Francis’s Favourite Fictions

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Fiction: Media relations is “free advertising”

By Francis Moran

At the time my PR agency, inmedia Public Relations, was founded, I worked out of a large integrated agency in the city and some of the account executives there loved to push my buttons by declaring that media relations was free advertising. They especially liked to do this in client meetings because they knew it would prompt me to mount a fevered defence of the merits of PR and all the ways in which it differed from advertising.

I knew they were only kidding. I knew they really knew better. I knew it was all a bit of harmless fun.

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We’re going to fill the tank when we get there

By Francis Moran

No sane person setting out on a long journey of indefinite length would wait until they had arrived before filling up the gas tank.

And yet technology companies tell me all the time that they’re going to do exactly that.

“We’ll start marketing as soon as we have some customers,” is a variation of a line I’ve heard often but that still pains me deeply every time I hear it.

I heard it again just the other day from an amazing company I’ve been watching for a while. Like most promising technology companies, this one has developed a new way of doing something that creates massive value for users. Their product costs less money to use than the alternative, saves huge amounts of incredibly expensive time at a critical juncture for its potential customers, and avoids the considerable environmental damage wrought by existing approaches.

Like many compelling technological advances, however, the adoption of this company’s product requires significant changes in behaviour in a risk-averse industry.

In short, this company needs marketing, and lots of it.

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The saddest marketing story I’ve ever heard

By Francis Moran

I heard the saddest story the other day.

A few years ago, we worked on the launch of a new personal finance website developed by a veteran personal financial advisor. The site was detailed, secure, incredibly useful and solved a sharp, expensive and disruptive pain that the advisor had been running up against his entire professional life.

Our media launch went well. We got some decent coverage, both in mass media and, more valuably, in the trade media reaching financial advisors. Although the site was designed for individual subscriptions, advisors were identified as its most important channel to market since they were expected to counsel their clients to use it.

We were a little confused when the campaign was not continued past that initial launch, especially since some of the best opportunities we generated for the client were over the long term, including, for example, an agreement to have the site’s creator contribute a regular column to one of the key trade publications in the space. From the other folks working on the launch we heard encouraging news about the possibility that the site would be white-labelled by one of the largest firms of financial advisors on the continent, and other early signs of traction. So we were at a bit of a loss when everything went unexpectedly quiet.

Still, it wasn’t the first time that a client had invested in a launch only to tell us they would be unable to continue funding the program so we moved on, occasionally curious about what had become of the endeavour.

Then, last week, I heard the full sad story.

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Fiction: Public relations can’t be measured

By Francis Moran

Francis’s favourite fictions is a continuing series of posts on common myths surrounding the practice of public relations. When I give this as a presentation, I subtitle it, “Everything I know that’s wrong about PR I learned from technology company executives.” Today’s fiction comes courtesy of a chief financial officer at such a venture who nixed her marketing vice president’s intention to hire us, saying, “I can’t measure marketing so I won’t fund it.”

Too bad; the company she used to work for is now out of business, taking a genuinely valuable technology advance and more than $30-million in investors’ money with it. Maybe now, she at least has a yardstick with which to measure the cost of not marketing.

It is an enduring myth, though, that marketing in general, and maybe public relations in particular, evades measurement, that there’s no way to calculate the return on investment for such an inexact science. As with many of my other favourite fictions, it is a myth perpetuated in large part because it serves many in the PR industry itself to do so. Theirs is a black box science, they tell gullible clients, dependant on things like “relationships,” and intended to “build buzz” and a bunch of other ambiguous terms deliberately employed expressly because they do evade objective definition.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I can’t imagine that any client today will sign on to a program that doesn’t at least define a scope of work in clear and unambiguous terms. In other words, a critical path of activities that at least tells the client how much PR stuff they’re buying, how many news releases, analyst briefings, story pitches, trade shows supported, that sort of thing. We call that measuring outputs, and it’s as far as many agencies are prepared to go. We think it’s a good, but woefully inadequate, starting point.

Any agency worth its retainer should be willing to describe the results its efforts will produce in similarly unambiguous terms. If you invest in our exerting this much effort, dear client, you will see this much media and analyst coverage over the term of the program. We call this measuring outcomes, and we define it very clearly in terms of specific objectives for the program. We tell you which media outlets and analyst firms we’re targeting. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that we will then tell you exactly in what percentage of them we expect to generate coverage over the term of the program, what type of coverage that will be, and what sorts of stories, key messages and so on that coverage will contain. We break down our objectives by category of activity, setting success objectives for individual news releases, product launches, analyst tours, trade show briefings, speaking programs, and so on.

We like this approach because we’re not asking our clients to buy a bunch of PR stuff from us. Rather, we’re asking them to invest in a given level of effort, the outcome of which we have clearly defined. Now they only need to ask themselves whether those results are a good return on the investment we’re asking them to make. At the end of the program, our clients don’t need us to tell them whether we have achieved the objectives or not. They can tell, without a trace of uncertainty or ambiguity, for themselves.

If your agency or internal PR department won’t commit to setting those kinds of objectives, it’s time to find a new one.

But, as they say on the late-night infomercials, don’t call yet, there’s more.

Even if we achieve the outcomes we projected, is it worth anything if that media and analyst coverage hasn’t advanced our clients’ business objectives? Here’s where the wheat really gets separated from the chaff. I’ll write more about this in a future post.

Fiction: It’s all about relationships – Take 2

By Francis Moran

Francis’s Favourite PR Fictions started out as a presentation I used to give to technology company executives who always reacted strongly, and, surprisingly, usually positively, to the subtitle of the presentation, “Everything I know that’s wrong about PR I learned from technology company executives.” This fiction, that successful public relations relies mainly on the existing relationships I might have with the media and analysts my client needs to reach, has always been top of the list because, as I wrote in a previous post, it continues to persist despite ample everyday evidence to the contrary.

I am moved to come back to it today because belief in this fiction leads to the extraordinary comment I heard a few months ago from a highly paid marketing consultant and author who said she had to hire a new PR agency every 90 days because that’s how long it took each agency to exhaust its contacts. She was openly skeptical of my contention that a good PR agency was worth much more than just its contacts, and should be able to pitch her story anywhere it deserved to be covered. She couldn’t see how her own approach to agency selection was guaranteeing the lousy results she had come to expect. However, I wrote it off at the time as just a more extreme outcome of this favourite fiction of mine.

Then I was gobsmacked to read more recently that this idea that PR agencies must be replaced every three months or so enjoyed a wider currency, and even more astonished to read it in a blog post by respected social media commentator and publisher, Jeff Pulver. While I can easily endorse much of what Pulver wrote about his interactions with public relations agencies, especially his demand that they state up front what they are going to achieve in return for a client’s investment, I am in profound disagreement with his comment, “Most PR firms are good for one time thru (sic) their rolodex which translates into a 60-90 day shelf life.”

Now, Pulver is a success, and I assume he got there because, among other evident talents, he is a professional. I state this caveat not to brown nose but because I’m about to hoist him on his own petard and I’m hoping he’s professional enough that it doesn’t come back to bite me.

Here’s what I mean.

A little over a year ago, we were retained by a new client whose voice application technology meant that Pulver’s VON Magazine and VON trade shows were critical targets for our efforts. This was new space for us, however, and, as with many new clients, we did not have existing relationships with the journalists we would be targeting, including those at VON. While we work very hard to establish effective working relationships with our key media targets, having them is not a prerequisite, and that’s what makes this “It’s all about relationships” such a fiction for us. This new client was no different.

Starting with our very first pitch and continuing over the past 14 months, we have engaged successfully with four or five people within VON, from the editor in chief to the keeper of the briefing schedule for VON reporters attending the organization’s trade shows. Armed with no rolodex entry, just our client’s good and deserving story, our own thorough and hardworking approach and, of course, VON’s interest in what we were pitching, we have generated articles in the magazine, news briefs and other coverage on the web site and briefings at trade shows.

And the results continue, long past the three-month mark.

All in all, it has been an excellent, mutually beneficial interaction, exactly how things should be between flacks and hacks.

Bottom line, Jeff, is that even within your own organization your belief that PR agencies are only as good as their rolodexes, and then only for a few scant months, is being proven a fiction. I do hope this doesn’t mean we can’t continue to work together…

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