Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Of Babies and Bathwater

This blog post, ‘Fire Your PR Agency’ by Jason Calacanis, founder and CEO of Mahalo, was sent to me by a client and I thought it’d blog well, so I’ve taken what was to be my email response and posted it here.

I agree that you can, conceivably, do PR yourself. But I think the value in the article is more useful if titled “How to support your PR firm’s efforts”. Better to keep the baby and change the bathwater, as it were. Jason is a natural press agent himself even if he doesn’t own up to it - so PR comes easily, naturally to him… and what he is suggesting requires a completely different set of skills than most entrepreneurs have and therefore they do require the support of a quality PR outfit.

I know plenty of PR firms, however, that can do more harm than good. In fact, I can provide a list. I’ve hired and fired several. Often because my colleagues and I were their lone source of ideas, which flies in the face of what Jason is suggesting, as he thinks this is a good plan. I don’t. While I appreciated the recognition that I was, in fact, brilliant, I’d have liked to have other ideas heard as well. It gets lonely when the only voice you hear is your own. This is not the same as providing your PR firm with information, resources, and access, which is critical and as this blog goes on to recommend. It is a partnership between client and agency.

Still, although I believe his premise – that you can do this yourself – is flawed, he makes some excellent points:

1. Be the Brand: It is easy for Jason to say this, he is his brand. This is useful if the leadership is savvy, well-spoken and political, or at least enthusiastic. Not every CEO is, and in fact, it is sometimes dangerous for firms to become too attached to their founder as it limits later growth, flexibility and potential M&A activity.

2. Be everywhere: This is simply blocking and tackling for start-ups. Too many engineer types think their better mousetrap will drive people to their door. Well, for that I have one word: Betamax.

3. Always pick up the check: The most important point Jason makes in the entire blog post is here: “If you're not a social person, learn to be, because it's your job if you're at a startup company.” See my comment above, #1.

4. Pitching as Jason uses it here is a euphemism for selling. The best PR opportunities aren’t ‘sold’, just like few of the best products are actually ‘sold’. That’s just PR 101. But I know that too few PR types have graduated that class, and others, while aware of it, are pressured by their clients or bosses to do just that. Sell, sell, sell. Ink, ink, ink. I once had a PR agency drop a couple of three ring binders on the conference table to indicate the amount of press they generated for a similar firm. Leafing through it, it amounted to page after page of one paragraph reprints of press releases. And this was a nationally recognized PR firm. Oddly, scrolling to the end of his post, Jason comments to measure press by the pound. Bullsh*t. You can’t blog about targeting appropriately and suggest measuring success by the pound in the same post. That’s oxymoronic.

5. The critical comment in point #5? “Spend just 30 minutes researching the journalist you're pitching.” PR folks can be lazy. Hire ones who aren’t.

6. His point #6 essentially states to make certain the client, not the agency, has the journalist relationship. Actually, both is important, but once again, good common sense is so rare it bears repeating.

7. Number 7’s key takeaway: “Your job as a subject is to say things concisely and with few words.” Not a reason to fire a PR agency. A good reason to have one, even if they only act as editors.

8. Invite people to "swing by" your office. Of course. Journalists are supposed to become your friends. Invite your friends for a visit. Remember what we learned in Kindergarten: To have a friend, be a friend.

9. Attach your brand to a movement - absolutely. But this works only if the environment allows for it. Generally good business advice, but certainly not a reason to fire a PR firm. A good PR firm can find opportunities to do just that.

10. Embrace small media outlets. Again, PR 101.

Further, don’t mistake media relations (making certain you are visible, acting as a resource for reporters, etceteras) for public relations. The former is easier and often used by weak PR firms as an indication of progress. It isn’t. Media relations is a tool, not an objective. Also, regarding hiring PR firms: The key is in the evaluation, and in the evaluation, the key is the people. Make certain it isn’t the A team selling the agency and the B team doing the work. Know who is on the account and their backgrounds, and hold them to their commitments. They need to be savvy, connected, creative, inventive. This needs to be determined upfront, because success or failure in PR can only be measured on the back end.

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