I comment about public relations from two different standpoints:
- As a consultant to the technology industry
- As a target of public relations myself
Sometimes these discussions are very fruitful. But other times they are “Head, meet brick wall.” Perhaps this post will help.
This post actually started as a set of specific tips, the biggest of which is uncouple your PR from your press releases. I’ll put the others below — but first, I’d like to cover a little theory.
There are (at least) five different things you can try to do via public relations:
- “Sell” to the press (and bloggers and so on), by which I mean that you try to induce stories, and you probably measure success by a count of stories written (presumably weighted by the quality of the publication, the favorableness of the mention, and so on), and your activities are focused on contacting the press in pursuit of that goal.
- “Market” to the press, by which I mean that you try to create a favorable disposition toward having them say what you’d want them to. This can be measured in the same ways as “selling” success, but usually on a more long-term basis.
- Market through influencers to your end customers and prospects. Here I’m saying “influencers” rather than “press”, because social media, pure word of mouth, and so on can also contribute to success.
- Market through influencers to other influencers. It is now a regular consulting exercise for me to walk clients through the whole chain of which influencers listen to which other influencers. (If you want to work that kind of thing out for yourself, social media observation is a good way to start.)
- Market to potential buyers directly. This has become increasingly realistic as the internet has matured.
In my capacity as a target of PR, I can tell you that clumsy or excessive “selling” of stories creates a backlash. There are a number of us who are LESS likely to write favorably about companies that waste our attention and time pitching inconsequential stories. You may get ignored (especially in the traditional press or if you’re a larger company). You may get mocked (especially in blogs and if you’re a smaller outfit). Either way, you probably won’t be happy about the result.
In my capacity as a consultant, I can tell you why you should have realized this all along — unless carefully managed, most salespeople will burn their employer’s long-term interests in order to show short-term results. Outside PR agencies on short-term contracts are particularly guilty of this. What’s more, when they are honorable or astute enough to push back against unrealistic management expectations — as is fairly often the case, or at least so they claim — outside PR folks are commonly ordered to produce-or-else nonetheless. The consequences of such bullheadedness are sad.
One of the top trade press reporters covering enterprise technology keeps telling me that he fears for our country if people seriously think that the trivialities he’s hard-pitched are news. Less hyperbolically, he’s given me names of VERY big companies who get less coverage from him than they would if they sent fewer lame press releases. And when he gives me examples of what he hates, I generally agree, except in cases when I can tell him that a terribly-written press release has obscured what is actually an interesting announcement.
A great selling-style PR person can be invaluable, just as a great salesperson is. Those are the ones who know a few target “customers” really well, who are trusted by those “customers,” and/or who know how to listen to what the “customers’” preferences or needs are. Some people like that can be found inside companies.* But they’re almost nonexistent at agencies these days, at least among those folks who pitch me.
*See, for example, Dian Terry’s organization at Teradata. Ditto Rita Shoor, who despite technically being independent might as well have been an Intersystems employee for the past decade-plus.
If most pure “selling” is bad, then what should you do in PR? The answer is “market”. This post will be long enough without me trying to distinguish among the various kinds of marketing — awareness-building, positioning, competitive de-positioning, lead generation, and so on. But I would like to at least point out that there are different categories of people to market to.
In an earlier post, I distinguished among eight different kinds of influencers. For the purpose of this one, it should suffice to highlight three different categories of PR-centric marketing:
- Marketing to generalist influencers in the hopes they will in turn influence the broad market. E.g., instead of nagging a reporter to write a specific story, you can just focus on building up their opinion of you and your technology, in the hopes they will write favorably about you when it fits their needs to do so. When you do this, your end goal should be quality of mentions, with a secondary emphasis on quantity. I put quality ahead of quantity because ever more buyers don’t focus on news streams at all. Rather, they go out and search for information when they feel they need it, and when they’re doing that you want them to see a reasonable quantity of highly favorable commentary, even more than you want them to find a large number of decent mentions.
- Marketing to specialist influencers in the hopes they will influence other influencers, as well as influencing the general market. When addressing specialized “expert” influencers, you should have two end goals — quality of online mention and quality of word-of-mouth mention. This area is even more skewed to quality than the prior one for multiple reasons, including:
- Specialist/expert influencers have a wider good-to-bad spectrum of commentary than theoretically unbiased reporters do.
- Even if you don’t see that in print, it certainly happens in private conversation.
- Their followers are apt to be focused enough to notice what tone the commentary takes.
- If they have a high opinion of you, quantity will often take care of itself.
- You probably couldn’t measure word-of-mouth quantity if you tried (although mass consumer markets may be an exception to that rule).
- Reaching out to the broad market directly. Google News and other aggregators tend to carry press releases right alongside traditional news articles. And a significant fraction of the top search results on your company name are likely to be your own press releases. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t forgo issuing press releases, especially ones with informative headlines and first paragraphs.
With all that as background, let me now turn to the specific tips that started this all off.
- Press, bloggers, analysts, and other influencers can no longer be neatly separated from each other. Only use PR people who can be trusted with all those constituencies.
- If you must use PR people as glorified appointment secretaries, for a conversation that BOTH sides want to have, that’s OK. It’s not ideal, but it’s less likely to actually damage you than some of the alternative approaches to PR are.
- Using PR people to sell a story that the target doesn’t care about is a VERY bad idea. Indeed, it’s commonly worse than using a salesman to sell a product the prospect doesn’t care about. Why? Because there’s more chance you’ll later regret burning the relationship.
- Compensating PR people based on press mentions almost guarantees they will oversell and burn your relationships, unless they are confident they have a long-term relationship with you. (On your payroll or otherwise.) Otherwise, their short-term motivations are not at all in your best interest.
- The higher your volume of press releases, the clearer your headlines and other writing need to be. The more attention you ask for from each target, the more responsible with that attention you need to be.
- Review pitch emails just as you review press releases. If you do a sufficiently great job of clear headline and topic-paragraph writing, maybe the pitch email writes itself. Otherwise, it’s apt to be botched. A bad pitch email can piss off an influencer even more than a bad press release does, because it often consumes more of their attention. (Vendors really fall down on this point.)
- The worse the press release, the more you need to supervise the pitch process. This is an extension of the previous point. If somebody micromanaged you into a bad release, then you need to micromanage your minions into pitching as if the release had been better.
- And here’s what I REALLY think: Just treat press releases as documents you post online. Press releases get picked up in various places online. And sometimes they even appear in venues (mainly online) where they look like they’re press articles. So you’re not actually going to stop issuing them. (Sigh.) But the writing you do for your generic online audience is very different from what you should do for reporters and other influencers.
To reach the latter group, the right model is something that’s at least quasi-personal, quasi-straightforward, and quasi-in-depth. In other words, it’s a lot like a blog — or else like a series of truly personal email correspondences. But, given how long this has already become, that’s a subject for another post.
*There actually are a couple of vendors who drown me in press releases without pissing me off. Why? Because those press releases have instantly comprehensible headlines and topic paragraphs. (Typically they’re user success stories without breathless fluff.) I know what I’m ignoring, without having any work to do to ignore it. The reason I mentioned Rita Shoor’s work for Intersystems above is that she’s great at that kind of thing. (Look around my blogs; you’ll see that it’s really rare that I write a story like this one that Rita induced.)