I had the great pleasure of writing for PR Conversations again last week, after Judy Gombita graciously agreed to run with my post (the third one I have written for them). For the uninitiated, the group blog is a great forum that covers a range of PR subjects that should be of interest to client-side and agency folks around the world.
My topic was inspired by reviews of the book The Invisibles – which highlights the artistry of behind-the-scenes workers vs. the vanity of self promoters and personal brand builders. I appreciated the thoughtful comments on my post. However, at some point, the thread took a turn from self promotion to PR for PR, and how the field is portrayed in the media.
Heather Yaxley recalled a discussion at an industry event: Ian Burrell (Assistant Editor and Media Editor of The Independent newspaper) argued that a problem for PR is that it doesn’t own its public profile and lets this be defined instead by journalists and those we deem aren’t representative of our industry.
Toni Muzi Falconi replied: journalists have little idea of what we do for a living beyond hacking them simply because neither us as professionals nor… our professional associations have ever reached out to them in a planned and conscious way…. The conclusion is that it is not their fault if they do not understand what we do. It is our fault.
It got me to thinking, and I ran across a NY Times article over the weekend which crystallized my thoughts further. It was about celebrities using social media to wrest control of their narratives from the gossip media.
I recognize that it is a much different and greater challenge to seize the narrative for an entire field. But that doesn’t mean we should not try, and take it upon ourselves, individually and collectively (via the associations Toni referenced) to use our craft to promote better understanding of the field.
Here are a few ideas to get the process going, I of course welcome input from others, and hope that I can rally interest in the cause.
Build Consensus, Carry the Message
Part of the problem is that the field can be amorphous – terms that sound similar but are quite different get sloshed around (publicity, PR, media relations, communications, etc.) Even within the field, there’s disagreement about how to define PR and what is important.
There is now an updated definition – why not embrace it and do your part as a member of the profession in educating, and carrying the message?
Become Tireless PR Promoters and Educators
My PRC post was about the tension between self promotion and the quality of our work; I argued that you can have your personal brand and happy clients / employers too. Why not allocate a portion of the personal brand building time budget to defending and educating about our field? Wouldn’t we all have stronger individual brands if the profession is better understood, and seen in a positive light?
If you see something (inaccurate or slanderous about PR), say something. Apply the same skills and diligence that you do for your clients / employers – become ruthless fact checkers and correcters of the record.
That is what I have tried to do with this blog (and Twitter). I know many might be gun shy about taking on those who buy ink and electrons by the barrel (especially when PR critics are the same people you approach for coverage) – but if you use the right tone it can work, and even earn some respect. E.g. I have taken onNY Times, Businessweek and many others (the links point to these posts) – and am still in business.
Promote PR as a Fun, Smart and Creative Field
The sad fact is that most people simply do not understand PR. The running joke in my family has been that even my kids do not know what I do (they have asked if I can get them on TV).
Most seem to confuse it with advertising, others may think that it is sneaky and vaguely illicit. Those who say they do know the field (e.g. certain members of the media) seem to assume it is just about pitch spam and hype.
As I mentioned in this post, one of the problem is that there is no recognized cult of PR, unlike advertising (which is generally seen as fun, hip, glamorous and creative).
It will take some work to turn this around – but if we are talking about the PR field as a client, and building the brand of PR, why not talk about campaigns and tactics? E.g. why not have a real reality show about PR – one that does not make everyone think that the field is just about celebrity publicity, for a change?
Some might think that it is not that interesting; Davina Brewer commented on my PRC post: Real Work is hard to glamorize. Reading, typing, meetings that would put someone who’s on their 4th cappuccino to sleep…
She makes a good point, on the other hand there have been many fun and entertaining moments in my experience, ones that would be good fodder for a reality show, or even a musical or book or movie (well, hopefully not a tragedy).
This post was about the nefarious words that surround PR in media. Why not pool together and sponsor/run a campaign that builds better understanding by explaining what we aren’t:
Most were surprised by David Brat's win over House majority leader Eric Cantor in the Republican congressional primary in Virginia a few weeks ago. Where were the reporters and pollsters in this race?
Scores of articles were written in the aftermath to find answers (funny, but if just a fraction of the journalistic effort focused on Virginia beforehand, someone would have predicted the upset).
The episode got me to thinking: can the tech sector learn anything from Brat's triumph? After all, there's a constant tension between the old and new in tech – i.e., the market leaders and challengers. The startups behind that next innovation would like nothing better than to sneak up and clobber the competition, Brat style.
Granted, that win was in politics; and tech market battles generally don't turn on a single make-or-break contest. But tech consumers do vote for products – with their wallets. Product features and brand reputation can be likened to the profiles and images of the candidates.
So, I thought that I would study how Brat won the race – and find some takeaways for tech startups. Here is what I learned:
Build Support While Flying Under the Radar
It is great if you get wads of funding from the top Silicon Valley VCs, or have a serial entrepreneur with star power at the helm. Your launch will get covered by the major tech blogs and media. But one of the reasons Brat was successful is that he quietly built support without the help of the political media machine. He avoided the noise and distraction of the Beltway crowd – or they avoided him.
Either way, no one, especially team Cantor, knew what was coming until it was too late. The point is, most startups think that they need big buzz in the top tech blogs to win. But you may not need this if you follow another tactic from the Brat playbook.
Appeal to Your Base
Ultimately, Brat scored an upset because he had a better "product". His tough-on-immigration stance and humble, outsider persona won over those who were tired of politics as usual. He proved that all politics really are local.
In tech, you can win by appealing to another kind of base – your user base, or universe of potential customers. Develop products and marketing that really resonate with end users and you will be one step closer to unseating the tech incumbents (this may sound like obvious advice, but how many startups really do this?).
But if you are flying under the media radar, how do you get the word out to potential customers? That question leads us to the next tip.
Rally the Key Influencers for your Market
It seems like a contradiction. How can you fly under the media radar, yet build buzz and convert people to your cause? Brat found an answer to this question – he tapped the power of talk radio.
Strictly speaking, this is still media – but more about opinion and analysis than reporting mainstream political news. And it would be a mistake to think that information flows efficiently between the two. As David Carr wrote in his NY Times Media Equation column:
Hordes of blogs and news sites continue to chase the latest incremental scoop that will draw followers on Twitter, but a whole other channel of information is out there, including talk radio. Politico called it “Brat’s secret weapon,” to which, we might ask, secret to whom? About 50 million people in America listen to talk radio, much of it from conservative commentators like Mark Levin, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham.
They may represent a significant slice of Vox Populi, but they aren’t on heavy rotation in most newsrooms. Conservative talk radio blows a whistle that many journalists either can’t hear or don’t want to listen to.
The takeaway for tech? Find the influencers that hold sway over your targeted users and have reach into the marketplace. Get them excited. Court them and find common interests.
If this all sounds a little iffy, let me remind you of a company that famously won by using stealth PR techniques; that eschewed mainstream tech events like CES; that got big by firing up consumer tech tastemakers and launching products (and marketing) that really resonated. Anyone heard of the (once small) company called Apple?
Another one recently occurred to me. We had just completed two seminars here at Fusion PR in conjunction with Internet Week NY, about honing the tech PR message, and new launch tactics.
One of the key takeaways actually sounds a lot like Louie’s riff on overstatement, which I share below (excerpts come from this website, which had a transcript). It is risque, like much of his stuff, I cleaned it up a bit below, check out the YouTube video above for the uncensored version:
We go right for the top shelf with our words now. We don’t think about how we talk.
We just [go] right to the fxxing, just–”dude, it was amazing.”
” really? you were amazed? You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? Really? Amazing?
What are you gonna do with the rest of your life now? What if something really great happens to you?
What if jesus comes down from the sky and makes love to you all night long, leaves the new living lord in your belly?
What are you gonna call that?
You used “amazing” on a basket of chicken wings. You’ve limited yourself verbally to a shit life.
He goes on to list other examples, e.g. when people casually throw words like “genius” and “hilarious” around.
It kind of reminded me about the tech industry’s overreliance on hypey words like “revolutionary”, “disruptive”, “game changing”, “paradigm shifting” and, of course, “revolutionary”.
The advice we gave in the seminars was to stay away from such language, sounds very much in line with Louie’s observations. Great minds think alike, I guess!
My email query to the Fusion PR team set off a frenzied debate, about the best case to protect an iPhone from damage.
I am a chronic phone dropper, and my old phone had just died after one too many. Luckily, it was insured. Unluckily, there was a hefty $200 deductible to replace the phone (which I learned was necessary, after going to Apple's Genius Bar. The tech came back from some quick exploratory surgey; he looked at me grimly, and just shook his head – the patient was gone).
But Asurion, the inurance company, shipped me a new one overnight, which was great. It was a 5s, a step up from my old iPhone 5. Getting my apps and data back, and getting started with the new phone, were incredibly easy, nothing short of miraculous, via iCloud, and a wizard that walked me through the process.
So I sent the request to the Fusion team and got lots of great email suggestions. The camps seemed split between Otterbox, which some said is clunky, and Lifeproof, which one person called "a dream". The IT guy favors Evutec: "Nice price at $49.95 and great carbon fiber case."
The email back and forth turned into some trash talking, and eventually they took the debate offline. The Lifeproof zealot dared the IT guy to a drop test in our NY office – he declined, but she dropped her phone. It survived (I wouldn't recommend trying this, but word has it that Lifeproof will pay you if a phone with their case gets damaged in a drop).
This is the team I am proud of!. They debate the issues on an intellectual level, and then slug it out, without taking prisoners – don't get in their way!
Two stories I saw recently and new research gave the PR field an answer for spin haters. Note, I am not saying that PR = Spin. And who says spin is necessarily bad? We all spin. It so happens that the PR field is particularly good at turning a set of facts into an interesting story. This can become a problem if we distort facts or lies. My many years in the field tell me that this happens much less than some people say.
Journalists, of course, also turn facts into interesting stories. They spin too, except their spin gets the fancy name "editorializing".
These thoughts occurred to me after I read an article and a blog post. The article cited research that would seem to show that newspapers slant news based on the preferences of their readers. The second calls out a Business Insider story for being a PR-influenced puff piece. How are these connected?
[Research]studied the political slant of more than 400 daily newspapers…With a measure of political slant in hand, the researchers then analyzed its determinants…A natural hypothesis is that a media outlet’s perspective reflects the ideology of its owner… The bottom line is simple: Media owners generally do not try to mold the population to their own brand of politics. Instead, like other business owners, they maximize profit by giving customers what they want.
The second of the above-referenced pieces deconstructs a Business Insider article. Host Analytics CEO blogger Dave Kellogg takes down the profile of a competitor, almost line by line, claiming:
I’m doing this mostly because I’m tired of seeing stories like this one, where it’s my perception that a publication takes a story wholesale, spin and all, from a skilled PR firm and sends it down the line, unchallenged, to us readers.
While the screed might seem to be sour grapes over nice coverage of a competitor, it is very well written and makes some excellent points (plus, you got to love any post that quotes Jello Biafra, lead singer of 80's punk band Dead Kennedys).
Kellogg uses his own knowledge, common sense and quick digging on the Internet to refute the entire piece, from the headline through each facet of the story. He argues throughout that BI should have done a better job fact checking, and ran with what was likely PR-generated copy to make it a better story:
All part of the journalist embellishing the (probably already embellished) details in order to make CG larger than life and get a lot of hits on the story.
As the research in the Times piece showed, however – we get the stories that we want!
I am not arguing in favor of shoddy reporting. I am saying that the PR field often bears the brunt of blame for spinning, and this is not fair. We tell the stories that we think are great ones. The media reports news and sometimes gets their info from PR, based on what they think the readers want.
If we are doing a good job, users scarf down the content and come back for more. But, agreed, journalistic and PR success should not come at the expense of accuracy and honesty.
I really enjoyed last Sunday's Mad Men episode, the third in its "final" season (I use quotes because like Breaking Bad, the last shows are taking place over two mini-seasons).
It was good because the writing and acting were top notch, and I am truly enjoying how the story line is unfolding. Of course, as you get closer to the end it becomes a guessing game of what will happen with the agency and key players.
But I also like the show for it's references – to the era in which it takes place, but also modern day. For example, last Sunday's show gave sly nods to things like ad tech, big data and PR – all as part of the same sub plot.
This began when a client confronted the partners about a nice piece of PR – a NY Times story about Grey Advertising's use of computers. This led to a discussion of how SCDP use computers and data in advertising.
"Every picture tells a story, don't it?" Rod Stewart
“All I’ve got is a photograph…” Def Leppard
If my musical tastes seem dated (and say something about my age), you might think that the pop artists of the 70s and 80s were singing to today's content marketers. Pictures are increasingly the visual headline that draw in and engage readers.
Images Stand Out in a Crowded Media Marketplace
Content marketing is growing as more and more marketers jump on board. This adds to the din and makes it difficult to stand out. In a crowded media landscape, brands need to work harder to break through.. “Just write a great headline to reel them in!” goes the standard advice.
However in a sea of tweets, amidst an abundance of great content, an eye-catching image can trump a catchy headline. And, as images increasingly compete for attention too, using the right one can make all the difference in the world.
Selfies have taken center stage in visual content marketing. I say much more about this in my post that ran this week on the Getty Images Curve blog.
The post explains more about the use of images and short videos in content marketing – why they work, and how to find and choose the right image.
The world got an interesting glimpse into Samsung's marketing playbook this week when CMO Todd Pendleton testified at the patent trial against Apple. This New York Times story relates his version of the steps the company took to build its brand and take the leadership position in mobile handsets.
According to the piece, when Pendleton started with Samsung in 2011, he did not even know they made smartphones; Pendleton, and many others associated the Korean manufacturer with TVs and other electronics. Here's an excerpt:
At the time, Samsung was still number 4 in the market… He decided to build a brand around "relentless innovation" by shipping the best hardware… before anyone else… Samsung began a marketing campaign called The Next Big Thing, which aggressively mocked the iPhone while promoting Samsung devices as the best on the market.
The tactics apparently, worked as Samsung Galaxy S III sales trumped the iPhone's in 2012.
He was asked whether Samsung "plotted to surpass Apple." Pendleton replied "Our goals at Samsung are always to be No. 1… to beat everyone."
Dumb question, great answer.
It is hard to know what to think about all this. How far should a company go to protect its intellectual property? And what constitutes IP?
You can find good arguments on all sides of the debate. On the one hand, I can sympathize with Apple, as their lunch was eaten by Microsoft and the PC clone industry years ago. Microsoft Windows used some of the same UI innovations as the Mac OS, which came before it. Now, in the post-PC smartphone era, Apple clearly wants to turn back the tide of the threat posed by Google's Android OS – and, let's face it, Android does cop many of the nice UI features of iOS.
But the Mac OS was influenced by work that came before it, at Xerox PARC. And why is Apple suing Samsung, and not Google? It seems to be part of a calculated legal strategy, and not just some noble effort. The Samsung CMO testified at a trial in which the company is suing Apple for patent infringement, go figure.
You really need a playbook to follow all this, and it is not clear how consumers will benefit from the costly legal jousting. Hasn't the Droid horse already left the barn? Before the lawsuits are settled, we will be ready for the next wave of innovation, and another round of lawsuits five years down the road, I suppose.
At any rate, the Samsung branding playbook demonstrates the power of great marketing. They prevailed against one of the worlds' most loved products and stellar brands.
We were in a messaging session with the client, the kind of exercise where you work together to try to find the words that explain tech in a compelling and easy-to-follow way.
These can be messy affairs, like mud wrestling. People get attached to certain ideas and words. They sometimes like to use hype, buzzwords and cryptic jargon (think buzzwords and jargon are the same? They are not, according to this post on Social Media Today).
While there are elements of brainstorming involved – you want to get the creative juices and ideas flowing and hear from all – you also need to guide the sessions with a firm hand and be direct about what you think works, what doesn't and why.
Deciding what sounds best can get contentious. Job title and force of personality can influence the process. People can get religious about tech domains, philosophies and labels.That is why it is good to have an agency running the session, to be an impartial sounding board and messaging leader/moderator.
In this case, the client wanted to explain things step-by-step, in a dry manner: i.e. to state the need, and what the tech actually does. Not that I am opposed to clarity; but I thought that it might help to start with an attention-getter – words that describe the company's very impressive tech breakthrough and what it can mean for clients.
In the end we were saying pretty much the same thing – but the ideas the PR team floated got to the point much more quickly. In today's busy and noisy world, people just don't have the time or patience to sit through a long story.
When I suggested a key phrase, the client said "now that's a killer message!" I thought of other things that are "killer" in tech, like apps – and shot back: "No – it's killer rap!"
Do you got killer rap? Or do your tech messages need work? I will be writing more on this topic; also, we will host a seminar that takes you inside a messaging session, shows how the sausage gets made, so-to-speak, and can help with your pitch.
Dorothy Crenshaw wrote a nice post about the decline of the tech PR launch on the Impressions blog. She writes 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. Today, not so much. In my book, that’s a good thing. Lavish press conferences… have always struck me as a lazy strategy. But launches have changed…
She goes on to list the reasons, such as a changing media landscape, and increassing emphasis on software, consumer tech, startups, and closer oversight of the spend by VCs.
I agree that the tech PR launch is not what it used to be, but at Fusion PR we have stopped thinking about launches as one-shot, Big Bang events long ago. It is for the reasons she lists, but also due to an increasingly noisy media/social media environment in which a burst of coverage is just not as impactful (also, most of our clients are startups – very rarely have they relied on press conferences, even going back to the start of the agency, during the dot-com era when VC dollars and PR fees flowed more freely).
For many of our clients, a launch is not just a debut, it's a process that occurs over a period of time, and involves a number of related steps. Sure, it may start with a major announcement or unveiling, but rarely is that enough to really launch a company or product.
Also, while her point "software [which is less tangible and visible] trumps hardware" may have been true at one point, this is changing. What about the all of the excitement and buzz about maker culture (typified by the creativity behind Arduino, Raspberry Pi) Google Nest, wearable tech, 3D printers, connected cars, etc.?
Anyway, Crenshaw's larger point is well taken, I enjoyed reading it and appreciate the chance to chime in on the changing nature of tech PR launches.