Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What You Don't Know About PR CAN Hurt You

David Beisel capped last night's fabulous Web Innovation Night with a panel on how entrepreneurs can do PR without PR agencies. Moderated by Mike Troiano, the panel included Bob Brown of NetworkWorld, Peter Kafka of AllthingsD, Scott Kirsner of his own making and the Innovation Economy column in the Boston Globe and Wade Roush of Xconomy.

This was intended to be PR 101 lesson for entrepreneurs who want coverage but don't know how to go about getting it. But the takeaway, as I heard it, was much closer to what Bobbie Carlton says in her blog post:

...if I was an entrepreneur, all I would have heard was, “Run away from PR people, they are useless to you. In fact, probably worse than useless because top reporters look down on them as a breed.”
There are two main problems here. First, the panel didn't have a good idea of how PR actually helps media relations; but second is the misunderstanding that PR means only media relations. Today's PR is much more than that.

On the first issue the panel joked several times about how entrepreneurs will do silly things like send them "embargoed" press releases, or conduct an interview and to call back a day later only to say "the first 20 minutes of that talk was off the record, right?" or try to pitch a "news hook" that is a minor upgrade of a product.

Good PR counsel fixes those problems. We guide clients on how to talk with journalists so when you they get their 30 or 60 minutes with Scott Kirsner they use that time effectively, both for them and for the journalists. We guide our clients on what information is pertinent to which audiences and how to best present that information.

Peter Kafka made the point that PR firms make a lot of money selling clients on the idea that they can reach him, but the act of reaching him is quite simple. He went as far as to call PR people liars, since they say they know him when they don't.

A good media relations firm will never sell you on their contact list since we all know that the contact list is worth the pixels it appears on. The fact that any one of us knows or is known by any journalist only gets us an additional few seconds of consideration. Maybe it gets our email opened when others get tossed immediately. But unless that email or phone call includes a good story, then the time is wasted, so we focus on packaging the story.

After the panel, as I approached Wade Roush, I found myself in a very interesting conversation with one of the panel's targets: an bootstrapped entrepreneur whose company is targeting application developers. He had a few questions of Wade that frankly were out of Wade's range. The entrepreneur wanted to know how to talk with specific application development message boards and what impact news and information presented there would have on gaining coverage from Xconomy. He and I then had a nice conversation about communications strategy leading up to his launch. We agreed that getting coverage in the Globe, for example, wouldn't help him reach his audience, but later may be useful in reaching potential investors, a move that affects his communciations strategy. We also talked about his need for a "community manager" who would focus on working with the various application development forums.

And that leads to my main problem with the panel: they preached the misguided notion that PR is only media relations.

There is a reason that the landscape is dotted with the former co-workers of the people on this panel. Individuals today get their information from a number of sources, many of whom are not professional journalists. Today anyone with a blog has the potential to reach their core audience, provided they hit the right keys. Google is the gateway.

Yes, traditional PR is about getting coverage and even today many agencies sell that very thing. In fact, for many companies media relations remains an important component of their overall PR program. But PR is about developing a broad communications program that includes:
  • Building a long-term strategy that establishes lasting relationships with your core audiences;
  • Creating content and managing conversations that engage those audiences directly; and
  • Reaching industry influencers (media relations gets lumped in here).
Tactically this means that the communicator or agency you hire should have skill sets that include: writing ability; audio and video skills; creative thinking and the ability to connect with influencers.

It happens that next week a partner and I will be announcing a PR firm that focuses on just this kind of work. Once our site is live I'll provide a link.

If an entrepreneur walked out of that panel thinking that all they have to do is call up one of these reporters and say "hey, my company's live, come write about us!" and all will be good with their PR program, then they have done a disservice to Boston's startup community. These companies need long-term strategies to drive business, not just the tactical skills to get the occasional story in Network World.

And the right PR counsel will help them do just that.


Doug Haslam said...

Thanks Chuck-- I would add to the entrepreneur bit that the entrepreneur who can approach the press and represent their company articulately and well right off the bat is an extremely rare one.

Good PR doesn't get in the way, but facilitates-- that goes for the media relationships as well as the more-important strategic counsel. What I know of the panel from last night-- they know that.

Sarah said...

Chuck, nice catching up last night. Interesting question from one audience member: What do you do if you are a CEO without passion? The reporters laughed at him, which was a bit too glib, IMO. I'm not sure if the person asking the question was a CEO (without or with passion), but I think that there might have been something more behind his question. What if you are CEO who is heads down writing code, not words. What if you are passionate about de-bugging, not talking and listening?

Chuck Tanowitz said...


Great catching up with you too. I think the idea of "passion" versus "ability to communicate" are two different things. I would agree with them that the best spokesperson in the organization is the person who IS passionate. I'm sure all PR people have sat in a room with a startup listening to a founder or VP and realized "that's the guy!"

But the best CEO or coder is not always the best communicator. Sometimes they need guidance, sometimes they need to hand the job off to someone else.

I do, however, agree with the panelists that passion plays an important role for startups. And if you don't have it, you need to ask "why?"

KLK said...


Great thoughts. PR isn't just media relations, and, in today's "media" environment, social media strategies are not necessarily dealing with the press -- it's using social media tools to go directly to a particular audience.

The second "message" from last night -- which is also wrong -- is that all PR folks were tarred with the same feathers, so to speak.

Sure, there are plenty of agencies that will take too much money from startups, only to deliver a pound of clips from SysCon media. There's no value there.

The presumption that a startup should either do PR themselves OR hire an agency is wrong. Traditional agencies had their day, and I think that day is over.

If -- and I'm not necessarily advocating this -- a startup wanted to hire a PR agency, they need to ask:

-- are they hiring an agency because it makes them look good/big?

-- do they think paying the bill for an agency guarantees coverage?

-- does the agency sound like a "soup nazi"? ie, we sell trade media relations so that's the answer to your problem. Not blogging, not Twitter. Just product blurbs in a trade magazine.

Sadly, the bigger agencies seem to offer only one tool -- media relations. And while I love the fourth estate, their numbers are shrinking.

The agencies that will survive are those that understand how to offer a full box of tools to communicate with many different audiences. Not just the press.

Apologies for too many mixed metaphors!

Nathan Burke said...

Really? You think that most entrepreneurs aren't articulate enough to represent their company and approach the press? Interesting.

Chuck- good article, and thanks for the comment on my post. While I do agree that there was a fair amount of PR bashing, I do take issue with some of the posts by PR folks in defense of their industry. I keep hearing things like:

.if I was an entrepreneur, all I would have heard was, “Run away from PR people, they are useless to you."

Do you guys really think entrepreneurs are that clueless? That hearing journalists express their distaste for bad pitches will cause us to desert the PR industry completely?

It seems like most of the pro-PR posts about last night's panel are saying "Entrepreneurs are inarticulate nerds that should never talk to the press, and they all think that PR is just another word for getting media mentions."

I see PR as much more than a single tactic. And I think most entrepreneurs feel the same way whether they're doing PR in-house or hiring someone else.

Cherisse Fonseca Rivera said...

Very interesting post. I wish I could have been part of the event.

If you have a minute, please read my blog post response.


Outcroppings by Tony Loftis said...

Great post Chuck. I agree with everything you said, and it's not because I heard it all over dinner.

It's interesting that reporters shape the stories of how the public views public relations. In today's contentious atmosphere that's like letting the Republicans the edit the Democrats' talking points.

jen gordon said...

Great post Chuck. I've come to the same conclusion over the past year not because of some well-thought out strategy, but because my customers are actually easier to establish relationships with than the media! :)

would love to talk once your new company launches! jen :)

jen gordon