5 PR Myths Debunked

When someone asks a public relations person what they do for a living, and that person hesitates, it’s usually because of Samantha Jones.

Once and for all, real-life PR pros aren’t likely to resemble Samantha (Sex and the City), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Liz & Liz (Kroll Show), or Shauna Roberts (Entourage). Ironically, the PR profession can blame pop culture for its portrayal as a shallow, vapid, or glamorized profession. The shows featuring PR pros tend to be glossy, sexy, and light – and so are the characters depicted.

A new show for 2019 called “Flack” probably won’t clear up any misconceptions, because its main character, played by Anna Paquin (True Blood), works in celebrity PR. Alas, PR’s greatest fictional ambassador – and its smartest portrayal – was probably the president’s press secretary C.J. Cregg from The West Wing.

After all, “public relations” is a nebulous term, and it’s very reductive. In an earlier post, we explored whether the profession should change its name. But the PR myths go beyond terminology. Let’s debunk them, one by one.

5 PR Myths Debunked

PR is spin.

Spin, propaganda, flackery. These are not only loaded terms, but they’re inaccurate. Both “spin” and “propaganda” connote intentional misrepresentation of facts, and any good PR person will tell you that lying is completely out of place in the business. No respectable practitioner can maintain relations with key media without a reputation for credibility. Moreover, with the explosion of media and content channels and platforms, PR has come into its own as a driver of brand reputation and a tool for engaging critical audiences like customers or shareholders. And as a profession, PR plays a key role in the struggle against misinformation.

“Just get my name in the paper!”

Some think PR is just publicity. All it takes is getting the word out. That’s true, but the practice is far more nuanced than that. A good PR program will tell an organization’s story to its most important audiences, whether through media profiles, op-eds, digital videos, or even issue ads. But public relations doesn’t just put out stories and messaging. A strong corporate communications officer monitors his organization’s reputation by analyzing what’s coming in — customer attitudes, social content, media coverage, and more. At his best, he influences corporate culture and behavior by advising how decisions and actions will be perceived and covered. How is a business viewed in the community? How does it handle public criticism? What’s the corporate point of view on relevant issues, and how should it be conveyed? These kinds of guiding questions are only the start of a good PR person’s role.

PR is not an intellectual pursuit.

Actually, PR involves critical thinking, business smarts, and often a deep partnership with internal or external clients. Goals are data-driven, and outcomes must be measurable, so PR pros need quantitative skills. It’s also far more immersive than some may think. PR pros must both understand and consider the clients’ business goals. The 2017 CCI Corporate Communication Practices & Trends Study 2017 Final Report listed top core competencies for PR pros as: “global perspective; strategy development; change management; project management; consultative mindset; broader leadership skills.”

Whew. On a practical level, a PR team representing a client in the ad-tech sector has to understand concepts like addressable TV and programmatic digital advertising, and an alphabet-soup of acronyms like “GDPR,” “OTT,” and “MVPD.” It’s tough to pitch stories to the media when you don’t know which beats to target. It’s hard to ghostwrite an executive byline if you don’t understand the company’s mission. A good PR pro needs to learn not just lingo, but also the business.

PR is a quick fix.

Some companies, particularly startups, make the mistake of thinking DIY PR is easy. Others believe publicity is a quick fix for what ails a brand or corporation. Both are wrong. An effective public relations campaign requires research, message development, advance planning, and skilled execution, among other elements. And a strong publicity hit won’t solve a quality issue or fix reputation damage any more than a single ad will save a mediocre product. And earned media – what PR people call the articles or interviews that result from their media outreach – can take months to generate.

PR is about schmoozing VIPs.

Access is great, but it’s not everything. And the classic PR schmooze is mostly obsolete. Today’s PR pros earn the respect of journalists and influencers by offering them quality stories and insights, not by wining and dining them. The media don’t clamor for birthday cards or Edible Arrangements. Most don’t even want you to call them; who has time? See our earlier post for a deep dive on pitching the media and late-breaking best practices. As for clients, they’ve become sophisticated about how to locate and tap PR talent, and most are wary of a heavy-handed approach.

There’s nothing wrong with looking for the next C.J. Cregg or Olivia Pope if a company needs a great PR rep. But if you’re ready to find the right partner or are unsure how to research an agency’s suitability, check out 7 questions to ask potential PR agencies before hiring them.

5 PR Stereotypes That Are Outdated Or Wrong

It’s an inside joke that no one outside the industry understands what communications professionals or PR agencies really do. I don’t actually believe that, but this week, at a family gathering far from New York City, my niece confessed that she’s always likened me to Samantha Jones, the infamous PR woman on “Sex And The City”  – ten years after its final episode! I proceeded to (gently) set her straight, but the cringeworthy comparison was a reminder that TV syndication is forever, and that, in our business, professional stereotypes die hard. Here are some of my favorites.

PR people are all about the spin. This trope is a little too sensationalized to die a natural death, and some of us only wish it were more accurate… the power! the sway! But though it plays well in the movies, the truth is more complicated and more prosaic. Most of the time, our work is utterly non-controversial and absent any pressing ethical quandaries. Most PR professionals work hard to advance a point of view, and we often succeed without any compromise to integrity. In the end, it’s more an honest negotiation than a feat of legerdemain.

PR is about who you know. Not really, or at least, not entirely. Personal relationships can open the door to communication and they certainly help in getting an audience for a pitch. That, in turn, can generate valuable insight on a story idea or client angle, but friends won’t get you very far unless the idea is solid. And the stereotype of the relentlessly networking name-dropper or socializing press agent is sadly outdated.

PR people are failed journalists. In an era when newsrooms have suffered large staffing decreases, this is a nonstarter. Many journalists have crossed over, but the PR industry is neither dumping ground nor sellout.  And the difference between running down stories in a newsroom and counseling a corporate client are significant.

PR professionals are “people persons.”  Argh. This one may be the most irksome. Although a good public relations campaign is often a collaboration – requiring relationship skills like any other – and a top PR agency executive needs to be able to sell her ideas, it is truly not a customer service or retail job. The positions that require daily contact with the public are, at least in my opinion, the real “people” gigs, and they’re probably also tougher than what PR people do.

PR is about parties and special events. This may be true in some sectors, i.e. the red-carpet film premiere or the elaborately choreographed technology launch. But those happenings are in service of a strategy, and the the degree of preparation and planning far exceeds the hours spent partying. And hardly anyone even has time for lunch anymore.

7 Myths That Undermine Content Marketing Success

The value of content marketing has been increasingly recognized by marketing and PR professionals. It seems clear that, over the long term, it can enhance brand awareness and even drive demand. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 60% of B2C marketers say their content marketing budget will increase in 2014.

But there are barriers to creating and sharing excellent content, including popular myths and misconceptions that should be dispelled. Here are a few of our favorites.

Content marketing replaces PR. Not really. Although there’s been a lot of talk about one supplanting the other, earned media is still powerful. Content typically fits nicely into a strategic PR program, not the other way around.

When it comes to content, more is better. This may have been true once, but it’s not now. Google algorithm updates favor high-quality, original material over quantities of keyword-stuffed posts. But even beyond that, wouldn’t you rather share well designed content that you’re proud of?

Snappy social media updates can replace hard-to-create content. Not necessarily; it’s not an either-or situation. Long-form content is making a comeback, actually. But the larger point is that content should be sized to solve problems, engage prospects, and share insights. It’s hard to believe that those goals can be accomplished in a simple Facebook campaign.

Quality is secondary, since SEO is everything.  Ouch. SEO is important, yes, because the point of marketing your material is often to let customers find you through the right keywords. But a visit to your site or community is only the beginning of the marketing process. It’s valuable content that truly engages prospects and incites them to action.

We don’t have time to create it. This is one we hear a lot. Yes, creating quality content is a commitment of time and resources. But chances are you’re already spending time on marketing initiatives that may not be generating a strong ROI, or enabling customers to find you. Many clients are surprised that, once the overall strategy and distribution plan is set, the actual content creation is not very time-consuming at all.

If you create it, they will  come. Not true. Putting it out there is a great first step, but without a real content strategy, defined audiences, and well-populated social communities, you can easily fall short. Mitch Joel’s post on the importance of content distribution really hits home here.

Anything worth sharing is proprietary. Some companies fear disclosing trade secrets through white papers, bylined articles, or the like, but for content to be relevant to most prospects, its subject matter extends beyond any one business or sector. And if it’s really that exclusive, how much better would a real consulting relationship be?

Want more practical tips on content marketing for PR professionals? Here’s a tipsheet with 10 great ideas.

PR Myths And Facts For Marketers

A favorite former client calls PR “the cheapest form of advertising.” Not really. But his comment shows that, even among sophisticated marketers, misconceptions about PR and what we do for clients are still prevalent.

These are the top seven myths that persist about public relations, and a perspective on each.

1. PR is advertising lite. Not so. The two are so distinct that they shouldn’t be compared, and neither is a surrogate for the other. As one pro once put it, the comparison is a little like arguing which is more important to football, offense or defense. Ideally they work in concert.

2. PR is cheap. It’s true that a modest PR program’s cost is probably peanuts compared to a heavy paid media schedule, but it’s still significant. Budgets vary widely. The key is to match the need with the right PR resource and approach.

3. PR is publicity. Sure, media coverage is often an end result of a PR program, but a well-crafted plan starts with a strong strategy. To generate earned media, there’s plenty of foundation to be laid. Overall brand positioning, relationship-building, messaging, etc. – all are critical to a successful outcome. And when the publicity breaks, it’s just the beginning. We still trade a measure of control for credibility.

4. PR is about getting the word out. True, but many marketers don’t realize it’s a two-way street. A successful public relations program is designed to tell a brand or business story, but the PR team should also serve as a source of feedback and intelligence on what customers and influencers are saying and thinking. If you’re not using your PR function that way, you’re not maximizing your investment.

5. PR drives sales. When a prospect says they’re counting on the PR spend to replace other marketing tools and activities, it’s a red flag. Despite exceptions, PR isn’t the most reliable way to achieve demand generation. What it does best is build brand visibility and enhance reputation over time. When it comes to sales, it will often fall short, particularly because frequency is nearly impossible to achieve with publicity alone.

6. PR = press releases. The news stream is important, and well-written releases are essential, but they’re a commodity. Press releases don’t add up to a strategic PR program, and the impact of any one release is likely to be minimal. If you’re paying for news releases, you’re wasting your money.

7. PR isn’t measurable. Actually, it is. But this one’s tricky, for two reasons. One is that the old metrics that gauge volume and outputs, like impressions and ad equivalency, are outdated and inadequate. Again, the comparison to advertising doesn’t truly measure what PR does well.

The second challenge is that the research needed to demonstrate the value of PR’s outcomes can be nearly as costly as the program itself. The good news here is that as social media adoption grows, things like sentiment, message delivery, impact, and action are now trackable.

7 (More) Myths About PR And Publicity

Describing exactly what PR is and what public relations people do has always been a challenge, even to those of us who work in it. Just ask the Public Relations Society of America, which is concluding a lengthy search for the perfect “modern definition” of what we do.

Like many professions, it’s changed, grown, and become far more specialized in recent years. But myths and false stereotypes abound. I’ve written about the most persistent ones here, like the confusion between PR and publicity, or the suggestion that PR is advertising “lite.” But, there’s more! Here’s a short list of my current favorites.

Any press is good press. In the age of reality TV, this is one myth that’s less ridiculous than it used to be. It may even hold true if you’re Snooki or Kim Kardashian. But probably not. Risky stunts or tasteless tweets can be costly. More to the point, negative publicity is much more challenging to manage today. The Web is forever, so that unguarded quote or nasty headline can do lasting reputation damage.

PR is all about contacts. Not really. Contacts are overrated. They can help you gain a hearing, and generate valuable feedback on a story idea or pitch, but contacts alone won’t get you very far unless the idea’s a good one.

Startups shouldn’t hire PR consultants. This is a topic of raging controversy in PR-land. Some larger-than-life entrepreneurs have gone on the record against the use of professional PR by start-ups. Most recently, Mark Cuban explained that reporters just want to talk to a business owner, without interference from PR types. And in Cuban’s case, that’s probably true. Problem is, most new entrepreneurs aren’t Mark Cuban.

Journalists hate PR. The reality here is, well, complicated. Suffice to say that the PR-journalism relationship is a symbiotic, cooperative, and often collegial one, but there can be tensions. At present, many journos are trying to get jobs in PR, which may have calmed the waters, just as it’s reinforced another stereotype. (see below)

The best PR people are ex-journalists. This one’s open to debate. In my view the best PR people are strategic thinkers and excellent communicators who understand business, but who are plugged into trends, culture, and media. So, many journalists may qualify. Yet the difference between running down stories in a newsroom and counseling a corporate client are vast.

A good story will sell itself. Sure, that can happen. And sometimes the perfect resume crosses my desk at the very moment I have the right job opening. But not very often.  Packaging, access, and – maybe most importantly, timing – can make the critical difference between publicity success and failure.

PR is about controlling the message. The spin thing is hugely overblown, and PR people do ourselves a disservice when we perpetuate it. Often a PR pro will try to influence a story on behalf of a client, and the process can be like a negotiation, but the outcome is a trade-off. We give up control for credibility. And that credibility is the real magic of publicity.