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.
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.
I love Mad Men. I love it for its 60s style, for its writing, character development and what it says about us today. The fact is, all period dramas (and futuristic science fiction) say more about who we are today than they do about the people they pretend to portray. In a way Mad Men lets us look back at our 1960s selves and say "aren't we better?" We don't smoke like that, we don't drink like that, we wear seatbelts when we ride in the car, we don't let our kids play with plastic, male bosses don't call their female colleagues "honey" etc.
The fourth season of Mad Men opened up with an episode named "Public Relations," which, being a PR guy, got me listening pretty closely. The last time I heard PR mentioned on Mad Men, lead-character Don Draper was deriding the profession by saying that PR guys think they can change the conversation, but they can't. Only advertising can change the conversation.
But in this episode "changing the conversation" is just what PR is expected to do. We open on Don Draper in the middle of an interview being asked by an Ad Age reporter "Who is Don Draper," a question that Ad Age has already said doesn't fairly portray who they were at the time (or are today). Yet, in the PR world this is a pretty basic question and one that can take up hours of pounding out to get right. We often open messaging sessions by asking "what does your company do?" and then spend the next 3 hours trying to answer that question. Seems so simple, yet, it can be much more nuanced.
Don blows the question.
A few scenes later they get the article and a Roger Sterling comments "this was supposed to be an advertisement for the firm." Wait, and ad? If they wanted an ad wouldn't they have bought one? Why an article when they wanted an ad?
Ah, we have a misunderstanding of what PR can do and what it does.
Still, PR does play a role. In a side-plot a few characters stage a PR stunt that gets the client in the Daily News, an ultimately successful gambit as far as driving sales. Yet, one laments "we can't charge them for this."
Oh really? Sure you can, but you're not a PR firm, you're playing in waters you don't understand.
The episode ends with Don in another interview, ostensibly having learned his lesson and now creating a much more interesting fact-based story. He is, in large part, using PR to change the conversation about himself and his firm.
All that said, people today still don't fully understand what PR does and what role it plays in a business. The one thing the leadership at Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce never did was hire a PR firm. Why? Well, in a bit of fiction they just called up the Wall Street Journal and the reporter jumped.
What could a PR firm have done for the firm?
- Set the message: Very simply put an outside firm would have helped define what this company is, who it wants to target and what key messages it needed to get across.
- Position: Just a slight variation on the messaging, but during the episode you heard one of the sales executives trying to fit the new firm into the landscape of ad agencies around New York. A PR firm could help clarify this so they could speak to it in sales meetings.
- Tell the story: In the course of the show we hear a bit about a controversial TV ad campaign for floor wax that Draper had created. I'm sure the Ad Age of 1964 would have loved a story that told the origin of that ad, what it tried to convey and its results.
- Hit the media: Even in 1964 the Journal and Ad Age weren't the only two games in town. Not only were there the major daily papers, but there was also the evening newscasts as well as magazines and trade publications. I'm sure Supermarket News would have loved to know the results of a ham-selling campaign.
Yet, still today people don't fully understand what PR does. Not only in the context of needing a firm to help get the message out, but even in crafting what that message is. I recently watched as a group for which I do pro-bono work let an interview happen without my knowledge. The resulting article was of little help. It's not that the article is terrible, but it's just not as positive as it could have been. Just as the article about Don Draper wasn't terrible, but it wasn't nearly as useful to the firm as they needed.
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.