Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Bad Pitch Blog: In 2011 The PR World Puffs Up Its Chest

The Bad Pitch Blog: In 2011 The PR World Puffs Up Its Chest

Monday, March 29, 2010

Green Thoughts

Clients beware...tis the season for rip-offs

It’s that time of year again when every company, organization, and individual suddenly becoming incredibly environmentally conscious. When we all clamor to outdo each other to openly express the shrinking size of our carbon footprint…as well as the use of little understood scientific cliché's like “carbon footprint” and “global warming.”  When ironically more trees are sacrificed to the press release gods than any time except for financial earnings announcements…or mea culpa’s for stupid decisions or the cover up of same.

It’s also the time when the media…national and local…develop their own environmental consciousness through increased editorial coverage of this annual rite. Unfortunately it’s also the time when various rip-off artists disguised as PR professionals decide to prey upon these same companies with “special limited time offers” and promises of inclusion in their “Earth Day Campaigns” for a sizable fee, of course.  Campaigns they state, that will reach the likes of “Good Morning America, Today Show, New York Times,…as well as Ellen DeGeneres, and Martha Stewart and Extra TV.”  What of course isn’t stated (other than “your company or product line will be included on one release with other eco-friendly, but non-competing products”) is any guarantee that any of these outlets will even bother to pick out or care about this press release amongst the thousands they are about to receive in the name of being “eco-friendly.”  Better to use the funds…usually anywhere from $500 to $5,000…to make a contribution to any number of legitimate environmental organizations, then write it off on your taxes and feel privately good about the act.

But if you’ve got a genuine story about impacting the environment in a positive manner, have a legitimate PR firm take it to specific media outlets that will determine if it’s newsworthy…and hopefully use it. The media is inundated this time of year with “green pitches”…most of which come from over-hyped print and electronic press releases extolling their green side. An individual would have a greater chance of winning the lottery than a company would of gaining valued media recognition through a “shared campaign” con.

There is no short-cut, nor cut rate way to media coverage, but you just might actually save a tree this Earth Day…and get some coverage with the right decision.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Virtues and Perils of Virtuality

Some thoughts from the virtual world...

Ok, I recognize that “virtuality” does not exist in Webster’s dictionary, but it does have a nice way of rolling off the tongue, and seems so descriptive of the modern work environment. We’ve been practicing it at my PR firm (INK inc.) for the last thirteen years without really aptly describing it. We’ve described ourselves as a “virtual agency, but with a brick and mortar headquarters.” Or more aptly as saying, “most of our people work from home offices around the world.” Cool...very “global”...almost like Burson-Marsteller or Edelman, except without the pomposity and burdensome overhead. And most importantly for our clients, we learned long ago that a fancy high-rise office has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a media pitch...only the news value of the pitch itself determines this.

Virtuality not only has been the infrastructure of my company but also is apparently the wave of the future. The trend had clearly started prior to this current recession, but with the severe cuts in budgets, overhead, and consolidation of job responsibilities since 2008, virtuality almost has become the goal of many organizations as they reorganize to survive. Undoubtedly, the virtual office structure can and should save a bundle in overhead expense by eliminating the need to “house” employees in a leased building space with the attendant utilities like telephone, electricity, and heating and cooling costs thrown in. It saves the employees the costs of commuting in whatever manner, and possibly even clothing. And importantly, it saves the psyche from much of the stress of family separation and sometimes office politics as well as an occasional overbearing boss.

All of that said, virtuality has a few shortcomings as well. No communal water cooler or office coffee room to gather and share morning insights or a laugh or two.
Thus, making it difficult to catch up on TV shows or sporting events from the night before, or the latest on internal gossip. No external discipline setting the rules for workplace behavior or attire (if at all)…and no company storeroom to snitch some pilot pens or a work pad or two. And of course, there’s the conference calls that seem to be constantly scheduled just to keep that newly free and independent employee tethered tightly to home base. Conference calls, teleconferences, and now even more invasive…the webcast calls...all supposedly necessary for collaboration and synergy…require certain rules of etiquette. A recent forum in MyRagan, clarified two of the most important…learn to use the mute button to keep other participants from the extraneous noises of barking dogs, children or mates, and…very important, never initiate your call from the bathroom. Very uncool.

However, given those few exceptions, I’ll settle for virtuality’s lower overheard and increased productivity…just don’t forget to hit the mute button.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pay-for-Performance PR

Not getting credit when credit is due....

For the sake of full disclosure, I have been a proponent of pay-for-performance PR, or more specifically, paying after-the-fact for media placements, for nearly twenty years now. I believe it is the fairest and most accountable way to charge clients for media outreach. Yes, there are many PR services that are time-intensive and not as easily quantifiable where a fee is appropriate, but media outreach can be easily judged by tangible success and should be charged accordingly. While obviously in the minority in this profession, I continue to believe that fat hourly fees or fat retainers based upon hourly fees are not in the client's best interest. The temptation to abuse this time-honored (pun intended) practice is simply too great for most PR firms, global or local boutique, to avoid. If exaggeration doesn't take place in the original cumulative estimate, it certainly occurs at the bottom end on the weekly time sheet.

However sometimes a weakness can show itself in this compensation, not to the client...but to the practicing PR agency. The soft spot lies not within the professional effort nor within how or how much a placement might be charged, but within the media outreach process itself. Like the proverbial needle in a haystack, landing a great story for a client, even with the established contacts and resources we all share, is more often than not a series of trial and errors, of contacts and hand-offs, of starts and stops, of steps and missteps, ...and, of luck. Then finally after all this activity and effort that may consume a few days to several months, a commitment is made, an interview is conducted, and a story appears...or maybe not. Under a traditional retainer or hourly fee model, the PR agency is compensated regardless. "Good job, Brownie, you gave it the old college's a check anyway." Under the pay-for-performance model that story must actually appear before a check is issued.

But every so often, another weakness of the model shows itself when three-fourths of the way through the process, rather than a commitment being made and an interview being set up, the reporter or producer decides to shelve it or sit on it or becomes distracted...and nothing, silence. Until one day, something extraneous in the way of breaking industry news kick starts that producer or reporter into action...and he goes straight to the client for comment...and a story utilizing much of the original background effort results. If there is not sufficient documentation to demonstrate the winding circuitous route the agency took to find that proverbial needle, and the client so chooses to believe that it simply revealed itself miraculously with a phone call, a check will not be forthcoming.

Fair to the PR firm, not really...but part of this real recessionary world, yes. Worth the trade-off of short-term revenue for a sense of self-respect and knowing it will balance out in the end, maybe. I've never been a believer in that cliché that the client is always right, but I am a believer that every client treated fairly will usually reciprocate. And, it's still a better option than trying to get paid against a bunch of phony time sheets.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

PR for the Greater Good

A reflection on good times past....
In general, we in the PR business deal with the softer side of life and of news. Even the categories have a soft, non-confrontational sound to them…business to business, consumer, lifestyle, healthcare, and so on.We’re hired to help sell products from cosmetics and jewelry to software and underwear…and management philosophies responsible for thousands to celebrities responsible only to themselves. And then, every once in a rare while, we’re asked to assist in doing something for the greater good…something that allows us to utilize our talents and experience for simply the betterment of others without an economic judgment call. 

In perusing a recent Sunday NY Times, I was stopped by an article that took me on a memory jag of just such a circumstance. The piece by Clifford Levy, Explorer: Israel With a Russian Accent (and Pork) Israel city on the south coast of the Mediterranean inhabited by a large number of Russian émigré. He explains that the vast majority of these Russian expatriates migrated from the former Soviet Union over the last couple of decades after the fall of the Soviet Union and where they have settled, gives Israel a distinctive Russian cultural flavor.

The piece reminded me of a call I received now some seventeen years ago from the then chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, Marty Stein, asking if my firm would be interested in “spreading the word through the U.S. media of the plight of Jews in Moscow and throughout the Central Asian republics (once a part of the Soviet Union) desperately trying to migrate to Israel.” It seems that the UJA, an enormous philanthropic organization, needed to raise additional monies to provide the on-ground assistance and the flights to help the thousands still living in these isolated Jewish colonies to escape the continuing religious and economic persecution.The problem in raising these needed funds was in greatly raising awareness in the U.S. that in spite of the fall of the communist state, the persecution and the desire to find sanctuary in Israel still very much existed.The UJA needed to get the U.S. “secular media” to pay attention and start covering the story…but wasn’t sure how to go about it. Thus, the call.

I was honored, not only because of the nobility of the cause but in the fact that my firm, distinctly small and non-Jewish in ownership but noted for our national media successes, would be asked to carry out such an important task.Over the next two years, we devoted ourselves to their cause but utilized our PR skills and news instincts to find the stories that would resonate with U.S. media.I sent teams (including myself) to Russia and Central Asia, we interviewed officials and peasants, we traveled on stealth overnight flights from Uzbekistan crowded with Jewish emigrants and their families lugging their allowable two duffle bags of life’s belongings…and we spent time in Israel following the freshly arrived Diaspora as they slowly and sometimes with great difficulty assimilated into modern Israeli life. And we chronicled all into real stories, not press releases, for the U.S. media…NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, USA Today, NY Times, and all the major dailies carried the tales of their plight and their successes. And importantly, contributions began flowing again.

So now fifteen years later, It’s great to read that many of these brave folks that we shared an incredible experience with are doing well and have made homes for themselves in that little sliver of land called Israel. It’s also great to remember and reflect on the power that PR can have beyond buzzwords, endless press releases, internal bickering, sales metrics, and indeed greed…when actually used for the greater good.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Lord Arrington and prMac

A pox on both your houses…

I’ve been wisely counseled that it’s better to tone down my blog posts and do less railing against my own brothers and sisters in the PR industry and write of the great positives that transpire and inspire us to keep persevering in this vastly misunderstood profession. It’s no secret that I don’t subscribe to the traditional PR compensation model…fat retainers based on even more bloated hourly fees; and that I believe that the accountability of pay-for-performance PR is fairer and ultimately more productive for all the parties. And, that I particularly don’t like the arrogance of many PR agencies nor their counterparts in the media…old, new, or social. Thus, I’ve tried over my last few blog posts to follow a reformed line and stay toward the beige of the profession.

But then I run across Michael Arrington’s latest rant in his (I’m sad to admit) influential TechCrunch posting, “I Pissed Off a Spammer Today” regarding his encounter with press release spammer, prMac, and I can’t help but fall immediately off the wagon and head for my keyboard with a vengeance.

Here’s a snippet of what the Lord Arrington has to say…

“It’s no secret that we consider the PR industry, for the most part, the bane of our existence. They’re just under too much pressure to get results, and when we don’t do what they want (write about their clients), things turn ugly. And before things turn ugly, we get spammed. By phone, by Twitter, by Facebook, by email, by mail and by fedex. Some PR firms will lie, cheat, manipulate and then just smear your reputation to get what they want.”

Really, Michael? And technology blog postings…particularly those that have made a practice and considerable revenue by deciding which companies and which technologies deserve their lucrative praise… are the purest form of media journalism and therefore deserve to throw stones at will at an entire profession dedicated to supplying that which has made you so important…information that you pass along, true or not. Give me a break…

Ironically however, the Lord Arrington was at least half correct in his hyperbole. Not in his rant against PR-types in general, but about the firm, prMac, that is not a public relations firm per se, rather a distribution company for press releases written by the PR-types that seem to plague Arrington like a swarm of gnats on a summer picnic. But again to add to the irony, Arrington is not upset about what this firm does…distribute multitudes of written material of dubious news value and charge their customers accordingly…but that he can’t get them to leave his particular picnic alone. And because his picnic has been ruined for the day and put him in such a bad mood, he decides it’s worth a ridiculous inference…that spammers of email press releases are PR professionals…

“…the whole PR profession really needs to get a grip. We aren’t here to do their bidding. We serve our readers. At least, the readers we like. And our community. If they want to be part of that community, they need to lose the sense of entitlement…”

Arrington’s arrogance however isn’t any greater than that of a company that seems to believe that the mass distribution of press releases via email spam is a legitimate means of gaining positive awareness…nor the ignorance of those PR firms that pay these folks for such a dubious service.

Next time…back to beige.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Win Some, Lose Some...

No Hall of Fame for PR rainmakers

As CEO of a pay-for-performance public relations firm, I spend much of my time on new business…accounts that will be both interesting and challenging to our army of pros as well as profitable to the company. And as many of you in this industry know, the two are not always compatible. Even if rainmaking has become more of sifting through referrals than cold calling, it’s still requires a skill set and mental discipline developed through experience and over time. Plus, finding that rare new client that is both fun to work on and produces solid revenue is often as difficult as hitting an inside curveball or as daunting as driving the lane clogged by an NBA center.

Sure, there are actually specialists these days that rent themselves out as rainmakers-for-hire; and most of the larger PR firms have at least a designated new businessperson or even a whole department dedicated to seeing the pipeline is always full. More often than not, these new biz pros know more about sales technique than PR, or how a new client might or might not fit the culture or business sense of the firm. They might win a game or two, but not sure they have the consistency for a whole season.

I remember a very successful ad exec and mentor of mine telling me when asked who handled new business for his global firm…”Me”, he emphatically stated. “I’m the guy with the passion and the name on the door…and most importantly, know the people behind it.” I’ve followed a similar philosophy for my firm over the years, and while it may not work for some larger more anonymous PR institutions, it’s worked for us in welcoming the kinds of clients that best fit us. We’re fortunate that referrals from current and past clients along with internet and social media inquiries make up the bulk of our prospects today, but each still has to be researched and carefully followed up with to determine whether the story is there, the compatibility exists, and if it can be a profitable relationship for both us. I happen to enjoy this and prefer not to delegate something I believe is this important to our survival and growth.

No matter the new business methodology employed however, the metrics of success are as clear as a ball game…you either win or you lose. Yes, you may go to extra innings or overtime, but there are no “kissing your sister” ties, only winning or losing. You land the account or you don’t. And when you do, it’s exhilarating and heady stuff. When you don’t, it sucks. Sound familiar? The big difference from this sports analogy of course, is that when the new business game is over and the celebrating has ceased, then the real work begins.

And, of course, there’s no Hall of Fame.