The beauty of the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one is that it gives a perfectly good and timely excuse to do something for ourselves and our profession that we should have been doing on a continual basis all along…re-evaluation and reinvention. Forget the clichéd New Year Resolutions thing…they never seem to stick beyond a few days or weeks at best regardless. We’re talking wholesale reinvention, not some minor personal tweaking like quitting smoking or losing ten pounds. (For the sake of honesty, I must fess up to the fact that thirty-one years ago, a new year resolution to quit smoking not only held but also was the best thing I ever did for my personal health. Now, that ten pounds thing has been a bit tougher…)
Re-evaluation? Reinvention? Ok, the re-evaluation is the easier of the two…but not always. It’s tough to take a hard look at ourselves and how we’ve conducted ourselves professionally…and be brutally honest in the examination. The PR profession is an easy target for others and most of us are used to being on the defensive against criticism. However, most of this criticism comes from outside our professional ranks from those that have the least knowledge of either the business framework or the processes employed. The criticism generally falls into the category of some kind of “devious manipulation of the truth or the public good” through some nefarious campaign designed and executed by a bunch of suits in a corporate boardroom. There are times that every PR pro wished that that kind of absolute control were possible, but in my forty years, I’ve never seen it…zip, nada.
But on a smaller more individual scale there is not one of us that cannot look back on shortcuts we’ve made, clients we’ve taken with less than noble causes to promote, disingenuousness (lies?) to get a reporter interested, or my continuing favorite…client fees (both hourly and otherwise) inflated for the bottom line (ours, not the clients’.) These, plus the one most abused…an exaggeration of our own self-importance…are the critiques we need to make on ourselves and note. Ah, but correcting them, therein lies the real problem.
Given that each new year and decade opens with an attitude of self-renewal and a positive vibe for what can yet be accomplished, and that this year being even more so because of the depths of negatively from whence we have just come, why not give it a shot? I’m personally betting on the future more than ever… that my and our collective actions together can influence change this year. That clients, the ever-evolving media upon which we depend on for so much, and others in this profession will respond to difficult, but oh so simple, changes… like fairness in billing and in payment, promotion and coverage of real news, not opinion, and a little humility and civility in our interaction with each other.
As my favorite politician said a long time ago… “Some men dream of things that never were and say, why? Others dream of things that never were and say, why not?”
Sounds like a good way to start this new year.
Yes, I know looking backward is a very dangerous way of moving forward. One invariably suffers from the optical illusion of rose-colored hindsight. But I was reminded again recently of just how much the PR profession continues to change when I got into a discussion about influence marketing, SEO, meta tags, links, ad words, et.al. Say what?
Once again at the risk of proving myself to be irrelevant, I started in this profession when we used to measure success with a pica pole. To most readers, this instrument is even less familiar than a slide rule. While you’re madly Googling these two terms, I’ll continue. We were publicists in those days and proud of it. Our role was to land our clients in the media with as much positive coverage as we could obtain ethically by pitching producers, reporters, and columnists with actual newsworthy bits of information. And – here it comes – we measured that coverage with a pica pole – an archaic tool that literally measured column inches of newspaper type. Say what? Now, I would love to say that I was only paid if I actually delivered such coverage, but that didn’t come until a few years later. We were paid a salary, but not for long if we didn’t continue to consistently produce column inches of media coverage – measured by a pica pole.
So what does this have to do with influence marketing and meta tags? Well, it points out two things…the terminology of the PR profession is as obtuse as ever, and, we’ve drifted a long way from measuring PR performance with actual media coverage in a direct and simple way – tangible coverage, not analytics. Now before the gods of today’s PR technical gurus are unleashed on me, please let me say, I believe in the modern methods and in the measurable results. It’s progress and most all progress is good if it helps achieve a client’s goals – and if it’s billable, of course.
But I can’t help being a little nostalgic of those Monday morning ‘boggie’ meetings where the boss would pull out a pica pole to carefully measure and determine which of us young PR Turks deserved special praise for a job well done. And not one mention of meta tags or links was heard.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Over the last several years we’ve noticed a trend in client objectives away from building a brand to driving sales, increasing contributions, or gaining clicks – instant gratification versus a longer term basis of positive growth. Around our shop, we refer to it as ‘making the phone ring.”
I recognize we live in a time where patience is no longer a virtue. A time of startup companies and millionaire, rather billionaire, aspirations before one hits thirty. A time when we consider an internet speed of 10 MPs, a turtle’s pace compared to our neighbor’s 240 MPs. A time of instant payoffs, not payouts.
But is it really the job of the PR pro to always make the phone ring? Is there still not room for PR campaigns that slowly and steadily build awareness in the marketplace of products and ideas? Are businesses today in such a hurry to gain enough growth to gain funding to gain more growth to exercise their exit strategies that they ignore even the possibility of building a brand reputation, let alone a legacy?
I can easily remember a time not that long ago when PR actually stood for “Performance-Recognition” and PR firms, as well as individual publicists, were hired for our ability to build a client’s reputation and recognition in the media. We became partners with our clients in developing an overall PR strategy that would resonate through the media with all of a client’s stakeholders – employees, investors, and yes, potential customers – and evolve over time into a base of credible recognition.
Is this kind of PR still possible in today’s instant gratification world? Not unless we insist on it. Here are a few red flag questions to consider the next time a new client demands you make the phone ring…
- Is the demand based on limited budget and funding?
- Is the client far enough along in their evolution to be newsworthy?
- Does the client understand the PR process and its dependency on the media?
- Is the client open to accepting a longer brand building approach?
- Is it worth it?
All of us in the profession understand that PR must provide an effective ROI, i.e., to ultimately drive business as its core reason for being. However, we also understand that it is the inherent value of the client’s product or service and their brand perception that will make the phone ring. PR’s job is to communicate that inherent value – sometimes instantly, and sometimes over time.
In my forty years in the PR and advertising business and twenty-plus years serving clients, I have yet to discover a completely viable method of quantifying the effectiveness or difference between the two main marketing tools –advertising and public relations. Both can be effective but are very different in what they return for the investment. I’ve always recommended that a client – if they can afford it – execute a coordinated campaign of both PR and advertising. In this instance, I am referring to traditional online or print ads, not digital ads designed to enhance SEO. The old fashioned conundrum of running an ad campaign versus a targeted PR campaign still exists within small companies with limited marketing budgets. You want and need both, but simply is not affordable. If one must be chosen as a budget priority, PR in the form of earned media outreach offers the following advantages:
– Credibility, credibility, credibility – Quite simply, ad content is what you are saying about yourself. PR stories are what someone else is saying about you. You can’t buy credibility. You earn it by convincing the media your story is newsworthy enough to deserve editorial time or space.
– Cost – PR will be less costly, particularly in national media. To buy commercial time or space in a national media almost always far exceeds what you will pay for a much longer and more comprehensive PR story or appearance.
– Engagement – Stories presented within the normal content of a show or even editorial content of a magazine, engage and immerse the audience much more than an ad, no matter how creative.
– Brand building – Nothing will build a company’s brand more effectively than the word-of- mouth and social media virality of the stories that have earned in-depth editorial coverage.
Advertising is the content people put up with in order to get to the content they actually want to see. People will gladly fast forward through a commercial in order to get to watch what Rachael Ray or Ryan & Kelly are talking about on their show. Or they’ll click out of an online ad in order to read the article beneath it. Wouldn’t you rather be part of the content people want to actually see versus the stuff they fast forward, skip, and click to get rid of?
Again, if the budget allows, a good promotional communication plan will incorporate both PR and advertising and perhaps other marketing tools as well. But if the marketing budget is limited, the PR media outreach provides the greatest bang for the buck.
Breaking News Overload
The PR pro’s dilemma. One would think that with the ever expanding media covering the 24/7 news cycle, there would be ever expanding opportunities to tell a client’s deserving soft news story. Not true. Simply put, if a story doesn’t fit within the narrow confines of the hot topic of the moment, i.e., breaking hard news, then those opportunities become very, very limited, indeed. And of course, the very definition of ‘breaking hard news’ has become so diluted and overused in today’s ubiquitous cable news world, that it’s lost any semblance of what it was intended to convey. I’m sure you’ve noticed the same ‘breaking news’ story continues over an entire news cycle until it should be labeled, ‘old news’ or at a minimum, ‘old breaking news.’
To those of us veteran PR types, this phenomenon, however, is nothing new. It probably can be traced back to the early nineties when a certain white Bronco led the LA cops on a merry chase culminating in an arrest and trial that was not just “must-see TV” but covered ad infinitum by the worldwide media for months. If your client’s story, no matter how vital or interesting, did not somehow relate to what was the ‘breaking news’ in the LA courtroom, then it fell on deaf ears within the media. And just about the time that we had all recovered from “OJ-it is” then the horrible tragedy of 9-11 was inflicted on us. In this instance, the media was certainly justified in focusing almost entirely on the barbaric acts and their aftermath on the American psyche. But while justified, the result was the same…soft news, not directly or indirectly tied to the events of 9-11, simply wasn’t attractive to the mainstream media.
Today, we PR types are faced with yet another breaking news story that appears to have no end in sight. And while hardly of the seriousness of 9-11 or the pop cultural impact of the great Bronco chase, the Trump presidency has the same effect. It’s a giant black media hole, absorbing any and all media pitches not related to our forty-fifth president and his daily misadventures. We’re PR people. We’re in the soft news business. Soft news, that which is the essence of our daily lives in business, in our personal lives, in everything not political, is being stymied by a media that is almost totally preoccupied with the “breaking news” of presidential actions and its sidebar of the President’s tweets.
Trump, Trump, and more Trump… Almost makes a PR guy wish for a little O.J.