Media Relationships Don't Matter, and Other PR Fairy Tales

CatCountless times I’ve sat in the office of a potential client. We’re having a great conversation, exploring strategies and messaging. We’re talking about where their company is headed and how PR can help get them there.

And then it happens: “Do you have connections?”

The inference is immediate – “Do you have connections that can quickly get me onto the front page of <CEOs favorite publication>?”

Have you ever sat on either side of that table before? If you have, then you know that this part of the conversation gets, well – weird. So, how do you answer the question?

My short answer: Of course connections with journalists and other influencers matter. But it’s not just about the relationships. The reality is a little more complicated than that. Connections matter, but so does context. As a client, it’s important to understand why you are interested in a PR professional’s influencer network. You may be using it as a yardstick to help gauge her ability and track record. Perhaps you want to leverage her connections for greater visibility on social media. Or maybe you are hoping that her connections will bust open a door to a huge media hit.

There are a million reasons why you want to know if a PR person has connections. While connections are useful, most of the time there are many other more important factors that will determine the success of your campaign. If a PR person selling your services tries to convince you that relationships don’t matter, it’s probably because she doesn’t have any to brag about, and she probably isn’t the right PR person for you.

Where’s Waldo?

Relationships do matter, and I’ll explain more on that later. But let’s tackle the three biggest arguments typically made for why relationships don’t matter. The first one is the shrinking newsroom: how important is it to try to maintain relationships with journalists when they might be gone six months from now? The answer, of course, is that it is doubly important to maintain strong relationships with the media in today’s market, because they’ll remember you (and all the help you gave them) at the next outlet they go to. And if they end up on their own? Then they can still be a great resource for you and your clients, for writing, sanity checks, etc. And the fact that you maintained your relationship through thick and thin will mean a lot to them down the road.

The Story Sells It

The next argument typically made against the value of relationships is the importance of having a great story. Great stories are, after all, what interest reporters, readers and other influencers. If there’s no news, no trend, nothing of interest to the greater community – then it doesn’t matter how many connections a PR person has. The result will be the same. And let’s get real, a stale story like that sounds like a bad advertorial. But a good story that lands in the inbox of an editor from an email address she doesn’t recognize may never see the light of day (or of her computer screen at least).

Hard Work Pays Off

The final argument is that an aggressive PR pro, regardless of the story or the connections, can sell anything. It is certainly true that there are many capable, talented PR professionals who don’t have a stellar book of A-list tech celebrities on speed dial. That doesn’t mean their success rate for generating coverage on behalf of clients isn’t high. They have the secret PR sauce: diligence, and most likely a talent for storytelling.

These people work hard for their clients. They may not be the person to spend a ton of time networking outside of office hours, but it doesn’t mean they’re not generating ink for their clients. I know many of PR professionals that fit into this category. So what if they don’t have a huge social graph? If you’re a company with news to share, these PR people can usually get the job done well.

Can You Handle the (Nuanced) Truth?

Yes, a good story matters. No reputable influencer will want to cover something that has no apparent value to her audience. She will lose credibility, and consequently her network and clout. Before looking at whether a PR person has connections, the company hiring a PR firm first needs to examine their own stories. Do they have something interesting to say? Are they even ready for PR?

But the story isn’t everything. Having the right connections might make the difference between an opened email and a discarded one, regardless of how compelling the subject line was. Diligent professionals will follow up appropriately when they don’t hear back – and this can pay off in droves.

For Clients – Connections are a Nice to Have, Not a Need to Have

“Do you have connections?” is a loaded question. Sure you don’t necessarily need connections to successfully execute a solid PR campaign. But they can certainly help.

Connections, and particularly a PR person’s online social graph, can prove useful to her client. And there are many reasons why they help. Let me share a few scenarios.

Let’s say a company wants to be covered in a specific publication. Even with a great story, sometimes other factors beyond the control of PR can impact whether it ever gets the ink. This is when having a connection on the inside helps. You can’t guarantee ink, but you do have a much better shot at some feedback. This can be invaluable in helping deliver the story that publication needs to finally cover your client.

Or perhaps your client is trying to reach a certain group of influencers online. If the PR professional already has a solid network in place, it shouldn’t take long to further cultivate those specific connections with whom the client is trying to engage. Additionally, having this tight social graph helps when sharing client news with the goal of getting it to the right people via social media.

Connections can also help the PR team keep lines of communication open when they might have otherwise been damaged by a client. Imagine the client decides last-minute to back out of the news you were pitching under embargo. Unfortunately for you, it is the first piece of news you ever pitched for that client. Reporters who already know you will know that they can still trust you, so the next time you approach them with news from that company they are much more likely to respond to your pitch.

For PR Professionals – Connections are a Must

Clients come and go, much more often than not completely independent of the PR firm’s results. What does remain are the PR person’s connections – her social graph.

Let’s go back to that scenario in the office. Can I favorably answer the question “Do you have connections?”

Of course I can. But will I sacrifice them by trying to sell something that’s not newsworthy with the hope of possibly getting the front page of <CEO’s favorite publication>? No way.

Where’s the long-term ROI for anybody in that?

Manish Mehta on the Nuclear Option: Fresh Ground #15

A little less that two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on how big and small sized companies made the culture shift necessary to realize success in the world of the truly social company. The panelists were Andrew Sinkov of Evernote, and Manish Mehta, one of the original founders of and VP of social media and community there.

Due to the #ashtag incident, the original keynoter, Neville Hobson, was unable to attend the event, and Manish was asked to step up and present, which he did. His story, in which he draws parallels between the rise of social media and the rise of nuclear power, was provocative and thoughtful, and we’re including an excerpt of it as this week’s Fresh Ground podcast. You can catch the full audio on the Fresh Ground blog.

The keynote will also be featured in an upcoming For Immediate Release Sessions & Speakers episode.

So here are some excerpts from the first part of Manish’s presentation on measuring social media and business value:

Listen Now:

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Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

The Importance of Measurement

The Boston Social Media Club had a great event on Thursday on the importance of measurement for both small and large companies. I encourage you to have a look and listen.

The video from last week’s great panel is up, thanks to Brilliant Video (see below)!

Christopher S. Penn’s slides, and more video content, is available at the Blue Sky Factory website.

There’s a great write-up of the event on Janet Gershen-Siegel’s blog.

SMC Boston 4/29/2010 Measuring Social Success (Big & Small) from Brilliant Video Productions on Vimeo.

Paul Gillin on Social Media Marketing: Fresh Ground #4

Fresh Ground Podcast #4In episode 4 of the Fresh Ground Podcast, Todd Van Hoosear talks with Paul Gillin, veteran technology journalist, author, blogger, researcher and consultant. Paul is a popular speaker who is known for his ability to simply complex concepts using plain talk, anecdotes and humor.

Todd and Paul talk about how to start in social media, measure ROI, give up control (and why giving up control can be so valuable) and “ditch the pitch.”

This interview was originally recorded a little more than a year ago.

Some of the more interesting excerpts:

“Starting small is fine. There’s no reason that you have to make a big enterprise-wide commitment to social media in order to start some spot blogging, launch a podcast or do some video … training.”

“[A] lot of what goes on in social media is in fact what we have been doing on television, and radio and in print communications and in newsletters… We’re simply using a different means to do that, and we are creating a two-way channel around it.”

“When you can take a company … as big and as conservative as Procter & Gamble and say this company is making a huge corporate-wide commitment to a new way of communicating with its customers, that is … a pretty compelling case that this idea has gone mainstream.”

“There are paradoxes in social media… The more control you give up, the more control you get… The more you give away, the more you get in return… The more transparent you are, the more control you have over information.”

“The trend is very clear that people who influence important constituents are important to institutions, regardless of the media they use. As mainstream media continues to decline, and crumble in many cases, this may be all we have left in some markets.”

“The traditional [PR] pitch is almost a scripted engagement, and I know that if I ever want to play games with a PR person’s mind, what I’ll do is start asking intelligent questions… When you’re talking with someone who has a high level of knowledge, as most bloggers do, you can’t deliver a pitch. They’re not going to listen to it. They don’t play the game. They’re not trained in the game like journalists are. They are going to challenge you right off the bat. So you can’t go in unprepared. You can’t go in with a scripted plan. You have to go in with a plan for a conversation, and that requires a fundamentally different approach to PR.”

About the Fresh Ground Podcast: Each week, we feature 10 minutes of insights from people driving change in today’s competitive business and media landscape. We talk about the evolving worlds of media, public relations, marketing and business, with a special focus on creating more social organizations.

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Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

Todd's 2009 Predictions & Recap

It’s predictions season again. As I mentioned on Friday, the Society for New Communications Fellows got their heads together a couple weeks ago on this very subject. I won’t spoil the fun by sharing all of our trends and predictions, but I will look back at my own predictions from last year and some of the big trends we saw. In my next post, I’ll look forward even more and make some predictions for 2010.

The Birth of Web 3.0
Despite the continued prevalence of “2.0” everywhere we turn, last year I issued a few trends/predictions on my own blog, focusing on the semantic web, or “Web 3.0” as it’s sometimes being called. Here’s exactly what I said late last year — I gave a two-year timeline, so hold my feet to the fire next year on these:

  • Trust. Trust is one of two remaining economic scarcities in the Internet Economy—there’s just not much of it out there. Chris Brogan put it nicely: “Though a company like Microsoft spent millions and millions of advertising and marketing dollars trying to improve our perception of the brand, none of us gave a sh!t until Robert Scoble came along and put a human shape around their online and event presence for us.” The trust barrier will be solved by understanding how human “trust agents” (as Chris puts it) work, and by allowing us to layer “trustworthiness” over all of our online interactions (not just in search, but social networking, bookmarking, blogging, etc.)
  • Attention. Attention is the other economic scarcity remaining. There are only 24 hours in the day, and we have to sleep for a good chunk of them. The competition for the rest of them is fierce. Applications that are smartest at competing for our attention—or at helping us understand what we should be paying attention to—will have a distinct advantage in the web 3.0 world.
  • Agents. Chris Brogan talks of human trust agents, but digital agents will finally come back into the public’s view as well. I’m not talking about the old school “tickler” agent (”Hey, don’t forget you’ve got to pick the girls up from soccer practice tonight”), nor am I talking about Google Alerts (”You asked me to keep an eye out for blog posts mentioning ‘Web 3.0?, so here you go…”). It’s closer to the kind of capability you see in good contextual advertising (my favorite example of which is all the “Bacon Salt” ads I get on Facebook after I signed up as a fan of the bacon page), but it’s both cross-platform and cross functional. As just one small example, you tell it that you want to be kept abreast of upcoming social media events, and it checks, Facebook, Evite, Meetup, etc. and shares with you the events it finds, allowing you to sign up for them through its own interface.
  • RSS. I can’t tell you how wrong-headed so many interpretations of Forrester’s recent report are (Paul gets it right in this link). RSS is not dead. It’s simply buried so deep that most people don’t even know it’s there. But that doesn’t mean they’re not using it. Content syndication will be at the heart of web 3.0. It empowers almost everything I’ve been talking about in this post to some extent. Don’t sell it short. Look for ways to use it and build applications around it.
  • Semantic Web. I’m sorry. I hate to use this term. It has such negativity surrounding it. But let’s put all that bias aside for a second, and ask ourselves a question: What if there was a way, for instance, that my blogging software could understand that what I was writing about—in plain English—was an event I was trying to promote, and could translate that information so that it could automatically be shared with Upcoming, Evite, Eventbrite, Facebook, etc.? Tell me that wouldn’t be cool. The AI behind something like that isn’t too far away—hell, the Turing Test is pretty close to being passed.
  • OpenID! A conversation between myself, @RodBegbie, @al3x and @sbtodd on Twitter made me realize how important something like this will be to Web 3.0. If you assume that trust and interoperability will be at the heart of Web 3.0—go ahead, try to argue otherwise—then an idea like OpenID becomes critical. It provides a common identity platform for interoperability. YES, to quote Alex Payne, “It’s confusing for users and developers, it doesn’t bake security in, and it doesn’t solve a problem that non-geek users care about.” But it’s just confusing because nobody’s been able to explain it well. Security can presumably be fixed. And Like I said on Twitter, it might not solve a problem most non-geeks care about*, but down the road they might!

    * THIS geek certainly cares about it. I am LIVID every time some sites password security mechanism forces me to create YET ANOTHER password that I will ultimately forget. And what about interoperability? To make that happen, you’ve got to give away some security. For instance, for a lot of the cool (not to mention necessary) Twitter apps, I need to share with them my Twitter username and password. Having a security layer on top that ultimately ensured that Twhirl doesn’t have to know my password, or that I didn’t forget the super-strict password that I had to create especially for one service, could ultimately make my life easier.

Trends in 2009
The SNCR fellows called out some interesting emerging trends in 2009. Here are some highlights:

  • The line between journalism and blogging has blurred to the point that U.S. government is starting to pay attention (e.g., recent FTC rules)
  • Business schools have gotten on the social media bandwagon (finally)
  • It’s easier to measure more aspects of your PR, advertising, marketing and social media programs; and big companies are rethinking how they pay for services based on this
  • Speaking of measurement, ROI was on everybody’s minds and lips (but we’re still not quite sure what to measure)
  • Government 2.0 is slowly, sporadically becoming reality, but (here’s a surprise) very slowly
  • Privacy continues to be renegotiated
  • Customer service is now social