• 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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  • 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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  • 22Jun

    spin-cycleLast week, I spotted a blog by MG Siegler on TechCrunch that took Facebook’s PR machine to task for trying to cover up, or rather divert attention from a developer story they didn’t’ like. In his blog, “Facebook PR: Tonight We Dine in Hell!,” Siegler notes that the journalists are at war with the PR industry, and although there are many battles, the one he wants to tackle has to do with spin.

    I question the validity of his hyperbole, and his overdramatized position, starting with the controversial headline that sucked me in to read the blog in the first place, demonstrates that spin sells, at least to an extent. His presentation of the lengths that Facebook PR team goes to in order to discredit his story seems a little extreme, and whether he chooses to believe it or not, Siegler is spinning his tale to make his point. Maybe he should go into PR.

    In any case, he raises some valid concerns about the state of PR and some of the questionable practices of PR professionals. As he state it:

    The fact of the matter is that the entire PR industry is like a weed growing out of control. Current estimates have PR people now outnumbering journalists 3 to 1. Think about that for a second. And one of the industries in which this infectious growth is most apparent is the tech industry, where it’s boom time. My email inbox is a testament to this. As is my voicemail inbox. I’d bet that at least 75 percent of the messages I get in the day are from PR people. Their campaign strategy in this war is shock and awe.

    Now, I don’t mean to suggest that all PR people are evil or have the wrong intentions. Many are very nice people. And some are even very good at what they do. But increasingly what they do is nothing more than attempt to spin or grossly misrepresent what it is we do. For many of them, helping journalists/bloggers/writers get access to accurate information is secondary. It’s all about controlling a narrative — by any means necessary. And that has to stop.

    That last statement is one I agree with. Our job is not to control the narrative. Naturally, we present our clients and their wares in as positive a light as possible. We point out the benefits that are derived from the features. We make a case for competitive positioning, and that could be called “spin” if you wish. However, the facts will out, and like a rotten egg you can’t cover up the stench of a bad story.

    I make it my policy to work with analysts and editors in as frank and open a manner as I can, without compromising my client. As I have told clients in the past, my value to them hinges on my credibility with the press. If I can be helpful to a reporter or editor, they will remember that service. If I lie or mislead a reporter, they will never forget the disservice and I will have lost an editorial ally forever. I tell clients that the editors are as much my clients as the people who pay me, because I will have to call on that editor Lipstickonapigagain, long after the client has gone.

    So the Facebook PR disinformation campaign that Seigler describes in his blog post is bad PR practice, although I understand where it comes from. When bad news hits, the downhill slide starts and PR is at the bottom of the hill, trying to clean up the mess. Rather than trying to put the lipstick on the pig, it’s better to admit the error or embrace the bad story and neutralize it then and there. If you deny it, or try to adopt a non-denial denial, then the evasion becomes the story and compounds the embarrassment.

    Especially in PR, it’s time we left the spin cycle to the washing machine and adopted honesty as the best policy.

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  • 19Jan

    I just finished writing a new business proposal and, as always, I ran up against what seems to be the age-old question for consultants – what do I charge? I have experimented with different pricing models over the years – hourly rate, retainer, by the project. I have even developed a rate card that I use with prospects for project work, but inevitably, to be competitive, you have to haggle. There are many times I think I should hire an Arabian rug merchant and learn the gentle art of haggling for a better price.

    What continues to amaze me is that in public relations and marketing consulting, everyone sees pricing as negotiable. Do you question the fees of your doctor? Or what you pay your plumber? Sure, you have to be prepared to accept a market rate, but in the current economy it’s gotten harder to get a fair wage. I actually challenged my accountant last week when I was quoted a rate for a routine task, and we struck a compromise. But you can’t sell your services on price alone.

    Once again, I have Peter Shankman to thank for some great advice about getting paid what you are worth. As Peter notes, when you set your price, remember you can come down but you can’t go up. Also determine what you think your time is worth and calculate accordingly. I know that many consultants don’t necessarily adjust their rate but they miscalculate time, so a project takes twice as long as they anticipate, which means they get paid half their normal rate. And, of course, you have to charge market rate, but you also have to charge what you think your services are worth. If you have a healthy ego, you should be able to name a fair rate and stick with it. If the client doesn’t think your services are worth the rate, then you probably shouldn’t take the contract because they won’t respect the quality of the work if you underprice it.

    When working with a new client, you also have to be sure to understand the intangibles that may affect your rate. For some clients, this might be translated as the “hassle factor.” I was revisiting a thread on one of my LinkedIn Groups today where a PR professional was asking how much information to share with a client; should you share contacts, pitches, and enough detail to allow the client to micromanage the process? My response was, “Of course not. The client is paying you for your expertise.” If they want to tell you how to do your job, then the rates should go up. As one of my first clients told me (and I have lived by these words ever since), “You can pay me for process, or you can pay me for results. Process is a lot more expensive.”

    And to echo one of Peter’s other points, there are times when working for less pays off. I have a couple of clients that are on a very small retainer, and I know I over service them. More importantly, they know I over service them, which means they never hesitate to offer a referral, send new business my way, or help when I need something. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship that pays off in many ways.

    So is there a hard and fast rule about setting fees? I guess the golden rule is never sell yourself short.

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  • 24Oct

    imageI have just just completed my annual media list service evaluation, weighing the pros and cons of services such as Vocus and MyMediaInfo against my clients’ needs and my operating budget. Finding the right tools, both free and paid, to support client work is an ongoing challenge. I recently had a client ask me about one of the dozens of press release aggregation services that spam me every day and I had to do some digging to determine if it had any real value (it didn’t).

    So how do you find your way through the jungle of competing PR support services? To date, I have relied heavily on my LinkedIn groups and professional contacts to provide guidance, but when I am looking for a new services, such as the best service to research speaking opportunities, I have had to rely heavily on web search. But now there is a new service that has just been launched to help PR professionals find the tools they need – The PR Service Bureau, aka JungleBuzz!

    [Full disclosure – JungleBuzz is the brainchild of Gina Milani, a former co-worker and long-time associate and friend. She and I have discussed the need for this kind of service off and on for some time and I am delighted to see she finally launched it because I am certain that the market will benefit.]

    JungleBuzz was designed for PR consultants by a PR consultant as a single source to help you find the tools you need for success. (Although it offers lots of benefits for larger PR firms as well):

    “JungleBuzz is a communications ‘Tools of the Trade’ repository of traditional and social media tools designed for, or used widely by PR and communications professionals charged with influencing and monitoring public perception. With over 260 tools in 24 categories, it’s the first effort to identify and ‘corral’ the tools that are out in the PR jungle that can assist communications professionals.”

    JungleBuzz gives you a market overview and lets you compare the latest tools available for your needs, including:

    • Media list development
    • Editorial calendar tracking
    • Awards and speaking opportunities
    • Clip services and media coverage
    • Video clipping and streaming media resources
    • Market research resources
    • Blog and social media tracking
    • And a variety of other tools

    I signed on to JungleBuzz this week and have already found that it has saved a lot of time and trouble in researching essential PR resources. Check it out and see if it can help you expand your public relations services.

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  • 08Sep

    LifehouseLogo I saw an item today in MediaBistro that my old PR firm, Allison & Partners, has adopted Big Brothers and Big Sisters as their first pro bono client. I  couldn’t have been more delighted. All public relations and professional service firms should take on pro bono work, especially in tough economic times. Everyone needs a helping hand, and it’s both good for the cause and good for business to offer your services without a fee. I’m not surprised that Allison & Partners selected Big Brothers as their pro bono client. Scott Allison, the founder and CEO, is a terrific guy with a strong set or family and moral values, and a commitment to the community. Adopting Big Brothers seems a natural for the firm.

    Even in my consulting practice I work to give back to my community. Over the past year I have had imagethe privilege of helping two non-profit groups here in Marin County – Lifehouse, an organization that helps people with developmental disabilities remain independent, and Meals of Marin, which provides food to homebound clients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other life-threatening illness.

    The work you do doesn’t have to be extensive, or expensive, but just taking the time out of your busy schedule to counsel and give support to someone who really can benefit from your services is gratifying. These organizations have limited resources, and cash, and they can use any help they can get promoting awareness and funding. Through various circumstances, I had the privilege of connecting with Lifehouse and Meals of Marin, and my public relations experience was just what they needed at the moment to help promote their annual fund-raising events. If my small effort can help build awareness in the right places and add that many more names to the guest list, the difference in additional dollars means that I have a direct responsibility for helping those with disabilities help themselves, or feeding some unfortunate soul who is housebound due to illness.

    That’s how we can use what we know to really make a tangible difference.

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  • 30Aug

    Customer case studies  have been part of my job for longer than I have been doing media relations. When I started out as a trade journalist reporting for publications like Educational & Industrial Television and Video Trade News, end user stories were the mainstay of our editorial. Readers want to hear from peers who have “been there, done that,” which is why customer relations continues to be such an important part of any PR program.

    Of course, customers aren’t always willing to talk, especially in high-tech. Trying to get a financial services company or insurance company to open up about the inner workings of their CRM system or their security systems can be challenging. Customer companies don’t usually have much inventive to share information about how they do what they do; there usually isn’t much in it for them. That’s why you want to enlist customers as allies, not just topics for case studies. You want to find incentives to help them with their own sales and marketing so they will help your clients by serving as case study candidates.

    That’s part of the reason I was so pleased to place a profile of Stoops Freightliner in Heavy Duty Trucking this month for my client, FaceTime Communications. The story profiles how Stoops Freightliner is using FaceTime’s Unified Security Gateway to promote a secure social media marketing program to reach truck drivers across the Midwest. When I had an opportunity to place the story, I thought of Heavy Duty Trucking for a number of reasons:

    • Heavy Duty Trucking is one of the biggest titles reaching trucking executives and decision-makers.
    • A profile in Heavy Duty Trucking would help Stoops reach its customer base as well as new prospective customers for FaceTime – a win-win for everyone.
    • I have a soft spot for Heavy Duty Trucking since my dad sold advertising for them for a number of years.

    The strategy worked. Not only did Stoops get a great profile of their social media success at work, the article also brought in a new prospect for FaceTime.

    When I develop a customer relations program for a client, I like to develop an integrated program that benefits both my clients and their customers. As part of the sourcing process, I work with end users to determine what their marketing objectives are and how far we can carry their application story for mutual benefit. The result is, at minimum, a published case study with supporting sales collateral, content to feed social media outlets, anecdotal data for press briefings, and Web content. With a cooperative customer, you can extend the program to include webinars, speaking engagements, and more. The key is to make sure that all the participants come out ahead.

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  • 05Oct

    I have been working on a project lately for a financial services client; a crisis communications plan designed to help them deal with a variety of public problems. We developed scenarios to cover financial meltdown, executive malfeasance, data loss or theft, robbery, fire, flood, pestilence, and a plague of locusts. The client was pleased – “Very thorough” was the response – but in the process of developing the crisis plan I recalled a number of points I had forgotten about crisis management.

    The first revelation was that in order for there to be a crisis, you have to have a victim. This seems obvious, but I have known a number of chief executives who look at an internal product failure or a bad fiscal quarter and decide it’s a crisis that needs addressing. Unless the public, or employees, or stockholders are going to be affected (and usually in a dramatic way), there is no crisis.

    I also discovered that NOT having a crisis communications plan in place can be expensive. You can’t just think in terms of losses in revenue, reputation, or brand equity. The premiums for E&O insurance are higher if you don’t have a crisis plan waiting in the wings. After all, statistics show that every organization will encounter a public crisis sometime in the next five years.

    It’s also crucial that you not only identify corporate spokespersons in advance, you need to train them! CEOs think that talking to the press is the same as schmoozing a venture capitalist or addressing the board of directors. They are wrong! Crisis communications requires a level of understand and finesse that is unlike any other type of PR. If you have doubts, go to YouTube and look up any CEO dealing with a company crisis. If they have prepared, it shows.


    What’s wrong with this picture? Would you trust this man with your crisis message?

    The real trick in crisis communications is being responsible and admitting there is a problem without pointing fingers or assigning culpability. This is a fine line that can be very hard to walk. If you speak frankly and address concerns quickly about what you know, and stay within your area of responsibility, you can avoid laying blame or making statements that you will have to recant later.

    Above all, crisis communications calls for authenticity It’s not just about saving the company’s reputation or shoring up stock price. It’s about being a stand-up corporate citizen that cares about customers, employees, or the planet – whoever has been affected by the company’s error.

    So if you haven’t revisited your crisis strategy lately, it’s time. Make sure you have assigned your crisis team, refreshed your contact list, and trained your spokespersons. There’s nothing worse than getting caught unprepared. And when you are caught unwares, repairing the damage to your reputation and your brand, and rebuilding your sales could take more time than you can afford to invest.

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