How NOT to Launch an October Surprise: PR Takeaways from Trump’s Failed Attempt

An “October surprise” is news that magically “happens” before a November election, just in time to throw a wrench in the works.


Politico says they can be “happenstance or deliberately orchestrated;” the article lists examples going back to 1840.  More recently, the 2016 presidential election featured such surprises on both sides: the infamous Access Hollywood tape that showed Trump being Trump; and emails from Wikileaks that cast the Democratic party and its nominee in a negative light.

This time around there was chatter about a possible bombshell in the making.  We are now days away from the election, and I think most would agree that, if it happened, the October surprise came and went with barely a whimper.

What can the PR field learn from this?  What tactics should be avoided to “open big” and perhaps launch the next, more successful October surprise?  This post explains.

Politics and PR

I’m a news junkie and a PR guy.  My “beat” is tech, not politics; still I love to watch closely during election season.  The campaigns’ PR moves – their speeches, messaging, and media tactics are on full display, and you can learn a lot. For me, the presidential debates are like watching the Super Bowl.

So, I of course paid special attention to rumblings about an October surprise as the month approached.  And I became dimly aware of efforts to paint Joe Biden and his son as corrupt. 

There was a story in NY Post, and related coverage, about leaked emails that appeared to show how Hunter and possibly Joe Biden stood to gain from shady dealings with foreign governments.  I read these stories but did not take them too seriously; paid a bit more attention when Trump cryptically wondered if Biden was the “big man” referred to in the emails during the last debate.

I only realized that this was supposed to be a much bigger story, a real October surprise, after reading this NY Times piece: Trump Had One Last Story to Sell. The Wall Street Journal Wouldn’t Buy It.

The article is fascinating on a number of levels.  It is a deep dive into the Trump administrations’ attempt to drum up an October surprise.  It shows how the news sausage gets made: how such stories begin, how some try to coopt media and orchestrate news; and the enduring role of major media as a gatekeeper and arbiter of the top stories of the day.

If a Story Falls in the Forest, and Top Tier doesn’t Hear– did it Really Happen?

NY Times Media Columnist Ben Smith wrote about how the campaign started:

By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men… gathered… to launch one… The three had pinned their hopes… on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s [who] was willing to go on the record… with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden… had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open

The Journal had been chosen because it offered the right levels of trust, reach and leans right wing.  So far, so good.  But things got “messy” when Rudolph Giuliani jumped into the fray, without letting the others know:

[He] burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of… the plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — to The New York Post…  Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s … refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which… could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.

PR Takeaways:  Don’t muck up the timing, message and coordination of your campaign

The article reports that the WSJ was starting to get cold feet because of uncertainty about a direct connection to Joe Biden; also, they were not thrilled that Trump mentioned the upcoming story in conference call.

PR Takeaways:  Don’t get ahead of your story; don’t promise more than you can deliver; and for crying out loud, don‘t piss off your top media target by blabbing about it in advance

Ultimately, the WSJ did published a “brief item” which reported that the central claim of Joe Biden’s involvement was unproven.

Another interesting takeaway is the article’s conclusion that the traditional media gatekeepers are still the arbiters of big stories:

The… failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation… But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.

By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. 

But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it…

Yeah, I’m not sure about this one.  It is reading a lot into one episode, and is like trying to prove a negative; an all-too-convenient conclusion for a major media columnist. 

How can we possibly know what would have happened if the WSJ embraced the story in a more full-throated way?  Would that really have driven a true October surprise?

It may have helped.  But the real reasons the story did not take off may have more to do with our polarized environment in which many distrust news, especially anything that seems ginned up.

Plus, how can you surprise when everyone is waiting and watching for a surprise?  It really is hard to sneak an explosive scoop by these days and orchestrate its release – there are so many ways for a surprise or stealth launch to leak or be sniffed out.

And did I mention that there’s SO MUCH DAMNED NOISE we are drowning in and real, earth shattering news, like existential threats of biblical proportions crowding the headlines?

These things all add to the challenge of getting big news to take off.

Final PR Takeaways:  Get top-tier media to cover your news first, it could make a difference.   And, what the heck, consider launching your October surprise in September; that might help too.

Posted in Campaign Analysis, Current Affairs, Politics, PR, Public Relations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Tesla Slams the Brakes on PR


The EV blog  Electrek broke the news last week that Tesla is dissolving its PR department.  Editor-in-chief  Fred Lambert’s story covered journalists’ growing frustrations with the comms team leading up to its shutdown. He wrote:

Electrek can confirm that Tesla has dissolved its PR department — technically becoming the first automaker who doesn’t talk to the press… The move has been confirmed.. at the highest level at Tesla with the source saying, ‘We no longer have a PR Team.”

The piece created a stir, and many others quickly covered the story. 

Without a PR team you don’t have an official statement; and people were left to speculate on the reasons. Many assumed that Elon Musk, a celebrity CEO with 43M Twitter followers, no longer wanted to suffer a sometimes unkind media; and thinks he can  frame the Tesla narrative on this own.

The attention for this story might not be surprising since it involves media and big tech.  It led to a lot of comments and chatter on social media, and teeth gnashing about the state and future of media and PR.

Obvious questions include:

  • Will others follow suit?  Those with known brands and large social media followings can directly reach large audiences.
  • Are the relevance and influence of media declining, when there’s record mistrust of the institution?
  • If media influence and relevance are in question, where does that leave PR?  

The media alarm over this also says something about how they cover tech.  The irony is that pitches from startups often go ignored by major media.  But take away PR and access to big tech – and there’s a panic. It’s because well-known brands are safer stories. And negative articles, of the techlash variety, seem to be good attention-grabbers.

PR Implications

These are some of the same types of questions PR has been facing since the advent of social media.  I’ve written often about the evolution of PR here.  And I just addressed some of these questions in my recent podcast appearance, with host Marti Sanchez, who also runs content and thought leadership firm Influence Podium.

Ragan’s PR Daily covered the Tesla story, with their take on implications for PR.

Sword & Script PR blogger Frank Strong was not enthused about the topic.  He tweeted:

I rarely cuss in writing. But if I read one more “what does it mean for PR now Elon Musk shut down Tesla’s PR shop” article, I might lose it in a profanity laced rant. It doesn’t mean anything. And it’s 2020, so I get a pass on cussing.

You go, Frank, that is effin’ awesome!

Comments from our Team

I asked our team at Fusion PR for their thoughts. Here were some responses:

It’s Musk. I wouldn’t jump to a trend for eccentric things that work for him.

Jordan Chanofsky, CEO

Well-known businesses, such as Fortune 100s and companies with celebrity leadership, can reach a certain point where bad press will not affect consumer habits. For example, Facebook has a ton of bad press, but the majority of people still have a Facebook account and will continue to use the company’s other platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Tesla’s elimination of a PR department is not an indication of a larger industry trend. Perhaps proactive media relations will end for a time at the company, but skillful communication with key stakeholders, such as employees, investors and more is essential and fundamental to businesses’ success.

Emily Fang

I guess with a Twitter following of that size, Elon Musk doesn’t have to worry about securing coverage of his company announcements.  But what is his plan for countering any negative stories that break? We know how volatile he can be.  Without a PR team to help him develop a level-headed response, we might wind up seeing a lot more “Sorry pedo guy”-style tweets.

Also, I don’t think this says anything new about the state of PR. Elon fancies himself an iconoclast who breaks the rules. Most corporations are very conservative and would never take an unnecessary risk like this. 

Mark Prindle
Posted in In the News, PR, PR Tech, Public Relations, Tech | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breaking Down PR’s Fourth Wall with ABM

The fourth wall is a figurative one at the foot of a stage (the other three walls shape the room of the set).  Actors breach this wall when they talk to the audience.  Similarly, PR is being challenged to break through mass communications and take the message directly to individuals. 

This has been happening for some time.  E.g. many use social media as part of the PR arsenal, and those who do a good job of it engage one-on-one. But direct communications is being taken to a new level to support sales and more specifically, ABM (account-based marketing) programs.  PR people are being asked to go beyond mass media, even beyond what you might reasonably call PR to do something many would consider anathema: sell stuff.

In this post I explain more about the ABM trend and how PR can advance key account selling goals.

The PR and Sales Connection

First, let’s take a closer look at the PR and sales connection.  Both professions advance their goals through communications (well, spin and persuasion help, too).  But PR is more about getting attention for ideas, whereas sales is about getting the order (I confused the two and blew a job interview for a sales position, earlier in my career – see this post).

PR might want to disavow any connection, and not be seen as “product peddlers” (this works great until the client says “We hired you to make some noise, the great press hits are coming in.  Now, where is the ka-ching on our web traffic and orders?)”  I’ve even heard some say that PR is not a tool for driving sales, which is kind of ridiculous because I know I’ve bought things after reading about them in an article.

Suffice it to say that we should be friends, and make nice – one should support the other. It is hard to sell when no-one has heard of you.  And PR success comes more easily with sales success, case studies, and testimonials from happy customers.

Enter ABM 

All well and good, but things take an interesting turn with ABM (also called key account marketing).

If you’ve worked in the tech industry, especially B2B and enterprise, you have probably heard of these terms. ABM is a sales strategy that targets key accounts, rather than taking the typical shotgun approach across markets. But it is not just about the sales team – it is about bringing other resources to bear, and lining them up behind the effort; especially marketing, which might otherwise operate more independently.

Why is ABM effective? As Sue Duris wrote on the MyCustomer blog:

ABM has become a priority for many B2B organisations, thanks in part to their need to become customer-centric. Customer experience is changing how organisations are conducting business. The customer is in control.

B2B organisations are battling to see who can best deliver value to customers and drive them along the customer journey to advocacy. ABM is the future of B2B – it’s all about organisational groups aligning together to build customer relationships and growth, and maximising customer lifetime value.

Sue Duris

That was written in 2017, but the practice continues to grow. Last December, Amy Gesenhues wrote on MarTech Today that 73% of marketers planned to increase ABM budgets in 2020.

PR is increasingly becoming part of the mix that supports an ABM approach.  It can help in all the ways PR helps sales: through validation, brand building and product or service PR, as examples.

It can help in other ways, too (depending on how broadly you define PR, and how resourceful and versatile your agency and team are).

Here are some ways

  • Define buyer personas
  • Compile prospect lists
  • Court ABM buyers and influencers on social media
  • Go beyond the usual social engagement, like sharing and reciprocating and actually pitch them for a client event or offering (breaking down that fourth wall).
  • Engage them in other ways

I’ll be writing more on this topic, and posting about tools that can support ABM PR.

Posted in Campaign Analysis, Marketing, Tech, Tech PR, Technology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Start Making Sense: Helping Tech Brands tell their Stories

I love the band Talking Heads, and saw them for first time in college many years ago. Back then, I thought they had a cool name – but only found out that it refers to the disembodied heads of yakking newscasters when my friend and fellow concert-goer explained.

Fast forward many years later, and I am afraid I am becoming a talking head on tech startup PR and branding. In the past year or two I’ve done a few such spots; OK, not network news (give me a little more time), still, excellent forums in their own right.

The latest happened when credibility expert Mitchell Levy invited me on his show Thought Leader Life (see above). I first met Mitchell when we were both on a panel at Neal Schaffer’s and Brian Mahony’s Social Tools Summit (by the way Neal has a new book on influencer marketing that you should check out). We kept in touch and Mitchell recently invited me to do a live video interview. I quickly and graciously accepted.

I can’t say I’m a natural. You know the old sayings: we’re not the main story, our clients are; and cobbler’s kids, no shoes, etc. Yet as communicators, we should be comfortable with the video interview format. Zoom has made us all video stars during the pandemic, right?

Mitchell was a real pro in preparing and coaching me. While I waited to go on in the virtual green room (how cool is that!), he helped me nail the all-important CPOP – customer point-of-pain (referenced in the title of this post) Fusion PR addresses. Mitchell and his team were a pleasure to work with. I strongly recommend you contact him for any thought leadership coaching and writing help (here is his LinkedIn profile).

I am also including links to other interviews I’ve done on similar topics.

PR tips for B2B startups, on B2BNXT

Overcoming Startup PR Challenges, on You Don’t Need a CMO

Posted in Agency news, Branding, Events, Interviews, Marketing, PR, Public Relations, Tech PR | 4 Comments

The Pandemic Forever Changed these Words

It’s hard to think of anything in our lifetimes that’s so taken over our lives and attentions. We’re all trying to adapt, with the best minds tackling the Covid health and economic crises, and focused on getting us back to work and the “new normal,” whatever that means.

It’s also changed how we communicate. Every news cycle brings new ideas and words.

I don’t think we need a primer on newfangled terms blared in non-stop media coverage, like the word cloud here. Instead, in this post I focus on some of the stock phrases that have taken on new meaning.

How are you doing?

It used to be an innocuous (or insincere) way of starting a conversation. We’d say this and quickly move on; how many really cared? No one expected or wanted a long winded update.

A positive side of the pandemic is that “how are you doing’ is no longer a throwaway question. We really do want to know, and listen closely to the answers while sharing our own updates. The simple conversation starter has turned into a new way to bond and commiserate.

It’s also become emblematic of the state of small talk. Maybe a side benefit is that we will spend less time on verbal filler and more time getting into important things with the people we are holed up with and those we meet on Zoom.

That doesn’t mean every exchange has too be dramatic or dire. This NY Times article explains how to have a fun conversation again.

Let’s have a call or meeting

The Zoom conference has become synonymous with business calls and meetings (anyone who’s curious about how they zoomed to the top of web conferencing heap, see this CNBC story).

This trend has forced us to up our video games. It now seems like an amateur move to hide behind your avatar. You need to be on-screen and presentable, causing some of us to do the unthinkable like shower once a day and attend to personal grooming.

In other cases we have become less formal. Who puts on a suit for a Zoom meeting, even if you are trying to impress a business prospect?

The good news is that many formerly camera shy folks are learning to rock it on video. They’re cleaning their rooms and some are even using fancy virtual backgrounds. I am surprised no-one has come out with a way to really ham it up with Zoom, like integrate laugh tracks, other sound and visual effects (hint, hint, a good business idea?).

Happy birthday!

Um, is it? We have lowered our expectations for birthdays and more significant life events. Some are being postponed, done virtually, by a drive-by, or not at all.

I can’t come to the phoneor “If you’re around…”

Where else are we going to be?!!! We are all here at home, dammit. The pandemic has been the bane of call screeners with fewer good excuses for those trying to dodge friends, family and calls.

Summer and Casual Fridays

We are now all casual, all the time. No need to let the troops avoid the city exodus on Friday afternoons in the summer when we are all working from home. Every day is a casual dress day.

Don’t try this at home

I love this catch phrase. But it has taken on a whole new meaning when we are all at home, all the time. Things we would have never thought of trying without leaving the house (like getting a haircut, grooming a pet) now get done at home, or not at all.

The company you keep

The pandemic has unfairly singled out businesses that service consumers. But even many B2B companies are getting hurt.

Those who serve other businesses must deliver results and prove value like never before. If you are good enough to do this, you may well just stand a chance and weather the Covid storm.

So, the words “the company you keep” (from the old NY Life Insurance commercials) have taken on new meaning.

Fusion PR is truly grateful for clients who continue to retain us; many have fought hard to keep the agency budget amidst other cuts.

Posted in Current Affairs, In the News | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Tales from the Tech PR Bunker


Folks, I know I haven’t been writing here as much, Sorry for the interruption. These are unusual times.

But the show must go on, right?  People are stuck at home and clamoring for distraction and new episodes, er, posts.

So pardon the DIY production, the dirty socks on the floor.   Don’t mind the poor lighting and audio quality. Damn the torpedoes and coronavirus.

With this post I bring a roundup of topics I’ve been meaning to get to.

Mellowing the Harsh

In my post about PR in a pandemic, I suggested that uplifting stories and your routine news can be a welcome diversion from all the grim headlines..

The NY Times seemed to confirm this POV in their article: The News is Making People Anxious. You’ll Never Believe what they’re Reading Instead.

Zooming to the Top

If ever there ever was a company in the right place at the right time, it is Zoom. Their namesake teleconferencing service has come to symbolize how corporate teams can get useful work done, from a distance.

Those in PR understand the importance of conveying the right image. when using Zoom, or another service, you don’t want to come off like the jokers in the SNL video, above.

You do want to look and sound your best at virtual meetings, meaning professional, ready for work and to make a good impression. Sometimes, you can’t help things like loud pets or kids in the background. People tend to be understanding and can relate. But it is better, if possible to look and sound as if Zoom meetings (or Google Hangouts, or FaceTime) are second nature.  This means avoiding messy room backgrounds, and heeding obvious things like dress and grooming.

And sure, why not rock that virtual background, make it look like you’re Zooming in from an exotic location? This article discusses how to look good on camera.

You don’t want uninvited guests crashing the Zoom party. This can especially be a danger in the PR world, for obvious reasons. Check out this NY Times article, which explains how to counter Zoom bombing.

Designing at Home

Most PR pros are not graphic designers. When asked to create an infographic, e.g., we often call in a partner with this skillset.

Not to take away from the pros, but I found a tool that does let PR try designing at home (well, isn’t everything tried at home these days – negating the old saw).

It’s called Visme, and is like Canva on steroids. E.g. Visme has a nice library of art, templates and animations. It guides you in color selection and layout, you don’t need to be a design whiz. Visme makes it easy to design infographics, and other visuals that combine data and charts. It brings stunning presentations, brochures, graphics and videos to life.

I am using Visme now to create cover art for a podcast that we’ll be announcing soon, and will be writing more about my experiences with Visme.

Dispatch from the IT Front Lines

I was recently fact checking a pitch about tools to help enterprises manage IT consultants amidst the pandemic. To do this, I wanted to speak with someone who works in the field, to see if the pandemic had an impact on IT projects, their business, and if the pitch might have legs.

So I called my buddy Joe to hear about what’s been happening. He leads 36 IT consultants; their company has a team of 350. He prefers that the team work on client-prem, for face-ime, but now all are remote. Here are some things Joe shared.

  • In-flight work continues
  • No major impact on new business, so far
  • Major new initiatives, like digital transformation are being held up
  • These days it is easy to manage everything off site, even for infrastructure like networks, firewalls, and servers.
  • He used Coronavirus as a verb, like deals getting “Coronad”
  • There’s been remarkably little impact on their work, except it is tougher to close new business as he normally does a lot of wining and dining.
  • I asked if he’s worried about team productivity, he said no; this kind of work style takes politics and appearances out of the equation and emphasizes real results.

Posted in Fun Stuff, In the News, PR, PR Tech, Public Relations | Tagged | Leave a comment

PR – An Essential Business? Tips for Keeping Your Sanity, Job and Relationships in a Pandemic

It’s dark in here.  Let me find the light switch.  There you go.  Hey, where is everybody? It sure is quiet.

These are the thoughts you might have, if you work in PR in the Age of Coronavirus.

People are bunkered down.  No one knows for sure when the crisis will end.  Media and social channels can’t focus on anything else.  We are all adjusting to the new, shut-in normal

If you are lucky enough to be in a business that is not taken down, you may well be wondering: what is the proper response?  What should we say to customers, and the market?  Should we continue to pitch the media and promote our news?

One is tempted to think back to earlier crises. But this time is different.  There is no precedent, no play book to trot out.  Just the same, we need some strategy, some direction.  I thought I’d offer the following tips, based on what I’m seeing and believe.

It is not all about Business

Your first instinct may well be to protect what you have; perhaps by convincing clients that there’s no cause for concern. That would be a mistake.  You should check in, let them know that you are thinking of them, and that you care beyond the monthly fee.

My friend Don Leon offered some great advice on LinkedIn:

Take a moment to identify some of your favorite clients and customers (folks are tending to stay local so lots of people around/at their desk). Send them a brief text or email letting them know (in your own words) that you’re thinking of them. No agenda, no apologies, no doom and gloom–just thoughts from your heart. That little bit of love can go a long way in BOTH directions.

Don Leon

Don’t Over-communicate

Despite the first tip, Sword & Script blogger Frank Strong reckons that this may be a crisis that defies the usual advice to over-communicate:

Customers don’t need 500 emails from vendors telling them to wash their hands.  Businesses don’t need to send a message unless there’s some direct impact on customers as a result of the virus.

Frank Strong

DO Provide Guidance and Direction

People will naturally look to the pros for direction about communications.  When clients and corporate teams are unsure of how to best proceed, we need to provide clear and confident direction.

Yes, PR, you are an essential business function.

E.g. some may not be sure what the proper approach is to media and other external communications. They may be skittish and want to clam up. Others will want to jump in with ill-advised pitches.

To Pitch or not to Pitch

In times of crisis, people like to tell PR, essentially, to shut up – hold fire on our pitches. I do not agree (see a post I did some time agoon the topic).

No, you shouldn’t chase ambulances. And you should not flood reporter inboxes with irrelevant or clueless pitches (not that this was ever a good idea).

Yet there’s a danger in going silent, for the media and customer communications.
As long as the press and analysts are showing up for work, and you are also open for business, you should continue to communicate with the media, including on topics relevant to the crisis (but carefully; more about this below). The competition likely are.

This is especially true for companies that are visible and have significant roles, e.g. cater to consumers or employ large numbers; and those that are in the crosshairs, like airlines, or have good news (e.g., Amazon to hire 100,000 more workers and give raises to current staff to deal with coronavirus demands).

Michelle Garrett blogged about pitching media in the Coronavirus Era based on journalists’ feedback. The post confirms that the waters are safe for media pitches, with certain caveats and exceptions.

But we know this because the great team at Fusion PR has continued to support clients and generate results during this time.

What to Pitch

That doesn’t mean you should launch major news now, especially if there’s some flexibility in terms of timing.  People are distracted, it’s a busy news day times ten.

But some news has a shelf life and can’t wait. Awards, analyst recognition, customer wins that need to be announced now, or never – this drumbeat can be a backdrop to the more dire news crowding the headlines, show you’re there for the market and customers, and might even be a welcome distraction.

There’s an obvious appetite for stories tied to the crisis.  Here, you want to be careful.

As always, stay attuned to what’s being covered and what’s happening today that may make your news more relevant.

“Working from home tips” may be passé by now; but if media are covering a shortage of ventilators, and your 3D printer can generate parts for the same, it is a perfect time to discuss this option.

Don’t promote something crass, like a Coronavirus sale, but why not give away technology solutions to researchers or relief organizations, like Oracle did

The media may also be interested in your expert advice on a range of topics, e.g. about how best to cope and plan in the face of uncertainty, stories about your company and the impact of Coronavirus, as well as:

  • Personal stories, about how businesses and teams are coping
  • Thought leadership, observations
  • Technology that addresses security challenges of telecommuting
  • Telecommuting hacks, solutions, tech, stories
Posted in Campaign Analysis, Crisis Management, Current Affairs | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Taking on the PR Agency Haters

It is once again de rigueur to slam PR agencies.

I learned this from a prospect who clued me in to a podcast and Forbes article (the former by uber influencers who should know better; the latter was generally negative on agencies but had some great points).

Before I go further, sure, I agree that PR does have its bad actors, just like any profession; and don’t have an issue with fair criticism. I am against clueless flaming.  Below I list a few examples, including ones I’ve covered before.

The Marketing Guru

If you want my respect as someone who understands PR, please don’t gloat about all the agencies you have hired and fired.  This just tells me you are not as smart as you think you are. 

I am referring to two recent pieces by marketing folks who seemed to take glee in repeatedly giving agencies the ax. In the first, Neil Patel and his sidekick Eric Siu trash the idea of hiring a PR agency, citing success with a single campaign led by in-house PR that drove lots of signups. This is described as hacking free PR.  They both decried PR to build brand and implied that you need to choose between product PR and the former.

I had this one friend recently talk to a bunch of top CEOs and the consensus is this: the 10, 15, 20K retainer that you might pay one of the top PR firms – they generally amount to nothing. 

I’ve actually canned a couple of PR companies… the top PR machine is generally the leader…  It’s not to hire out a firm that you pay and may not get anything back.  From my experience, that’s the trouble with PR companies…

Eric Siu

Neil agreed and went on to plug a couple of friends who offer pay-for-performance PR.  We can save the topic of performance-based PR for another post.  Suffice it to say that this is not a winning strategy. 

Udi Ledergor begins the  Forbes piece: The Brand-PR Relationship Is Evolving, And The Industry Needs To Adjust with this comment:

I’ve hired and worked with more than a handful of public relations agencies over the past 15 years. I fired them all within a year or so.

Udi Ledergor

It gets better from there.  He points out the challenges of working with traditional PR agencies amidst a changing landscape:

I believe it’s the typical public relations (PR) model that’s broken…The market has moved on and, based on what I’ve seen, the PR industry has yet to adjust.

Last time I had to say goodbye to a PR firm we hired was a couple of years ago. They went through all the motions…  update calls on media outreach and stories they were developing, checking in with us to see if we had some exciting news…. and explaining that… stories… weren’t going to happen because the reporters they had pitched to simply didn’t find them compelling enough.

Udi Ledergor

Um, Udi, sounds like you need an evolved agency that is more proactive and creative (hint hint!). He goes on to point out specific ways that PR needs to change and puts the onus on brands too.

The Churner

A close cousin to the marketing guru is the churner.  These are the companies that burn through agencies and are the worst kind of clients.

Churners would never admit to hating PR firms but show their contempt by always complaining about their current or last agency, and swearing they’d up their PR game if they only they could just find the perfect partner.

This breed is famous for treating the PR firm like “arms and legs,” just another vendor, and for setting unreasonable expectations while doing blessed little to support the program.

PR agency churners would be well advised to read Udi’s piece, and heed his words:

But PR firms cannot carry all the blame for a failed brand-PR relationship; a brand must assist a firm in understanding its needs and what it hopes to gain.

Udi Ledergor

Armchair Flacks

I’ve written before about armchair flacks.  Like armchair quarterbacks, they are great at calling the plays without having played in the pros.  These are all the CEOs, VCs, and journalists who claim to have solved the PR puzzle without using actual PR people.

They come in various sub-flavors.  The blustery tech industry hotshot like Mark Cuban; his post from 2014 deriding agencies circulated again recently; I addressed this in Tech startups, Want to Go Big? Get PR Help, for the Love of God. The jaded journalist, like John Biggs, whom I wrote about here (at least his rant was entertaining, he won points for style).

Those who are interested in this topic might also like my posts Startup PR Myths Debunked and Startup PR Myths Busted, via NY Tech Meetup.

Posted in In the News, Marketing, PR, Public Relations | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Is that paid PR Opportunity worth it? 5 Experts Chime In

They come in various flavors.  The too-good-to-be-true TV spot.  The “Pssst I can get you into XXXX, guaranteed, just pay me $YYYY.”  The endless procession of awards and articles with price tags attached.

Many PR people reflexively dismiss these and spend a lot of time explaining why to clients.

It’s a mistake to indiscriminately shoot them all down, as some are worth considering.  I explain why in this post and share thoughts from our team.

You Gotta Pay Somebody

Bob Dylan sang that you’ve got to serve somebody.  It is also true that in PR you’ve got to pay someone, even if this means salaries or an agency fee. So, PR is not free earned media, despite what some say.

Beyond the cost of PR talent, it can be tough to understand where to invest.

The growth in content marketing and paid media options add to the confusion.  Some think that traditional PR is a waste of money. Others say that the media game is all rigged (e.g., one client berated me for mocking their paid TV spot, saying all media is bought and paid for anyway).  It’s a cynical view – true, you can buy TV time on an infomercial hosted by some B list celebrity that runs at 2 am in isolated markets but you can’t buy, and stage-manage, a network TV news spot.

Should you pay that writer who contributes to major publications and can get you in for a fee, guaranteed?  While tempting, you’ll likely only get a minor mention and may get outed as it is a shady practice for contributors to make these kinds of promises.

The most irritating is all those offers to buy placements in top vendor articles as well as awards, like the kinds mentioned in my post: “PR Hits a Paywall.”

However, some paid opportunities are worth it. You need to pay to apply for most awards, including for those that carry weight in your market.  And selected paid media may be a great value.

Where is the line?  Which opportunities are worth considering?

Experts Chime In

I asked our team and reflected on how Fusion PR has answered the question. Here are some of the answers I got.

The awards that are tied to a major publication and typically cost between $200 – $400 to enter should be considered. Ones from FierceWireless or LightReading (in the telecom space), for example. I tend to entertain those and then vet them to see if the client has a real chance before providing a recommendation.  The rest I really don’t see any value in and the prices are usually out of control.


There are times where it makes sense when to consider paid media opportunities like Forbes councils, especially if it hits the target audience and/or they’re in a difficult market for garnering media visibility. 


As far as bad ones – anything in which my client has already been shortlisted for, and it’s something they didn’t apply for yet still have to pay, is a bad sign.


I think a single publisher runs several of these outlets, because I constantly get what appears to be the same note (same formatting, similar wording, etc.) from different-sounding publications offering my clients inclusion in roundups like “Best Cybersecurity Solutions” and “Top 10 Fast-Growing Companies” in exchange for payment.  Once you see two of these and get a feel for them, it’s simple to recognize further attempts.  Publication titles include “SuperbCrew,” “CIO Applications,” “CIOReview,” “Analytics Insights,” “Technology Headlines,” “Beyond Exclamation,” “Aspioneer,” “Market Exclusive” and “Industry Era.”  These magazines apparently DO exist, but only for the purposes of selling feature space to gullible vendors.  Nobody actually reads them.


I’ll add my own two cents on the topic of industry analysts.  Coverage in their reports is another way to earn validation and reach your target market, especially in the B2B tech arena.  Analysts’ services come with fees, although most do take a limited number of free briefings (generally accompanied by a pitch from them).  Which ones are worth engaging and what are the costs?  Read more about this in my post Cracking the Quadrant.


It can be a challenge to navigate the field of paid PR opportunities.  Hire an agency or in-house talent with knowledge in your space – those that can help you avoid wasted time and money and maximize your PR spend.

Posted in Campaign Analysis, Marketing, PR, Public Relations, Tech PR | Tagged | Leave a comment

2020, PR Moment (decade) of Truth


As we enter a new decade, I implore PR to do its part in protecting the journalistic info supply chain.

Be truth-tellers. Be great fact-checkers.

Now wait a second, I can hear you protest.  That is not our job. We are paid to put the best possible spin on our news. To help the team win. And truth, what is truth, really?  Of course, we don’t lie!!! (Did I see a wink?)

In this post I explain not only why it is so important to be great fact-checkers; for our clients, employers, journalists, and their readers; but why it is good business, too.

Facts lost, facts are never what they seem to be
There’s nothing there, no information left of any kind

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are lame
Facts don’t come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of men

Talking Heads’ Crosseyed and Painless, via Lyric Genius

2020, the moment (Decade) of Truth

What really set me off was an article in BuzzFeed decrying a “new breed of PR firm that spreads lies and disinformation.”  After firing off an angry tweet, I got to thinking (always a bad sign); and reflected on a post I wrote over ten years ago: PR Moment of Truth (the title refers to a phrase from the customer service field). Then, it was social media that was forcing a reckoning for the profession, thrusting PR on a public stage and challenging us to find continued relevance. 

In 2020 it is a different moment of truth, a different kind of reckoning.  Here, “truth” has a double meaning – and some say no meaning.

We are living in a world in which it is all too easy to distort, weaponize info and use levers to manipulate people and algorithms. Shouldn’t PR be using the same sketchy tools and strategies, in fact, is it not our professional obligation to do so, to fight fire with fire – if that is what it takes to win?

These are some of the same kinds of ethical challenges we have faced before in an updated format.  PR has always had to decide how far to push rhetoric, persuasion, and yes, hype.

But this is not just about ethics.  The problem is bigger than PR and even journalism. 

Today, the very notions of truth, science, and facts are under assault like never before. The growth of fake news, alternative facts, etc. make reality far too malleable.

Yet journalism can combat fake news.  And PR should be a good cog in the reporting supply chain.  (Those who question the influence of PR on news-making should read this, and this article from PR Week). Sure, there are fact-checkers on the publication side, but we can make their jobs easier.

PR, do your Job, Be a Fact Checker

So, in the information supply chain we call news making do your job, challenge claims, check facts.

It’s not just the right thing, it is good business.  Here’s why:

  • Reporters like it when you are straight with them, you jeopardize relationships when you feed them BS; especially if bad info finds its way into an article.
  • Press releases with dodgy info can ding the brand
  • You bolster your personal and agency brands as a credible source (and hopefully won’t wind up in a BuzzFeed article like the above).
  • The client may not even know their claims are wrong; good ones will appreciate your diligence and candor in helping them tell accurate stories.

Most of all, we should all be doing our part to combat fake news and info.

Next up: A PR truth-telling how-to guide (and no, it is not the shortest book ever written!)

Posted in PR, Public Relations, Tech, Web 2.0 Hacks, Mashups and Utilities for PR | Tagged , , | Leave a comment