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There are a few of us – dwindling to but a precious few every year – that remember the golden age of magazine journalism…Life, Look, Collier’s, Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated…and later as our tastes grew younger…People, INC, Fast Company, InStyle, Healthy Living, etc. A recent story in the New York Times regarding Time, Inc. brought back both these memories and how fragile they may well be.
The New York Times article recounted how Time, Inc. under its new C-suite management, is attempting to revitalize its brand, perhaps even to be an acquisition target, not with a nod to its journalistic past, but toward “a multimedia, multipurpose company, with a strategy heavy on online video, television and entertainment – and noticeably lighter on magazine journalism.” Henry Luce, the iconic founder of Time, Inc., and whose portrait still hangs in the board room where this interview took place, must have noticeably sighed and fidgeted uncomfortably at these words from two executives most recently from television entertainment and a website named PopSugar.
Obviously, the plight of traditional journalism – magazines, newspapers, and even broadcast – to survive, let alone thrive, in this new digital age is nothing new and been well documented. Iconic journalistic brands like The Washington Post and even The New York Times are going against the winds of change and fighting daily to hold their own – but barely. Why must this be? Is there still not a demand for the well-researched, well documented, indeed, well-written news story presented on the printed page? Ironically, the Times article author leans toward believing the owner of such great names as Time, Fortune, Money, Sports Illustrated, and yes, People, may be where the real value of the company lies; and not with its videos and digital products. “In the end, it may be in those venerable magazines that made it so prominent in the first place.”
We in the PR business witness daily this same irony. Embryonic start-up companies have a masterly knowledge of everything digital and online. But, when they go through their checklists of “PR wants,” invariably have near the top of such lists, the ability to land a story in the print versions of major publications. A story that reflects the credibility of professional journalism, real news with staying power. Content that yes, can be easily reproduced and transmitted online and through all the digital channels; but also a real piece of journalism that will lie on the lunch table and hang framed on the wall.
It’s a good lesson for the old-line traditional media companies as well as their often digitally hip management teams. Probably something old Henry Luce understood even if he had never heard of PopSugar.
HighQ, predicts that 2017 will account for 74 percent of all internet traffic, and already 55 percent of people watch videos online every day. But what does that mean for PR Agencies? According to HighQ, video is growing in the business world too, with 75 percent of business executives watching online video every week. They made a cool infographic that has the stats to back this prediction up.
How many times as a PR firm principle have you received an RFP (request for proposal) from a prospective client only to dread the process of filling out the paperwork, checking the boxes, and desperately trying to shoehorn your uniqueness into the prescribed requirements and capabilities section? All too often, the initial assignment is handed off to a junior account person to do the heavy lifting and research and even the first compliance draft. By the time it reaches the business development desk for final polishing, it’s already far along enough in it’s paint-by-numbers’ format that it’s a boring document that will find its place among all the other boring documents arriving in the prospective client’s in-box. It doesn’t have to be.
We have a slightly different take on RFP’s. As a pay-for-performance PR firm, we seldom fit the prescribed boxes or rigidly required criteria, we look at every RFP as an opportunity to demonstrate our creativity tied to the prospective client’s needs; and in so doing present our capabilities in a fun, visual manner.
We may not win every piece of business or even the majority of them, but we’ll enjoy the process and leave a positive impression for the future.
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Of course, and depending on the PR goals they set for themselves, many do quite successfully. I realize it’s blasphemous to be a PR pro and agency owner and acknowledge the obvious…that not every client needs outside PR counsel. But if a client has the time or staff, a certain set of PR skills, the resources, and very importantly, a realistic set of goals, then yes, they can do their own PR.
But there are caveats.
First, the goals must be based on what PR can accomplish, not on other marketing targets. An effective PR campaign should be defined by the positive media coverage it generates and leveraged. Nothing more. Marketing goals such as lead generation or booked sales are the result of an effective overall marketing campaign consisting of a number of varied elements working closely together: ads, social media, events, and word of mouth… not just PR alone. PR can boost and leverage a client’s message, can drive SEO, can even lead a promotion and get an industry talking. But it’s not fair to expect it to do it in a vacuum.
Second, an effective PR campaign is a process and takes considerable time and skill devoted to the task. Too many clients believe it’s simply a matter of having a great, new, revolutionary, super wonderful product or service that media is going to be instantly enamored with as soon as they receive a press release or email. Wrong. There are thousands of new revolutionary whiz-bang products or services clamoring at the media’s door every minute of every day. The key to success is knowing how to frame a newsworthy and timely pitch… and to whom and when to take it to ensure the best reception. That’s where the process comes in. If a client has the internal staff and resources to do the research and craft the perfect pitch… and the patience to suffer plenty of rejections without getting discouraged… then success might be possible.
And what of the PR creativity? All clients, at least it’s certainly hoped, have the knowledge, experience and even creativity behind the successful development of their product or service, i.e., what sets it apart and makes it special in their marketplace. But do they have the creative moxie in a very different marketplace, that of the media…harried, under deadline, often underpaid, and cynical. That’s the area where an experienced PR pro can be most creatively helpful, and dare I say, cost efficient.
So, can a client do their own PR? Yes, up to a point.
Now it’s getting serious. I was probably ok with The Donald impersonating politicians and presidential candidates. I was even calm when he attacked much of the phoniness and self-righteousness on both the right and left. And, I could still turn a blind eye to the size of his hands and the comb-over as the media continued to be impervious to their own suck-ups to this guy. The Donald’s great at pointing out the phoniness of various professions…celebrity TV star, politicians, businessmen that pay their bills, ladies’ man, etc. He’s not happy to just fool some of the people some of the time; his goal is to fool all the people all of the time.
Now, however, Mr. Trump, is taking aim at my profession, and it appears he’s better at giving himself the title but not at pulling the con of his own spin.
Here is a guy so completely enamored with his own self and convinced of his own ability to put on whatever ‘cover’ he chooses, without even the remotest thought that he might be perceived as naked riding that white horse through the streets of America. “John Miller”? John Baron”? PR publicist?
“Well, I’m sort of handling PR because he gets so much of it. And frankly, I mean, I could tell you off the record. Until I get to know you and talk a little bit off the record, I can tell you that he didn’t care if he got bad PR until he got his divorce finished.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of phonies in this profession that deserve to be exposed as much or more than the politicians currently being lampooned by The Donald. However, in this case, the biggest phony is “John Miller” aka Donald Trump. And I doubt the PRSA has much to worry about.
Within the last week I’ve been reminded twice of why I chose this profession, in spite of my favorite journalism professor asking, with all sincerity so many years ago, “Grove, why would you want to waste your education to become a flack?”
Why…because every once in a while, one is able to turn the media’s oft distracted attention to stories that serve a greater good than selling orange juice, promoting yet one more “next new thing,” calming a crisis, or sadly, spinning a political candidate. For example, one man’s determination to rebuild his life and those of those around him through hard work and sobriety…one day at a time. We weren’t asked to launch a new app or celebrity product…just focus some media attention on a thirty-year-old company run by former alcoholics and addicts.
But when I was really reminded of what I love about this job and this profession, was the sad announcement this last week of the passing of a great, but little-recognized man, Ernest Michel.
Ernest Michel at Auschwitz in 1983. His penmanship helped spare him from the gas chambers. Credit Robert A. Cumins
Michel never invented the next new thing or built a business empire or sought personal fame or fortune. But Michel did something so much grander and so much more significant, he survived six years in the Auschwitz death camp, stayed in Germany long enough to cover the Nuremberg trials as a journalist before migrating to the United States where he continued to fight to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. In addition to founding The Museum of Jewish Heritage, Michel also was a founder of The United Jewish Appeal (UJA), helping to raise millions of dollars to benefit Jewish causes. I had the great privilege of meeting Michel when my firm was enlisted to raise media awareness of the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union…not exactly front page news in the mainstream media in the early 90’s. Over the next twelve months, myself and my PR team became foreign correspondents and videographers, traveling to Moscow, Central Asia, and flying on midnight rescue flights from Tashkent to Tel Aviv with refugees; all the while collecting their stories to retell to the American press. We convinced the TV networks and major secular press to use our stories and video and assisted the UJA in raising nearly 800 million dollars for the cause. Never have I been prouder of the PR profession nor of my team of PR pros.
“Why would I want to waste my education to become a flack?” Why indeed.