We're easy targets, those of us in the PR field. It's easy to say that we're slimy, dumb and get in the way of good journalism. Over my PR career I've worked with my share of morons and liars.
But not all of those were in PR, many were also in journalism. Many were also in technology. Many were in printing. Many were in auto repair or many were investors.
Yes, morons and liars are everywhere.
So when an unnamed PR pro writes that many PR folks really aren't that good, he's right. But he's also just enjoying the fact that PR people are an easy target. Why? Because really, we shouldn't exist.
Let me explain: the theory goes that if you have a good product or a good story, then you'll get exposure. People who report the news will find you, they'll do the digging and the work to grab the important nuggets of information and present those to you.
You believe that? Really? Are you sure?
I've had reporters tell me that they believed a certain topic was very important to their readers, but they couldn't report on it because they just didn't have time. I've gone to others with a story and been asked "can you just send the release?" Then a story would appear without any interview or additional reporting. Is this the fault of the PR pro?
Yesterday I attended a forum on the First Amendment at Suffolk Law School that included Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eileen McNamara, Media Critic an all-around-good-guy Dan Kennedy, leader of the Nieman Foundation Ann Marie Lapinski and Linda Greenhouse, whose long list of accomplishments doesn't begin to sum her up.
All agreed that truth is a major casualty of modern reporting. McNamara lamented the fact that today's reporters don't seem to do research in their own archives. They lamented the use of Beltway Insiders who regularly offer up quotes just to provide a story with "the other side" of an issue.
But Dan Kennedy made the point that sometimes sources have one key selling point: they return calls when you're on deadline.
This is a real problem in political reporting. It's also a problem in technology PR. Too often reporters take on the easy story. Audrey Watters, in writing why she left Read Write Web, noted that no one seems to care about Education Technology. This is a huge story overall, something that impacts not just parents and students, but our future as a nation. She writes:
What I learned -- and what I continue to be reminded of with unfortunate frequency: the tech blogosphere really doesn't notice education stories. Not really. Not unless teachers do something untoward on a blog. Not unless a tech CEO, past or present, makes a major education-oriented donation. Not unless there's an rumored iPhone 5 angle involved.
Back at the forum, when I stood up to ask a question, I mentioned that I work in PR. A woman laughed. Yes, she LAUGHED. Yet, everyone in that room had been subject to PR at that moment and didn't know it. The forum itself was an attempt to raise the visibility and importance of Suffolk Law School, especially among its alumni. That's because Suffolk operates in a competitive environment that includes Harvard, BU and BC, all with law schools that have strong alumni networks. As a proof point, consider that Greg Gatlin, a former Boston Herald staffer and current PR flack for the school, was on the panel.
So who is at fault for the lousy and lazy journalism? Is it the journalists? Is it their editors? Is it the PR people who feed them crap?
No. It's us, the media consumers.
You see, reporters write stories that get them noticed, stories that will satisfy their editors. Editors are under pressure to satisfy their bosses, the publishers. They need to drive traffic to the website, grab clicks, gain conversation, build "mindshare" and all those other marketing things. They do this by writing stories that are attractive to an audience.
If you write about the iPad, your clicks go up. If you write about education technology, you can hear the crickets. Write about large constitutional issues, no one cares. Write about Rush Limbaugh and you're front and center.
So, do you want to blame PR folks for being stupid? Sure, go ahead. Want to blame reporters for being lazy? Feel free.
But next time you click on a headline, think about why you're doing it and what really matters to you. Then consider if you really want to click there.
In The Devil Wears Prada there's this wonderful scene in which Meryl Streep tries to decide on a belt. Anne Hathaway, as her assistant snickers at the prospect of deciding between two belts that look very similar. What she receives next is a smack-down.
"You think this has nothing to do with you," Streep's Miranda Priestly says. She then launches into an evenly-delivered soliloquy that points out how the "blue" sweater Hathaway casually chose that morning is actually "cerulean," which had started at the height of fashion then trickled down through the fashion ecosystem representing "millions of dollars and countless jobs," until it landed in a discount bin and, eventually, this assistant's closet. "It sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that's been selected for you..." she says.
Here in Boston engineers love to think that they make all the best stuff. That their technology is so great it doesn't need marketing. Because marketing doesn't make people take action. No, they say, it's the work that makes all the difference. Make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.
Someone call Meryl Streep.
Often we dismiss this attitude as "well, they're just engineers" and we let it go. The issues trickle down even to those companies that do spend time and money on marketing. They resist messaging, insist they know how to tell a better story or refuse changes that could make a huge difference in their bottom line. It's all an effort to put technology first.
Ideally, they need to invest in marketing and PR. It needs to be factored into the funding rounds as a necessary part of the budget, even in small rounds.
Then there is the "celebrity" factor. Boston tends to shy away from that, but as a number of entrepreneurs point out in the Sunday Boston Globe, that's just what Boston needs. Says Ben Jabbawy, CEO of Privy:
Chances are if you’re not part of the tech community here, you’ve never heard of Wayfair or Gemvara. And that’s the problem. The Boston area needs to do a better job championing its little guys. We don’t have many giant anchor companies here, and oftentimes that’s understood to be a bad thing. Instead of collectively pining for Mark Zuckerberg to return to the Hub, we should focus on, promote, and celebrate the assets we do have: smaller companies and start-ups.
This shift in emphasis would help start-ups recruit and retain local graduates, and perhaps inspire graduating talent to take the risk of joining a start-up instead of taking lucrative corporate jobs.
So what does Boston need? We need to think more about marketing. We need to make our voices louder. In a way, we need our own "Mike Arrington" to lead the way.
Whenever I say this to people their response is "oh, we need a loud, arrogant, obnoxious guy that makes everyone fear his power?" No, I'm not saying that. But what we need is someone with the voice, skills and savvy to tell the world what Boston is all about. To hold up the great technology, ideas and companies that grow from the Boston ecosystem every day and tell the world why they need to pay attention. If this means that voice needs to be brash and obnoxious in order to cut through the clutter, then so be it.
Recently I spent some time hanging around with the guys at Evernote. This is a fascinating company made up of leadership that spent time running startups in Boston and then moved to the Valley. The company is growing like crazy and poised to make a leap from the technology world to the general populous. This is no small task.
Josh Kopelman recently spent some time in jury duty and used that as a way to get a focus group of non-tech folks:
Facebook is a great example of a company that made the leap, same with Apple (which doesn't consider itself a tech company) and Google. But what makes Evernote interesting is how marketing is so much a part of its DNA. Yes, Andrew Sinkov does a great job of marketing the company. He's an incredibly smart guy a lot of great ideas. But it's also a company churning out apps like Evernote Food and releasing Skitch for free as a way to extend its base.
If you listen to CEO Phil Libin speak, he doesn't tell you about the technology behind Evernote, he talks about bigger ideas of human memory and ways that technology can make our lives different. Sure, he spends time thinking about the technology itself, but the average person doesn't care about the technology. They just want it to do what you asked. They want a product.
But to get it in their hands, you need marketing. And so do we.
Throughout my career companies have asked for coverage. They know what they want to say, they know what they want to promote, they know the sales figures they want to meet. They know they need PR.
They just aren't sure why.
Todd likes to say that the best thing about social media and modern PR is that you can measure everything. Oh, and the worst thing about social media and PR is that you can measure everything.
His point is that you may not be measuring the right thing.
Many of our clients focus on a single but very important measurement: website traffic. That is, does a media hit (online or offline) result in website traffic? There are multiple ways to measure this, whether it's looking at referrals, measuring traffic from a geographic location, looking at traffic numbers from a day with coverage versus a similar time period, or including twitter traffic generated by a particular piece of coverage. It can all go into that measurement.
But not every piece of media will drive traffic. For example, we've put clients in the big city publications that used to make clients drool, only to see little or no discernible traffic spike. The reason is simple: some big publications just don't provide links. No links, no traffic. Asking people to take an action (searching on a company name or finding a website) is a barrier to results.
So the question becomes, if a piece of coverage doesn't drive traffic, is it effective?
The answer isn't so simple.
Let's take the work we did for TeraDiode, a laser manufacturer in Littleton, Mass. As part of our outreach Xconomy's Greg Huang wrote a great piece. Thanks to some great writing that piece got "slashdotted."
If you just look at the traffic numbers, SlashDot drove quite a bit of traffic, though it tended to be low quality. Most of the users bounced and few knew anything about the type of lasers TeraDiode is in the business of building.
But that SlashDot hit helped the story get picked up by a number of other publications, like PhysOrg and R&D Magazine. The traffic from those sites had low bounce rates, high pages per visit and resulted in whitepaper downloads. It also caught the eye of a reporter at Jane's Defence Weekly, a primary target. It should be noted that Jane's doesn't include links in its coverage.
So, was SlashDot worth it? Yes, if you measure its broad impact, not just its direct impact.
Of course, most media programs won't have that kind of turnaround. A mention in a broad publication like the Boston Globe or Newsweek may not result in immediate impact. But its ancillary benefits include third-party validation and helping build credibility so you can gain bigger or more relevant coverage.
To get there, you need to plan for the long-run.
So what are the takeaways here?
- Know what you're measuring -- Yes, you can easily measure site visits, but that may not be your only goals. You may also be looking for venture funding or doing some recruiting. You may simply be looking to build awareness. Different hits have different purposes and need to be measured with a different yardstick.
- Have realistic expectations -- A single "hit" in a widely read publication isn't going to bring you thousands of new users. You need to keep your information flowing, both through your own content and by sharing others. Your primary goal is to build an audience, not just gain a short-term bump.
- Know where PR Fits In -- Influencer relations is a part of the traffic-driving puzzle, but if you don't have a way to capture that traffic, then it's like going fishing with a hoop instead of a net. People should come to your site and know what to do next. Don't let them bounce, keep them warm.
- Plan for the long haul -- It's tempting to measure PR on a week-by-week basis, but a program takes time to develop. A hit today in a small online publication may be what you need to move up to the bigger, more impressive and more traffic-driving publications down the road.
- Understand where you belong -- While the Boston Globe may not yield major results for technology companies who want site traffic, I've spoken with consumer-goods companies that say a single piece their made their year. They needed awareness that later turned into sales. It's a very different measure. Another company may find that CMSWire drives the most relevant traffic. Success depends a long list of factors.
I love working with Wade Roush. Not only is he a great guy, he's a smart, serious and intelligent reporter. The only catch is that he is about 3 feet taller than I am, so I strain my neck looking up while talking to him. I may start bringing a step stool.
Today he offers up some great advice about how pitch him. Other reporters have done this in the past, but Wade's post is among the best I read and actually speaks to issues that are much broader than just him. He echoes much of what we hear from reporters all the time. I recently had conversations with several reporters from all different types of publications who may love the story we're pitching, but simply don't have time to do it. These range from those focusing in regional tech to national consumer. Fewer reporters are churning out more material with fewer resources. This leads to them find ways to limit where to focus.
Wade lays out some of his key questions. Below are his questions with my take right after. Over on his blog you can see his own explanations.
Has this company won the backing of reputable investors? This is really about third-party validation. If you're just someone with an idea that hasn't yet gone through some kind of business gauntlet, then it's hard for a journalist to take you seriously yet.
How truly differentiated is this company’s technology? For entrepreneurs this is often the most difficult to answer. From inside your technology looks different than anything else out there, but when you bring something to a reporter who gets pitched by 20 companies that look and sound just like yours, you need to have messaging in place that answers this question very well. You will stumble with this at first, but be willing to look deep and think about it.
Is this company offering a product or service that our audience would care about? I think this is more about the strategy behind your media and influencer relations program. Are you picking the right media audience? Did you create the right "pitch" for that audience? Are the readers of that publication people you truly need to reach?
Does this company have a team of articulate, charismatic founders or executives? One phrase: media training. Get it. Feel you need it? Contact us.
Does this company have a convincing business model? Oh the business model discussion. I cannot tell you how often I go to a pitch event, listen to the entrepreneur go through the whole pitch only to have the first question be: how are you going to make money? It's become so obvious that people actually laugh when it comes up. It's easier just to acknowledge and answer it up front. Though, as Wade points out: "I’m increasingly irritated by what I call the Twitter Answer: 'We’re focused for now on building a service that 200 million people will use, and later we’ll figure out some way to monetize it.'"
Is this company built to flip? Or simply to get the founders “acqhired” at Google, Facebook, or Twitter? Here in Boston I've seen frothy coverage of companies that I just don't fully understand. I look at their business and their technology and think "that's a not a company, that's an application." I'm not the only one, others seem to have the same opinion. But it's a good thing to think about as an entrepreneur in general. Are we really creating something that can stand alone? One of my favorite examples on the positive side of this question is Runkeeper, which started as an application and has evolved into a platform. Jason Jacobs isn't about creating a company that is born to flip, he created a company that has much more potential than that.
InkHouse PR hosted a fascinating online discussion on Wednesday about the fate of the embargo. Hosted by Beth Monaghan, it included insights from Read Write Web's Marshall Kirkpatrick, Xconomy's Wade Roush, the Boston Globe's Scott Kirsner and USA Today's Jon Swartz.
If I were to sum up the whole discussion in a phrase it would come down to this: size matters. I'll get back to that.
The most interesting tidbit, however, was throw-away line from all four reporters that they don't bother with the press release wires. One reporter said he hadn't looked at BusinessWire or PR Newswire in about seven years. Wade noted that he sometimes uses it for archive purposes.
Even Beth seemed surprised at that answer. Of course, this is a long way from saying that the press release is dead. Kirsner, for example, still runs them on his "Read Scott's Email" page (though, obviously just a selection of those he receives) and reporters routinely ask me for them.
In fact, all four reporters noted that Twitter has become their news feed. Something reinforced just a short time later when Shaq announced his retirement on Twitter (with an associated video). Sorry ESPN, Shaq doesn't need your audience.
Twitter being a primary news feed for reporters is, on some level, a "no duh" moment. It is, in fact, pretty awesome and shows the power of Twitter both as a medium unto itself as well as its influence over "mainstream media." While Twitter is certainly not nearly as popular as Facebook, it is certainly influential. But that also leads to a number of concerns:
- Twitter has a high signal-to-noise ratio -- Filtering Twitter to find the good stuff is a major hassle. Personally, I use Twitter lists (both public and private) to select information I want to find. I know that popular stuff rises to the top, but quite often I'll look at an individual's feed and find that I missed something interesting that happened weeks ago. How do reporters filter? What does this mean for their reporting?
- Reporters can easily insulate themselves from information -- They can limit themselves to the people they follow as well as a few search terms. That's not everyone. Also, as mentioned above, Twitter is just a subset of a much larger population. Is it truly representative? In the tech world, maybe, but the broader world?
- Twitter has a "blink and you missed it" issue -- information on Twitter rots very fast. My main feed scrolls by so fast to render it useless.
Still, it's the reality. A while back Bianca Bosker, tech editor at the Huffington Post, told me that she has two monitors on her desk: one is email, web browser and everything she needs for her job; the other runs Tweetdeck all day. Do the math, the power of being in her news feed and therefore winding up in one of her posts will pay off huge dividends in traffic.
As a related note, Kirkpatrick noted that the best way to get on his radar is to send him your RSS feed so he can follow it. He follows a massive number of blogs, but if being in front of the top editor at a top publication is important, then you need to keep your feed filled with information as to show up on his radar.
But what about the embargo? Well, Kirkpatrick loves them noting that it helps level the playing field so he has time to do his own reporting. As a smaller organization this is important to him, allowing him to compete with much larger and more well-funded organizations, like TechCrunch. The other reporters tended to take a much dimmer view of embargoes, Roush won't bother with them at all and Swartz prefers not to deal with them either, but Kirsner admitted that he'd take them if the news was big enough.
Frankly, that came up a few times. If the news is big enough, or the company issuing it is big enough, the "no embargo" policy flies out the window. It was mentioned that even TechCrunch would take an embargo from those companies and simply break it 15 minutes early, just because they can.
So, in this sense, size matters. When the PR team has the power they'll use it (and get their way), when the journalist has the power they'll use it to avoid taking the embargo. The topic of offering exclusives came up as an alternative, but all the reporters were uncomfortable with that, saying it makes them feel as if they're being controlled by the PR machine.
My take on all this remains the same. Most of my clients are smaller and tend to be more concerned about getting coverage than about timing it. So while we would bring news out to reporters and prebrief them, I'd rarely put them under embargo. Of course, sometimes the client wants the assurance, so you do it. But I believe the news must be big enough to warrant it, and that's a judgement call.
So what does this all mean? Well, a few things:
- A news release isn't enough -- You need a content plan to make things work. Yes, a news release can help (and still does drive SEO as well as some coverage from vertical publications) but if your goal is bigger coverage you need more.
- Build relationships -- This goes for all influencers, online and off. Reporters are part of the influence chain.
- Integrate content -- Your blog is your friend. Your Twitter feed is your friend. Use them, build them.
- Finally: if you have real news by all means put it out. Reporters are smart, they know when it's something real and when it isn't.... mostly.
With apologies to Tom Foremski.
It's no coincidence that Apple held its press event on a Friday. Anyone who has ever worked near politics will tell you that you drop a story on a Friday when you want it to die. It's an age-old trick. Even better, make it a summer Friday when all the editors are eager to start their weekends and people are less likely to be reading, watching and following the news on a Saturday.
So holding the event on a Friday at 10am PT (afternoon here on the east coast) was Apple's first great PR move in regards to "Antennagate." But oh, there were so many more.
The Song: Perhaps the best move was opening the press conference with a song that had gone viral thanks to a YouTube video and a bit of help from TechCrunch. It showed, up front, the key message Apple was trying to convey: our customers are happy, media are not. Of course, it also helped that TechCrunch promoted the video, so they felt good about themselves. Hold onto that fact, it'll come back later.
The Facts: Fact 1 is that Apple has facts and the media don't. Seems kinda obvious now, but it's difficult for people to argue for a recall when Apple can turn around and say that only .55 percent of people have complained about the antenna and the iPhone 4.0 has only a 1.7 percent return rate, far below that of the 3GS. Apple probably would have released these numbers over time, but Friday's event certainly gave them a bigger stage. Fact 2: All smartphones have the same kind of problems. This is probably the fact that will be most debated in the coming weeks, but it also turns the attention from the iPhone to the entire industry.
No Apologies: When Steve Jobs walks on stage you're not going to get an apology. No way, ain't gonna happen. He's there for good news and to tell you that the company is producing great things. He's not there to apologize. If you want that then you're going to have to speak with someone else. Still, he did admit that Apple isn't perfect, then positioned that in the age old "we strive to be better" message. That, of course, lead directly into the next positive.
Feel the Love: Oh how Apple customers love Apple. Even Michael Arrington is a fanboy. And Steve Jobs positioned everything perfectly, giving the press-conference equivalent of Paul McCartney standing on stage screaming to a loud fan "I love you too!"
Just one more thing: The iPhone will be available in white at the end of July. So I'm sure there are plenty of people ready to scream "shut up and take my money!"
Of course, not everything was perfect, but I have only one real criticism: Did Steve Jobs really have to spit in the eye of the media? He called a Bloomberg story "total bullshit," and called the New York Times liars by saying that their story about a forthcoming software bug fix was "patently false." Of course, the whole event was there to show how the Consumer Reports story wasn't worth the paper it's printed on, so I guess Apple did want to stick a thumb in the eye of the media. Though, starting with the Antenna Song certainly endeared Apple more to TechCrunch. So maybe Jobs is just playing to a specific audience.
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it may not be all that funny to some. Two stories in the most recent "On the Media" have me thinking about the shifting equilibria of both the legal and journalism worlds, and what their implications are for the rest of us...
In "The End of Libel?", Brooke Gladstone reports on the poor prospects that some lawyers at larger media properties are facing as the number of libel suits has dropped over the past few years. Before you get all teary eyed for the lawyers' plights (some of my best friends' wives are lawyers), there's some speculation in the piece that the lawsuits may simply be spread out more thinly as more, smaller properties pop-up in the post-broadcast landscape. But plaintiffs, the story concludes, may be best served these days by taking their case to the court of the public through their blogs, podcasts, Facebook pages, etc.
The other, more disturbing conclusion, is that news outlets -- blogs included -- are simply being much more cautious about potential lawsuits, and are avoiding deliberate, touchy issues. My gut -- call me the eternal optimist -- is that there will always be someone with nothing to lose, and now that it's so much easier to publish and reach a large audience, the power of the however more broadly defined "media" has not decreased. This may not be comforting to the corporate lawyers now facing the prospect of having to hang their own shingle after years in the corporate world.
In "The Crowdsourcing Dilemma," we see another dynamic playing out as Bob Garfield describes how he turned from believer (he used crowdSPRING.com to source the cover for his last book) to, well, nervous believer as he notes that the service has expanded beyond designers to also include writing projects. Like the corporate libel lawyer with no more business, he's worried he could eventually be replaced by cheaper labor. And crowdSPRING isn't the only game in town -- we interviewed Saul Hansell, the editor of AOL's seed.com project, in our inaugural podcast about that site's content outsourcing business model.
Just like the search game, in which both white hats and black hats work to strike an ongoing balance with Google's search algorithms to reach to top of the organic results (seed.com sits squarely in the white hat category), content (the good and the crappy, of which seed.com sits squarely in the middle) is in a fight with filters (technological and logical) to find its way into our inboxes, feeds and minds. Media outlets, to stay relevant, need to find multiple ways to connect with us, and give us the choice as to how we participate. There are still many opportunities for media to reach us, and as long as they are, there are opportunities to cross barriers of both taste and law.
And if you, dear reader, think the implications of this shifting dynamic are limited to just writers and lawyers, you've got a big lesson coming your way very soon.
I first met Steve Baker several years ago when he was working on his book The Numerati. This was after he had already co-authored an influential cover story on blogs for BusinessWeek that acted as a wakeup call to corporate America. The message: ignore blogs (and social media) at your peril.
His later cover story on math lead to a book contract for the Numerati, for which he took a sabbatical from his long-time weekly reporting job. Of course, he had to come back to BusinessWeek before setting off again, but this time the decision was made for him. Bloomberg had purchased the venerable publication from McGraw-Hill and changes there included massive layoffs.
Steve now blogs on his own site is writing a new book, which is due out in early 2011. During his interview with us via Skype, he talked about leaving BusinessWeek and starting a new phase of journalistic life. Among the interesting quotes from the interview:
"I didn't enjoy my time back [at BusinessWeek after the first book-leave] as much, in part because the magazine was failing and it's no fun to be part of sinking ship."
"The money [at Bloomberg] comes from the data, journalism by itself couldn't create the kind of empire they have"
"The advertisers can tune into your own interest and your behaviors, learn about you and target you with advertising, so they get to know you much better than an advertiser in a print publication."
"I think you need to accompany book writing these days with blogging and keeping up with people on Twitter and other more social media platforms. And then once you do a book then perhaps you can get more revenue by doing things like speaking."
"The one positive that comes out of [the changes in journalism] is that there is more opportunity for people in their 20s because organizations are getting rid of people like me in their 40s and 50s."
"Even writing about IBM… I'm benefiting from IBM's own publicity and in a sense I'm part of it. That puts me in a different role and I just have to be clear with people about what my possible conflicts are… but it's something that we all deal with in one way or another because we have to find new revenue streams."
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