Seeing the Unseen: A guide to understanding media

The Muppets only show us what's in the frame, but understanding their genius is seeing what otherwise goes unseen.

The Muppets only show us what’s in the frame, but understanding their genius means seeing what otherwise goes unseen.

When it comes to media, what we don’t see matters as much as what appears. Of course, how do you know what you don’t see?

Every journalist leaves some great quotes and details behind in order to create a good story. It doesn’t mean they leave out relevant facts, it just means they need to cut in order to clarify. Plus, they rarely tell you the origin of a story. Did it come from their own experience? Did a PR person pitch it? Was this an editor’s suggestion? Did they start reporting on something else and stumble across this gem?

This matters because it better helps us in PR learn how to bring journalists stories that matter to them. Just because someone writes a story about coffee doesn’t mean they’re interested in other coffee-related stories. How they came to write that article and what engaged them about that particular story is often more important than the subject. PR people often forget this and will begin emailing reporters with pitches that don’t match their area of expertise or passion.

The easiest place to understand this is in the world of photography. Today, people take pictures as a quick process in which we snap almost without thought. But true photography is something entirely different. During a recent interview, Photographer Tom Zimberoff brought that differentiation to light by pointing out “photographs, which are 2 dimensional objects which you can hold in your hand and admire with completely different aesthetic qualities than you see on a computer screen.” He also said that Instragram is to photography as texting is to prose.

For many photographers, however, the work has a huge editing component. They take an idea, snap the shutter, select only the images worth using, modify them in some way to better tell the story, then only show their best work. This is true whether you’re talking about carefully staged art photography or more journalistic “decisive moment” photography.

Ansel Adams wrote three seminal works that break the photographic process into distinct areas: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. While the idea of a “negative” has been replaced with a digital file, the three-step execution remains. What you do with the camera is distinct from the images you capture that are distinct from the product finally produced. Of course, the modification can go too far, as it has recently in some journalistic circles.

One of the most amazing moments in my own photography education was viewing the contact sheets produced by Diane Arbus. I had been experimenting with a camera similar to hers and would have the occasional misfire or an out-of-focus shot. These frustrated me as I wanted every image to turn into gold. That is, until I saw her contact sheets and found the same errors. I learned that she would often spend a day or more shooting but only deemed a few images as worthy of printing.

One if Diane Arbus' most famous photographs.

One of Diane Arbus’ most famous photographs.

Among her more famous works is one of a set of twins, an image that inspired such iconic film moments as the twins in The Shining. The father of those twins once commented that he felt it was a lousy picture of his daughters. But that wasn’t Arbus’ point. She liked capturing something off in her images, which is why she loved photographing nudist colonies and what subjects who she termed “freaks.” To her, the twins were part of that narrative: the odd ends of society.


But if you look at her contact sheets you can almost see the “notes” she’s taking as she’s creating the narrative. She has a series of photographs with twins, all standing next to one another dressed alike (she came to a gathering of twins specifically to get two kids who looked alike). Each set of twins was photographed a number of times in different locations and focal lengths.

Then she took all these images, found the one that came closest to the story she wanted to tell, and that image went on to become famous. We have a better sense of what she was trying to say by looking at what she didn’t say.

The same goes for reporters. As PR people, we can learn a lot about a reporter by looking at their other stories, following their social presence, and even reading other quotes or articles written by the people who are interviewed. All that data begins to tell us what’s missing and can help us as we pitch reporters new stories.

By knowing what’s missing, we can know how to fill in blanks and better understand what’s valuable to different journalists.

Measuring PR Performance Against Budget – An IPREX Conversation

sip_share_logo_finalYears ago a public company CEO told me: “I hate PR. I  know we need it, but I never know if it’s worth the money. I don’t know if it’s doing well. I don’t know how much I should pay. Yet I know we have to have it.” I was shocked because I had a deep conviction about the short- and long-term value of good PR. Yet over the years I have met many other business leaders who felt the same way. Sales are easy to measure. PR, not so much.


That has shifted with social media and easily-destroyed reputations, and an increasing number of executive teams see PR as a necessary part of building and maintaining a strong reputation while making deposits into the “bank of goodwill,” as one IPREX partner notes below. Yet they still have trouble measuring PR’s value.


At the IPREX annual meeting in Berlin, I asked a few of our colleagues from various regions and countries how they measure PR performance against budgets. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that performance metrics vary dramatically according to company, marketing manager and campaign. In a business where the only certainty is what you give — the effort and creativity devoted to building awareness or shifting audience perception — there’s a wide range of ways to look at what you get in return.


Michael Fineman, President, Fineman PR, San Francisco
First, it’s critical to benchmark campaign goals at the very beginning and obsessively measure and report on the agency’s progress specific to these goals.


Second, there is the intangible element. We all know when our client is doing well. When that’s the case, a campaign or program can fall short of its goals and there can still be a sense of success. This can be enough to keep a relationship healthy and moving forward, and obviously adjusting for better results. Conversely, if a client’s business is struggling or failing, it might make no difference if the agency meets or exceeds program goals — the relationship is at risk.


Kathy Tunheim, Principal & CEO, Tunheim, Minneapolis
It’s all about taking responsibility for being understood. That is what we help our clients to do, and we know we need to hold ourselves to the same metrics.  So value is achieved – and measuredas a combination of our level of effort and the difference we made in our clients’ business.  If we spend lots of effort but don’t impact their results, that is low performance.  The goal, of course, is high impact with optimal effort:  Score!! 


Casper Jenster, EMEA Director, IPREX, The Netherlands
We often will look at the level of effort and help our client understand what this should have cost with other firms or, based on results, if they bought advertising for that kind of space. They often don’t realize the value of what they get. Also, it’s important to note that level of effort is clear and easy to quantify, but results are not always predictable in our business. Sometimes they can be disappointed, even though there was great effort put into a program.


Nick Vehr, President, Vehr Communications, Cincinnati
We measure against expectations and report regularly for most clients. Our goal is to initiate a conversation with each client engagement/project focused on the client objective. When it is increased sales or market share growth, we look at how we influenced leads understanding that we cannot close sales — the client’s sales team must do this. Some of the metrics we use include:
  • Ouputs: the work we do/things we produce (content, plans, posts, white papers, etc.).
  • Outtakes: attitude change in target audiences as a result of outputs generated. This often requires original research for which not all clients are willing to pay.
  • Outcomes: desired target audience action (inquiries, leads, sales, etc., which typically become the client’s responsibility).
John Scheibel, CEO and Mary Scheibel, Founder and Principal, Trefoil Group, Milwaukee, WI
John: “You need to work with the client to find metrics that tie as closely to the client’s income statement as possible. And if you wait until the end of an initiative or campaign to do this, it’s too late.”


Mary: It’s important to counsel companies who are transitioning from sales-centric to marketing-centric cultures. When they are just beginning to invest in marketing and public relations, they often invest just enough money to be dissatisfied.”

Helga Tomtschick, Managing Partner, Lang & Tomaschtik Communications, Austria
One of the key metrics is the CEO’s personal satisfaction. The client CEO needs to feel like PR is an insurance policy. Whether there is a crisis or difficulty, whether there is good news or bad, the PR agency is there to help. If the client CEO understands that his marketing team and agency feel responsible  for his or her well-being, then the relationship will be strong.


John Williams, CEO, Mason Williams Communications, London
We have an agency mantra – Did It Make Any Difference? (DIMAD). We use this as a measure against all activity. We work really closely with all our clients to understand what results THEY want and, in our case, it is usually sales or influence of one kind or another. All communicators need to understand that a nice big piece of media coverage is great, but if it doesn’t make any difference to the parameters against which the activity is judged by their client the only benefit is to the ego.


Andrei Mylroie, Partner, DH, Spokane, WA
One of the things we’ve seen over the past five years is marketing and communications being viewed as a core business strategy for many of our clients. This is a big shift from the past, where it was viewed by many organizations as a more tactical service or department. Along with this shift we’re measuring differently as well. So it’s not just reach, frequency, ad equivalency, etc., but we’re tracking reputation, consumer sentiment and business outcomes in far more holistic ways.


Alyn Edwards, Partner, Peak Communications, Vancouver, Canada
Unfortunately scope-creep is part of our industry, and in media relations we are always trying to do more for the same budget. We often have to measure by number of impressions, and while it’s not the only measure, it’s a pretty strong one. For some clients, such as in real estate, the sales effect can be quickly measured.

More importantly, clients need to understand that PR is making deposits in the bank of goodwill. When you make those deposits in the bank of goodwill, which is commonly called your reputation, this will:

  • help sales
  • help recruitment
  • help with instant recall
  • and help dramatically in times of crisis.

We have had clients with significant food recalls, but their decades of deposits in the bank of goodwill have helped them through it. What is the ROI for having a good reputation? It’s unending.


HUBgrown: Q&A with Kyle Alspach, Streetwise Media


Well-known Boston tech reporter Kyle Alspach shares how he began covering the city’s tech scene, tips for startups pitching their stories and why having a tech community that becomes overly obsessed with consumers can actually be a bad thing.


HB: How and why did you first become a tech reporter? What do you like about covering tech?

KA: I didn’t start out with any plan or aspiration to become a tech reporter. Originally I was hired by the Boston Business Journal to primarily cover cleantech. That exposed me to the world of startups, VC, IPOs, and the like, and so when BBJ had opening to cover tech startups, they asked me.

A big part of the appeal for me was (and is) the fact that there is basically an endless number of things to write about. One definition of newswriting might be “writing about things that are changing,” and tech is fundamentally about change, so there’s never a shortage of interesting stories.

HB: Boston is crawling with entrepreneurs. When they pitch you stories, what are you most often looking for? What mistakes do they most often make?

KA: In a broad sense, I’m looking for stories that will be read by a large number of our readers. That might sound obvious, but honestly I think a lot of companies don’t actually stop to think about that before pitching. They have their goals in pitching us, of course, but it’s only when we can find a shared interest that a story actually gets written—that is, when their news is something we believe will be read by and valued by a lot of people. A frequent mistake that entrepreneurs make is not recognizing this dynamic before they pitch.

HB: How can Boston’s entrepreneurs set themselves apart from other startups in the city?

KA: The easiest way for an entrepreneur to set themselves apart to us is to be connected to some person or institution we already know about. If they are brand new and don’t have those sort of connections, that doesn’t rule them out for coverage, but they just will have to be a bit more savvy in getting our attention. A quick email from a founder explaining clearly what makes their startup unique and important, and offering us a chance to be the first to write about the startup, can often do the trick.

HB: Streetwise is quickly expanding. In addition to Boston, you’re in DC, Chicago and have planned launches in mid-2015 in several other cities. What can Boston learn from some of these other startup hubs?

KA: First off, I think Boston can learn that its place in the Top 3 tech hubs in the U.S. is by no means secure. Chicago and DC are rising fast. I also look at cities and it strikes me how much it really benefits a smaller tech community to have big-name consumer tech companies, which are Groupon and GrubHub, in the case of Chicago. Boston is starting to get there with Wayfair, but we could really use some more like that, for so many reasons.

HB: BostInno recently ran its Tech Madness competition to uncover which Boston tech company will have the greatest impact five years from now. If this was a national Tech Madness bracket, how far do you think a Boston startup would make it in the competition?

KA: It would probably depend on what the constraints for the contest were. If it was strictly limited to “startups,” I think Boston could have a few contenders for making it pretty far—DraftKings, Drizly, RunKeeper all have national profiles. But if you included unicorn companies and public companies, Boston might be in tough shape, because we don’t have nearly as many high-profile national examples there as the Valley.

HB: Boston has a lack of consumer startups. Is that a good or bad thing? Does it matter?

KA: I think it would be terrific if we had more consumer startups. It would do a lot to boost our national standing if we produced more big-name consumer companies, as I mentioned. On the other hand, if we were to produce zero consumer startups from here on but were able to keep producing more HubSpots and Veracodes and SimpliVitys, then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would still be a tech mecca.

There’s also an argument to be made that, while they’re cool to have, consumer companies rarely solve our world’s hardest and most pressing problems. So in a sense, having a tech community that becomes overly obsessed with consumer can actually be a bad thing. It’s nice that Boston values companies who aren’t especially sexy but are solving hard problems.

For more information about Kyle Alspach, check out his latest work on BostInno.

Of Soviets and Starbucks

February 15th, 1990 was my father’s first day in America, and according to family-lore, the day he quit smoking. Two months ago I went home to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his arrival in the country. He made his way here during the waning years of the Soviet Union, leaving his home country of Ukraine for Austria and Italy, until he was finally granted permission to immigrate to the United States.

I’m always amazed at the admiration he has for this country, so in the spirit of his 25 year anniversary in the US, I asked my dad what word best represents his thoughts and emotions when thinking about America. In his noticeably Russian-accented English, he said, “inspirational.”

I was a bit struck after hearing that word. “Inspirational” is a nice soundbite, but more than anything it represents an abstract ideal. Don’t get me wrong—I know my dad meant it when he said it, and I admire him for it. But having come of age during one of the most polarizing periods in American politics, “inspirational” sounds like the hollow fluff you expect to hear from our politicians during election season.

Which brings me to my work in PR.


While interning at HB over the last few months, I’ve come to recognize that companies, particularly those catering to Millennials and consumers of technology, are increasingly promoting that abstract fluff over the reality on the ground. It’s the idea of the socially responsible but still profit-driven company adeptly navigating morality in the marketplace. Sometimes, the public will buy into a company’s social message. But the strategy isn’t foolproof. What starts out as a socially-conscious message could easily backfire. The recent PR debacle at Starbucks is a good example of this.

In March, the company implemented a new initiative, “Race Together,” where baristas would place stickers with those words on customers’ cups in hopes of jump starting a national conversation about race. In Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s head, this was a great idea, but it didn’t translate well with the American public, across the political divide of left and right. Starbucks was hammered by pundits and the average Joe for displaying poor judgement and naivete.

Uber, which promotes its societal contributions by stressing its outsized role in the sharing economy, was heavily criticized last November when Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber New York, decided to a boastfully tell a journalist,“I was tracking you,” as she pulled up to their meeting. Uber’s privacy policy prohibits contract drivers from tracking customers, but it’s widely available to employees at the corporate level. The breach of privacy resulted in harsh criticism and damaged Uber’s reputation among the public and government officials.

If I were a betting man, I’d expect more such PR disasters to proliferate among companies that cater to Millennials and other tech-savvy and socially-conscious groups. This is not to say that running a business responsibly is impossible. But large companies like Starbucks and Uber will have a difficult time managing their image if they continue testing the waters with what Americans believe to be ethically and socially responsible.

My dad might never learn how to order an Uber or a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle from Starbucks, but I know he’s always looking to buy from companies that do good and inspire. It’s up to companies to either live up to the missions they set, or get out of the business of morality.

It’s the responsible thing to do.

H2H PR – Haven’t We Always Been Doing It?

shutterstock_142034836Recently, B2B and B2C public relations have had some human company. Human-to-human (H2H), lately one of the industry’s favorite phrases, is now everywhere and it’s gotten there fast. But how people are using it and what it really means don’t seem to be in line.

The two main public relations categories, B2B and B2C, serve to create specificity and clarity when PR professionals describe their tasks and responsibilities. Each segment has its own audience, goals and messaging; differentiating between them allows for more efficient communication between professionals, their potential clients, and their client’s potential clients. In other words, B2B and B2C have their own distinct significations, and this is where H2H differs.

H2H is intended to help focus communicators on the people behind the companies, not on the companies themselves. The idea holds that all interactions are personal, even when executed in a business setting. In this context, for instance, a PR professional for a software security company needs to think about the IT manager as a person in its B2B communications plans, not the general role of the IT manager.

I’ve read and heard many communicators claim that they partake in authentic, feeling, H2H communications. A B2B agency can say they deal in human-to-human communications, just as a B2C agency can – the phrase itself does not speak to the kind of PR or branding being done, but rather to how it’s done. It’s a philosophy behind a practice, rather than the practice itself.

As a philosophy, H2H has become a diluted buzz-phrase, and, on some level, this is understandable. H2H has no alternative. There is nothing to distinguish it by. What would the opposite of H2H communication be? Has there ever been a situation in which we’re not trying to market to other people? The answer is most likely no. In the end, communicators have always been focused on people.

So if PR and creative communications are innately a human exchange, then why is this aspect such a popular topic right now?


Well, public relations used to be a very linear process, but today it’s not linear at all. PR is merging different outlets and means of accessing information into a single, tailored and aligned communications plan. It reaches beyond creating content or pushing out press releases to creating your own content outlets and nurturing lasting engagement.

Additionally, audiences are more nuanced than ever before. People have more options and outlets to find and express their opinions. While it has always been important for businesses to engage in these conversations, the explosion of communication platforms and communicators has made audience engagement a more challenging task that can’t be ignored.

But we all know this already. It’s this very challenge that invigorates us to strive for success every day. Each era before ours has faced their version of the almighty communications hurdle, and each one after our own will do the same. What we may not be so aware of are the secondary ways in which the hurdles we face influence our communications strategies. Terms like human-to-human and integrated marketing communications are phrases we drew up and then popularized as a way to try to define and somehow harness the hurdles we’re facing. In other words, they’re direct products of our challenges and not necessarily terms for our solutions.

Human-to-human is to business practices as integrated marketing communications is to just plain communications – it’s a method, it’s intuitive, and nobody knows precisely what it means. When you say you’re communicating to humans, what you’re really saying is that you’re doing what you should be doing. When you say you’re deploying an “integrated marketing communications campaign,” what you’re really saying is that you’re doing what you should be doing. These terms aren’t special anymore – they simply identify part of the very fabric of how we exchange news and information for action and reaction.

So, let’s let B2B and B2C delineate the spaces in which communications professionals play and let’s give H2H a break.


This post originally appeared on the PRSA Boston blog on July 10, 2014:

Top 5 Things I Learned from the Watergate Break-In

shadowWhat if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein needed to fight for clicks? Would they have had to break their Watergate stories into a series of listicles? Would that make for better journalism?

Listicles are, of course, the legacy of Buzzfeed, which has turned itself into a social media click machine, and clicks are the currency of the journalism world today. Or, at least that’s what I’m repeatedly reminded by journalists who tell us at HB Agency that if a story can’t get clicks, they’re not interested in writing it. The New York Times also realizes this, having done its own exhaustive study of the Grey Lady’s online presence.

Oddly, journalism can be saved by the very organization that changed it: Buzzfeed! Years ago Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed described the work of the Huffington Post, which he also helped create, as the “mullet strategy,” all business up front with carefully crafted articles and then a party in the back with people posting whatever they wanted. The Huffington Post hated that description and apparently asked him to stop using it.

Buzzfeed is, in many ways, the opposite, with party-like click-bait up front and then important stories in the back written by well-respected reporters and editors. While most people know Buzzfeed for stories about cats, babies with eyebrows and quizzes like “Which Star Wars Character are you?” it’s less known for its longform work, such as the article exposing the fact that the last American journalist has been ousted from Yemen, or how those from Africa seeking Asylum in the U.S. first need to move through Latin America. The last story is not at all in Listicle form and, in fact, runs more than 2500 words. Still, Buzzfeed breaks the Islamic extremist organization ISIS down to a 22-part listicle.

Which begs the question, would the Watergate story have gotten the attention and financial support it deserved when competing for clicks with cat videos?

Essayist Julie Wittes Schlack would probably say “no,” since she wrote the wonderful essay “6 Reasons Listicles Must Die.” Her premise is that some ideas are just too complex to be broken down into a short list with a bunch of funny GIFs. Sure, that works when you’re giving out something fun and light, like the 26 Childhood Moments that Always Made Your Day, but at this point listicles have taken over all forms of journalism, from consumer to B to B tech pubs.

The problem for early-stage companies promoting new ideas is that new, tech-heavy concepts aren’t always popular but still need champions. It doesn’t make the stories about these technologies “bad journalism” or even unpopular, it just means that the people haven’t fully understood yet what these technologies are about and how they can change lives. In 2004 this meant helping people understand social networking, in 2007 people needed help understanding Twitter and today they need help grasping the the benefits of the “connected home” or the “Internet of Things.”

Of course, maybe listicles can say it all. Otherwise, why would we have “10 Fascinating Facts about Watergate 42 Years Later”?

Check out your content’s legs and learn how to use them!

Remember “top and tail”? It’s a British expression that means changing the introduction and conclusion of an article to place it in different journals. Topping and tailing an article meant you could re-purpose it several times in different vertically-focused media, such as monthly magazines targeting design engineers in different markets. Back then (like a decade ago), if content had legs, it meant you could top and tail it a few times without needing to extract new information from engineers or others who are tough to pin down.
[Read more…]

13 PR Types Who Should be On the Naughty List for 2013

Santa's Naughty or Nice List

PR people often get criticized, ridiculed and looked down upon, sometimes for no reason. But there are times when we definitely deserve it. That’s right PR people, there are a few of you giving the rest of us a bad name with your naughty behavior. In fact, 13 types of PR professionals earned a spot on the Naughty List this year.

1. The Email Blaster – Reporters hate this and so should you. Sending out one generic email to a large number of reporters comes off as impersonal, lazy and, frankly, ineffective. It’s not that there isn’t a time or place for an email blast – there is. However, if this is how you primarily interact with journalists, congratulations! You just booked a one way ticket to PR purgatory. With a simple copy/paste and a touch of personalization, you can change how reporters perceive you.

2. The Scaredy Cat – In PR, at one point or another you have to go with your gut and take a risk. This could be as simple as how to deal with a client issue when the boss isn’t around or taking a gamble on a risky pitch. Boldness, confidence and instincts are all a part of PR. As PR pros mature, hiding from taking charge won’t work.

3. The Repeat Offender – Yes, we are all guilty of emailing reporters more than once if they don’t respond. However, it is crucial to not send the same email over and over again. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved and makes PR people look lazy, unprofessional and annoying. If you need an answer, write a new email each time or call. Matt Rosoff, editorial director for CITEworld gives insight as to what can happen if you do this (hint, blacklists do exist).

4. The Buzzword Person – Hey buzz word guy, no reporter, client or PR person wants to “circle back with you,” “reinvent the wheel,” or “grab the low-hanging fruit.” Can we cut this out of our language? While we’re at it, can we take out the words, “robust,” “optimize,” and “social media guru.” I’m just trying to “call out” the unnecessary jargon we use that makes people’s eyes glaze over. “Moving forward,” please make sure to add this to your “action items.” If you disagree, feel free to “reach out” and we can “touch base” about it later. If this doesn’t sound reasonable, please check out Yahoo Columnist and former NYT writer David Pogue’s response to PR pitches.

5. The Anti-Double Checker – These people call reporters by the wrong name in a pitch or don’t think to check what beat they cover. Perhaps they misspell or mispronounce the client’s CEO’s name. Come on guys, it’s hard to get much worse than this. Just ask ReadWrite reporter Dan Rowinski who still gets pitches from PR people calling his employer ReadWriteWeb, which changed its name in 2012. A simple double-check can solve this problem. Everyone messes up, but make sure to learn from it. Better yet, read your materials out loud, maybe even to another person. Not taking the time to do things right can make or break a relationship.

6. The Lazy Man’s Media List/Agenda Compiler – These documents are part of a PR agency’s life blood, so they have to be up to snuff. No one wants to open a media list and find wrong emails/numbers, misspelled names or out-of date publications. Sending an unfinished or sloppy agenda to a client makes your agency look unprofessional. Finally, you personally end up looking bad and have wasted everyone’s time. If you are chosen to put a document together, make sure to do it right.

7. The Clueless Pitcher/Researcher – In the same vein as number six, this naughty person doesn’t do their research. Whether it’s reaching out to reporters or doing research on publications, a PR person should always know the basics: how a journalist like to contacted, beat, style, etc. This chain of tweets between TechCrunch Writer Alex Wilhelm, founding partner, CEO of Knock Twice Mike Barash, TechCrunch Writer Ryan Lawler and author April Peveteaux demonstrates what a PR person needs to look for when pitching reporters. In terms of publications, don’t pitch a byline to a publication that doesn’t take bylines. If you know a certain magazine doesn’t cover product launches, then don’t pitch them a launch! With a little common sense and quick information check, this person can end up on the Nice List if they try.

8. The Long Pitcher – My favorite word in PR is brevity. Lengthy emails are not as appreciated as you think. From the reporters I have talked to, most hate long, intricate missives. The best thing you can do is get to the point as fast as you can. If they want the story they will take it no matter how detailed the pitch, but they need to be able to understand what you are pitching in the first place. If you can’t get to your point in the first few sentences, the pitch isn’t worth sending. Again, David Pogue can shed a little light on this very common problem.

9. The Email Bitcher— This is a very naughty PR person. If a reporter does not respond, most of the time it means they don’t want it. It is in poor form to go back to said reporter and complain about how they should check their messages more. Journalists have lives, as well as having hundreds of other PR people hounding them every day. Sending a complaint email makes a PR pro look immature and unprofessional. This is a great way to not only get on the Naughty list, but a reporter’s blacklist as well.

10. The Mis-Opportunist – This PR person does not take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. They miss out on being able to meet and talk to clients, reporters, other PR people and potential new business without realizing it. There is so much potential to network and make new connections at events or conferences that to not take advantage of this can be detrimental to a PR person’s career. Even though it can be difficult to start conversations with strangers, the benefits will surprise you.

11. The PR “Pro” Who Doesn’t Understand Their Client – A PR person that doesn’t get what their client does will not make it in this industry. We act as the mouthpiece for our clients, translating their stories for journalists and other influencers. We need to know their market, technology and competition as well as they know themselves. Understanding a client product or service can be difficult; reach out to a supervisor if you have problems. At the end of the day, the person who doesn’t understand their clients doesn’t get, or keep, a job.

12. The “Too Cool for School” PR person – They think they are the coolest thing on two feet – they have the contacts, the knowledge and don’t think they need anyone else’s advice. In their eyes, they are better than everyone else. Unfortunately for them, PR is constantly changing and there will always be something new to learn or a new person to meet. Just because someone has a close relationship with a famous reporter doesn’t make them the best PR person. We all have contacts and we should all strive to continually build our reputations.

13. The Script Reader – Nothing is more cringe-worthy than listening to a PR person sound like they are pitching from a script (which they probably are if they sound like that!) One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from reporters is how PR people don’t get to the point, won’t let the reporter answer and sound mechanical. There is no harm in sounding like a human; it might even be appreciated. Don’t be scared to engage with reporters, they don’t bite. Make sure to give the journalist the opportunity to respond too – rambling off a spiel sounds rehearsed, and a reporter will stop listening after a few seconds. Many times a PR pro has only one shot, so make sure it’s a bull’s-eye.

If you know a PR professional doing these things, please place a lump of coal on their desks. It’s tiring hearing from reporters how much we can stink. I propose that this holiday season we give all reporters the gift of flawless PR.

7 Reasons Pay-for-Placement PR Rips Off Start-ups

moneyFor start-ups, the allure of a pay-for-placements situation is obvious: they just want media coverage, why pay when they don’t get it? Recently I heard from a company (I won’t name them) that wanted to involve me in a pay for placements concept.

The sell, according to the CEO–who also tells me that he’s “personally generated ‘millions in earned media’ (whatever that means 😉 for [his] own companies and projects”–is that start-ups would drop their stories into an online marketplace, then a PR person would choose the stories they want to tell, pitch those stories to a reporter and get paid when the placements happen.

It’s a bad deal for everyone.

This concept surfaces every once in a while. One of the biggest kerfuffles came about a year ago when TechCrunch got word that a PR firm was getting paid for placements, including those in TechCrunch. Alexis Tsotsis warned “we believe that there’s something smarmy about putting an a la carte price tag on an individual article like this, even if it’s a relatively inexpensive $750.” TechCrunch editors went so far as to tell their reporters to blackball the PR firm in question, “Because we actually get paid to write amazing stories, not write amazing stories to get PR people paid.”
There are a number of reasons to walk away from this deal, both from the PR side as well as the start-up side.
  1. It’s a waste of money — The URL for the TechCrunch story says “We are worth at least $3k.” It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it brings up a legitimate question: how do you value a single placement? If you’re measuring traffic and conversions, and that single placement sends you a lot, then you have a sense of the value after the fact. But so many factors go into even that issue. You could work very hard on an article and then the reporter posts it at 3pm on a Friday. Traffic fail. You could work hard on an article and the week it’s about to run a major news story pushes you out of the way. The article could come out and offer only a small mention with no link back. Sure, it could be the New York Times and based on the deal you work out it could have cost you a few hundred dollars, but provide little value.
  2. You’re not getting the best work — Put yourself in the shoes of a PR agency person. During their day they need to put time into various clients. On the one hand is a client that’s on retainer and building a relationship. On the other is a pay-for-placement situation. The PR person knows that any pitch they do may or may not result in coverage for any of a number of reasons that are outside of their control. An editor may kill a story, a major event could push it off,  the client could give a lousy interview or it could just months before closing (and therefore: getting paid). Chances are, they’ll put their time and effort into the retainer client.
  3. You need more than just your story — Sure, you think your story is great, and so does your mom, your girlfriend, and the guys in the co-working space. But what happens when you bring it to reporters? “Your story is boring until proven otherwise” writes Amy Westervelt quoting Lora Kolodny. What’s going to make it exciting? What will work for each individual reporter? What will resonate with your intended users? Sometimes this is apparent, sometimes it takes trial and error. Often an outside perspective can add tremendous value, since your firm isn’t steeped in your own messaging. While your firm is certainly there to help amplify your message, it’s just as important that they ask tough questions as part of the planning process. This doesn’t take place at the moment you write the pitch, it happens much earlier.
  4. PR isn’t just about media — Great, you had a successful launch. You told your story and a few reporters picked it up. You even got a boost of traffic and sales. Now what? How do you move on, what’s next for your marketing program? What is going to help your sales team? Do you need third-party validation? Reviews? Maybe you’re looking for funding and you need business credibility. Are you ready for brand-building PR? What other influencers play a role in the buying process? How do you reach them? What channels work? What content do you need to produce? So much work left to do!
  5. Time Matters — Rebekah Iliff at AirPR points out that what she calls “9-11 PR” simply doesn’t work.  At best, a launch takes between three and six months to truly succeed, but 60 to 90 days can work in a pinch. Just about every PR person has a story about a client that came in at the last minute needing help. Success at that point is more about luck than skill. But the launch that took time to build properly not only has a greater chance to success, but helps lay a foundation on which to build.
  6. Relationships Matter — Most people see PR people as “those guys who know reporters,” but just as important are the relationships we build with our clients. The more we get to know the companies and the people we work with, the more opportunity we see. This could be as simple as knowing that our client grew up in Iowa and the reporter attended school in the state. It could be having enough knowledge of the technology by listening to countless analyst and reporter briefings, to better pitch a highly technical publication. These aren’t things you can learn in a single meeting or call, they are tidbits that you learn over time. It’s also how the client learns to trust their PR counsel. The give and take has tremendous value for both sides.
  7. You Can Spend Your Money Better — The CEO mentioned above asked me “If a start-up only has $10k to spend on a launch, should they hire a firm who may or may not get them any exposure? Or would they be wiser to craft a great story in-house (or with some spot advisement), research the top 10-20 places they should be featured, and then make a listing on our exchange?” My advice would be very different. Rather than spending a little and expecting a lot, get a subscription to Muck Rack and do the PR yourself. If you as a start-up know the audience you want to reach and it’s a relatively tight audience, then go ahead and do the work on your own. You may also be able to engage a freelancer for a little bit of money to help. It’s not helpful to anyone to try and engage an agency when you have neither the budget nor the need. Everyone walks away from that unhappy.
In truth, an agency brings a lot of value, but only once a company is ready to engage. Success comes over time by building relationships, momentum and exposure. It comes through all forms of media, whether that’s earned media (traditional placements), social engagement, owned content or even paid native ads. All of these play into a broad PR program that drives value.
Smaller start-ups are probably better off taking the DIY approach. But if you’re headed in that direction be sure to track the impact of any outreach on your business, whether that is traffic, sales, investor interest or any other metric that matters. That way when you do get large enough to need and afford a firm, you will have a good understanding of how to measure the impact of their results.

5 Things I Learned at the PRSA International Conference

The LOVE sculpture courtesy daniel_in_pr on Instagram.

Putting a few hundred PR people into a room together is a scenario ripe for self-parody, but that’s the premise of the PRSA International conference.

PRSA’s work to advance the efforts of communicators is no joking matter, however. I came back from the Philadelphia conclave with a fist full of notes, a pocket full of business cards and a belly full of cheesesteak. Hey, it was in Philly! And I even found time to make a pre-dawn run up the “Rocky Steps.” And no, that wasn’t enough to burn off the overstuffed meat hoagie I downed in Reading Terminal Market.

But we digress.

The keynotes were all quite good. Brian Solis opened the event by talking about the changing world of PR and how PR must now help businesses communicate emotion, not just value. Later in the week Vernice “Flygirl” Armour gave a great, energetic speech that equated her experiences as a pioneering attack helicopter pilot to life and business lessons.

But for me, the most inspiring keynote of the event came from John Wood, founder of Room to Read. His passion for his work as well as his examples of how Room to Read takes many of the same concepts that drive communications programs and applies them to helping kids around the world to read made me tear up a bit. If you haven’t heard him speak, you should.

Still, this was a business conference and it would mean nothing if I didn’t come back with a series of lessons. After sitting through a number of panels and having a quite a few sidebar discussions, I’ve boiled my lessons down to five key takeaways.

Swag, swag and more swag! Courtesy Hiloprgal on Instagram.

  1. Media relations remains  alive and well — It’s very sexy to focus on content and social programs, and those all work very well. We do a lot of them here at HB Agency. Yet, traditional PR goals of getting “hits” from reporters remains alive and well.  MWW EVP of Digital Content Ephraim Cohen pointed out that news media, and the influencers-formerly-known-as-reporters who write and publish articles, drive a lot of social interaction. Nearly every story of social media success that people told at the event at some point included the line “this also received attention from the media.” In some cases the media acted as a validator, but in most it acted as a driver.
  2. The faces are the same, only the names have changedNewsjacking? A new(ish) word for a concept that is as old as PR itself. Outreach? Same as it ever was, but instead of relying on just phones (or faxes, or snail mail, or email) to build relationships, we use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anything else that opens a channel. Content Marketing? We used to call that custom publishing. Native Advertising? Hello advertorial, my old friend. I don’t want to dismiss this as “everything old is new again,” as there are subtle differences with each one of these now. For example, native advertising often includes a lot more editorial control on the part of the publisher than did advertorial. Still, conceptually, these things are very close.
  3. Measure PR against Business and Brand; Forget ROIJim Pierpoint, senior vice president at Bank of America gave perhaps the best presentation of the week. In it he demonstrated, quite specifically, how public relations and media relations can map directly to brand and business goals. He changed how we perceive some basic questions like rather than just looking at the placement, reach and tonality of a given piece of coverage, develop measurement to understand how the messages are perceived by the audience. Today’s tools make this much easier and cheaper than in the past. Not only did he talk extensively about K.D. Paine’s Outputs, Outtakes and Outcomes, he mapped those to  Functional, Tactical and Strategic measurement platforms. He painted such a beautiful canvas of what’s possible that every other measurement talk felt like I was watching them color with crayons.
  4. Real-time Reaction is important, Context is more so — To a consumer brand, an entire news cycle can last a matter of a few hours. The Oreo Super Bowl ad kept coming up as a great reaction in real time. But as one person pointed out: it’s still just an ad for a cookie. Inserting a company into any conversation matters only if that conversation helps build your brand and reaches the right audience. A lot of brands put out content surrounding the Royal Baby announcement just to be part of the buzz, but for many that branding didn’t matter. The same goes for content programs that focus on the wrong type of content. Brand relevance matters as much as anything else to ensure that the interest you generate, whether that’s site traffic, general awareness or product interest, is from the right audience.
  5. Content is Great, but How Will You Get People to Read It? — Hubspot has done a great job of promoting the idea of inbound marketing. They’re right, of course. If you create great, relevant content over time then people will find you. The challenge is that as more companies get into the content creation game noise levels rise, making it more difficult to find and reach the right audience. This isn’t anything new. A lot of us remember an age when the major networks dominated TV; today our personal video choices are seemingly endless. So today’s content challenge is one of distribution. How do you get content into the hands of the right people? Tactics like those listed above help, but the high level answers come back to a combination of paid, earned, shared and owned channels. What those channels are, how much they cost and measuring the effectiveness of each remains a key stumbling block, one I hope we will continue to explore at future PRSA events.

Overall, a very good event with plenty of meat, if you hit the right presentations. I heard great things about Jerry Berger’s presentation on managing a crisis based on one of the biggest events of the year: the Boston Marathon Bombings. Berger manages communications for Beth Israel Hospital, the place where many of the victims received treatment but also the place where the alleged bombers were taken with their wounds.

Though, as we were leaving the conference, one person pointed out what was lacking: writing advice. While people talked about what to do with content and gave general advice on how to create it, the main conference contained no writing workshops, video tutorials or photography sessions. Hands-on training during the event (as opposed to leading into it) would have been very helpful, especially to young professionals.