The Article I Want to Read on PR

Yesterday morning I woke up to the same New York Times article that the rest of the PR industry did - although I had known that it was coming. Whenever there’s an article on our industry, it seems to cause a huge hoopla - I guess we’re not used to being the ones in the spotlight - so I suppose I would be remiss to not mention it. I sat on it for a day to decide what I wanted to say and I’ve concluded that I’m not going to give my assessment of the article or the PR strategy because a) that’s been done and b) we have a connection to one of the subjects in the article, Brooke Hammerling, in that we share a client and I wouldn’t want any of my comments to be misconstrued.

Instead, I’ll say here’s the article I would have rather read - or would like to see someone take the time to write - about PR. Let’s follow the next PR subject and his or her clients around for a good six months to a year. Let’s get past the launch phase and the initial hoopla (if done well), and watch how the PR team tackles strategy during the tougher times. Let’s follow a PR executive or firm that has to promote completely new concepts and companies, vs one that works for say, Facebook or Microsoft. And let’s see what else PR executives do besides “spin.”

Hell, let’s see if PR executives even know strategy, right? Michael Arrington says in his post on the subject that we (PR executives) just “Smile, Dial, Name Drop and Pray,” that we’re “frustrated by always being in the back seat” and that we’re just “there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible.” Jason Calacanis has said in the past that anyone can do it and you should fire your PR firm. Robert Scoble says in his post that “PR companies haven’t figured out yet that the traffic has moved onto social networks and that journalists and influencers are watching those like a hawk.”

First of all, some of us have, Robert, and have likewise been involved in these social networks for years. Secondly, these are all yet again sweeping statements - sparked by the moves of one PR person and then applied to the whole of our industry. They are also very focused on one thing: coverage. Even if Ms. Hammerling’s strategy was to leave the tech blogs out and instead garner online mentions from the “Who’s Who” of tech, the story still began with “Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour…” And anytime bloggers and reporters seem to assess the PR industry, the viewpoints usually only take into account only that one element of what our job is - and that one thing that happens to be what they do for a living: writing on and assessing products, services and companies (and I include blogs in that).

But let’s remember - I’ve said it before - PR is so much more than media coverage - it’s more than promoting a product or service. It’s more than pitching and praying, smiling and dialing or spinning and dancing. And it’s much, much more than name dropping. (Just for the record, I’ve never been much of a name dropper - I know the right people to reach when it’s important and if I don’t, I’ll quickly find out - and I seem to be doing “ok.” As I have written in the past, my approach is not only about how many existing relationships you have, but rather about the ability to connect with others in a valuable and meaningful way – journalists or otherwise. The “meaningful” way is what traditional PR agencies are struggling with - it doesn’t exactly fit the “process, repeat” model of yesteryear that likely sparks comments such as Arrington’s “smile and dial” assessment.)

Arrington is right when he says PR executives aren’t who a CEO calls “when wondering what she should do next to drive her business forward.” However, to imply that we as an industry do not influence our clients’ “strategic actions”at all is inaccurate. In fact, we do help to shape the directions of some business decisions based on what we believe the communications outcome or impact will be. We have helped to name companies, products, events and even product categories. We very carefully think about timing - and influence business actions based on it and a host of other elements. We help tongue-tied entrepreneurs to better communicate not only with customers or partners, but with  media, analysts, employees and even VCs. To focus on media coverage or “influencer” tours - or just this one PR strategy from Ms. Hammerling - as “the new world of promoting start-ups” is telling only part of the story.

So again, I’d love to someday see a real analysis of the PR industry - more than a press tour, more than a product launch, more than a stereotypical pretty blonde executive working the room at a trade show. How about the daily life of a PR executive handling both small start ups and major corporations - and how the PR strategy for each not only exists, but entails much more than reaching out to media and bloggers, and how such strategies for each type of client varies greatly. And I’d prefer that the story show different types of PR executives so we don’t end up with another Lizzie Grubman MTV-style show representing our entire industry.

11 thoughts on “The Article I Want to Read on PR

  1. Thanks, Christine — let me add one item to your excellent wish list. I wish someone would write an article about PR that is about something other than media relations. I’ve met a number of PR people who are the CEO confidante; who do much more than press tour planning. Let’s get a story about PR influencing corporate strategy.

  2. Nice work Christine.

    What frustrates me the most about journalists covering PR is they think they know how to do PR because they are on the receiving end of pitches. That’s like thinking you know how to fly a plane because you are a frequent flyer.

    Most journalists look at PR as spin, when for the most part with start ups it’s trying to explain how your client solves problems.

    It’s funny, whenever I talk shop with a journalist, they understand how much our jobs are alike, but whenever I read story about PR by a journalist, they never seem to talk to the right people.

  3. You are so right, Christine, in terms of perception vs. reality of the PR business. Ironic that we, the “experts” in shaping perception, have such difficulty shaping our own. One of the reasons I changed my company’s name from Kelly Media Counsel to Kelly Strategic Counsel was that the strategic piece has become more and more important to my clients. I work primarily with associations rather than corporations, so the dynamic is a little different in terms of decision-making, but I work very closely with the Executive Directors of my client groups as well as their board officers. I find myself advising on everything from policy development and government affairs approaches to internal communications, staff and board recruitment, organizational structure and governance, and fundraising. People who see us as nothing more than press release peddlers and spin doctors are really back in the Stone Age. They’ve been reading too many Jackie Collins novels.

  4. Chris,

    I saw two really interesting facets in the Times article that I had not seen before: PR helping a “concern” (not a “company”) properly position itself to set the right expectations, and a client measuring success on terms other than media coverage.

    The small word choices can make a big difference, especially at launch when you might end up 100 steps down the path before realizing you need to backtrack. It has been called spin, but taking care to use language wisely transcends parlor tricks and huskstering. When attention is precious (it always is), and judgment is swift (it always is), leaving your future to what pops into your head the second a mic is placed in front of you is a really bad decision.

    Speaking of that mic, it takes a confident entrepreneur to measure success based on the the audiences that really matter to the long term health of the business.

    Given a choice, the microphone hooked up to a thousand small amps sitting next to the thousand people that can make your business is the right one to speak into, but most would still rather speak to the one held by the Wall Street Journal — regardless of the company’s relevance to Wall Street.

    I don’t blame them. VC’s, partners, customers and prospects still like to see that masthead. Yet, here is a company (and a reporter) that understands the “P” in PR stands for “public.” With the public in ever easier reach and companies starting to understand how to earn and hold people’s trust, the value chain is completely different. Yes, we have to provide value to journalist by providing a better story than available anywhere else — journalists still carry the biggest megaphones in most cases — but more clients understand the value of building direct, strong, bilateral and (importantly) public relationships with people who care about their business.

    Until now, the measurement tools common to PR have included features, briefs, mentions, circulation (as if everyone who read Sunday’s New York Times cares about PR), and possibly key message delivery or other contributing factors. Those who care understand that it all measures an intermediate step in the process. These factors imply an outcome, but to actually measure the important outcome (impact on the people who really matter) is too hard or too expensive. The proxy of counting coverage is both convenient and expected.

    Now that we can easily and accurately measure the impact of direct communication to *some* of the public, the proxies of the past can take their first steps into the sunset, and take with them the undue weight given to certain publications.

  5. Thank you to everyone who read this post, retweeted it or commented on it to me personally. I appreciate that what I can see from your comments, you get the direction I was taking - let me be clear that I was not attacking the PR strategy or the publicist in this article. I was asking for a more well-rounded view of PR: beyond media relations or a product launch. For those of you who understood that, thank you. (As mentioned in the original post, I was hoping to avoid the whole “misconstrued” analysis of my post but alas, it did not work as hoped.)

    The bottom line is that I think the PR industry is one that everyone loves to hate - we’re the middle (wo)men, after all. But we’re still middle men with brains and strategic insights that deserve respect. And ironically, as much as people complain, everyone wants PR - and everyone seems to think they know how to do it better than everyone else (especially with the advent of social media).

    I particularly appreciated Tony’s analogies above and his quote, “Most journalists look at PR as spin, when for the most part with start ups, it’s trying to explain how your client solves problems.”

    I think the article could have portrayed more of that thinking - or that the follow-on analysis of it could have given Ms. Hammerling more credit for her decisions.

    Thanks for reading and engaging.


  6. Maybe someday someone will actually care about what you think and write about you.

  7. John, thanks for reading. We could have elected to not post your comment but I think it’s important to let others see the emotion involved on both sides. Also - plenty have. - Christine

  8. Nice work Christine.

    What frustrates me the most about journalists covering PR is they think they know how to do PR because they are on the receiving end of pitches. That's like thinking you know how to fly a plane because you are a frequent flyer.

    Most journalists look at PR as spin, when for the most part with start ups it's trying to explain how your client solves problems.

    It's funny, whenever I talk shop with a journalist, they understand how much our jobs are alike, but whenever I read story about PR by a journalist, they never seem to talk to the right people.

  9. Pingback: I’d Give My Right Arm for a Good, Accurate Article About the PR Industry « Media Bullseye - A New Media and Communications Magazine

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