Do Startups Really Need A PR Firm?

Brant Cooper’s indictment of PR firms for start-up businesses (Hey, Startups: Don’t Hire A PR Agency) has triggered another flurry of discussion about what should be expected from a professional public relations firm. I don’t agree with Cooper’s conclusions, but he makes some valid points. His argument is more well-reasoned than journalists’ complaints, and more relevant than the 2008 Jason Calcanis post calling for startups to fire their PR reps.

Here’s why. Over the years, I’ve worked with many startups with a wide range of needs, from brand positioning and messaging to business-building publicity. Most have been successful relationships. Yet, more than other clients, startups are prone to unrealistic expectations.

Expectations management is more important than results. When I hear, “We’re really counting on PR to drive demand, so we’re putting everything into our PR budget,” it doesn’t make me happy. It’s a red flag. Even the most brilliant PR program isn’t a replacement for a salesforce, marketing plan, or ad budget.

Startups are supposed to have lofty goals. All the more reason why it’s essential to define – and manage – them at the outset. Of course, this is true of any client-agency engagement, but startups are more passionate because they have to be. It’s their job. Which means that it’s our job is to make them see that PR is a better tool for brand visibility and positioning than demand generation. Those who expect to launch a consumer business fueled purely by publicity are often disappointed.

The founder is not the brand. This is where I think Calcanis and others get it wrong. An evangelistic founder is a huge asset, and he or she is usually the most credible media and analyst spokesperson. But, the founder’s vision is only the beginning. And, not every entrepreneur is the best person to sell his story. I’ve worked with those who are either too close or too emotionally invested to connect with media and understand their point of view. A press tour is not a road show.

PR doesn’t stand for press release. A newsstream should flow from the overall business and communications strategy, but the document itself is a commodity. If they’re hiring a PR team for press releases, it’s a waste of money.

Some startups should handle PR internally. It’s not possible  to generalize, but there are many companies – particularly early-stage ones, for whom PR is basically networking and fundraising. For them, a DIY approach can work well.

Finally, PR can’t overcome a mediocre product or flawed business plan.  If it could,  Webvan, Kozmo.com, and Pets.com would be household brands today instead of symbols of vaporized cash – and dreams.

Is Facebook Evil, or Just Clueless?

Shall I quit Facebook?

Facebook’s recent fumble along policy, technology, and PR lines has many asking the question for the first time. Not just privacy activists or technophobes. But, regular people who are pretty savvy about the social Web. The perception is morphing from irritation to doubts about its integrity. That’s not a good thing.

I’ve never been a privacy freak. In my book, anyone who decides to live online is responsible for that choice, and no one’s forcing us to (over)share. But the recent flap is more serious than previous ones. True, Facebook users tend to resist change (ironic, isn’t it?), and the company has a history of clumsy and self-serving privacy moves. But with Quit Facebook Day looming, something is different this time. Loyal users feel misled by the “everyone can see everything” default and confused by the new settings. Privacy advocates smell blood. Even formerly apathetic Facebookers are on the fence. Has Facebook gone too far this time? Is it just clueless, or actually evil?

Two months ago, a close relative of mine who is, like me, an adoptive mom, was contacted on Facebook by the birth mother of her son. The birth mom had been out of touch with our family for over a decade. Her note was tactful and sensitive. But, my relative was startled by what was gleaned about our family, even with supposedly stringent privacy settings on our end. And when we set out to find out more about her before responding, we were amazed by how much we learned with little effort.

Neither of us had been friended by the young woman, and we had no friends in common. But within an hour, we learned where she worked, her complicated marital history, and the age, name, and gender of her young baby. We also pieced together other, less factual details about her life, including a recent family conflict.

My little experiment was nothing compared to the findings of bloggers who’ve set out to test Facebook’s privacy parameters. If you want an eye-opener, check out PC World‘s post about the intimate secrets of perfect strangers here. But, the experience, coupled with fresh headlines about Facebook’s tone-deaf handling of the latest changes, has chipped away at my confidence. And I’m someone who makes a living counseling clients on how to harness the power of Facebook as a brand marketing platform.

This week, Mark Zuckerberg mounted a belated charm offensive, admitting mistakes, penning op-ed pieces, and pledging the change that the community demands. If Facebook follows through with real changes, instead of empty statements, it will probably blow over. This time. But, Facebook is vulnerable to a creeping mistrust in its commitment to users. And though I won’t be canceling my account any time soon, it’s a little less fun than it used to be.

When Fans Attack: How To Defend A Brand’s Reputation Online

A social media presence can morph from PR asset to liability in the time it takes to say “brandjacking.” The recent takeover of Nestle’s Facebook page by Greenpeace activists has many brand marketers dusting off their crisis programs.  But the world has changed. How do you defend your brand if, despite good business and communications practices, you become a target? What can you do if your brand is attacked on its own turf, or in a public online forum?

First, anticipate. If your crisis plan was last updated in 1993, or even two years ago, it’s not relevant. Have an online listening post, focus on the most likely criticisms and complaint scenarios, and make sure your messages are current.

Ramp up customer service. Would you put an intern on the phone to handle a client complaint? Don’t do it online either. Make sure your communications team is trained in customer relations, and vice versa. Not every company is ready to jump into Social CRM, but the line between communications and customer service is getting blurrier every day.

Stay calm. When the heat is on, sarcasm and anger are not your friend. Don’t be funny or flippant either. Use of humor is a classic apology PR tactic for an individual under fire, but a corporation should take legitimate customer criticism very, very seriously.

Be transparent. In most attack situations, it’s not worth closing off comments or trying to astroturf your way out of trouble. It rarely works and is often exposed.

Be timely. Nothing pours kerosene on a customer complaint fire like silence. A timely answer, even if not the desired response, is better than the void.

Take it offline. When complaints cascade anonymously, it’s often impossible to deal with them offline. But, on Facebook and other sites where comments are transparent, offline resolutions may be possible, and the complaint chain may be interrupted.

Apologize. If the situation warrants. Though the public apology is being rapidly commoditized, a sincere, factual, and personalized apology beats silence, defensiveness, or apathy.

Use the media. Be ready to produce a response commensurate with the attack – through online commentary, video, and social media news releases.

Look for – and leverage – the opportunity. A negative situation doesn’t always spell lasting damage. In fact, it can be an opportunity to tout positive change, clear up a misimpression, and build customer engagement. No one is more loyal than a grateful customer. If the problem can’t be fixed, a fair hearing can still go a long way.

How To Get A Job in PR: Advice For Millennials

It’s graduation season, when advice is plentiful, but jobs are scarce.

Firms like mine are blitzed with resumes from freshly degreed communications grads eager to make their mark in PR. A tough economy isn’t the only obstacle. Those entering the workforce now are tagged as Millennials and stereotyped as indulged, overpraised, and entitled.

Here’s my contribution to the advice flurry, based on my own experience as an employer, and some field research among entry-level agency staff. I’ve read some advice for millennials looking to break into PR. For the record, I couldn’t care less about thank you notes, and most people in my position don’t expect most new hires to stay five years. In my view, agency life is not “supposed to suck.” But, it does help if you know what you’re getting into.

First, learn to write. (I know, I know.) Long-form journalism may be dying, but writing still matters. It’s how most prospective employers will first meet you. Learn to write for brevity, rather than for term-paper word counts. Be punchy. Be bold. But please be brief.

Get real. Experience, that is. When I co-taught a graduate-level PR course at NYU, I was struck by what the students knew that I didn’t. Cool stuff, like persuasion theory and cognition. But, very few could write a solid client recommendation memo with a budget, let alone a PR program. If your school doesn’t require an internship, get it on your own. It’s at the top of employers’ lists, and it will give you a taste of the basic agency or corporate PR functions.

Become an expert. On something. The best way to persuade an employer that you can help a client stand out is to do it for yourself. One way is to develop a special interest or expertise in a relevant area, like location-based social media, marketing to moms, or making technology attributes accessible. An informed POV will impress a prospective boss.

Have a mind of your own. In an interview or short cover letter, offer some independent thinking. It’s more impressive if, instead of saying how much you’d die to work on Cool Client Brand team, you have ideas or opinions about Client Brand or a competitor. If an employer asks you what you think of her agency’s website, blog, philosophy, or culture, be prepared with a thoughtful answer, not flattery. If she doesn’t ask, volunteer it. PR people are recommenders. Be one.

Package yourself. Have the elevator speech ready. Do a SWOT analysis on yourself and play up what works. One of my worst interviews occurred when a recruiter said to me as I walked in the room, “Tell us about Dorothy Crenshaw.” Overwhelmed, I babbled a life chronology rather than controlling the interview and focusing on relevant strengths. The open-ended questions can be the hardest. Have your brand identity and key messages in your mind.

Use the media. When the going is tough, the tough get on YouTube. And Facebook. Use that  Millennial creativity and connectedness. Make us laugh, or at least smile. Look at Eric Romer, who late last year launched a one-man Facebook, Twitter, and PR push to land a job at Headblade, a company that markets a scalp shaving product for men, and one that he personally uses and loves. Eric’s smooth social media moves and bald relentlessness grew into hundreds of blog posts, links, and mentions, massive Facebook attention, and even traditional media coverage. He also got the job. The best new example of digital media smarts – and pure creativity – is that of Alec Brownstein. He bought the names of prominent ad agency creative directors on Google adwords to get their attention when they googled themselves. He got it, and a copywriting job, for a total investment of six dollars.

Recently I was one of several PR firm owners targeted by Auburn University senior Amanda Pinto, who’s determined to fulfill her dream of working in PR in New York. Amanda launched a getAmandatoNY blog and personal marketing campaign with a little help from her friends. Her video is funny, original, and social – attributes that typify the Millennial generation. She’ll get there. And, with persistence and a little innovation, so will you.

Disaster Branding: How BP’s Green PR Backfired

Quick, which company was responsible for the catastrophic natural gas leak in Bhopal, India, the worst industrial accident in modern history? What about the corporation that created the infamous toxic brew known as Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York?

Man-made disasters are usually named, and remembered, for their locations. That won’t be true in the case of the recent Gulf Coast oil spill. Like the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island over 30 years ago, the accident has a complicated set of causes and contributors. But unlike that near-catastrophe, this one bears a big brand name. BP will be forever linked to the Gulf oil rig accident. Ironically, its very efforts to rebrand itself as a progressive, even “green”  company, are part of the reason why.

As BP struggles to contain the oil slick spreading towards the Louisiana coast, it has also tried to spread the responsibility. Its partners, the Transocean Company, the regulatory agency MMS, and the much-maligned Halliburton, are also deeply involved, and Transocean is more directly culpable. But, the spill has tainted the BP brand as well as the Gulf waters. Its market capitalization has already bled $30 billion, and the reputation damage has only just begun.

For years, BP seemed to zig when the industry zagged. It was rebranded ten years ago, literally painting itself green, taking on a sunburst logo, and positioning itself as an energy company, not an oil business. What also stood out was its corporate communications platform, especially its maverick stance on global warming, articulated by former CEO John Browne. Never mind that NGOs referred to it as the “Big Polluter.” By calling on the industry to help reverse climate change, BP earned a reputation as an environmental progressive, at least among its peers.

But, a spotty record in the nineties proved that talking the talk just isn’t enough. Now, nearly three weeks after the oil rig explosion, it’s clear that BP’s eco-friendly branding was, at best, premature. Despite efforts to tighten safety protocols and embrace alternative energy production, its record is far from clean. It’s not alone, but that doesn’t matter.

The recent spill should properly be known as the Transocean Oil Flood. Or the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. But, this one is branded BP, in part because of the size of the gap between the slickly packaged brand image and the noxious reality.

When the gulf between PR and objective fact is this large, the reputation cost is high. But, there are learnings. The New York Times points out that the corporation now considered a paragon of responsibility is the very one most linked with toxic disaster. That’s right, it’s Exxon Mobil, the folks who brought us the Exxon Valdez. Among industry watchers, “Exxon” is actually a gold standard for scrupulous adherence to safety standards.

So, can BP save its brand? Once the oil is contained, and only then, can the reputation cleanup begin. Since it’s stuck with the oil spill label, BP’s best strategy might actually be to follow the Exxon example. Its brand communications challenge will be to make its name synonymous with the fix, not just the disaster. Talking the talk – to the tune of millions in branding, advertising, and PR – is expensive. But, not walking the walk has an even higher price.

Betty White Is One Petition We Can Believe In

Facebook petitions are like email jokes. They may be novel and intriguing at first, but they get old quickly. E-petitions in general have always had a sketchy reputation. They’re easily faked, often misdirected, and frequently about causes that don’t hinge on public opinion. Some think they encourage “slacktivism” by lulling us into mindset that we’re doing something when we’re not.

But, now there’s Betty White, who may have restored our faith in social media’s power to effect change. I’m kidding, but only half. The unsinkable White will host “Saturday Night Live” this weekend. And as the world knows, the idea behind her Mother’s Day eve appearance was born in a Facebook petition that garnered over half a million supporters since last December. The momentum and publicity generated by “Betty White To Host SNL: please?” was apparently impressive enough to convince SNL to give her the host gig.

Pundits are calling it more proof of the power of social media. Yet, on reflection, it probably doesn’t prove much about those sites and pages that lobby for everything from gay marriage to Domino’s pizza deliveries in helicopters. It’s hard to find examples that really demonstrate the success of e-petitions. Facebook helps with fraud concerns, but the most compelling online petitions tap into a passionate cult following, a pop culture trend, or a serious social or political issue where many other influences are at work.

I loved how fans of the NBC show “Chuck” leveraged social media to save their hero, but the show was never actually cancelled in the first place. And despite websites that record e-petition successes, the examples are…well, random. Like the move to allow Jackson, Mississippi student Nathan Warmack to wear his kilt to a high school dance. Or the current petition to name William Shatner as Canada’s next Governor General. That’s got my vote.

The Betty White Facebook campaign is less a social media win than a statement about the power and popularity of Betty. Clearly, the 88 -year-old actress is having what Simon Cowell would call a Moment. It was actually kicked off by traditional media – the Snickers Super Bowl ad in which she and fellow octagenarian Abe Vigoda played football. (At the time, the Daily News cheered, “The New Orleans Saints might have won the game, but Betty White won the Super Bowl.”)

The campaign was then advanced on Facebook and shrewdly promoted by White’s PR team, who were busy last week worrying about overexposure and coyly refusing to do nudity. And, you have to hand it to NBC for seeing a Golden opportunity. In a demographic balancing act, it’s paired White with Jay-Z as musical guest.

So, the lesson of Betty White may be more about the message than the medium. But, like Conan O’Brien’s Twitter campaign, it’s a perfect marriage of brand personality, timing, and media mix. Should be a good show.