads of users were swapping music files with one another. Basically, courts ruled that ISPs could not be expected to monitor their networks for unauthorized/illegal conduct transmitted by their customers. While it's true that technology might make it possible for the owners and controllers of content networks to keep an electronic eye out for certain types of content, the practicality of covering every base imaginable is a big question.

From a PR perspective, a question could be raised as to whether Eclipse would have been better served by actually tackling the issues raised in the blog postings rather than trying to silence the conversation.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Just What IS PR 2.0 Anyway?

It seems every time you look at a PR trade publication or an industry forum on a platform such as LinkedIn, you see someone asking about PR 2.0 and its importance on the profession. Maybe it's just me, but I think we should pull the plug on all the "upgrade" talk.

Although there's no universal definition, when most people speak of PR 2.0, they're playing off the Web 2.0 phenomenon that signifies the emergence of a number of Web-based platforms, such as blogs and wikis, that are truly interactive and foster two-way communications.

All these things can be wonderful additions to a PR program, especially for clients offering a consumer-oriented product or service and/or trying to reach a technically-inclined audience. These platforms foster a community-oriented communication that can, when used correctly, help clients gain additional validation via third-party influencers.

That said, all these things are just tools; they're appropriate for some campaigns and not appropriate for others. Even with the new tools, the time-tested and proven methods for conducting a successful PR campaign haven't changed and shouldn't be tossed out in favor of blanketing any new platform with a message about a client.

All too often, tools like these are seen by the industry as a chance to pad program budgets with extra fees and services that may or may not benefit the client. And at the end of the day, everything we do should be judged based on how well it benefits the client, not on whether it increases the agency's bottom line. For if we as an industry consistently do things that benefit the client, even if it's not always using the latest whiz-bang technology, the bottom line will almost certainly increase.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Transformation of Content and Its Impact on PR

Practically since the beginning of the commercial Internet, there's been this back-and-forth tug regarding business models that have dominated the conventional business world and predictions over how much of that would translate to the Internet.

In the mid to late 1990s, the notion was that advertising would step in and solve everything, which explains in large measure why most business plans of Internet content sites based most of their revenue models around the ability to attract ads. Of course, the go-go 90s that played host to a ton of predictions about how the conventional world and its business models would be overturned got a big dose of reality in 2000 when the markets started cooling to the ideas.

While many thought that the fall out from the "dot-com boom" would usher in a new round of sanity and more fact-based analyses of the Internet's impact on the business world, sometimes it seems all that happened was just a thinning of the crop. Even now, with all the predictions of a dire economy that lay ahead, you still have people who bank on the Internet and related content platforms with rose-colored glasses that aren't giving them the full view of the picture.

For instance, many PR firms are treating the blogosphere as a vast, new media platform that will upend the conventional world as we know it. They're advising clients to pile a ton of money in new media initiatives, convinced beyond belief that it will pay off. Obviously, as a keeper of a blog, I'm not against the concept of blogs by any means, but I think we do have to radically realign our notions of what they are and the role they'll play.

One of the things I've never understood about the blogosphere is why we're promoting something so heavily that essentially just leads to a decentralized audience. By that I mean, having hundreds of platforms for content may be wonderful to those who want to read it, but when it comes to monetizing a platform like that and building revenue models around it, the challenge will be immense, since the audience will be so decentralized.

One one hand, blog enthusiasts could legitimately say the low barriers to entry from a cost perspective make that point largely moot; they'd be right if the goal was to simply establish a content beachhead, but when it comes to making money, you need some mass audience. Essentially, the more content platforms we have, the more the overall value of content is dilluted until we achieve some sort of mass.

In a recent editorial, Wired editor Chris Anderson predicts that free is the future of business. In promoting a system he calls "freenomics" -- a play on the widely read book Freakonomics, Anderson says decisions like that of The New York Times to take down their subscription wall and make all its content free serve as an example of things to come. Outside the content area, he also points to cases like the British rock band Radiohead, which freed itself from conventional record-label marketing to offer its latest album directly to the consumer and whatever price (s)he is willing to pay.

He goes on to point out how there are many versions of the "free" model, and most involve at least some sort of payment for a portion of a site or a value-oriented addition to a service. And in many ways, he's right about the fact that Google, Craigslist and others have shown the free model can work. However, it also has a number of big hurdles and we'd do well to examine them before creating Dot Com Bust II.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Will Social Networking Kill High-Margin PR Services?

As anyone in PR knows there are a variety of tools available that aim to greatly streamline specific tasks, especially those connected to media relations. And while they perform that function well, they're also very expensive and a budget stretch to many in the profession. Well, it now appears that these expensive "walled gardens" may soon be shaken up by social media platforms.

Of course, one of the most well-known social media network is LinkedIn. In addition to being a networking platform, LinkedIn's Answers functions allows people to post questions not only to their networks, but to the LinkedIn community at large. Currently, there are 15 separate categories spanning a number of industries and a separate category where members can share tips on using LinkedIn itself.

Lately, I've seen several situations where journalists, especially freelancers, are turning to LinkedIn to solicit story ideas that they can take under consideration for conversion into pitches to editors at publications for which they write. Given LinkedIn's large community that encompasses representatives of most every profession around, it makes sense to tap the group for both ideas and sources.

Another new entrant comes from PR and practitioner and new-media evangelist Peter Shankman titled If I Can Help a Reporter Out. It basically functions as an e-mail list, allowing reporters to send queries seeking sources to PR practitioners who subscribe to Shankman's list. Subscribers receive about 3 e-mail dispatches daily with details on stories reporters are working on and they can in turn suggest sources for the reporters to include in their story.

Shankman's idea, while it may not seem revolutionary, does have the potential to turn shake up things at very profitable units of major conglomerates like PRNewswire, whose ProfNet service currently dominates the landscape. While an unquestionably useful service, ProfNet's pricing is out of the reach of many small practitioners. Although there are other services around, such as Expert Click, there's yet to be a service that has gained enough traffic to be a serious competitor.

In his introduction to the service posted on the site, Shankman acknowledges that "...Help a Reporter..." will only prove useful if it can gain enough participation from both the source and PR community. In the interest of competition, I hope it's successful.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Has Technology Lived Up to Its Promise in the Workplace

Businesses and workers alike generally laud technology improvements, both using examples such as e-mail and the Blackberry in pointing out how technology has allowed businesses to operate more efficiently. However, when the issue is more closely examined, it's really not that clear cut.

According to a new survey issued by The Radicati Group, e-mail volume has increased a whopping 55 percent since 2004, with the average corporate e-mail user receiving 126 messages daily. The report goes on to say that if growth in e-mail volume continues at its current pace, workers will spend almost half their days managing messages by 2009.

While most bloggers who picked on this study stuck to the main issue, I thought I'd expand it a bit to examine the basic premise of technology and its promise of bringing efficiency to a variety of processes. There are countless examples of promises that were issued when new technologies emerged that haven't really lived up to reality. For example, I can remember businesses using videoconferencing over ISDN connections as early as 1993 and even then, equipment providers were touting how they would replace meetings and make business travel much less frequent. And of course, e-mail was supposed to cut down on the need for meetings, allow problems to be solved faster, etc.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that I'm not saying these things haven't occurred in some cases, but it's fair to say they haven't occurred across the business world at large. In theory, if technology were making our lives more efficient, shouldn't we be able to accomplish more in a shorter amount of time, either getting more done in a standard workday or having a shorter workday?

Obviously, at least in the U.S., neither has happened; and rather than blame the technology, I suggest the reason these radical changes haven't happened is we've failed to adjust our attitudes, the way we think about work and the way we think about what we should get done in a formal work setting. Simply put, unless you change what a worker does during their day, the presence of technology won't necessarily enable you to get more done.

To bring this back to the PR world, I suggest we haven't done enough to change the PR business model through technology in a way that makes it possible for the ever-growing number of small and mid-size businesses with limited marketing budgets to engage a PR counselor. For example, a company with a limited budget could be presented with an account option that includes limited meetings, phone calls and other time-consuming (e.g. expensive) options for one that features mostly electronic client communication. That would enable the PR counselor to spend more of the company's billable time on actual program initiatives, greatly increasing the productivity that can be expected from limited budgets.

When thinking about technology and its impact on the business world, we'd do well to develop a plan that will allow the technology to reach its full potential and that focus should include just as much on the workday structure and the way we think about work as what the technology promises to do.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pew Study Illustrates Difficulty in Determining Social Media Impact

Proponents of social media have generally highlighted its biggest advantage as being the potential to "upend" the media landscape by shifting the power from a few large, established players to a more decentralized environment that delivers a broader perspective, free of biases. However, a new study by the Pew Center paints a much more complicated picture.

The study says that despite social media's potential to create a more diverse media culture, the reality is that even when it comes to new media, most consumers typically turn to the ventures of the established media companies that have dominated the media world for decades, if not longer. The research shows that blogs and other social media outlets are attracting a smaller than expected audience and that rather than creating a culture devoid of elitism, all that's happened is the elites now come from a broader class consisting of more than just individuals with media backgrounds. In other words, the barons still rule, just not the media barons of old.

The biggest trend, according to the study, is that news today is thought of not so much as a product, but as a service. Consumers are changing their preferences when it comes to consuming news by opting for everything from traditional, full-form news stories to 40-character briefs sent via e-mail.

As far back as 2006, I was saying that we've been in a "blog bubble" of sorts that is causing us to avoid fully examining the potential impact of social media and keeping us from using it in the right way. Unfortunately this latest study seems to say loud and clear that while social media has value, PR pros and others advocating its use would be well advised to give it a more thorough examination than has been done in the past. Frankly, we owe it to our clients and to the reputation of our industry as a whole.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Edelman's Take on PR's Validity

Richard Edelman, CEO of the nation's largest independent PR firm, had a great take on the impact the current economic downturn will have on PR that I urge everyone to read.

He believes that PR will be better equipped to weather the downturn than during the tech bubble of the 90s, when some tech-focused PR firms suffered dramatically, but says the industry could do a better job of promoting its own value proposition. Edelman goes on to list several key contributions PR makes to a business and its bottom line, including getting multiple stakeholders involved in a company's success -- not just consumers and serving as a unique accelerator for a company and its brand. That aspect stems from the fact that PR involves a communications approach that leads consumers of a company's PR message to become active participants that help companies shape their products and services.

Finally, Edelman argues that PR offers a credibility advantage because information is thoroughly vetted and examined by the media, bloggers and independent third-parties.

I agree with all the above and also with the fact that it's the industry's job to communicate these advantages through the selling process. Anyone who's in PR and has ever talked to someone who's never before met anyone else from the industry knows how little the average person understands exactly what we do. In a sense, that disconnect is causing us to miss out on a great opportunity, since at least a portion of these people might be potential PR consumers if they better understood the industry.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Does Recession-Proof PR Exist?

In a recent op-ed for The Bulldog Reporter, GolinHarris CEO Al Golin takes a turn at the microphone in the debate over the impact the current economic downturn will have on public relations.

In the article, Golin maintains that much has changed in the PR landscape in recent years. As a result of what he terms PR's "coming of age," Golin says businesses understand much more about what PR firms do for them and how important they are to their success. He goes on to say that PR can now make a good case about its necessity and has gone beyond merely an industry specializing in getting clients ink to one that includes firms that are valued business partners.

As proof of the change, Golin sites the growth of his own firm, which he maintains had a banner year last year. While I don't think Golin would have a reason to overstate his firm's state, that stat was impossible to verify since GolinHarris is part of the Interpublic Group, which doesn't readily make available stats on its various subsidiaries.

Overall, I think articles such as this perfectly illustrate the wide disconnect between large and small firms. Large firms, as is the case with large companies in many other industries, often enjoy many benefits by virtue of their size. Chief among them is the fact that large businesses often patronize businesses of their same size; so Golin Harris has a number of large, publicly-held clients as companies. I suspect an examination of smaller, independently-held firms would yield a much different picture since competition is even more fierce at that level.

If there are any owners/managers of mid-size or small independent shops, I'd love to hear your comments on this issue. Is Golin's enthusiasm overstated?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to Effectively “Sell” PR

(Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 17, 2008)

Even the most talented public relations professionals need one key ingredient before they can work their magic: A company willing to trust the PR pro with their program. Getting to this crucial point isn't always easy, and the way PR has traditionally been sold has a lot to do with it.

The business pitch process itself is relatively simple: Find a client that's a good fit for a consultant or an agency's experience and background and convince them you're the one for the job. While that seems simple enough, like many things, the devil's in the details. While it's understandable that an agency or consultant may want to pull out all the stops to get new business, in many cases, the way it's done now is all too often the problem.

Often, a new business pitch consists of an agency or consultant wowing a prospective client with PowerPoint presentations and telling them all the great outlets they're sure to appear in if they just select their firm. They talk about the placements they've achieved for clients and how they can do that for darn near anybody on the planet – including, of course, the company they're pitching.

Now no one in their right mind would go into a business pitch with a demeanor resembling the comic Steven Wright and/or an attitude that didn't reflect competence and confidence; but the key thing to remember is going overboard is no better. During the “dot-com boom,” we were all treated to stories about how company x was going to have the next best thing that was sure to shake the competitive landscape of its field. And when most companies are looking for a PR pro, they feel just as confident about their product or service and think it's just a matter of time before the high-level ink will come rolling in.

When an agency or consultant typically hears a prospective client talk like this, they often give encouraging feedback and/or do their best to echo what the client said. However, at this juncture, what we should really be thinking is not so much giving the client back what they want to hear, but giving them honest feedback that reflects the experience that comes from managing good PR campaigns. To get a better idea of what I mean, think about law firms. I do a lot of work with law firms large and small, and I feel that PR should do more to model itself around the legal profession and other portions of the professional services world. By that I mean, even the best lawyer in the country will never promise an outcome they're not sure can be delivered. In addition to the fact that doing so would run afoul of a myriad of ethics rules, they also realize all too well that even if someone's the greatest at what (s)he does, sometimes they'll lose for reasons completely out of their control.

While it may be tough to say even to ourselves, even the best PR campaign will fail sometimes, even if the client has a good idea. After all, the proverbial road is littered with many sound ideas, services and products that just never took off. A good PR agency will bridge the gap between what they can and can't do in terms of the end result by explaining what works and doesn't work, as illustrated through campaigns that are similar to what the prospective client needs. You can tell a lot about whether a company will be a good client by how they react to your objective advice; if they don't take it, odds are they're going to want to pin everything that doesn't go right in a PR campaign directly on you, even if the reason something didn't work as expected was completely out of your control. That doesn't mean I would say you should never take business from a company whose executives act in this manner; my point is merely that it will prepare you for what could lie ahead and allow you time to think about managing the issue. If you follow the path of giving a prospective client objective advice and they come aboard with your firm, you're already going to be on much more solid ground than if you'd promised anything and everything under the moon just to get them in. And to be fair, you really can't blame the client in this instance, as nobody forced the PR pro to say something they didn't want to say.

In all likelihood, taking this path will go far toward earning you that “seat at the table” that so many PR pros covet. To be successful, you'll need an advocate inside the company that communicates your successes and embraces your ideas and is willing to go to bat for you and those ideas to key executives. You'll also likely find that the client will respect your abilities more if you give them objective advice, even if it confronts their conventional wisdom at the time.

The best reward that this approach will likely bring is both a happy client and a long-term client. As I've written about extensively on my blog and in other forums, if every professional service firm had to replace their clients as often as PR firms do, they'd be thinking something had gone horribly wrong. Yet, for some crazy reason, we in PR just accept it as a fact of life. What makes this doubly crazy to me is that if you asked PR pros whether they'd rather be engaging in selling or strategic PR, most would choose the latter. Given that, why not do all you can to maximize client retention and, thus, reduce the need to constantly sell? I'm convinced taking a better approach to sales will not only benefit the practice of an individual practitioner or an agency's, but also be a great thing for the profession as a whole.