I love reading Inc. Magazine and am a frequent flyer on the content rich website www.inc.com for its humor, insights and dialogue covering tech, business, leadership and innovation. Generally, it’s where I find ideas that inspire and people to admire through content that gives me lessons to apply professionally and personally or, at the very least, something interesting to share on Twitter.
Given my love for Inc., I was surprised to find not one, but two articles recently published online with insular perspectives of PR that disregard the collaborative and deliberate efforts of strategic communication, simplifying the discipline’s value to earned media coverage.
This Startup Could Be PR Firms’ Worst Nightmare and Meet the Startup That’s Making PR Firms Sweat contend that “PR is mostly pitching and dealing with inbound requests.” Perhaps the authors of these articles think that PR is an acronym for “press release.” While pitching and press certainly play a role in helping disseminate information, I argue the authors are missing the objective of PR.
PR, of course, is short for public relations. But I also believe whole heartedly that it stands for personal relationships, which are cultivated and sustained through strategic communication. Clients come to agencies looking for ways to help their offering – be it brands, products or leadership – connect with their stakeholders, who could be part of multiple stakeholder groups: employees, customers, patients, advocates, legislators, shareholders…even your mom. This is technical stuff and at the heart of it are real people.
The authors, however, put “the pitch” on a pedestal and suggest that pitching is the ultimate way to help companies achieve their communication goals. They believe new companies that focus on the perfect pitch are somehow a threat to traditional agencies. I think this is very narrow-minded but consider this author’s view:
“Now, any PR professional worth their salt will tell you the real value of any agency is in its ‘strategic thinking,’ (planning), ‘brand awareness’ (how you sound/look), ‘competitive analysis’ (who are your competitors?) and ‘social media’ (you should talk to your customers on Twitter/tweet sometimes.) But the sad truth is that PR has devolved into getting journalists or bloggers to write about your client on the internet, which has only deepened the age-old mutual hatred between reporters and the people who pitch them.”
Let me address this:
- 1) Strategic thinking (planning): Nearly a decade after launching a multi-channel campaign to change the conversation around real beauty, Dove dug deeper into research to uncover that today, only 4 percent of women on the planet believe they’re beautiful. This insight led the brand, with the support of advertising, digital marketing and PR agency partners, to create Dove Real Beauty sketches. With just one compelling video, which has more than 61 million hits and nearly 16,000 comments since April 2013, Dove was able to connect with the brand with global stakeholders in a powerful way that went far beyond products.
This is the focus of public relations planning. It helps support personal relationship on behalf of companies, brands and leaders by saying the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, to the right stakeholders. Media is a vehicle for distribution, yes, but what meaningful content is there to distribute without thoughtful, invested planning, research and insights?
- 2) Brand awareness (how you sound/look): Warren Buffett said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Don’t believe the Oracle of Omaha? Just look at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. In early 2012, the company announced plans to stop funding Planned Parenthood for breast-screening services. Planned Parenthood, which provides many health services and is also the nation’s largest abortion provider, viewed the change in funding as an anti-abortion, political statement and responded with a social media defense that galvanized women’s advocates and vilified Komen. The backlash was so severe that in a matter of just three days, under tremendous public pressure, Komen reversed its decision. In spite of this, the news led to a significant decline in donations and event participation from which Komen has yet to fully recover. The importance of brand awareness – what your company is putting out and more importantly, how it will be received – cannot be overemphasized and is something that PR agencies take time to manage with clients.
- 3) Competitive analysis (who are your competitors): There are few brand rivalries that, well, rival that of Apple and Microsoft, or Mac and PC respectively. In 2008, Microsoft was heating up the competition and spent a reported $300 million on its “I’m a PC” campaign. Unfortunately for Microsoft, Mac was listening and launched a series of videos blunting the appeal Microsoft was trying to create. While not everyone liked the competitive move, it was a very effective way for Mac to reach its target audience, which Microsoft was attempting to woo.
Though PR may have contributed to the strategy, this was more of an ad campaign. That said, it’s a fantastic example of the value of understanding the competitive space. Mac invested in competitive analysis. It helped the company to refine not only their target but their competitor’s target – separating the Vespa-riding, Boylan’s root beer drinking Mac people from the Harley-riding, orange crush drinking PC people – helping Mac determine just the right messaging. Being able to meaningfully connect with stakeholders not from a brand perspective, but from the perspective where stakeholders see themselves, is the value of competitive analysis.
- 4) Social media: Yes, I get it. Everyone is talking about “the power of social media” (insert eye roll) – but it’s not just hyperbole. Social sharing – stakeholders choosing to interact with your brand – is fundamental to healthy brand relationships. It is a place of exchange for companies and consumers to dump the media middle man and get deep and real, and affect change. JetBlue was a pioneer in this space, turning to YouTube in 2007 after bad weather grounded passengers on Valentine’s Day for hours and spurred the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights. According to a case study recently published in AdWeek, “that early use of a social channel, along with JetBlue’s general openness and willingness to take responsibility, helped it soar above the media circus and resume its steady course as a consumer favorite.” The company, which was also an early adopter on Twitter, has been a leader in online brand dialogues. The company’s responsiveness creates a sense of brand humanity and consumers in turn have created an emotional relationship with the brand that results in satisfaction.
Authentic public relations should not exaggerate the pitch. We can’t control media. It’s arrogant to think that journalists want to gobble up our stories exactly as we’ve packaged them, at the precise time we want them distributed. Additionally, even if a pitch is embraced and a glowing story is aired or published, broadcast and print media are experiencing every increasing scrutiny. Consumers are weary since issues with proper validation and truth have recently shaken their confidence in reporting.
So to the authors who think that PR pros are realizing their “worst nightmare” or will “sweat” the new pitch machines – we are sorry to report that while you’re welcome to the table, we’re not leaving it. Just as client needs are matrixed and comprehensive, public relations – building relationships – requires a collaborative, informed approach that is evolved beyond just pitching.