How Simple Automation Saves Time And Tedium In PR

Any public relations agency today needs nearly instant resources — from details on media preferences to data that informs our pitches and programs. Teams juggle many client accounts, with each having its own needs and expectations. There’s only so much time to spend on routine work like monitoring and measuring, yet these tasks are extremely important to any ongoing PR agency-client relationship. They’re also a huge factor in the success of our programs.
One thing that can help is automating some of the rote tasks we do. Mail-merge for journalist emails is a great example (and one that’s unfortunately misused in PR), but there’s more. Here are a few ways PR agencies should be using tech tools and other resources.

PR media monitoring can be a breeze

Some clients require category or competitive monitoring reports as early as 8:00 a.m. each day. Needless to say, we couldn’t live without simple tools like Google Alerts and services like Cision. Automated monitoring not only flags coverage, but also puts the most topical news on our radar. Alerts for topics relevant to a client’s business can make a big difference in securing quick wins and nailing ideas for proactive pitching. For B2B companies, it’s particularly important to monitor social communities like LinkedIn groups and Twitter conversations among journalists (MuckRack). It helps us stay on top of breaking news as well as the personal chat from journalists and influencers we want to reach. And once a client is interviewed by a publication, we can set an alert rather than conducting hourly searches for the posted article (although in some cases we do both!)

Social content is simple

Many clients task their PR agency with posting social content, ensuring appropriate brand messaging and driving engagement. News releases and other timely content can be planned in advance, while social content can be tailored to day parts and time zones that maximize clicks with services like Hootsuite. But like any other kind of content automation, social content needs human oversight. We’ve all heard the nightmare stories of brands who pre-scheduled flippant tweets in the midst of a national tragedy, or more recently, social influencer content that reeks of bot automation, complete with fake comments.

Locate brand-appropriate social influencers

More than automation of the social content that’s posted for a brand, services like BuzzSumo can help PR strategists locate the right influencers by searching relevant topics in far less time and in greater detail than an old-style manual search. We’re a little wary of the fully-automated micro-influencer platforms used by some DTC and other consumer brands, but, as always, research and testing goes a long way.

Nail the right database for media research

This is the most important one for PR agencies. The entire process of media outreach is by nature frustratingly inefficient. But much of it can be automated, allowing more time for developing the creative subject line or the new launch idea. Tools like Cision open the door for easy custom media-list building, creating contact lists of relevant journalists and influencers around a specific coverage area. Muck Rack also deserves a mention – while it doesn’t have the list generation capabilities of Cision, it finds journalist’s information and ties it to their Twitter, offering real-time information on what that specific journalist is writing and talking about on social media. The information can be crucial to generating interest for reactive pitching and seeing what industry trends are buzzing.

AI-generated content is picking up steam

A post about automation wouldn’t be complete without mentioning AI. It’s being used across a wide array of industries, including PR and marketing. For example, JPMorgan Chase has begun using AI to make marketing messages more potent, and according to CMO Kristin Lemkau, in one test the AI-generated ad copy beat the content written by humans. Content marketer Fractl created a ‘blog‘ that was fully generated by AI to show how easy it is to create such content — and also to raise concerns about the future of content generation. For PR, tools like Quill and Wordsmith turn data into meaningful narratives for a relatively decent price. Although the tech is still in early days for PR use, it’s something agencies should be keeping their eyes on.

Show your work with metrics

Measuring outcomes is like a holy grail for the PR industry, and here, too, automated tools help. Automated services like Meltwater can make those hefty end-of-the-quarter clip reports much less painless than they used to be, for example. Reports that document a brand’s share of voice (SOV) versus competitors are also useful because they offer insight on how a company stacks up against rivals when it comes to earned media coverage. To save us sifting through news stories to identify company mentions, there are plenty of paid services that simplify the process, like Cision. Like all clip reports, automated SOV reports tend to be imperfect, usually catching irrelevant mentions and sometimes equating different types of earned media coverage, so, human intervention is a must.

"Stakeholder Value" Is Good PR — And Good Business

The recent move by the Business Roundtable to redefine corporate priorities by emphasizing value beyond shareholder profits is the latest indicator that corporate reputation’s importance is on the rise. The statement supporting “stakeholder value” is also a good sign for public relations professionals who preach corporate responsibility or even strategic activism in U.S. corporate boardrooms. We specialize in messaging to those very stakeholders, especially employees, partners, and customers.

Nearly 200 major CEOs signed on to invest in employees and serve customers as well as deliver for shareholders. The pledge has been embraced by big-brand Business Roundtable members from Apple to JPMorgan Chase.

Some observers take issue with the statement as wrongheaded, seeing it as de-prioritizing every for-profit company’s fiduciary obligation. The Council for Institutional Investors immediately issued a statement in response, expressing “respectful” disagreement, while reinforcing that shareholder value should remain paramount as a corporate goal.

Others have called the statement window-dressing — a gimmick to manage corporate reputation during a time of increasing concern about income inequality, hair-trigger boycotts and cultural polarization. And it’s true that the commitment itself has no teeth. Metrics, incentives, and benchmarks for progress are conspicuously absent from the pledge.

Yet, the Business Roundtable statement didn’t happen in isolation. It comes a year and a half after Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, the largest investor in the world, issued marching orders to top business leaders, urging them to deliver not just financial performance, but “a positive contribution to society.”  The New York Times calls CEO activism “the new normal, noting its rise over the past several years.

Could this mean a sea change in corporate governance? Shareholder value will always reign supreme, but increasingly, corporate leaders are linking it to stakeholder value. The 2018 tax cut and fat corporate profits are a factor, along with the spotlight it placed on rich CEO pay packages. And as we approach full employment, talent recruitment and employee retention have become business imperatives. Millennials in particular pay attention to corporate brand values, both as customers and as a part of the workforce.

The power of social media makes corporate reputation vulnerable to rumor and criticism (whether legitimate or not), and customers expect a level of engagement and participation from brands. And let’s face it, the chaos and controversy courted by this administration may also be a factor in the trend. The public is looking to the private sector for consistent leadership, positive social impact, and stability.

Is the Business Roundtable statement about PR? Sure. But the concerns that drove it aren’t likely to go away, and once corporations put their name to a pledge, they will be held accountable by stakeholders. The “PR move” isn’t just a shallow one; it’s an opportunity for corporate America to engage with audiences who, despite their skepticism, are looking for more from our institutions. For corporate leaders, the stakeholders will only grow more important and the stakes will only get higher.

Don’t Hang Up! PR Phone Pitching Isn’t Dead

According to most people who work at PR agencies, especially tech firms, using the phone for media conversations is outdated. Hardly anyone thinks it’s useful to follow up, or worse, actually pitch a story by phone. PR pundits insist that phone calls will not earn you many friends, and at best it’s a waste of time.

So how is it that most of the greatest earned media placements in my 20-year PR career have come from a connection I’ve made on the phone?

Left to my own devices, I will send an email and follow-up by phone or, dare I say, even a cold call. In my experience, more than 90% of the time when I do connect with someone by phone, they end the call requesting the email pitch. Mind you, it’s the same email pitch I already sent. The email pitch they never read.

There’s no blame here. These producers, writers, reporters and editors receive thousands of emails a day. I’d venture to say they’re pitched far more often now than in the days when PR people routinely pitched by phone. Even then, many people were shy or uneasy about talking. For me, talking has come naturally.

l recall working at a popular consumer public relations firm where the owner asked me to train everyone on staff to talk on the phone. At that time, it was part of the job. PR people can get away without being on the phone now, to the point where we have a different problem. Over-dependence on our devices has sent people into hiding. No one even wants to talk anymore. What’s more, I don’t think they know how.

Overall, verbal conversation is a lost art. Baby boomers came into the workplace before computers and cell phones, so they relied on face-to-face communication and in-person networking. But Gen-Xers and Millennials raised on technology are comfortable conversing almost exclusively on a device. They think of social media as actually social. And they substitute an emoticon for real emotion.

But in our business, a big part of a publicist’s job is communication and persuasion. If a pitch has no relevance to a journalist’s work, personality will not win them over, but it might get a referral or build a relationship for the next one. Meanwhile, here are a handful of tips I culled in my years of successful pitching on the phone:

Smile

No, not in a “smile-and-dial” telemarketing sense. But as you tap the number, smile as if you’re about to shake hands and meet someone. Your voice sounds different when you talk with a smile. Try it.

Match your voice to your audience

Loud, soft, animated or not, that’s the mood of the person on the other end of the phone. Match their volume and intensity. You want to meet them where they are and, hopefully, engage them.

Practice just enough to sound natural

Get your elevator pitch down so you know what you want to say, but be sure to sound conversational. You know how you can’t stand talking to telemarketers who sound robotic? Don’t sound like that.

Do you know?

If you’re calling a specific geographic area and have a personal tie-in, a quick icebreaker can be fun.

And…who else do you know?

If it’s not right for the person you’re talking to, can you find out who might like it? There’s nothing better than putting someone’s name as a referral in a subject line.
Oh, one last thing. Make sure you know how to work the phone!

Are You Ready For A PR Agency? 5 Questions For Startups

Bringing on a public relations agency can help an organization engage a far larger audience than they’re able to do on their own. But in the competitive world of startups, the go-to-market formula can change, and timing is key. It isn’t as simple as ‘get your brand in the news’ as much as it is about identifying and focusing on key differentiators. So before a startup decides to bring on a PR agency, they should be asking themselves these five questions.

Do you have a real story?

Many startups, especially those in tech, generate early buzz making VC deals that allow for rapid growth, and a funding announcement can be a great starting point. Yet a fat financing round and torrid expansion numbers aren’t enough, and they can even overshadow more important assets. As time goes on, business growth normalizes, and a startup needs a more differentiated story. What is the company’s reason for being? What problem does it solve? Why should anyone care? A bulletproof business model and compelling story will reinforce the company’s legitimacy and offer a foundation for long-term PR planning.

What are your goals?

Not enough companies ask this question, and it’s an important one. Of course the goal is to get the company in the news so that it will be more visible and better known, but for what? Does the company want to be recognized as an industry disruptor? Is it aiming to attract business partners? Sales leads? Understanding the mission is essential for the PR agency to properly plan, position and execute a campaign on behalf of the client. We urge our clients to differentiate between deliverables (earned media coverage, bylined articles, speaking opportunities secures) and outcomes (sales growth, perception changes). Both are important but one should lead to the other.

Is the founder engaging?

While the startup itself can be interesting, the founder is ideally just as engaging, if not more so. People love a good founder story. It can generate great coverage tied back to the company and allow opportunities for thought leadership. However, if the founder isn’t able to offer more than factual information on the company or doesn’t have the charisma or salesmanship of other startup leaders, they may be at a disadvantage. Of course, many agencies offer media coaching to help executives be more comfortable in media interviews and more compelling in how they tells their story, but it helps when it comes from the heart. If not, the startup may want to look at other top executives as the face of the brand, or it can use a PR agency to work around the in-person meetings with branded content.

Does the startup have internal support for the PR agency?

This may be obvious, but it’s an important factor to consider. PR agencies usually work as an auxiliary to the company’s internal marketing team, and if it’s still in the early stages, the internal resources may not be there to manage an external team. Without that support the PR agency can have trouble producing results and the PR investment may not be worth the spend.

Are you ready to make a long-term commitment?

“Long term” can mean different things to different companies, but a startup that’s expecting instant results in the form of splashy earned media articles or tech trade headlines is likely to be disappointed. The most successful startup PR programs set tangible goals for deliverables and metrics for the PR agency on a quarterly basis. A startup who wants to reap the benefits of a PR firm’s work should ideally be prepared to commit for twelve months.

Edelman Falls Short As PR Industry Leader

It’s always instructive when PR teams entrusted with managing the reputations of major corporations run into reputation problems of their own. But it’s downright disturbing when it happens to one that presumes to lead our industry.

Mega-agency Edelman recently made waves by resigning a lucrative engagement working with for-profit corrections company The GEO Group, a top contractor for ICE. When news of its decision hit, some industry-watchers praised it, in part because it came in response to staff objections.

A Principled Decision…But What Principles?

Had Edelman finally grown into the principles it likes to espouse? After all, this is the agency that pioneered an early form of fake news, punted when competitors took a stand on climate change, and is notorious for pursuing growth at any price. But as the agency that has tried to align its brand with public trust, one hopes it has learned from its mistakes.

On closer examination, the Edelman/GEO Group situation is a great example of what not to do when faced with an ethical quandary. According to news reports, the agency originally pitched The GEO Group in May, and it won the contract last month. Surely it would have foreseen the possibility of staff misgivings and weighed the internal and external ramifications of the decision.

Mismanaged communications = bad PR

A good PR team would have considered the decision in advance, involving key internal stakeholders as appropriate. Once made, it would then communicate the rationale for the engagement and prepare to respond to questions from external audiences like clients and prospects.

But that’s apparently not what they did. It seems Edelman thought they would keep the GEO work under wraps. When staff opposition broke out, it tried to manage it in a series of internal discussions that seemed to backfire badly. Then it made what looks like a panicky decision to resign the client only two weeks into the engagement.

Why? Possibly because trade media coverage of its new assignment involved other agency clients who had publicly cut ties with for-profit ICE contractors. Presumably a corporation like Wells Fargo, which also happens to be struggling with reputation issues, might look askance at a PR agency with principles at cross purposes to its own.

Employee commitment matters

Adweek has receipts. Agency staff shared messages from staff members discussing the situation on the anonymous networking app Fishbowl, and they are damning. It appears that Edelman’s leadership thought they could keep the GEO engagement quiet while managing any internal dissension. That’s so not what happened.

But it gets worse! After the agency announced it had severed the contract, The GEO Group voiced its displeasure in a public statement. “It’s truly disappointing that a renowned public relations firm, which prides itself on helping companies tell their story, would allow the personal political beliefs of some employees to undermine a business contract,” read the statement attributed to Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez.

It’s understandable that personal beliefs – political or otherwise – might impact a PR firm’s decision on what clients to accept. But it’s far less clear how Edelman thought it could keep the work secret and somehow manage a staff insurrection. Then, to top it off, it backpedals after only two weeks, which would seem to indicate it never really thought the work aligned with its values at all. It was just about the bottom line, for as long as they could get away with it.

It’s hard not to question the judgment of a PR company that so miscalculates the reputation impact of a business decision and mismanages its communication. And it’s doubly frustrating that it supports the stereotype of PR agencies staffed with morally dubious hired guns without principles, ready to take any side for a fatter payday.

Mistakes happen, but this is unworthy of the largest independent PR firm, and unworthy of our profession.

Why Earned Media Is Still Relevant In PR

As the influence of digital and social media has soared, PR agencies who focus primarily on earned media (once known as publicity) are often warned that they’re falling behind.

There are regular calls for PR services to include paid media and other offerings. Many firms like to brag about how little they depend on earned coverage generated for clients. They’ve moved on to other things.

This is understandable, in part because PR is much more than media relations. But it’s also about the bottom line; the fastest way to grow is to offer more services, ideally those that can be automated and offered at high margins. PR agencies naturally want a piece of the digital media budget pie. Large firms in particular have big overhead to feed and face constant pressure to add offerings.

Earned Media: Labor-Intensive, Hard To Scale

Earned media work is notoriously hard to scale. When Tom Foremski referred to public relations as “an artisanal, hand-crafted service operating within a brave new digital media world that rewards scale,” he was probably talking about the back-and-forth that results in earned coverage. It’s difficult and time-consuming in practice — an inexact and often inefficient process that takes talent, imagination, and timing, and that rests on relationships.

But reports of earned media’s death are premature. A new study on the credibility of various information sources shows that it may be more relevant than ever. Three researchers looked at how people evaluate earned news stories, traditional ads, native ads, independent blogs, and branded blogs. The study’s authors surveyed 1500 members of a consumer panel and conducted focus groups with 46 of them.
The upshot? Consumers found earned media stories the most credible of all the information sources they reviewed.

Earned Media Beats Paid And Native Ads

It always comes down to credibility. That’s what earned media offers – within limits – and that’s what many PR agencies still deliver. It’s also notable that although the highest percentage of study participants found earned media stories the most credible among all the news and ads provided, they valued posts written by independent bloggers, rating them more credible than corporate blog content.

The news isn’t all bad for paid media, though. Though study participants considered ads less credible than earned media, they found them useful and showed a sophisticated understanding of how different information sources work together. The study’s authors points out, “people recognize that companies will face legal consequences if they don’t tell the truth.”

Negative Comments Add Credibility

Interestingly, negative information or reviews aren’t a dealbreaker for most people; in fact, they tend to enhance authenticity and therefore can make an earned media story or social post more credible.

What fared the worst in the study were the native ads shown to participants. Nearly half considered them the least credible information source, using words like “sneaky,” “tricky,” and “disingenuous.”

So, should PR agencies double down on their earned media offerings? Not necessarily. The point is that when preparing to buy a product or service, people tend to get information from many sources. PR campaigns should continue to deliver messages and tell stories across paid, earned, shared, and owned channels. Yet the study does reinforce the central role of earned media as a PR deliverable, and it’s backed up by the results of PRWeek’s most recent Agency Business Report.

Earned media remains a centerpiece of what we do, and although many agencies are expanding their offerings, it’s valuable both as a key service and as a point of view that stresses the credibility of a brand message.

PR Firms Can’t Be All Things To Clients

There’s also the credibility of the agency offering itself. The mega-firms who’ve invested in paid media services can plausibly do so, but many simply can’t be all things to all clients. Look at the flipside; today it’s common for branding, digital marketing, or even SEO agencies to say they offer PR or earned media services. But no knowledgeable communications professional would trust them with a major PR campaign. The promise just isn’t credible.

Bottom line, we should focus less on the superiority of any one source of information and more on better integration of messages that are consistent and compelling across all platforms and channels – including earned media, which will be a key part of public relations for a long time to come.