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Hi, I'm Tom Woolf and I have been practicing public relations and offering marketing communications strategies for 20 years. And I'm still learning from people like you. Drop me a line!

  • 30Jan

    I have been working with more start-ups and smaller businesses who have been trying to harness inbound marketing using press releases as well as other strategies. News releases still carry a lot of weight with search engines for SEO, and they can be useful for blog fodder and to feed social media channels. However, not every press release is newsworthy, although they really should be.

    In the drive to promote search engine visibility, companies, or more specifically the marketing executives within those companies, have forgotten the first rule of press release writing; ask yourself, “Is it news?”

    Recently I have been receiving more requests for non-news news releases, such as having a “cool” product or adding a new social video to your website. While these types of events may have great import to your company, you have to ask yourself if anyone outside the organization will find the news of interest. If not, it ain’t news.

    Inbound marketing is driven by good content, which means good storytelling. There are any number of formats you can use to tell a good story: a case study, blog post, opinion piece, “how to” article, etc. And while all press releases should tell a good story, not all stories make worthy press releases. Here are just some of the criteria that journalists use to determine news value:

    1. Timeliness – It it’s now, it’s news. Events that are interesting and happening now are newsworthy. When you release a new product, for example, it’s newsworthy the day you release the product, not two months later.

    2. Something new – A new approach, a new standard, a new product, a new hire, a new headquarters; these are all newsworthy because they are new.

    2. Conflict – Industry conflict or the fact you or your company takes a stand that is the polar opposite of an industry leader could be newsworthy.

    3. David vs. Goliath – I hear a lot of clients say they want a David and Goliath story, where they want to take on the big guys and do something they can’t. In the minds of the media, the David vs. Goliath story usually takes the form of fighting for the underdog. Reporters often see themselves as protectors of the truth, and the voice of the disenfranchised, so David needs to be wronged by Goliath to make the story newsworthy. If you are looking for a B2B David-and-Goliath story, then you need to prove that you did something significant that the big competitors could not.

    4. Statistics – Reporters love statistics, particularly if they highlight a trend or shed light on a hot industry topic. If you have statistics that demonstrate market or thought leadership, or make a case for your market strategy, a news release is a good way to get the word out.

    5. Milestones – For public companies, industry milestones such as mergers, earnings, etc., need to be disclosed to the market, and press releases are a good way to do that. For private companies, sharing insight about new customers, earnings, and business operations make you look like a public company, and often get published.

    6. Something that impacts your world – If the news has an impact on your customers or industry, then it is press release-worthy. For example, a new industry standard, or a company acquisition, or even a webinar with insights about what the future might hold will be of interest to someone out there, and so it’s worth disclosing.

    There are a number of other events that reporters love to cover, but most of them involve scandals, disasters, and bad news that you wouldn’t want to package in a news announcement (although you should be prepared with a crisis communications plan).

    Remember that people don’t share sales pitches, but they do share stories. Make sure your news release has a story worth hearing and worth sharing.

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  • 14Nov

    So where do your customers hang out? What are they reading? Where are they going for the latest market information? Those are the questions that should keep my clients app at night. I know I spend a lot of time and energy pondering those questions on their behalf.

    The simple answer is they read everything and are everywhere. In the age of the Web, links can take you anywhere so whether your client gets of coverage in the local weekly or the leading trade journal, it’s all good. This is part of the school of thought that believes “any PR is good PR,” which is only partially true. What makes good PR is preaching your audience with the right brand message in the right context.

    Broadening your niche- I just had a client tell me that he wasn’t interested in an interview with Forbes because his technology customers aren’t small business. He would rather see coverage in the technology trades that cover his TLA technology*. Granted, you want to get strong coverage in those trade journals that have a strong presence in your market, especially for B2B marketing. However, you can be too laser focused. Any B2B story has to demonstrate broader business value, which should make pit appealing to any business publication. You never know where your next customer goes to get his or her information,

    Big business and brand cache – Then thee are those clients who only want coverage in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. That is coveted editorial coverage, but the big name media outlets have limited space and fairly specific rules of engagement. I don’t know how many times I have had o explain to start-ups that the business press are looking for a demonstrated track record. Without a stock ticker or some high-profile customers to explain why they can’t live without your product or service, the chances of getting coverage as an upstart newcomer are pretty slim.

    Social media – The big question for everyone is how big a role does social media play in generating brand visibility and nurturing customers. I had a conversation with a client earlier this week who has been investing a lot of time and money in building his presence on Google Plus and Facebook to attract fans. As he sees it, “It’s the long game. This strategy will pay off over time.” And I am sure he is right. Customers feel better about their buying decision when they feel an affinity for a brand; they are buying from someone they feel they know and that has already become part of their consciousness because of the social media experience.

    Everywhere else – Context can be as important as content. Where prospective customers or brand influencers encounter your brand can be as meaningful as the message. R example, a story in the local paper about your company’s participation in the annual Aids Walk says more about your company and its culture than how cool your latest product is. When a prospect does a news search on the be, those stories will show up next to the spec sheets, and will leave a positive impression that may tip the scales when it comes time to make a sale.

    Who’s whether or not you believe that all PR is good PR, don’t make your media targets too laser focused. To build brand awareness, you want to tell your story in different ways to appeal to your audience on multiple levels. Your customers are lurking in unlikely places, so don’t be afraid to engage them in as many ways as you can.

    * TLA is three-letter acronym

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  • 05Jun

    The phone interview is dead. Long live the email interview.

    Okay, that’s an exaggeration. However, the email culture is eroding the old fashioned way of interacting with the press, and the way the press interact with their sources, including my clients. Although many reporters still call for quotes and information, more of them are emailing it in, asking for written responses only. This is good and bad for the PR industry.

    I am old enough to remember the days before email, when you had to actually pick up the phone and call a reporter and risk the wrath of interrupting him or her on deadline or getting the verbal cold shoulder – “Not another ^&^&$##@ flack pitch call!” One of the good things about phone work is that it forces you to really do your job and know your stuff, or rather your client’s stuff. You had to be prepared before you dialed with a concise elevator pitch,explaining who you are and why you are calling. You also had to be prepared to read the mood coming over the phone wires: “Is this a good time?” “Are you on deadline?” Can I just a minute to explain why I am calling?” To work the phones you had to be on your game, with a smile in your voice and information at your fingertips.

    trash-mailEmail has changed all that. Now there is more back and forth. More time at the front end of the process to hone your pitch and get it right in writing before you hit the “send” button. There also is more time at the back end to hone your responses and tailor what you say. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that email doesn’t promote relationship building. It doesn’t provide a chance for dialogue, or for exploring new opportunities or points of discussion beyond the topic at hand. Email tends to be very transactional and lacks color by its very nature, so the challenge is to make your point in writing in a way that is memorable and repeatable, especially if you are trying to do an email interview.

    Email also allows reporters to ignore you in a different way. I can’t think how many pitches or messages dropped into a bit bucket somewhere along the way. Either the reporter on the receiving end marked it as spam, or deleted, or just plain missed it. One of the challenges about email is that it’s easier to pitch reporters, even it it’s a bad pitch. Every ill-formed hey-do-you-want-to-interview-my-client pitch racks up with the hundreds of other pitches in the reporter’s email inbox.

    However, email is becoming more prevalent for interviews, even if it is not necessarily more efficient. I can’t think how many times I have seen a HARO or Profnet request stating “Email responses only, no phone calls please.” But email is an efficient way to deal with logistical issues and other concerns. If you can’t get your client on the phone or you can’t get schedules to align, the time shifting enabled by email could be your only solution. I recently had a challenge interviewing a customer in Moscow for a case study. There was an eleven hour time difference and even when we tried to schedule a call at midnight my time, we couldn’t seem to get together so we resorted to an email interview.

    Some argue that email interviews are lazy and irresponsible. How can you be sure you are getting an unbiased story without a chance to ask candid questions? Doesn’t an interactive exchange both assure better quality information and less bias? There is an argument to be made for that, as stated by Alison Kenney who blogs for PR recruiter Lindsay Olson of Paradigm Staffing:

    A couple of well-regarded blogs have commented on this practice [of email interviews] recently, although mostly from the perspective of the media.

    American Journalism Review wrote about the practice from the journalists’ and editors’ point of view (which is well worth a read). The post expresses concern that email interviews “promote lazy reporting and the use of unreliable sources…”

    PR Daily recently asked, “Is the phone interview dead?” and lamented the lack of color an email interview has in comparison with a phone interview, as well as the lack of natural “back and forth that comes from a conversation. Plus, there’s no personal relationship building, however slight, when everything is done in written form.”

    In response to the PR Daily post, Clay Ziegler did his own experiment and called a dozen working journalists to quiz them about their interview method preferences. He concluded that the phone interview lives and why that’s a good thing.

    Like most changes wrought by new technology (and social media, in particular), old practices may not go away, but new practices – including using IM, Twitter, Facebook and email to get information and quotes for a story – are becoming more and more accepted.

    Alison offers some insights into what to look for when dealing with an email interview and I recommend you read her blog entry.

    Times change, and best practices change with them. New technology enables new approaches and procedures, for good and ill. However, just because we have the means doesn’t mean we should always use them. I am reminded of the texting phenomenon; the balance of having my wife send a text reminder to pick up something at the store versus the teenagers sharing the same couch and texting back and forth rather than having a conversation. Sometimes technology just gets in the way. The same is true with email interviews. They have their place, but there are times when you just need to pick up the phone.

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  • 14Mar

    I saw an interesting post last week on Silicon Valley Watcher. Tom Foremski was commenting on PR firm LaunchSquad and their launch of a new social media and marketing service, Original9 Media. Apparently, this new company was specifically created to combine content creation with online marketing. Foremski quotes LaunchSquad co-founder Jason Mandell as saying:

    We will offer a full spectrum of premium content services including strategy, distribution, analytics, creative, web and mobile content and site/app development, infographic programs, blog creation and management and influencer recruitment, among others.

    This is part of a reinvention plan that’s been underway at LaunchSquad for several years. It’s a new time for marketing and PR and we believe an amazing time to create new types of services based on the original creation and distribution of high quality content.

    It’s the middle ground between ad agencies and PR firms that everyone is acknowledging and running toward…

    Foremski’s response:emperor_has no clothes

    The creation of Original9 is interesting because it seems to split-off that work from the list of PR services that a PR firm such as LaunchSquad would offer. Will clients notice the difference? Or is this a move to help add revenues that would normally be funneled through PR services?

    Thank you, Tom, for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. C’mon. We do content development now! In fact, I would argue that 90 percent of my job these days is developing and distributing content created to reach customers, and perhaps press and analysts along the way. With the increased decline of reporters and publications and the increase in online publishing and self-publishing, those of us who used to feed the media information are now feeding the social media machine and the web. It’s basically the same process with a different audience.

    As Foremski notes, “In many respects, Original9 is acting as a publisher — a media company.” This move essentially positions Original9 to become a paid content provider, creating information to appeal to a target audience, just like a publisher, or a PR firm for that matter. Semantics aside, what this new firm is doing is the same thing the old firm was doing, but now they get to change the labels and mark up the prices.

    We already offer content services, strategy, distribution, analytics, etc., etc. In fact, targeting blogs and writing for blogs has become a major focus for my consulting firm. So if I call it something different, does that mean I can charge more for my services? I think my clients would notice. And I think they would go to a more cost-effective resource to help them spread the word.

    Call it PR, or marketing, of content development, it’s still working with clients, helping them package their story, and get that story into the hands of people who matter to the client. Whether you do it through handbills, press releases, or blog content, the process is the same.

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  • 16Feb

    Public relations is a profession that has long been at war with itself. Those of us who are in PR are used to be calling nasty names because of what we do. The most common is “flack,” and I am still not sure of the etymology of the term. Some of my peers say that Tom Wolfe first coined the term in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers; others tell me that it has to do with catching enemy fir, such as anti-aircraft shells or flak. in any case, we take heat from both our clients and the media. Event the PRSA is struggling to identify the proper definition for “public relations.”

    Why?

    Because public relations people are inevitably placed in the middle. We often have to help a client tell423899_293305987391663_130828826972714_719915_80234888_nl a bad story or try to put a positive face on a disaster, as well as helping them tell a good story or when they have good news. And as far as the press is concerned, they can’t tell when we have something truly useful or are just trying to hype a client product or service. Reporters have come to distrust and even loathe PR people because all too many of us act like used car salesmen in order to “sell” a bad client story. I think Peter Shankman. the founder of HARO (Help a Reporter Out), summed it up nicely in a Forbes interview this week:

    There will always be problems between PR people and journalists, no matter how much we try and repair the rift. Look, fundamentally, the two are simply designed to oppose. On one hand, you have journalists, who have the job of finding actual news – a good story, a trend, something interesting. That’s not easy to do, and they’re being asked every day to do more with less. On the flip side, you have PR people, who are beholden to the request of the clients – A very simple, yet incredibly complex request: “Get us press.” I’d say the biggest mistake PR people make is not standing up to the client and occasionally saying “Hey, that press release you want us to issue about you repainting the conference room? THAT’S NOT NEWS. NO ONE IS GOING TO COVER THAT, AND IF YOU MAKE US PITCH FIFTY JOURNALISTS ABOUT IT, WE CAN GUARANTEE THAT THOSE FIFTY JOURNALISTS WILL NEVER COVER US AGAIN, EVEN WHEN WE DO HAVE SOMETHING WORTH WRITING ABOUT.”

    For some, the thought of PR ethics is an oxymoron. For others of us who take our profession and its ethics seriously, we understand that our job is to not only counsel the client, but to advocate for the press. When a client has a bad story or wants to publicize the new paint on the conference room, it’s the PR professional’s job to tell the client his story stinks and no one will care. No one wants to tell someone their baby is ugly, but if a story is bad you have to point it out.

    There is a broad-reaching misconception that public relations is the same as publicity. Those who can’t understand the difference are the same folks who think that any press is good press. Publicity is not PR. And any story is not a good story.

    Kudos to my friend, Dr. Mitchell Friedman, who is a long-time PR practitioner and now is teaching PR practice and ethics to the next generation of flacks. As Mitchell points out, publicity is not public relations:

    Public relations has a far different orientation, as noted in PRSA’s aforementioned campaign to redefine the function. Responsibilities include building and managing relationships with an organization’s key audiences (both internal and external); overseeing its reputation (or what’s often referred to as “managing the corporate brand”); and serving as the organization’s conscience. Publicity and media relations are part of this equation, along with a variety of other functions.

    Mitchell has identified eight well-reasoned principals for what makes good public relations which I agree with wholeheartedly. My role as a PR professional has evolved substantially in 20 years. On my best days, I am working with senior management to support corporate marketing, refine and reinforce brand messages, and manage conversations and relationships inside and outside the organization. On my best days, I get to act as a corporate conscience, pointing out when something is wrong and won’t work and how to navigate a bad situation with honesty and integrity. On my bad days, I have to hype a bad product or make something out of nothing, often putting lipstick on the pig to try to hide the fact it’s a pig. Fortunately, since I am self-employed, I have more latitude in telling a client when he or she is wrong, but I recall many instances from my agency days when you grin and agree to whatever the client says because he or she is writing the check.

    It’s past time that those of us in PR stop worrying about the clip count and start worrying about the quality of the story and how we are managing our client’s reputation. Our profession is not about creating buzz but rather building brand and brand awareness. My role continues to broaden as I review web content, help with customer relations, and work with marketing and sales to help my clients promote their brand promise. I rely less on media calls these days and more on web optimization to do my job. That’s because I not just a publicist. I am a public relations professional.

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  • 08Feb

    The only constant is change. And when it comes to client relations, sometimes one of your outgrows the relationship and it comes time to break up. Breaking up is never easy, but when you know the relationship is no longer working, then you have to face facts and tell your client, “I’m sorry, but it’s over.”

    I have had a lot of those moments in the past few weeks. With the coming of the New Year, there are changes in strategy, budget, staff, and what used to be a great working relationship suddenly changes. Here’s a litany of my recent client break-up experiences:

    1. New company direction and budget reset for 2012 – marketing and PR support is no longer a priority.
    2. New marketing executive who decides to bring in his own team.
    3. Economy has reduced the client’s budget to the point where you lose money working for them at a reduced rate.
    4. The client’s demands are starting to take up more of your time, but they won’t  allocate more budget and they are increasingly slow to pay your invoices.

    breaking-upAny of these sound familiar? Working with clients can be a lot like dating. As long as the relationship has mutual benefit then you continue to work together, but if one or the other party becomes disenchanted, well… I actually see it as part of my mission to help my clients outgrow my services. If I am good at my job, the client company’s business will expand to the point where they need more marketing and PR resources, which means it’s time to hire more in-house staff or bring in a bigger firm. I’m always satisfied when that happens because it means I have done my job and they client has evolved to the next level. It’s all part of the business lifecycle.

    Still, breaking up is always hard to do. When it becomes clear that the working relationship is no longer of mutual benefit, it’s time to part company. Sometimes you will find that a client wants too much, or is detracting from more profitable work, or is just too difficult to work with. Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 indicates that 20 percent of your clients probably make up 80 percent of the workload. They also should make up 80 percent of your profits, but not necessarily contribute 80 percent of the headaches.

    When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s always difficult. You don’t want to turn away business, even if it gets in the way of finding something more lucrative. Somehow, the idea of firing a client seems to bad for business, when in reality, getting rid of a bad client is the best thing you can do for your operation.

    So how do you do it? Be professional and be up front. We all like to avoid conflict, and that leads to unclear communications and passive-aggressive behavior that just makes things more difficult. You want to end the relationship in a way that you both have respect for one another, and so you can use that soon-to-be-former client as a reference later on. Here are some tips I’ve borrowed from Nellie Akalp of CorpNet that you should find useful.

    1. Remove emotion from the equation. I know I tend to get pissed off at clients for any number of reasons. Don’t make decisions when you feel angry or hurt; it will be the wrong decision. Instead, assess the client relationship calmly and rationally and weigh the pros and cons before you decide to part ways. If you find your ego being bruised time and again by the same client, then listen to your instincts.

    2. Honor the contract. My contracts have a termination clause – typically from two weeks to 30 days. Be sure you have fulfilled your part of your contract and honored all of your obligations. It’s good business and will help you secure a reference if you need one, and keep you out of trouble. Beside, it’s just the right thing to do.

    3. Schedule a meeting. It’s so easy to send an email or leave a voice mail message. It’s also a cowardly way to avoid confrontation. Schedule a personal meeting or at least a phone call to explain your position, come to a mutual understanding, and discuss any transition. Meeting face-to-face may be uncomfortable but it’s the right thing to do. (You wouldn’t dump your girlfriend with a text message or PostIt would you?)

    4. Be succinct. Don’t rehash all the reasons you are firing the client, or all the good work you have done in the past. What’s the point? Just keep it short and sweet.

    5. Give sufficient notice. Don’t walk out in the middle of a project. Don’t leave the client in a bind by dropping everything. Honor the spirit as well as the specific terms of your contract and provide the best service you can right up to the end. That shows professionalism and a genuine desire to see your client succeed.

    6. Help with a transition. Offer alternative resources. Prepare all the material you need to help the client hand off the work to another resource. Acknowledge your contribution by offering to pass on what you have done and what you have learned so others who follow don’t have to start from scratch.

    Once you recognize the party’s over, leave gracefully. The professionalism of your exit and how you choose to terminate a client relationship says a lot about you, your firm, and your professionalism, and may make the difference in building your brand reputation or making an enemy with unkind words that may follow you to your next gig.

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  • 26Jan

    I wanted to share an interesting blog from today’s Daily Fix on MarketingProfs contributed by David Reich of Reich Communications. In light of the changes in the role of today’s marketing professionals, the PRSA has been struggling to update the formal definition of Public Relations. They solicited input from their membership and 625 responses were distilled into three definitions. Reich sees flaws in all of them, center_prand so do I. You would think that professionals who deal with branding and brand communications for a living would be able to find a better way to define their own profession, but then this definition has become more challenging because the rules dictating PR have changed.

    I, personally, have been struggling with how to label my evolving role in the marketing and communications process. People ask me, “What do you do?” and I reply, “I’m in public relations.” What image does that conjure up? If you are old school (like me) you think of the characters from Mad Men, schmoozing reporters over cocktails and trying to get stories printed about your clients. Although that perception is antiquated, I know it’s still out there.

    Others who have worked with PR people that our job has to do with helping our clients refine their market message, package it, and get the word out to people who need to hear it. It used to be that our primary job wasn’t really public relations, but rather media relations. Sure, the clients needed help refining their story, identifying what might be newsworthy, and then creating materials like press releases to tell the story, but if I wasn’t working the phone and pumping the story with reporters and the trade editors I clearly wasn’t doing my job. Clients wanted press coverage, period, and that meant getting in front of the media influencers.

    These days, the “public” is back in public relations. Sure a lot of my job still consists of a calling on editors and dealing with the media to promote client news, but now that the Web serves as a self-service news bureau, so it’s equally important to format brand messages to reach consumers and target customers directly. I spend more of my time feeding blogs and developing SEO strategies than I do pitching editors.

    So how does this all translate into the latest definitions of “public relations” as refined by the PRSA? Here are the three definitions that are currently up for consideration:

    Definition No. 1:

    Public relations is the management function of researching, engaging, communicating, and collaborating with stakeholders in an ethical manner to build mutually beneficial relationships and achieve results.

    Definition No. 2:

    Public relations is a strategic communication process that develops and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their key publics.

    Definition No. 3:

    Public relations is the engagement between organizations and individuals to achieve mutual understanding and realize strategic goals.

    Like Reich, I am not really crazy about any of these definitions. The problem with opening these types of initiatives to public vote is you try to create by committee, and the end result is usually a compromise at best and not a definitive statement of purpose or intent. My issues with these definitions is they are too broad, and tend to have buzzwords and catchphrases which are rapidly becoming meaningless. The word “stakeholders” is overused and is starting to lose its core meaning. I also am not sure I understand how to interpret “key publics” or “strategic goals.”

    Reich notes that PR pundit Jack O’Dwyer commented that none of these definitions don’t take into account vertical specialties, such as health care, technology PR, and the like. I agree, and I also note that these definitions fail to capture the broader role of today’s PR professional. These days I find myself doing customer relations, SEO consulting, market research, and general marketing support as well as what could be considered traditional PR work.

    Perhaps the greatest challenge we all face is that the communications market is changing rapidly, and with it our role in that market. The  rules and the tools have changed. I recently cleaned out my office and I found boxes of dusty print labels for press release mailings. It dawned on me that I hadn’t done a press release mailing in over a decade and would probably never have to do one again. And although I continue to work with editors and analysts, I also know that reaching customers directly is now even more important than influencing the influencers. My role continues to change with the needs of my clients, and trying to define what PR really people do on a day-to-day basis is becoming more like holding smoke in your hands.

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  • 11Dec

    Many thanks to Alison Kenney and Lindsay Olson for this week’s blog post on Lindsay’s PR recruiting site, Six Things You Didn’t Know About Solo PR Practitioners. In her guest post, Alison offers six reasons to hire a sole public relations practitioner. As Alison notes, each PR consultant has his or her strengths and unique talents, but she has identified six universal truths about PR soloists:

    1. Solo PR consultants are self-motivated. This is a given since when you work for yourself, whether you are in PR, a freelance writer, or even painting houses for a living, if you aren’t self-directed, you won’t stay in business long. PR soloists are virtuosos at many tasks, including finding and pitching their own business, which requires many of the same skills required to promote yours.

    one-man-band-1289602. PR soloists can become dedicated partners. This is a little known fact for those who have never retained a PR consultant. Most PR consultants who have been doing it for a while like what they are doing, and they like working for themselves, which means they do make great partners because they want to work with you, not for you. They like working with short-term projects or projects with a limited, well-defined scope because they know they can excel at those types of projects. They can work closely with your marketing team in ways that a larger PR firm can’t.

    3. You can find PR consultants to fit the need. Not all PR soloists offer the same services. Some like to do everything from strategic development to execution, and others like to fill in for a missing team member of help with specific projects like writing white papers or product launches. PR practitioners come in all shapes and sizes, so you can find one who fits your needs.

    4. They take their work personally. I like to work as a consultant because it suits my temperament and allows me to deliver well-thought-out, well-executed projects because I am responsible for strategy as well as the hands-on work. I take my work personally because I have to answer to my clients directly, without an agency to run interference, and I have to use my past performance as the means to sell future and repeat business.

    5. Soloists have a niche. PR consultants often have a handful of skills at which they are particularly skilled, as well as the PR basics. the good consultants know what they are good at, and that’s what they sell.

    6. There is no such thing as a truly “solo” PR professional. Every PR consultant is the product of his or her professional experience, drawing from past PR agency work, professional affiliations, clients, and contacts. Most PR consultants I know use a “virtual”agency model, tapping their network of friends and fellow consultants to find the right resources for any project.

    Those are the common traits that Alison identified for PR consultants. Of course, there are many others that I often cite when I talk about PR consulting.

    7. What you see is what you get. One of the things that used to irk me when I worked with larger PR agencies was the “bait and switch”; the firm would bring in the senior practitioners with years of experience to sell the business and build a program, but once the contract was signed, the actual work would be turned over to the junior team for execution. The challenge with the agency structure is that the senior staff is actually too valuable to actually do the work. They are much more valuable closing new business and running the agency. Within the agency, the goal is to rise above doing the day-to-day client work. With PR soloists, it’s exactly the opposite. When you hire a PR consultant, you know they are the ones actually doing the work they promise.

    8. You pay for results, not process. A curse of the agency business is the billing process. Most agencies work on the billable hour, and even those that don’t use billable time against a retainer model to measure employee productivity. A large part of the agency business model is proving their raison d’etre by generating reports and spending an inordinate amount of time proving their value. When you hire a good consultant, they’ll concentrate on getting the job done and not wasting time justifying the invoice.

    9. You get more flexibility. Part of the idea of being a business partner is adapting to the needs of the program. Sole practitioners are much more nimble at adapting to their client’s needs, suggesting ways to improve the program and achieve the target objective without a lot of internal discussion to realign the agency team.

    10. You get better, dedicated service. I also believe you get a lot more loyalty from consultants. After all, you are one of a handful of clients who make up their entire business. The stakes are higher when you are a consultant, and you have a greater vested interest in keeping the clients happy.

    11. You save a lot of money. The savings you get versus the quality of service is not to be discounted. Consultants operate with much lower overhead and less infrastructure so you are paying for their expertise, not for maintaining the office for their staff and their administrative overhead. Consultants can generally charge a more cost-effective rate and offer better service because they have less overhead.

    So overall, you can get more from PR consultants. You get experienced professionals willing to work hard and apply all their expertise. You get a business partner who is committed to helping you succeed because your success reflects on his or her success. And you get more value. When you bring a PR soloist in to solve the right kind of problem, chances are you’ll get superior results.

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  • 04Nov

    I have been spending a good portion of my work day today working on a marketing Request for Proposal (RFP) for a local educational institution. While I have been reviewing this RFP in detail, I have been reading between the lines, trying to determine what has been predetermined. What were the assumptions that went into creating this document? Did they already decide that the end product needs to be green or the program targeting left-handed people? What vital part of the back story have they failed to include?

    The challenge with trying to complete a Request for Proposal is that the prospective client has already thought-through their needs for you and you have to plug your services into their template, which means you automatically start at a disadvantage. They are looking for an expert to solve their problem, but through the RFP process they have already defined their problem in a way that they have already decided on a specific solution and so they are looking for a vendor to provide that unique service. If you don’t fit the solution profile, you are out of the running before you can show what you bring to the problem.Dilbert_bid

    But does it make sense to start with a well-defined set of assumptions in the form of an RFP? When you structure an RFP, are you asking for what you really need, or has the RFP process already boxed you into the wrong corner before you even start? Let’s consider the following example:

    A company is struggling to build its sales pipeline. What are they going to do? The head of sales and marketing decides that a kickass advertising campaign is needed to raise market visibility, since the company is new to the market. So they put out an RFP for an ad agency and hire a creative award-winning firm. The firm develops the kickass campaign that gets lots of visibility, a lot of comment in social media and at trade shows, wins a few awards, and helps make the company a household word. However, the phone doesn’t ring and the client company doesn’t get email requests for sales information. They defined their problem – lead generation – and then defined the wrong solution to the problem – advertising. Instead, they should have gone to different marketing creative firms and asked for help with lead generation. In return, they would have gotten more creative proposals with a blended strategy of branding, direct marketing, and prospect outreach that would have added contacts to the sales pipeline.

    Or consider the RFP I am currently working with. The assumptions are extensive and the proposal spans a broad range of activities. But is all that activity really necessary? What is the real objective – something that is not clearly spelled out in the RFP. Is it to recruit new students, help with fund-raising, increase community awareness, increase market awareness, or all of the above? If it is all of the above, what is the order of priority?

    Through the RFP process, this institution is working on the assumption that they need EVERYTHING, from advertising to PR and social media. But is that an effective use of their budget? And would it make more sense to segment this process into multiple proposals so you can find the best-of-breed service providers for each component: advertising, PR, social media, direct mail, etc? (Let’s face it, no one agency can do all these tasks well.)

    So by starting with an RFP process, the company or organization is limiting its options. Rather than trying to define the solution to their problem and shop for vendors to provide the solution, why not solicit expert help in defining their problem as well as the solution?

    Okay, there is a risk here. If you bring in various agencies to help you define your problem, the agency will define their problem in terms they understand, and can solve. For example, if you ask an ad agency to help build sales, they will look at the problem in terms of market awareness and offer an advertising-driven solution, since that’s what they know how to do. You ask a PR firm for help with the same problem then you get a PR proposal to address sales growth. However, if you have a smart firm or multiple firms bidding on the same project, you will get a blended recommendation that includes a number of program elements, many of them right on target.

    This is where you, as the prospect looking for help, need to set aside your assumptions and take a hard look at the suggestions offered. Assess the recommendations based on what you need and what you know about your problem. Ask for ways to measure results, and see if the metrics address your requirements. See if there are creative ideas in the proposals that you haven’t thought about before and how those ideas change your thinking.

    The best proposals are a collaborative process between the prospect and the agency. It’s a dating ritual. You meet, compare notes, learn about one another, and see if you are well suited for one another. If you start with a checklist of predetermined criteria, e.g blonde, blue-eyed, six-feet tall, Master’s degree in engineering,etc., then you may overlook some great potential partners.

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  • 20Oct

    There are many times that I see public relations as a relatively thankless job. As with many professions, your bosses or clients typically call out what went wrong with a program or campaign or when the results are lackluster. They seldom let you know when you hit it out of the park and do outstanding work – after all, isn’t that what they are paying you for?

    client-agency-relationshipsHowever, one of the things that clients often fail to understand is that any successful PR or marketing support team is only as good as the collaborative support they receive. If they don’t give you sufficient support and information, then the results will be only as good as you can deliver without setting the right objectives and doing the right data gathering from the outset. I have a couple of clients who make our regular strategy call a low priority and just assume that the program can bump along without much input. The real problem clients are the ones who expect I am supposed to read their needs and fill in the gaps to make the program work in a vacuum. As with computing, if you put garbage in, you get garbage out.

    I spotted an article in Ragan’s PR Daily last week that addresses some of these issues. The idea is that as an external consultant, you need to be a collaborative partner with your clients, and that’s a door that swings both ways. You not only need to give your best expertise and effort as the contractor, but the client needs to be forthcoming with any relevant information and concerns, and set an expectation that you can both agree upon so the desired results of the program are set in advance and measurable. Here is some wisdom from the nine tips on how to promote good PR/client relationship from Ragan’s PR Daily:

    1. Communicate goals and expectations. You need to agree on the objectives of the program and the key performance indicators, i.e. how to measure success, in advance! If you deliver a huge clip book for a product launch, for example, but all the client cares about is coverage in Gizmodo which didn’t cover the story, then you failed, no matter how many articles you generate. However, if the client didn’t clearly set Gizmodo as a priority, the failure is theirs for not communicating expectations.
    2. Commit time to communicate. This is a two-way commitment between the client and the consultant. You both need to set aside time to discuss strategy, tactics, and reaffirm goals and expectations. Your team can only be as good as the quality of information and access given, so make time to talk on a regular, scheduled basis, as well as with ongoing email, instant messaging, whatever it takes.
    3. Be respectful of agency time. Many PR firms bill by the hour, and others, including mine, bill on a retained basis, although I track billable time to gauge performance against the retainer. Clients need to be respectful of agency time. If they take up all your time for too little return, you will be less inclined to go the extra mile when they really need it.
    4. Demand feedback. Feedback needs to come from the client about performance, but the client also should rely on the PR consulting team to provide independent input on media perception, brand reputation, and what the market buzz is saying about their brand. The PR firm’s role is to provide neutral insight into brand reputation, and the client should be open to feedback.
    5. Be transparent. The client needs to communicate business goals and impediments to success in an honest, frank manner to get frank feedback. The PR team is working under confidentiality, and to be effective they need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.
    6. Manage expectations. One of the reasons I try to work only with senior decision makers is I know I will get the straight story on what the expectations are for the program. Most programs fail not because of execution, but because the objectives for the program weren’t well defined in the first place. You may reach the defined goal, but the end result may not be what the client really wants because they failed to set the proper expectations.
    7. Give credit where it’s due. Positive feedback helps fuel the PR team. We all like to be praised for doing a good job, and I know I work harder for clients who appreciate the work. I always praise my team when they perform, and I love to get praise from the client when we do a good job. It really fires up the team.
    8. Challenge the PR team to deliver more. Ask for new ideas and creative input and you’ll get it, and more. The more interesting the project, the better the effort.
    9. Be a strategic partner. Okay, I know that all agencies say they are strategic partners for their clients, but that strategic relationship only works if there is mutual respect and shared goals. If your client can engage in a way where you feel invested in their success as part of the team, then the performance and results will be that much greater that if you are just asked to handle the block-and-tackle tasks.

    Successful PR and marketing programs are build on successful client communications and a mutual commitment to achieving results. It has to be a cooperative effort where both parties commit the time and resources necessary to make the relationship work. Lack of commitment and lack of communications will be sure to have a negative impact on any program.

    (With special thanks to Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications, who authored the original article for Ragan’s PR Daily and for the blog MENG Blend.

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