When PR?

This post originally appeared on Sean Ellis’s “Startup Marketing Blog”.

————-

Because we specialize in communications for high tech start-ups, we’re often asked “when should I start a PR program?”

It’s a simple question. The simple answer (often given) is: “No time like the present.”

The real answer is bit more complex. We always ask prospective clients about their strategic company goals, as well as near- and long-term product plans so that we can help the management team determine whether a PR program can be helpful – and sustainable.

Once all parties agree that the time is, in fact, “now”, we go about the work of creating and executing the strategies and tactics that will help support the corporate vision. One of the first things we look at is helping a client generate a fairly steady stream of “content”.

Content is King

A good PR firm will help guide you and “tease out” the information that will help communicate your value and credibility to customers and partners. Part of your commitment to the PR process is to make sure the company is ready to handle the increased attention that comes with an effective and successful PR program. PR places additional demands on executives and managers who are designated as spokespeople or who otherwise have a stake in the PR process.

Content can begin – and often should begin – with company/product strategy communicated in the form of industry analyst discussions. This foundation work often precedes a more “public” PR campaign, It can also be combined with social media activity and/or “wire press releases” – two examples of content distribution tools. Knowing who is watching you and who you should be watching can often dictate the type, style and frequency of the content. But the key is that a lot of PR deliverables are no longer just media stories. They ARE company-created content that adds value and context to the more traditional media channels.

The Good (Bad?) Old Days

Not so long ago, PR lived in a relatively simple world of communication to the traditional press, who then processed, fact-checked and distilled that information before sending it out to the world. Today’s PR landscape is quite a bit more complex.

Before embarking 10 years ago into the land of the start-up, I and most of our team here spent time at large companies (IBM, Compaq, HP) where the simple rule was don’t communicate unless you get coverage in the press. Today, we’re seeing a disaggregation of traditional media “centers”, however, and now direct forms of communication are supplementing (not supplanting) the role of media. Take blogs, for example. They have become a significant supplement to traditional media and, in fact, many reporters also do double duty as bloggers. And, of course, companies and organizations have their own blogs, which add to the content volume. The influence of Twitter is well documented (ironically, in the traditional media).  Even CUSTOMERS are publicly influencing the buying decisions of other customers. So, today, the press release, the company blog, the analyst deck all take on significance in addition to, and beyond the role of media in delivering content.

While scary (for some), companies must be willing to communicate with their customers and potential customers in an almost 1:1 fashion, or at least to appear that way. You might be thinking “that’s marketing.” And, in a way, it is, but it’s marketing using the tools, language and credibility of public relations/media. And, of course, it’s also using the traditional PR tools FOR press articles and analyst reports.

PR is not a magic bullet. Just as with building a sales and marketing organization – indeed an entire company – an effective PR program builds up over time with activities strategically dictated by what stage the company is at and where it wants to go.

So, when PR?

Ask a simple question…

The Twitter Wire Service

wires

I read Jeremy Porter’s “Journalistics” provocative blog post, Is Twitter the New Wire Service? and considered the role and impact of citizen journalist bloggers who self publish.

Things are changing fast in the media and PR.

There is a new model we all have to get used to. No more filters for readers – direct from the source and no requirement for professional standards. (Who needs to be bothered with the nuances of accuracy and objectivity anyway?)

Let’s have a quick look at the good and bad of all this.

The bad – Information comes unfiltered from the source. How much you can trust what is written and their motivations remain suspect … and up to the reader to sort out.

The good – Information comes in real-time. For example, I monitor what people attending industry conferences are tweeting. No waiting for news reports – straight scoop, unfiltered from the attendees.

Consider that the role of citizen journalists who self publish is increasing – more bloggers and Twitterati than ever before – alongside the demise of mainstream media.

Now, consider the impact of these citizen journalist self publishers. I think that is in direct correlation with their audience. Any self-publishing, citizen journalist blogger can become an important voice and maybe substitute for what we know of today as mainstream media. And, that’s sort of okay.

It brings new challenges for PR to find the most impactful outlets, wherever they may be. I know a few.

Bloggers Disclosing Payment: What Does that Mean?

Money bag

The FTC’s ruling that bloggers have to disclose if they were paid or given free product in any reviews is a good idea – in principle.

However, in the technology (and many other) industries, it is common practice to send a reviewer a copy of your company’s software or latest gadget.  So, if I offer a review copy of one of my client’s software products to Timmy the Blogger, is he obligated to disclose that we gave him that copy for review? It would seem so.

There is never any quid pro quo (at least not in my 15+ years of PR) that says “If I give this to you, you will only say good things about it.”

In fact, I am sure that past clients would have loved that, given the less-than-ready-for-prime-time nature of some of the products we submitted for review. (This, of course, does not apply to any current or recent clients…)

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. For the tech industry, it may not amount to much of anything. It will probably mean that we will see positive and negative reviews of technology products, and all of them will have a generic disclaimer that says “The company that makes this [software, MP3 player, camera, whatever] gave it to me to review.” People will end up ignoring these disclaimers, just like they ignore other warnings, such as “Don’t stand on the top step of the ladder” or “Stop texting your boyfriend while driving 80 mph through a school zone.”

Life goes on.

What’s this … social media turning ugly?

Pig

This article – “What To Do When Social Media Turns Ugly” – caught my eye. It’s not the sort of thing we like to think about. Not to mention, a negative issue could have a long lifespan with Google searches.

At the start, the article says, “As your customers increasingly discuss your business in online social media ranging from Facebook to Twitter to Yelp, you’ve got to expect some negative turns in the conversation. The only question is what are you going to do about it when it happens?”
Then comes another eye opener: “Recent Nielsen research reveals that 70 percent of consumers trust customer opinions posted online, trailing only recommendations from people they actually know.”

The article cites a Forrester industry analyst report with these tips:
1- Listen, which could be described as “monitoring” social networks for company and product mentions.
2- Engage and participate in online discussions.
3- React early, stay involved.

That is all sound advice. No one needs to worry all that much about all of this because in summary the article says, “the benefits of social media far outweigh the negatives.”

Whew, that’s a relief for all of us, isn’t it? But wait a minute. Does that sound a lot like the old days of PR when an article might be positive, neutral or negative. My, how things have changed. Or, not so much. The “listen, engage, react and stay involved” advice applies in the old world of media relations, too.

Dylan said “The times they are a changin’” but I’m not so sure he was referring to these new forms of communications.

What if Twitter dies…

twitter

… and I barely notice. Does that make me a bad PR person?

Twitter went down today for a few hours, the apparent victim of a hacker attack.

Here’s the thing: It sort of went right by me. I am not sure if I should be proud of that fact or ashamed. I know – there are billions of people in the world who live out entire lives without even so much as a whisper of a notion as to what Twitter is.

But I am in high-tech public relations for a living. It seems like I should be following thousands of people and be followed by the same. I should be checking my Twitter stream in real-time, all the time, 24/7. I should know when the top bloggers go to the bathroom and how many times Ashton and Demi did it today.

But none of those things apply to me. Sure, I really enjoy and appreciate most of the people I follow. Their tweets are useful, entertaining, newsworthy.

But I can live without them, whereas I would wither and die without my daily print versions of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and without great tech news sites like CNET, Technologizer and Engadget.

Am I obsolete? Or just too busy to live and die with Twitter?

Look, Mom – We’re almost famous!

Print

PRSourceCode is an online service for the public relations industry. Every year, they poll technology journalists, asking them “Who is your most favorite PR firm?”

Now, one would think that would be like asking Sarah Palin “Who is your favorite political reporter at The Washington Post?“, given the sometimes… shall we say… uneasy relationship between journalists and PR people.

Apparently, however, we’re not all bad in the eyes of the fourth estate. It appears that some of us PR folks actually want to serve our clients AND help journalists get timely information that is useful to their readership.

And so PRSourceCode has named the the top PR firms as viewed by tech reporters.

Baker Communications Group was a runner-up in the small agency category. That means we’re among the Top 10 small agencies nationwide.  Since we didn’t know we were even in contention for anything, I guess that’s pretty good. Now that we know, maybe next year we’ll eat some of our own dog food and lobby all our technology reporter friends by plying them with beers and hot wings at trade shows. You know – the same way Hollywood studios do it for the Oscars.

So thanks to the reporters who gave us a nod and thanks to PRSourceCode for asking them.

Thanks also to our clients, who make it easy and fun to do good work, simply because they are great companies with cool technology and products.

And most important – thanks to our wives, husbands and mothers because, well, that’s what people say at awards shows.

Weep For Me, I’m Obsolete

Stone tablets

I read with some bemusement the recent New York Times story on the changing nature of public relations and how social media is re-writing the rules of my vaunted profession.

Let me see if I can do a quick historical time line of news delivery to frame the situation:

  • Stone tablets replaced cave walls
  • Papyrus replaced tablets
  • Parchment replaced papyrus
  • Paper replaced parchment
  • Radio replaced print
  • TV replaced radio
  • The Web replaced TV
  • Blogs replaced the Web
  • Twitter replaced blogs

That last one is amusing, since it seems like just yesterday (wait, I think it was) that “mainstream media” was lamenting the rise of the blog. Now, Michael Arrington is poo-pooing the rise of Twitter. (I happen to agree with him on social media in general, but respectfully disagree on what we PR folks do, but to each his own.)

So what’s next? Beats me. Call me old fashioned, but I still would rather get my news from the New York Times (not withstanding that puff piece) than from Timmy the Twitterer, who may or may not have well-connected sources, but how would I know since he can only write eight words at a time.

(BTW – I’m about to launch a new news delivery system called “BlinkCasting” where all you have to do is blink your eyes and exhale and people will know what you are doing and follow your every thought. I learned it from my dog.)

Value of PR – The Holy Grail

The quest for the Holy Grail is legend … and it can be said the same is true of evaluating the value of public relations, in terms of success or impact.

Today, to be sure, there are myriad ways of measuring the value of public relations. For three decades, I’ve been on a personal quest to find this Holy Grail of PR because if the value of PR can be defined, then those expenditures could be evaluated on the basis of ROI – meaning not as an expense but rather an investment.

Working recently with one client in the open source software business, we were able to quantify some results of our PR program.

We maintained a spreadsheet of website statistics since the beginning of the open source project – even the few months before any PR and our involvement.

This is a unique example because we can measure from the very beginning and can attribute the results to PR-related activities. There is no advertising or much other promotion for the open source project. This example very clearly demonstrates the impact we can make in our work and shows the importance of a sustained effort and the results building over time.

Here is what the website statistics show:

- No matter what measure is used – unique visitors, number of visits, pages viewed – there is a very quantifiable leap in results from the time the PR initiative started in December, then again in the following year, and again in “Year 2”. (We also tracked website hits and downloads which track in line with everything else but those are not included in the graph because hits are big numbers and downloads are small numbers and it puts the whole graph out of whack.)

- The graph shows the starting point before PR in September when the open source project started and grassroots e-mails were sent around to announce its existence. In the following two months, the numbers drop off a cliff to barely a heartbeat. The first PR announcement in December immediately brought the numbers back across-the-board to the level of September when the project was first announced without PR support.

Through the first year, the numbers bounce around a bit from month-to-month but show:

* unique visitors average a notch below 20,000 per month (compared with around 10,000 when the project was initially introduced and the first PR announcement)

* number of visits were between 20,000 and 30,000 per month (compared with 15,000 for the initial announcements)

* pages viewed ranged between 80,000 and 120,000 per month (compared with 60,000 for the initial announcements)

Next, let’s look at the next quantum leap in “Year 2”:

* unique visitors were more than 20,000 per month, except for July (compared with less than 20,000 in the previous year)

* number of visits hovered the 40,000 mark every month (compared with between 20,000 and 30,000 in the previous year)

* pages viewed averaged around 140,000 per month (compared with 80,000 to 120,000 in the previous year)

The legendary quest for the Holy Grail of PR continues with some signs of progress.