Sep 162010

Take my PR firm -- PLEASE!

Shonali Burke is a local PR professional here in the DC area whose work I respect. She’s living the American dream running her own shop, and pens a small business column for BNET. Her piece a couple of days ago, “Why You Should Leave PR to the Pros,” really hit home for me.

The piece was in reaction to another BNET author encouraging entrepreneurs to do their own PR. I guess when you’re really small, you have no choice. And gosh, it’s so easy everyone can do it, right? Jeez, I feel like Rodney Dangerfield here.

Shonali does a good job of addressing this guy’s five points. Here are the biggest swings and misses IMHO:

  • Understanding the process — Yes Mr./Ms. Client, you are the subject matter expert (SME in PR vernacular) on your specific product or service. You are most certainly not a SME on public relations. Hint — if you think “PR” stands for “Press Release” and PR the trade is nothing more than media relations, well then Houston we have a problem
  • Objectivity — I’ve yet to meet an entrepreneur/founder who can be totally objective about the appeal of their story to the media. I’m told they exist, but until I meet one they are in the same category for me as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster
  • Time — Do your own PR, you say? You’ve got that much spare time on your hands, running a business and all? And doesn’t that run counter to the managed service/outsourcing trend so prevalent in business today, staying focused on your core competency?

Two big caveats now, before I get flamed by someone like the NFIB or MAVA.

First, I’m painfully aware that the PR industry brings some of this disrespect onto itself. There are plenty of firms who do a lousy job, don’t have a business understanding of their client’s niche and don’t understand we’re in the age of sniper PR, not machine gun. Some practitioners of the trade seem to be more about their brand than that of their clients (you know who you are out there).

Second, a lot of firms shy away from quantifiable metrics to prove the value of their efforts. These are always tough and subject to interpretation, but here’s where social media is so revolutionary. My firm has has great success tying the performance metrics of social media campaigns to the tactical business objectives of our clients. It allows for a level of accountability never before available from PR, and clients are right to demand this kind of reporting.

I should probably also say my agency doesn’t work for startups, because we like to get paid. And we don’t do consumer work, we specialize in b2b and b2g. But I’m tired of my profession being a punching bag, and very glad Shonali hit back.

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  5 Responses to “PR – No Respect At All I Tell Ya!”

  1. Thanks for the props, Chris. I thought my post would resonate with a lot of PR pros, but I didn’t know just how much!

    This was one of the reasons I wrote about what I perceive as the problem with PR on my own blog (I don’t want to plug it here but it might be an interesting read for you, it’s from a couple of days ago); that we, as an industry, don’t do a good enough job of educating “non-PR” people as to what it is we really do.

    So in many respects, I can’t really blame entrepreneurs and small business owners for holding similar views to Michael’s (who wrote the original post I responded to, and who was also very gracious in responding to mine).

    We need to pull up our socks as an industry, else our grandchildren will still be having this same conversation when they embark on their PR careers.

  2. I strive every day to repair the damage done by publicists who are pushy, have personal agendas and who don’t respect the pressures and goals of journalists. I’ve been told twice this month alone that I’m the best publicist they’ve ever worked with, so I must be doing something right.

  3. As “the guy” who wrote the original BNet piece (it’s at if you want to read it)…

    I sincerely respect and appreciate your point of view, and as I think I made clear, I think the PR industry has value for many businesses (after all, it is an industry for a reason). And from my brief correspondence with Shonali and looking at her site, I think she and her business are wonderful.

    My point was that in my 20 years of running and growing small businesses of many sizes and consulting/advising many others, my experience has been that the vast majority of times, in-house PR has worked better for entrepreneurs. As I also said in my piece, I have indeed tried working with PR firms, and have very good friends in the industry. Most of them, in fact, agree with me.

    My business competes against companies 100 times its size in a very crowded and hyper-competitive market. Yet–at the risk of tooting my own horn–we arguably get (much) more PR than all of them. We’ve been in feature stories in USA Today 2 or 3 times. NY Times, CNN, network morning shows, every major magazine that covers technology, and every major website and blog that does the same. There is no agency that I know of that could get us that exposure for anywhere close to an amount of money that we could afford or would feel comfortable spending.

    On top of that, most of the seriously influential bloggers I know put direct contact from entrepreneurs way ahead of agency pitches. And bloggers drive the PR and word-of-mouth universe these days. One mention on a major blog is worth many, many newspaper articles in our new world.

    I interviewed an excellent firm a few years ago and when they saw the press we had gotten on our own, one of the partners said “frankly we’d be unlikely to get you this level of exposure on a modest retainer.” He even quipped “do you want a job?”

    So to your question about my time and my need to run a business, I have to say that not only is it worth my time, but it’s one of the most important ways I spend it. Right behind having good products and service, PR is what has grown our business. Farming it out (for me) would be like farming out product development, customer service, or sales. It is so integral to what we do and how we do it that there is no way I would ever “let it go.”

    You are absolutely right in many of your points. But again, I stress that this is just my own experience and that of most similar businesses I’ve worked with. As I think I may have said to Shonali and as I have said to others, for big companies without an entrepreneurial story (and with huge PR workloads and deep pockets), PR firms are usually critical. And in a crisis, no question… If I were a BP or Tylenol exec I wouldn’t walk out my front door without a PR agent. But for the “little guy” I respectfully assert that DIY can often get far more bang for the buck.

    • Michael — thanks for such an in-depth comment. I did read your article prior to publishing, and I included some caveats to reflect where I was coming from — b2b/b2g, not consumer. I don’t work with small firms, and I’m glad to hear about your personal success.

      One point — you talk about PR almost exclusively as traditional media relations. That will always play a role in PR, but it’s a small minority of my agency’s focus these days. As I say in my post, most of our business involves social media work that delivers quantifiable benefits that support client business objectives. Many times my clients can go around the media filter and get their message straight to the right audiences.

      • Thanks Chris. I think the short story is that every situation–and every company–is different. What works for some may not for others, and so on. Spice of life, as they say. Continued success.

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