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PR Pros: Start Thinking Bigger Before It’s Too Late

November 24, 2014

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This article originally appeared in PR Daily.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at PRSA Pittsburgh’s Professional Development Day  where I spoke about some of the changes that integrated marketing is having on the PR industry. The part of my presentation that drew the greatest reaction from the mostly entry level and student attendees was when I said that the industry has to stop the incessant whining about how PR doesn’t have a seat at the table or how people just don’t “get PR.” I even shared a great quote from my friend Rick Rice that raised some eyebrows –

“The PR industry is in need of disruptive change and none of this generation are even willing to try.”

All of the issues with today’s PR industry – that we’re an afterthought, that people don’t understand what we do or the value we bring, that anyone can do what we do – are nobody’s fault but our own. For years decades, many public relations professionals have chosen to complain about their lack of participation in the big picture rather than taking charge and forcing their way into it. Here’s a hint for all you young PR pros out there:

Kids Table

Image courtesy of Flickr user terren in Virginia

If you want to sit at the big kid table, start acting like one of the big kids.

What does this mean? Well, to start, it means that you have to start speaking their language. Stop talking about hits, placements, and impressions and start talking about share points, aided and unaided awareness, conversions, leads, and sales. That doesn’t mean that PR is going to be directly responsible for any of these, but it does show that you are invested in the whole of the business, not just your specific workstream. It shows that you can add value beyond the PR section of a deck. Every time a PR pro says “I hate math – that’s why I went into PR,” the industry gets pushed further and further down the ladder.

It means that you have to stop talking about how the sausage is made and start focusing on the impact to the larger business. Have you ever watched a presentation from a brand planner? Compare that to a PR guy’s presentation. The brand planner focuses on the big picture. She gets everyone excited about the insights, the winning strategy and how it leads to the overall end result – the impact that it’s going to have on the business. It’s quick. It’s to the point. It’s visual. But most of all, it’s interesting throughout. The PR guy, on the other hand, will feel the need to justify his existence by diving into the nuts and bolts of each individual tactic. He includes all kinds of bullets and charts and graphs. By the time he’s on phase 3 on slide 14, all of the excitement has been sucked out of the room. He’s now trained everyone in the room to believe that PR is small and tactical rather than big and impactful.

It also means that you have to stop rushing to quick wins and slow down. Before launching into your PR ideas, strategies and tactics, ask to see the overall marketing plan. Ask to see the brand’s business objectives. Ask to see the proof behind the copy points in the ads. Ask if you can talk with customers and employees to learn more about what makes the brand unique. Stop trying to rush around so that you can get some results, any results. Slow down, do your research, understand the business. Make it a required part of the PR process. Don’t give in. As an industry, we have to stop asking “how high?” anytime a client or account manager says jump or we’re never going to get the respect we deserve.

Now that brands can pay to secure native content in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal that achieves similar (if not better) statistics as traditional editorial content, the value proposition of a PR pro has to change. As publishers get better and better at integrating native advertising both effectively and ethically, the PR pro’s old standby – “earned coverage has a lot more credibility paid media” – starts to erode. Given the choice between reallocating some of my paid media dollars to native advertising content, where my impressions, message, and CTAs are guaranteed, in a format that is achieving similar traffic, what’s the incentive to trying to earn editorial coverage where I have none of those guarantees and potentially open my brand up to a negative article? Saving a few dollars? That might work for smaller brands without a large media budget, but what about the big brands with millions of dollars?

Some of us have added things like social media, content marketing, media buying, and SEO/SEM to our resumes to try to stay ahead of the curve but these are short-term, tactical solutions. We have to think bigger, beyond the execution of these roles. We have to understand consumer’s entire journey with the the brand’s category and what, if any role, the brand should play at each stage. In a world where transparency and authenticity have become marketing hallmarks, PR has to think of itself less as a workstream and more as a mindset that’s integrated across everything a brand does.

Someone needs to understand how all of these different parts work together. Why can’t PR assume the role of multi-channel quarterback?

What if PR served as a kind of corporate ombudsman, there to call bullshit on the hyperbolic marketing language and “hit you over the head” marketing tactics?

What if (gasp!) PR led your creative?

What if PR, the people who know the public better than anyone, helped shape a brand’s products and services?

What would happen if we started thinking bigger?

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Running a PR Department vs. Running a PR Agency

September 15, 2014

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Picture courtesy of Flickr user popculturegeek

The PR skillsets and attitudes differ whether you’re leading a PR agency or you’re leading a PR department in an integrated agency

Running a PR department within a larger agency is very different from running your own PR agency. From the employees that are hired to the way PR is even talked about, the skillsets don’t necessarily translate from one to the other. Try to run your department like an agency and watch as you slowly isolate your team from the rest of the agency, leaving adversarial relationships in your wake. Run your agency like a department and get ready for lots of frustration when you’re unable to expand and scale your work. After leading a number of PR and social media teams within large organizations as well as working with a number of people who run their own agencies, I’ve realized that while both roles may have the Director title, the two roles are very different in a few fundamental ways.

  • Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Doubling the number of people on my team isn’t a success metric. Sure, I’m always looking to grow the agency’s business, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the PR business should also get larger. Sometimes, growing the PR business on a particular account may not be part of the agency’s strategy. Sometimes, securing another PR-led account might mean I’m not able to dedicate the time/talent to other integrated accounts.
  • PR vs. PR. There’s no single definition for what PR should or shouldn’t entail. In many organizations, it’s everything – media relations, investor relations, events, social media, web content, etc. In others, it’s only one or more of these. In an integrated agency, you have to understand what aspect of PR you’re responsible for and what other agencies are responsible for and work with them. In many cases, I’ve found myself working right alongside another PR agency because they’re responsible for the client’s overall corporate communications whereas my team is responsible for the earned media portion of an integrated campaign.
  • PR isn’t always the answer. There’s no hammer searching for a nail here. When you’re leading your own PR agency, you’re always advocating for your agency and trying to secure additional hours/scope. In an integrated agency, you have to not only understand PR, but also paid media, SEO and SEM, Digital, Social Media, User Experience, etc. You have an entire toolbox of capabilities at your disposal and you have to understand how and when and where to leverage them all.
  • Learn to give to get. Sometimes when I’m part of these huge client meetings, I’ll say something like, “you know, I’ve got $10K in my budget that I could slide over to the Digital team if that would help get the site up and running on time.” People will still look at me like I have three heads. “You’re giving away the PR budget????” Well yeah, if there’s another strategy or tactic that will help meet our business objectives, why wouldn’t I? When you’re working in an integrated agency, you have to understand that whatever money you take is coming from someone else’s budget. Show a willingness to share budgets and resources with other departments and it’ll come back to you, often from departments with much deeper pockets.
  • Your clients are brand managers, not PR people. There are going to be times where you absolutely kill it from a PR perspective and it won’t matter one bit to the client. You might be uber-excited about that opportunity you’ve secured with that morning show, only to have your client shrug his/her shoulders and say “eh, we’ll pass.” The hits, the placements, the coverage that gets PR people all excited doesn’t always have the same effect on people who are responsible for the overall marketing campaign. To them, every dollar that gets spent on trying to earn media is a dollar that could be spent paying for guaranteed media. You have to understand and empathize with their plight and figure out ways to fit PR into that mindset rather than getting frustrated that they “don’t understand PR.”

As more and more agencies integrate paid, owned, earned, and social media in their own ways, the PR professional needs to evolve accordingly, especially those in senior level positions. It’s one thing to have a leadership role at a PR agency, but unfortunately, many of those lessons learned and best practices no longer apply to leadership roles at a PR department in an integrated agency.

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You Become What You Measure

January 6, 2014

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As we kick off 2014, we’re awash in PR trends and predictions. Here are six trends to watch in 2014. Here are 20 more. And another 10 more. But let’s look a little further ahead. And let’s start by looking at the implementation of standardized testing in our nation’s schools, the performance reviews of police officers, and the recent financial crisis.

These three seemingly incongruous industries are actually suffering from a situation that will soon face the PR industry as well. They’re all suffering from quant overshoot. It’s one of the four stages of the rise of the quants as described by Felix Salmon in his excellent “Numbed by Numbers: Why Quants Don’t Know Everything” article in January’s WIRED. In the overshoot stage, people stop thinking like people and start thinking like machines.

“On a managerial level, once the quants come into an industry and disrupt it, they often don’t know when to stop. They tend not to have decades of institutional knowledge about the field in which they have found themselves. And once they’re empowered, quants tend to create systems that favor something pretty close to cheating. As soon as managers pick a numerical metric as a way to measure whether they’re achieving their desired outcome, everybody starts maximizing that metrics rather than doing the rest of their job – just as Campbell’s law predicts.”

Salmon points to police departments that judge effectiveness on arrests and schools that focus their efforts on increasing standardized test scores as examples of the unintended consequences of yielding decision-making to quantitative data. What scared me as I read this article is that I see marketing and PR taking the exact same road. Quantitative analysis of big data is thoroughly disrupting our industry – everything we do now can be measured, analyzed and optimized. We use tools like Sysomos and Radian6 to track millions of social media posts. We use sophisticated algorithms to measure the specific level of influence people have among their friends. We use social network analysis to determine how messages flow from one person to another. We can even use cookies and web analytics to optimize the actual content that you see when you visit a site. And we’re only at the beginning. PR is going to get more and more data-driven, allowing us to become more efficient than we’ve ever been.

And that’s what scares me.

Image courtesy of Flickr user themadlolscientist

PR has always been more art than science and for good reason

Just because we can measure and optimize something doesn’t always mean we should. We’re abdicating our relationships and conversations in favor of statistical models and algorithms. Data has undoubtedly made PR more efficient and effective, but I worry that we don’t know when to stop. We’ve already stopped using Twitter to actually talk with people. Instead, we analyze the length, content, and timing of them to optimize their reach and shares. I’ve already seen instances where relationship-building Tweets like “Great article @reporterX – will be sharing that one around the office!” are shunned because they won’t impact engagement numbers. We’ve resorted to sharing “inspirational quotes” not because they do anything for our brand, but because they’ll get us more likes. We ignore reporters and bloggers who don’t measure up to some arbitrary influencer score. Where does it stop? Will it stop? Can we stop? 

PR can and should serve a critical role in the integrated marketing mix. PR should be the ones who help mitigate the impact of the overshoot stage and quickly move organizations into stage four – the synthesis stage, the stage where quantitative data is married with old school subjective experience. PR professionals should be the ones who help bridge this gap, not fall victim to the same over-reliance on data that doomed our financial systems or our schools.

In 2014, let’s make a concerted effort to not be a slave to data. To not let machines and spreadsheets dictate our conversations and relationships. To remember that public relations is still more art than science. To use data to enhance our decision-making, not make decisions for us. Let’s recognize that no matter how advanced the data gets, computers and algorithms will never be able to replace actual human interaction. Hopefully, PR professionals will still be able to do that in between analyzing their graphs and spreadsheets. 

*Image courtesy of Flickr user themadlolscientist

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Four Ways Brands Can #Unplug

September 4, 2013

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Digital Detox camp

Image courtesy of Flickr user davitydave

This post originally appeared in Ragan’s PR Daily. 

One of the world’s most connected men, Baratunde Thurston, recently took a month-long digital detox, chronicled in the July/August issue of Fast Company.

Thurston had grown increasingly exhausted with trying to keep up with all the Tweets, photos, status updates, check-ins, chats, and texts. He realized his always-connected lifestyle just wasn’t sustainable. Technology allowed him to create thousands of virtual relationships and conversations, but instead of adding value, they were actually stressing him out. He was spread a mile wide and an inch deep, connecting with everyone yet not really connecting with anyone.

Chances are, you’ve felt the same way. What once began as an easy way to connect with friends and family, meet new people, and share interesting stories and links has become an overwhelming source of stress. We struggle to keep up with the constant notifications and alerts. We have an irrational fear of missing out (or “FOMO”) on that party, that funny video, that witty comment. We want to be everywhere, but in doing so, we aren’t ever really anywhere.

The good news is the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. People are now actively avoiding their digital lives in favor of reconnecting offline:

Paradoxically, as people are realizing this always-on, always-connected lifestyle isn’t sustainable, companies and brands seem to be going in the opposite direction. I remember when publishing one blog post a week was considered a best practice for brands. Now brands are expected to post 15 times or more every month, and be present and active on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Soundcloud and Vine. There are even tools that will automate the whole process for you, enabling brands to do away with all those pesky human tasks like researching, thinking and writing.

Content marketing is becoming a numbers game that most brands aren’t going to be able to compete in, much less win.

Rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses and be everywhere (while simultaneously not being anywhere), brands should consider going on a form of digital detox of their own. Quitting everything for a month isn’t really an option, but there are several lessons brands can learn from the trend to help simplify things:

  1. Stop micro-measuring. Instead of focusing on the ROI of every piece of content, spend some time doing things that don’t have an immediate ROI. Ask your customers questions because you’re generally interested in their feedback, not because it will increase your engagement figures. Share something interesting that another brand created. Write a blog post about an employee who did something interesting.
  2. Prune your presence. You probably can’t just up and leave Twitter, but will anyone notice if you shut down your Pinterest page? Close your Vine account? Stop the weekly meeting to discuss your Tumblr editorial calendar? Is every single one of your online properties helping you achieve your business goals? Or is it there because you heard it was the next big thing?
  3. Learn the value of silence. Just because a royal baby was born doesn’t mean you have to offer your congratulations. If there’s a terrible tragedy, don’t feel the need to offer your condolences. Believe it or not, most of your customers aren’t going to get into an uproar because you went a day without a post. If you’re not going to do anything tangible to help, show some respect and be quiet.
  4. Take it offline. Brands should realize their communities live offline as well. Take some of your social media budget and instead of applying it to more content generation, syndication, or promotion, consider sinking it into some good, old-fashioned offline activities. Go to a store and talk with people about your products or your commercials or your ads. Take some of the products you’ve reserved for influencer outreach and give them away to people in the community. Really effective social media goes beyond content and builds real relationships with real people.

Just as a person may have to unplug once in a while to build deeper, more meaningful connections, brands have an opportunity to start doing the same. You may just realize that those clicks, impressions, and likes you’ve spent so much time measuring are actual people who want to talk with you about your brand.

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