Thursday, March 11, 2010

We're More Than List Builders

I've often maintained that PR as an industry is in bad need of some good PR. A new discussion underway amongst professionals has me thinking this view needs to be broadened to include not only the industry as a whole, but the people who practice it.

A long-running conversation on LinkedIn features a variety of PR pros giving their views on sharing media lists with clients and soliciting opinions in regard to policies employed at various agencies. While the intent of the original poster was to solicit opinions on whether (s)he should share a media list with a client, it actually opened up a whole can of worms.

The central issue, as I and other respondents see it, is that this wouldn't even really be an issue if PR pros better positioned themselves and were more confident in their abilities. In other words, while tactics and the success of the tactics employed are a big part of what makes of successful, the strategy used to determine the actual tactics is what determines everything.

Unfortunately, strategy is something we rarely talk about. Pitch meetings with prospective clients are dominated by promises of high-level media placements and pronouncements of capabilities. Yet, the very fact that these elements take center stage at a pitching meeting sets up a situation where you're going to live or die by the hits only. It also positions the industry as little more than a telemarketing operation specializing in delivering marketing messages.

Any PR pros who work for small or mid-sized businesses can back this up. Often, clients will leap the assumption that if you don't personally know every editor at a publication you're pitching, you'll go nowhere. They don't even think about the fact that the messaging you use and other elements you create will be as instrumental, if not more so, than any relationships you may have. No one expects every lawyer to know every judge they may appear before on a personal level, but yet PR pros have let themselves get backed into that corner. Worse still, we've got no one to blame but ourselves.

My challenge to PR pros out there: Position yourself as a strategist who employs customized tactics that suit a client. Don't let yourself be known as someone who only does the "smile and dial."

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Sometimes Less Really is More

Ironically, one of the toughest things about being a public relations counselor is getting clients to actually take our counsel. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the process of determining media targets.

Long, long ago it seems, PR pros let themselves get pigeon-holed into a "YES!" mentality when it comes to any request from a client. For example, if you were to eavesdrop on a typical PR agency pitch meeting, when a typical question like "Can you get us into The Wall Street Journal?" comes up, the answer will many times go something like this "Sure, we have many contacts there. They all know us and are always eager to feature our clients."

There would, of course, be nothing wrong with that if it were typically true. And it's not that it's never true; rather that the question is one that's impossible to answer honestly with the level of information you typically walk away from following an initial pitch meeting. In a sense, these meetings involve everyone putting on their best face – yes, even the prospective client.

While it's true that the prospect holds all the cards in terms of the buying process, the fact that they're looking for a PR firm illustrates the fact that they're eager to get the third-party validation that comes from an objective news article in a leading business or trade publication. So, in a sense, they're working hard to have the agency or consultant come away believing they've got the best thing since sliced bread and the agency or consultant is working hard to get them to believe they know how to butter that bread better than anyone. The problem with this approach is it paves the way for unrealistic expectations and/or a problematic relationship from the get-go – and that's IF they hire you.

As I've written many times before, one of the biggest problems with PR is its high client turnover rate. I believe one of the biggest reasons the turnover rate is so high is because PR pros are too hesitant to give feedback and counsel that clients may not want to hear. When a prospect asks whether a placement can be secured in a particular media outlet, rather than instantly saying "YES!," the focus should shift to the PR program's objectives, including the audience the prospect wants to reach.

While there's an automatic notion that a placement in The New York Times is the best thing you can have, depending on the product or service you offer, that may not always be true. In media relations, you don't just want to reach the most people, but the right people. Thus, if only 10 percent of the readers of The New York Times are potential customers but 90 percent of the readers of a well-respected trade publication are likely buyers, the trade publication may very well be your best bet.

Likewise, when it comes to determining value from a PR program, be careful in how you say you're going to do that. Last week, I saw a PR pro write on a well-known social-networking site that they still use the ad-equivalency model. For those who may not know, that model basically multiples the space your story occupies and translates that into what it would cost to secure an ad of the same size. It was created in large part because the number that you will arrive at will often look impressive. Problem is, it's not really connected to the business objectives of the client at all.

Everything in a program or proposal that you put together should be tied to business objectives that are important to the client or the prospect. Not only does this approach allow a new program to start off with both client and agency/consultant on the same page, it also helps eliminate much of the confusion and frustration down the line. Using this approach, instead of filling in blanks to simple questions like "What media outlets do you want to reach?," you and the client go down a path that has both examining what the PR program should accomplish and how best to get there.

The answers to this question may very well generate a program that has a smaller list of targets and places an emphasis on fewer program elements. However, the long-term dividends may be much greater than a program that emphasizes numbers for their sake alone.