Things You Should Never Say To A PR Agency

Every public relations agency executive delights in hearing from prospective clients. One of the great things about the business is that you never know which award-winning campaign, career-changing relationship, or high-profile engagement might be just around the corner.

But a typical part of the chase is a series of calls or meetings with client prospects who can have widely varying degrees of familiarity with the agency process, or who may not be clear (or agree) on what they want or need.  And they can say odd, confusing, and even exasperating things; in fact, certain comments are red flags that an experienced public relations agency exec will spot in a moment.

Here are some of our favorites.

“We’re looking for someone to grow with us.”  This is number one on my list. It’s understandable if the budget isn’t large; in fact, it may be a smart move to conserve funds for later (and we are happy to steer you to an excellent freelancer or boutique agency if that’s the case.) But the invitation translates to, “We can’t afford to pay fair value for your work, and even if we hire you, you’ll never be able to make money with us.” Not so appealing.

“Here’s a proposal from another agency that wasn’t right for us because it was too big/expensive/outside of our category.”  This hasn’t happened often, but it’s ethically dubious, to say the least, and confusing at best (what do you really want?)

We need our story to be in The New York Times/TechCrunch/on “Ellen” by the time we launch!” Well, as my former client used to say to her CEO when he started down this road, “There’s one way to guarantee that. It’s called advertising.”

“For this assignment, we’re not sure if we need a PR firm or a digital marketing agency.” Hmm, well, then, neither are we. They are very different disciplines with distinct goals, and they often work in tandem, but perhaps you should review your objectives and conduct some research into each. I’d rather spend my time developing the best possible PR recommendations based on quality information than explaining what PR is or does.

“We’re not looking for formal proposals. Just give us an idea of how you’d approach our business.” I’ve heard this quite a few times but have never really understood what it means.

“How much for a press release?” Argh.

“We need a viral video!”  This one needs no explanation; most PR people I know have deleted the word “viral” from their vocabularies.

“We’re looking at 30 agencies and hope you’ll want to participate.” Um, maybe not.

Why You Need To Hire A PR Firm Now

Even if your hot ad/tech business isn’t being acquired today for millions of dollars or you aren’t quite ready to launch your latest sure-to-wow consumer product, you may still need to consider professional PR counsel for your company. Here are some good reasons why:

You are being left out of a story right now. Without a dedicated PR team representing your interests with vigilance, that next round-up story on your industry’s products, or leaders or POV will occur without you.

It’s a whole new media world. And who has time for that with running a business and managing employees, etc? A professional PR firm is up on trends like native advertising and the latest blogger campaigns as well as the art of traditional story placement and selling in a byline article. Media contacts come and go, as do outlets, and the best PR pros know this world inside and out.

Writing for PR is an art and a science. Just like a book publisher choosing the most compelling fiction “pitch”, the editor of a top site or magazine is looking for the most compelling, intriguing communiques, summing up a client story that begs for a deeper look. You need agency representation dedicated to understanding your messages, crafting story angles and communicating them in a way that works to pique media interest.

In the event of a reputation threat. You want to be prepared for anything. Does your company have an up-to-date crisis plan? Was it vetted by a PR practitioner? Based on historical crises large and small, industry experts agree that a team with relevant experience is invaluable to your organization in the event your brand is subject to negative coverage or criticism.

“I’ll just have my intern handle social media” doesn’t cut it. Sure, your college intern will know the mechanics of posting to Facebook and tweeting, but would you want to give such an important task as content development to someone who doesn’t thoroughly understand your business, your positioning and your company “voice?” Using social media successfully takes a combination of pop culture and industry savvy, strategic know-how, research, and understanding of each platform’s role in promoting your business. Leave this work to a professional!

Search Techniques Will Fill That Tech or B2B PR Position Today

Job needs in New York public relations firms can turn on a dime. You land a new tech or B2B project and after the celebrating, you ask who will staff it? Great employees are the lifeblood of any PR staff, agency or in-house. What can you do to ensure you get the most qualified candidates?

Ask yourself what you really need.  Don’t hire just because the office has a vacancy at a certain level. Hire to fill the position the account work calls for. For example, a piece of business that is primarily media placement can work quite well with a supervisor and two junior people, whereas an account requiring much more strategic PR counsel can  support a director level, a supervisor and a more junior staffer.

Forget the “usual suspects.” Well, maybe not forget – but certainly augment your list of job ad go-to’s. In addition to LinkedIn, PRSA, and MediaBistro, go where the techies go. Hit up your closest tech or B2B media friends for info on PR people they know and respect. Contact any former clients in the industry and ferret out info from them. Scan past PRSA Award winners and others for good prospects and see which PR pros are blogging on related topics.

Change up your writing test and other criteria. When was the last time you reviewed your writing test? Sure, there’s a press release writing assignment, but is it too generic to allow real industry knowledge to shine through? Does your test include any social media elements? Keep it current and relevant.

Provide a “real world” assignment. See how a candidate would perform in an actual account situation. Provide a client conundrum to solve or a stale pitch to punch up. (Bonus points if said candidate recommends smart media contacts!) Interaction with other team members is a good idea as well.

Make references relevant. When was the last time a candidate gave you a “bad” reference? Try “never!” How to make those polite reference calls actionable to your search? Probe for nuanced details by asking questions such as “Are there any projects you wouldn’t recommend Joe for?” or “In which situation would Joe perform best (provide two examples) and why?” Get past the niceties.

The Evolution Of PR Thinking

Recently a group of senior PR agency colleagues gathered for a conversation about changes in our industry and what PR professionals need to do to remain competitive. The consensus was that advertising, though badly disrupted by digital and social media, was doing a better job of reinventing itself than our industry.

The news isn’t all bad. In a 2013 survey of 2000 marketing communications students, 70 percent said they believe that public relations thinking will dominate  among marketing and ad agencies within the next decade. Even more startling, more than 80 percent percent predict the death of specialist shops, like social media or digital.

It’s only one survey, and it’s of the next generation of marketers in Europe, not the U.S., but it’s a comprehensive one, and these are surely marketing’s future leaders.

But the survey, and the discussion, begs the question of what public relations does better than any other marketing discipline. And the growth of PR’s influence hinges largely on the new generation of marketers, like those who were surveyed.

Here’s how public relations needs to measure up.

Adding value. We’ve been conditioned to do this for journalists, and to help them, in turn, add value for the end user. Today this means quality content. PR standards still aren’t journalism, but they’re getting there.

Storytelling. As we all know, jargon-stuffed press releases and overly branded messages are being supplanted by stories, complete with those classic storytelling elements of conflict, drama, and emotion.

Influence. Whether to change opinion, shape an image, or urge action, influence is the essence of public relations. It’s not what we say, it’s how we influence others’ own content, sharing, and behavior.  This is very different from the paid media mentality, and it’s how the PR investment should be measured.

Trust. The gap between what consumers believe when companies talk about themselves (8%) and when social contacts talk about the company (80%) is huge.

Of course, these attributes aren’t unique to those trained in public relations. And maybe that’s the point.

The “new” marketing isn’t about PR, or social media, or world-of-mouth marketing. Maybe the PR mindset really means forgetting about channels or disciplines or labels and focusing on quality communications of the most powerful, meaningful and relevant stories.

Tips to Whip Your Business Blog Into Spring Shape!

There are an estimated 31 million people blogging in America. That is a lot of competition for your company’s posts. Now is a good time to examine your content with fresh eyes and make sure it is “lean and mean” and relevant to a discerning audience. Ask yourself these questions and then choose a shape-up plan that works for your particular blog.

Are your topics in need of a “cleanse”? Make sure your content is working hard for your business and your blog is optimized for search with the right keywords and industry terms.  Really take some time to look at the next 3-6 months with a keen eye to topicality, trends and annual posts worth revisiting. Use futurecasting to help you come up with fresh, dynamic themes. Consider assigning some “guest bloggers” to keep things interesting.

Are your titles worn out and tired? Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure you create lively titles have essential keywords – this is what search engines  will index and place on the results page when someone is searching. Read more here.

Does your blog have a strong “core”? You need sharper editing. If you are the sole assignment editor, writer and copy editor for your blog, you may have become too close to the content and need some outside eyes to do some incisive editing for you. It only hurts for a minute but the rewards for a new, trim blog are well worth it.

Having a hard time “fitting” in your blog? Get organized and set aside the necessary time to plan, write and edit each piece. This may mean blocking out writing time on Outlook or having Siri remind you “time to blog” – any way that you do it, make it scheduled and rigorous as you would any physical exercise routine.

Does your blog need a new look? Something as simple as a font change or additional graphics can help liven the look of your blog. Interesting and thought-provoking images  keep your blog fresh and appealing.

Whatever changes you undertake to improve your posts, make sure to share the results – tweet it to your followers, share it on LinkedIn and Google Plus, publish on Facebook and email to select associates and prospects.

Spring-Clean Your Tech PR Tool Kit

Though much of the nation’s weather belies it, spring starts March 20th. With it comes a good excuse to examine how your PR firm is doing “digital” and do some sprucing for the rest of the year. Start with these five tips.

Define and declare. Everyone wants to jump on the tech PR bandwagon. If your firm genuinely knows the space inside and out, including the leaders in enterprise tech and other segments, shout it to the rooftops. Can you do a byline demonstrating your expertise, appear on a key industry trade show panel, or create a separate agency blog on the topic? At the very least, make sure your PR client win releases in the sector are out there.

Win at storytelling. While you’re waiting for Wired or TechCrunch to tell your client’s story – tell parts of it yourself. Today’s companies shape their own narratives via social and other owned channels, especially when they’re savvy enough to know the difference between what the tech reporters will jump on and what will make theme say “meh.” Don’t wait for validation from traditional and digital media to vet the smaller stories, run with them.

Don’t forget about the personal side. Are you sticking to your client’s new products and services for most of your media outreach? Don’t forget the human faces behind the devices or apps. There are many outlets focusing on scintillating personality stories, philanthropy angles, or up-from-nothing entrepreneurs. Delve into the people on the team and see what stories rise to the top.

Know your social media. Don’t roll your eyes! If you’ve let your client’s social media efforts become complacent – settling for likes and retweets instead of more actionable lead-generators, take a page from Marc Ostrofsky in his new book, Word of Mouse: 101+ Trends in How We Buy, Sell, Live, Learn, Work, and Play.  Ostrofsky counsels treating different social networks as different languages, with each network also offering its own demographic.

As an example, he says “I don’t want to market my book via Twitter as much as I want to market it via Linkedln.. Why? Because Twitter is much more a young person’s medium, whereas Linkedln is much more beneficial for promoting a book that’s business-related. More than ever, knowing who your customers are and what their needs are is tremendously important-without a deep understanding of their customers, brands will lag behind competitors.”

Keep on top of the sales cycle. Tech companies are bought and sold at the speed of light. Are you aware of where your digital client is in the cycle? Are they positioned for sale to the right company? Does your team know enough about the buy side to provide the most current counsel? Bring salient research and recommendations to the client ahead of being asked and position yourselves as in-the-know experts.

Whatever Happened To The Big Tech PR Launch?

Some former colleagues in tech PR and I were talking recently about the “good old days” when nearly every tech launch included a splashy press conference. Maybe it wasn’t as theatrical as Steve Jobs taking the stage at MacWorld, but it was entertainment, complete with a dramatic unveil, executive presentations, and striking models who would help demo some kind of sexy new hardware.

Today, not so much. Oh, there are still the big, newsmaking CES press conferences and presentations, but even for those, media attend in assembly-line fashion, live blog the product specs, and move on to the next session. Few are standouts. Some of the most exciting launches at this year’s CES were either leaked in advance or launched through influencer outreach.

In my book, that’s a good thing. Lavish press conferences – and the pressure to fill seats with journalists, regardless of quality or commitment to the story – have always struck me as a lazy strategy. But launches have evolved, and there are learnings for PR professionals and communicators.

So, what’s different?

Media have changed, for one. They don’t rush as readily to a hotel room or auditorium to cover every new iteration of a smartphone or Fitbit. There are fewer working journalists to cover this kind of thing, and product reviews are produced by a handful of writers whose work is syndicated. The PR strategy for a new technology product needs to cater to journalists’ needs and most of all, show relevance.

Software trumps hardware. The more exciting innovations tend to be those that are less tangible and visual, which can make a dramatic unveil tricky. Google Glass notwithstanding, most of the attention is on newer technologies with a high cool factor or disruption potential but no actual manufactured product. As Yiren Lu points out in a fascinating New York Times piece about the gulf between the Silicon Valley old guard and the startup culture, legacy CE and enterprise companies are less interesting than the guy who might be the next Uber.

For PR and communications practitioners, it means the strategy needs to be developed earlier and it has to work smarter to create exposure among influencers like analysts and early adopters, not just traditional journalists.

Innovation isn’t what it used to be. Sometimes it seems there are fewer groundbreaking product launches because there are fewer groundbreaking products. Remember the iPad launch? That’s right, four years is a long time. Not every new product warrants a press conference or the hyperbolic claims that match, and that means it’s up to us to set client expectations accordingly.

Startup culture rules. Some “old-guard” companies like Apple and Google still command attention and can pack a press room, but today’s media track funders and founders. Early-stage companies, or those who simulate the startup culture, are more likely to win attention for a disruptive app or platform that is based on an idea or a new way of communicating rather than a device or gadget.

Follow the money. When it comes to early-stage businesses, funding is credibility. And some of the money behind those startups is smart enough to know that these companies don’t need six-figure press events to win attention. The unveiling of the product or service isn’t the end of the PR program, it’s the beginning, of course.

Then, the real work begins.

Put Your Best (PR) Face Forward

Do PR agency pros and their clients have something to learn from Pope Francis on his one-year anniversary? According to veteran papal watcher and professor Father John Wauck, perhaps so. “Francis is…a transparently happy person,” Wauck says. “And it sounds really simplistic, but unfeigned happiness on the part of a public figure is not that common.”

Unfeigned happiness. Authentic joy. These emotions can go a long way toward doing better client work, fostering better PR agency team relationships and exuding real enthusiasm when pitching media or new business.

In the “real world” of a fast-moving PR agency with crazy deadlines, “moving target” client deliverables and other vagaries of servicing PR accounts, it is perhaps difficult to find something in your work that helps create unfeigned happiness.

If you’re having trouble doing so, here are some ways to find and unlock some joy and happiness.

Review your successes. If you haven’t saved every praiseworthy email you’ve received, start now! Look at some previous campaign results reports as well. On a less-than-great day remind yourself how highly others think of you and what consistently good work you produce.

Look at a cat video. Or the funny video of your choice. Don’t go crazy, but look at some humorous gifs and give yourself a good laugh. Take a few moments to find the funny in even the most seriouse client situations.

Get out. According to a recent survey, only one in three American workers take a lunch break — leaving 65 percent of employees to either eat at their desks or not eat at all. Be sure to walk to where you are going (yes that means you too, frigid northeasterners).

Do something unexpectedly nice. Random act of kindness, anyone? Our client Edible Arrangements found recently that of people surveyed, over 80% found that giving increased their happiness, with nearly half calling themselves “much happier” as a result of giving. Pitch in on account work other than your own, offer to get a co-worker coffee or an afternoon snack and see if you feel the joy.

Declutter. Tossing piles of paper, deleting dozens of useless old files and contacts and generally sprucing your surroundings will really put a spring in your step. You will operate more efficiently when you have less “stuff.” Celebrate and buy something fun to decorate your office. Here are some brilliant ideas from online art client UGallery.

Are Better Client-Agency Relations the Key to Better Public Relations?

At our New York public relations agency, we can never be accused of under-communicating with clients. Beyond daily e-mails and weekly status calls, we manage to achieve maximum “touchpoints” throughout the week. If you ask anyone in our firm, they will agree that better client agency relations are, if not THE key, certainly one key to better PR outcomes. This isn’t brain surgery or touchy feely shrink-speak; it’s simply true that better communication breeds success. Here are some examples of how this manifests itself in the PR world.

Go right to the source. If all you’ve ever done is read about the company’s latest and greatest on the website or in an RFP, get your client to tell you about it. Actually get the individual closest to the product’s creation to talk about it. You will glean untold facts, learn to better “sell” the story to the press in the client’s language, and increase your client’s good perception of you!

Let no misunderstandings linger. The minute something goes south – someone has blown a deadline, that phrase in the press release didn’t get changed, the reporter you prepared for starts asking crazy questions – nip it in the bud with a conversation. First of all, it is more direct and greatly appreciated. Second of all, there are some things that are better left “unsent” and best handled by talking.

Confirm. And confirm again. Even if you risk cluttering the in-box, when there are important deadlines on both the client and agency side, your emailed confirmation/s may be the most effective arrow in the quiver with a busy or impossible-to-reach client. And when the deadline is passed and the result is a great one, they may thank you for your hyper-efficiency.

Temperature check, often. If you get the feeling that you aren’t getting enough input to do your work well, have a candid chat with your client that can be as simple as saying, “What’s new?” and meaning it! If that doesn’t get your client talking, prepare a brief memo titled something like “In Preparation for Press Interviews” with some open-ended questions and see if that can get the ball rolling.

Get on the same rhythm.  After even a short amount of time with a client, you will learn who likes to be contacted on their cell vs. office line, who is a morning person or a night owl and who replies to email with terse one-word responses. Once you have deciphered this client code, you will communicate better with each contact and they will come to appreciate that about you. This “greases the skids” for more personal interaction and a better overall relationship.

7 Reasons To Work At A PR Firm

For those set on a career in PR or communications, there are many forks in the road. Here’s the argument for a stint at a public relations agency, as opposed to a corporate or nonprofit gig, as a great place to start. Our bias is for a smaller, independent agency, but it’s really more about the PR firm experience and business model than anything else. Here’s why:

You’re a specialist among specialists. Within a corporation, staff learn public relations as it serves the organization, but at an agency, it’s the core business. Usually it’s the only business. That translates into a deeper commitment to training and greater mastery of the PR discipline overall.

Agencies offer upward mobility.  The great thing about beginning a career at an agency is that a mixed client base, coupled with the single focus (or a concentration in similar communications practice areas) translates into greater opportunity to move up the ranks quickly. Almost any road can lead to advancement.

You’ll learn what you love. Juggling multiple clients in different industries or sectors may not be for everyone. But the chance to participate in account management for clients within different industries, from B2B technology to food and beverage PR, will help you figure out where your passion lies and focus your career for the future.

You’ll learn to produce. Or not, in which case your agency experience will be short. Almost any service business places a high premium on generating specific deliverables quickly and well. On the agency side, you earn your keep every day. It’s certainly not the only way to learn time management and other contributors to productivity, but it’s a good one.

You’ll learn salesmanship. This varies from agency to agency, but at most small-to-midsize firms, even junior staffers will have some opportunity to take part in new business presentations. Even where you don’t, merchandising the agency’s value to clients is a part of the daily life at a PR firm. And it’s terrific experience that you can apply to your own contribution and career.

And showmanship.  From packaging dazzling content, to C-level boardroom presentations, this is also a skill that’s highly translatable to just about anything else you may do in life or work.

You’ll never be bored. The agency life is ideal for multitaskers. But, beware, it can ruin you for doing anything else!