Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Unspinning a PR Web

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times wrote a profile piece about how public relations has evolved with the advent of the World Wide Web and cleverly titled her article “Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley” to underscore that point. Lots of PR folks have blogged, posted and opined about the piece and I’m not going to belabor any points made elsewhere or jump on any bandwagons.

My issue with the article, and it’s based on a common misconception by journalists, is that PR starts when you engage with a member of the media. Of course, that’s Ms. Miller’s entire experience so it’s natural that she would assume that a briefing with her is the sum total goal of the public relations profession.

I disagree. What Ms. Cain experienced was the end game for Media Relations – the stage of Public Relations when a company decides to communicate to its target audiences through the media. Don’t forget, the reporter is the conduit through which a company can tell its customers, partners, investors and any other stake holder what the company is doing. It’s a way to benchmark progress and show market relevance. Don’t misunderstand my point. The reporter is a key audience for the PR person but for the company itself, they are a channel.

Ms. Miller’s article does a great job of articulating that for some companies, using traditional media might not always be the best path to reach a company’s target market. The example of Wordnik’s success with the influencer community underscores this point that the goal is reaching the right target market with the right message. In Wordnik’s case, traditional reporters were not the right channel.

My belief is that 90% of the work in PR is completed before a company ever gets in front of a reporter. We work with our clients to understand their business and market objectives, as well as where they want to be in the next 12 – 18 months overall. Based on this understanding, we help create a messaging timeline and announcement schedule that combines company, product, technology, partner and customer announcements that all help tell that broader story. Once the plan is in place, the announcements are set and we reach out to specific reporters whose readers might find this aspect of the company’s business interesting.

Having a great rolodex of reporters, analysts, bloggers, influencers, conference organizers, publishers and other PR people is a huge advantage and, as the article illustrates, can open doors to reporters that are willing to listen because you have strong, market relevant connections. The value of the PR person is to know who to call and when because reporters receive hundreds of pitches a day, mostly from PR people that don’t take the time to understand the beat or what the reporter is currently writing about on a topic.

Like the folks mentioned in the article, I was involved in the tech boom of the late 1990s when I ran the PR group at Sycamore Networks. I was on board to take the company public and then stayed through the ups and downs that followed. We secured profiles in Business Week, FT, WSJ, NY Times, Red Herring, etc and had our pick of appearances on the cable news shows. The key decisions we made though, were determining which opportunities helped us tell our story. If it didn’t, we passed. Like some of the folks profiled in the story, my phone rang and rang from reporters and producers that wanted access to our executives. We actually passed on more opportunities that we accepted and instead worked on cultivating the right story, with the right reporter and publication at the right time. We never lost sight of our 12 – 18 month goals and how each story could impact, positively or negatively, our ability to achieve those goals.

I started Connect2 Communications, Inc. shortly after leaving because I felt there was a real opportunity in the marketplace for a PR firm that understood how to build long-term programs that served a company’s business and market objectives over time. One that didn’t live and die with each clip or story, but instead viewed how objectives were met and the needle moved over time.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, maybe not. My firm has created Facebook fan pages for clients and viral videos about cash cows. We tweet about our clients and of course we host “No Pitch” nights for press and analysts at ball games. We also spend a great deal of time briefing bloggers and industry influencers. In fact, in the past month, we’ve had clients provide comments to stories in the WSJ, Fortune, Business Week and Smart Money, as well as traditional trade publications such as Telephony, Light Reading, Fierce Markets, Xchange, Network World, and NGN Magazine.

But…I’ve never been on Michael Ovitz nor had Ms. Huffington attend one of my parties. I’m open though so if either is interested, please let me know.