Over the weekend, I did a Q&A about public relations for startups with my friend Matthew Capala on his SearchDecoder blog. We both live in Brooklyn and have a tight-knit group of agency founders, academics, journalists and entrepreneurs that meets regularly in Park Slope. Matt (@SearchDecoder) is a marketing professor at New York University and consults with several companies, both startups and large corporations. While he’s able to provide me with valuable insights into digital marketing, social strategy and self-publishing, among other things, he wanted to get my thoughts on some of the things startups are doing right and wrong when it comes to public relations.
2 Common Pitfalls I See
- Not forming a strategy
- Failing to understand the very nature of public relations
Strategy, Strategy, Strategy
You must come up with a strategy. Most businesses, even those working with an agency, fail to understand the difference between a strategy and a concerted effort to get as many media mentions as possible. The misconception that public relations and media relations are synonymous can dangerous, damaging and even damning. And to add to the problem, it’s a belief that has long been reinforced by those in the public relations industry. The truth is that media relations is only one aspect of public relations and should be leveraged strategically, not aggressively.
For example, let’s say what you refer to as your strategy could be characterized as the “get as many media mentions as possible” model. You put together a list of 100 reporters and blast a pitch out to all of them. Your efforts result in two media mentions, or “hits” as they’re often referred to. This outcome – which many businesses and public relations agencies alike would consider a success – I consider spamming and pissing off 98 people who now associate your brand with that time they were trying to meet a deadline and lost their train of thought because of your stupid email. Chances are, most of the reporters in that humongous list weren’t even the right contacts to begin with, which further hurts your brand by showing that you don’t do your research and would rather take a shotgun approach. Understanding those sorts of differences is what separates strategy from recklessness, and good public relations people from bad.
The importance of managing public relations is becoming increasingly evident. Unfortunately, there are still many who don’t think they “need” public relations. The problem is that public relations isn’t a choice. Any entity, be it an individual or a business, has an involuntary relationship with the public. That relationship will continue to exist regardless of whether it’s acknowledged or managed. Choosing not to focus any energy on building it is a mistake. In the on-demand, connected world we live in, the belief that public relations should take a backseat can be fatal for businesses.
These two things – one a misunderstanding, the other an attitude – are the biggest downfalls I see in businesses, especially young businesses, that try to bootstrap their own public relations efforts.
2 Big Myths About Public Relations
One of the biggest myths is that in order to succeed you need to work with a “PR guru.” General rule of thumb: be skeptical of those who refer to themselves as gurus. The best people I’ve ever dealt with in public relations are not geniuses – they’re scrappy, calculated and energetic. That’s what it takes to succeed. Effort and strategy trump all other characteristics.
Another myth is that people in public relations are either (a) unintelligent or (b) shady. Compared to other industries, there is a low barrier to entry. This is a problem that industry gatekeepers have brought upon us and that several people – myself included – are working to change. Don’t be fooled though, there are plenty of people in public relations who would have excelled in any field. As far as being shady, this belief is based on the notion that public relations is the work of “spin doctors.” You can find cases to support that belief, but public relations as a whole has moved way beyond that.
Thanks to technology and digital media, we’re more capable than ever of measuring public relations efforts. Let’s start with some of the historical issues then move on to solutions available today.
There are still some intangibles. For example, building a brand that is engaging, trustworthy and transparent is integral to maintaining a loyal customer base. However, putting a monetary value on all of the efforts that go into building that brand reputation can be difficult.
Both public relations and marketing have long struggled with quantifying results. Since most public relations agencies focus almost exclusively on media relations, results have historically been measured by the number of media hits. Why is this a bad measurement? Two reasons.
First of all, these results have often been measured comparatively. If you’re my client and I’m your agency, I might tell you that a half-page article written about you or your business in the WSJ is equal in value to half-page advertisement. This is a common practice in public relations and is referred to as advertisement value equivalency (AVE). If you have any experience purchasing advertising space in the WSJ, you know that the cost is astronomical, so in many cases, no, that article is not as valuable as the advertisement. But in some cases, it might be just as valuable. Hell, it might be more valuable! The only thing we know for sure is that it’s not the same thing. Apples and oranges. Bad metric. Second of all, even if you have an agreed upon value of what a media hit in a specific outlet is worth to you, why stop there? That’s such a surface-level measurement.
Through Google Analytics and other accurate tools, we’re able to measure the effects of media attention and overall public relations efforts in ways never before possible. Let’s go back to that half-page article in the WSJ example. Instead of providing you with the AVE or simply reporting that the article is live, we can and should be asking many questions, including:
- How many people were directed to our website from that post?
- What percentage of them turned into paying customers?
- Was our target demographic represented in the referred traffic?
- How many people shared the post with their social networks?
- Was the reaction positive?
All of this information is now available and allows us to answer the tough questions with data rather than instincts. A lot of the change that occurred in advertising from the Mad Men days to today, where decisions are (usually) based on data, can be attributed to new tools and ways to measure what the public wants. Just like advertising evolved with technology, so must public relations.