This is the future of PR

Much has been written about the future of PR.  My industry has beaten its own brow for years trying to figure out why it doesn’t command a place at the top table. Why it isn’t valued as highly as some of the other communications disciplines. Why it is often the first line item to be cut from budgets when savings are being sought.

The PR industry is either in denial or simply hopes that by asking the question often enough it will eventually convince its customers to give it what it wants.  I have got news for my peers. It won’t!  The future of the public relations industry relies on things changing. Here’s my list.

  • First, it needs a clear definition.   Ask one hundred PR ‘pros’ and you’ll likely get one hundred different definitions. Simply, public relations is about building and maintaining relationships.  I’ve been told this definition is too literal, too specific, too outdated and too vague, by people who either can’t define it at all or use a combination of buzzwords to do so, or insist that it involves playing middleman between customers and journalists.
  • The second thing is that the industry needs a clear value proposition.  This is something that my industry has historically been, at best, poor at.  It could also be accused of dodging the question or spinning it.  The true value a PR specialist can offer is insight and strategic advice, based on experience learned both in school and in practice, to the individual challenges faced by his or her customers.  It is not the arbitrary completion of activities to fit a budget.
  • The third thing that the industry needs to tackle is the retainer fee.  Arbitrarily asking for 5, 10, 15 [and sometimes more] thousand dollars every month is a recipe for failure.  When the minimum contract period is three months it shouldn’t be surprising that most can’t demonstrate return on their customers’ investment.
  • Charging for activity is the fourth thing that the PR industry needs to fix if it is to have any kind of future.  The supposed PR industry leaders are always talking about PR not being given the credit it deserves, but as long as it continues to sell a pre-defined set of activities to every company it works with, assuring them that it will deliver similar value, it has no chance of being taken seriously.  Maintaining this position will only continue to do damage to its credibility.
  • The fifth thing that must change is its current lack of transparency.  It must help customers understand what public relations is all about and their role in using PR successfully as a business strategy. The PR industry must allow customers to see everything it does on their behalf at all times – something it has been loathe to do thus far.
  • The final thing my industry must address in order to have any chance of continuing to prosper is to provide a simple, straightforward framework for measuring the success of its advice.  It’s something I continually hear the industry is working on: the Barcelona principles are, I’m told, proof the industry takes measurement seriously.
  • There are two problems with this argument.  The first is that the principles are now more than 5 years old.  The second is that they focus on replacing advertising equivalency and recognizing the role of social media to PR.  Both of these are, sadly, measuring awareness rather than relationships – the product of publicity, not public relations.

But the PR industry doesn’t want to change.  People like Robert Phillips, former President and CEO, EMEA, of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm claimed the public relations industry is dead.  I agree.  If not actually dead, it has lost its soul.  Most of the people working in the PR industry are zombies.

I’m tired of hearing the self-serving expressions of intent; the justification of the unjustifiable – the assertion that the future of PR is social media, or content marketing or native advertising – to name just a few.  They make all of the right noises, say the right things to deflect attention from the fact that the PR industry doesn’t want to change.  It quite likes where it is thank you very much.  It gets paid thousands of dollars every month to do who knows what and not explain the value its customers receive.

And so, while others only talk about the future of PR, I have created my vision of the future of the industry.  It provides small businesses and startups with the advice and guidance they need to use public relations to achieve commercial goals – most importantly, when they need it.  It also gives entrepreneurs practical and actionable strategic advice that they can use without the need for a specific communications skill set.

What’s more, I’ve redesigned the fee structure.  There are no retainers. No long-term commitments.  Our customers pay for the strategic advice and guidance they need, not a random set of activities done to justify a retainer fee.   I have also created a new PR framework, based on lean principles, and a simple and easy to understand way to measure outcomes. The future of the PR industry has arrived.

To find out more visit comms.bar.

What It Takes To Be A PR Leader

The PRSA is talking about what it takes to be a PR Leader today.  Because I may not be able to participate I thought I would write a short piece on what I think it takes to be a leader in the public relations industry.

There are many who claim to be leaders in my industry; the majority are self-proclaimed or appointed.  The PR industry has lacked a credible leader for many years – probably as many as I have been working in it.  That’s too long.

Leadership in the PR industry involves three core elements:

  • Leadership is about continual improvement
  • Leadership is about setting the benchmark for excellence and helping others to achieve it
  • Leadership is about providing a vision for the future of the industry that benefits both those working in it and our customers.
  • Leadership is also about doing something to move the industry forward

It also requires a fundamental understanding of what public relations is.  You can’t hope to lead if you don’t have a grasp of what the fundamental discipline is or how you measure its impact for customers.

Too many of the supposed leaders of the PR industry are big on vision but short on real actions.  They make proclamations like, ‘the future of PR is content marketing’ and ‘PR should own the marketing function’.  Some claim the value of PR has never been clearer – yet fail to explain simply, and clearly, exactly what it is.

Too many of the supposed leaders of the PR industry are chasing the next cash cow, rather than focusing on how to improve what we, as an industry, do.  They are focused on increasing fees, rather than delivering value.  They are focused on being seen to be a leader, rather than on leading.

There are many pretenders but very few credible candidates.

 

How to get studio quality audio

Relationships Are Complex

I was told last week that building relationships and hustle were synonymous – and I think it’s important to address the myth.

Relationships are complex.  They are made up of a combination of words and actions; non-verbal cues and involuntary responses.  In most cases our brains see, process and respond far more quickly than we are consciously aware of – whether to respond to romantic approaches or to remove ourselves from situations that we feel uncomfortable in. Very few relationships are established and maintained by a prescribed set of words, actions and behaviours.  The process is as complex and individual as the people involved in a relationship.

Many of the skills we use to build and maintain personal relationships are innate.  They’re unlearned.  Others are picked up from our life experiences and from the norms  of the company we keep.

This applies to our business relationships as much as it does our personal ones.  Hustle plays a role – whether it’s talking to the guy or girl you like the look of in a bar or at a party, or starting a conversation with a potential investor or prospect.  But building a relationship based on trust and respect is a complex process that involves a combination of real-time interactions and a longer-term ‘dance’.  It involves both verbal and non-verbal cues, behaviours… it has ups and downs… it requires subtlety… it requires influencing third-parties [on both sides] and, ultimately, must be mutually beneficial.

Hustle will only get you so far.

Without A Call To Action Your Content Is Not Marketing

There’s a lot written about content marketing these days.  If you believe the gurus, ninjas, PR pros and ‘experts’ content is the solution to all business ills.

Want to find more customers? Content marketing is the answer.  Want people to believe your company is the Uber of X, Y or Z? Content marketing will help you convince them.  Want to attract millions of dollars in funding? Content marketing is a sure fire way to achieve it.

There are many problems with these assertions but one in particular you should know about.  Content used for marketing purposes – a true piece of marketing communications content – MUST have a call to action.  What’s a call to action?  In its simplest form it is a clear request to the reader to take a defined action.

“Visit your local dealer and book a test drive today”

“Call 1 888 123 1234 to buy the 2016 Chevrolet X’

Sign up today to receive your free gift”

If there’s no call to action then a piece of content is not a piece of marketing communication, it’s promotion. Awareness. Publicity.  Why does this matter?  Simple: because marketing is about getting people to take actions to support your business.  Awareness is simply that.  There’s no attempt to get people to take action and, as as result, can’t be marketing.

Without a call to action, your content isn’t marketing, it’s just content.

Why is public relations so expensive?

Why is public relations so expensive?  Because you continue to pay the ridiculous monthly retainer fees that firms charge.  Without question.  You don’t even expect them to quantify the return you will receive on the investment they are asking you to make.  The reason public relations is so expensive is your fault.

The first question that any PR company asks when you enquire about working with them is ‘what’s your budget?’ And you tell them.  At least, you tell them the number you think is the going rate for the cookie-cutter PR ‘strategies’ most sell comprising a standard set of activities and, let’s be honest, very little strategic input.  It’s like playing poker where you show all of the other players your cards – and then wonder why you always end up losing your shirt.

If you want to make public relations more affordable here are three easy things you can do:

  • Start being more specific in what you need.
    You don’t need media pitching. You DEFINITELY don’t need somebody else doing it on your behalf.  Focus on specific short-term outcomes that will help you achieve your big hairy business goals – and have a PR company tell you how they are going to help you achieve them.  Then ask them to put a price on their part in that process.

To get resources and templates that will help secure media coverage email lyndon@comms.bar

  • Focus on building relationships.
    Relationships are the key to the success of every business.  Devote time, energy and money on building strong relationships with the handful of people that are critical to achieving your next milestone

To get a Key Relationship Mapping™ Canvas email lyndon@comms.bar

  • Start focusing.
    Whether it’s milestones towards your ultimate goals or stepping-stones to building a relationship with key people, start focusing on specifics.  Most PR firms justify their activity on the basis that they’re trying to deliver awareness.  Most of the activity is wasted [at your expense] because they’re targeting the wrong people.  More focus means less waste.  Let waste means lower investments.

To start setting pr and marketing goals that will help you achieve commercially valuable outcomes visit https://comms.bar

  • Stop telling PR firms what your budget is.
    It’s the fastest way to have them spend every single cent – and more often than not, it’s not necessary.  More often than not your budget is really what you think the going rate is – but there is no ‘going rate’.  You can’t put a price on activity – only on advice and outcomes that deliver value.

To get affordable pr and marketing advice from startup and small business specialists visit https://comms.bar

Only you have the power to change the price of PR retainers, by voting with your money.  If you refuse to buy in the way that most PR firms sell then they’ll have to change.  But, while you continue to play their game – a game they’ve loaded to ensure they always win, PR will continue to cost thousands of dollars every month and continue to deliver little value for your investment.

For affordable public relations & marketing advice designed for startup and small business budgets visit https://comms.bar

Public Relations Is A Business Strategy – Not A Department

National Post Entrepreneur Rick Spence

“I thought I was sitting down with a PR specialist – but you didn’t mention it once in the last two hours!”.

Earlier today I spent two hours with a journalist that writes for one of the three main newspapers in Canada.  He’d was interested in one of the innovations that is part of my business – PR Office Hours – where startup and small business entrepreneurs can sit down with me for 15 minutes and get advice on how to use public relations to tackle a current business challenge for just $50.  They can either book in advance via my website or drop in and hope there’s a spare slot.  It’s a model I’ve borrowed from Apple with its Genius bar.

I had filled the afternoon with people that I had worked with before to ensure that the afternoon wasn’t wasted for the journalist if nobody turned up and because I didn’t want to publicize the fact that this particular session was being shadowed.  None of the participants had been promised coverage as a result, and had agreed to be there to help me demonstrate how it works. You can read his account of our afternoon together here  I explained, while I hadn’t used the words public relations everything I had talked about was absolutely public relations.  It had focused on building and maintaining relationships in order to achieve a specific outcome.  I rarely use the phrase PR because it muddied the water: PR is associated by most, including the majority of people charging customers thousands of dollars every month for the privilege when they provide publicity and promotion services.

It’s the second time this topic had been raised in the last few days.  A friend, Alan Kay, summed it up best when he said, “so what you’re saying is that public relations should be a business strategy NOT a department”.  That’s exactly what I was saying.  Building and maintaining relationships is an integral part of every business and not something that should be outsourced to a third party.  Certainly not a third party whose main purpose is to pitch journalists in the hope of securing media coverage [think about it, do you consider direct email an attempt to build a relationship with you or an irritant that usually guarantees you’ll never do business with the company sending it?!

Back to the three hours spent with my journalist shadow and, I explained, everything I had done was designed to help the entrepreneurs build the relationships they needed to achieve a specific outcome ,if none existed, or strengthen the relevant ones that did.  A failure to do this is one of the most common reasons that marketing [the art of getting somebody to take a desired action] fails.  Without strong relationships in place ‘marketing’ is effectively asking strangers to do something that  benefits your.  Often, the request is also without explaining clearly what the benefit is for them.

I’ve been told, by my peers, that my definition of public relations  – everything a business does to build and maintain relationships with the people that are most important to its success – is too literal; too old-fashioned; too specific. I’ve been told that my explanation of marketing – everything a company does to get people to take an action on your behalf… because they want to – is plain wrong.  I repeatedly have the discussion – usually with my supposed peers – that my assertion that publicity – the communication of information from an organization to as many people as possible – isn’t public relations.

But, think about it.  When we need help in our personal lives – whether to lend us a few dollars for a transit fare because we’ve left our wallets at home, or as entrepreneurs when we need help overcoming a challenge in growing our business – our first call is to somebody we have a relationship with.  Whether a friend, a parter, family member or mentor/advisor – we go to people that are the most likely to help us because we have a long-standing relationship with them.  We don’t stand on the corner of the street with a megaphone imploring strangers to help us because we know it’s an inefficient way to solve a problem.  The chances are slim and we have no way of knowing whether people have the capacity or desire to help.

And yet when it comes to our businesses we do the exact opposite. My industry tells its customers that the best way to achieve a business outcome is to stand on the street corner with a megaphone – physical or digital – shouting at everybody that passes.  Imploring them to do what we want them to do.  Worse, my peers tell entrepreneurs that they’re not equipped to do it themselves and should pay a third-party to do the shouting to implore an intermediary to pass on your message.

Public relations is about building and maintaining relationships with the people that matter most to your organization – and you need to own them.  It needs to be a business strategy that is part of the fabric of your business, not a bolt on department that you pay a third-party to do for you – especially when all you’re getting is somebody with a megaphone!

Yahoo, Yodel, Yodel House

What’s the ROI on SXSW investment?

Yahoo, Yodel, Yodel House
The Yahoo Yodel House at SXSW 2015

The amount of money spent by companies trying to capture the attention of the tens of thousands of people visiting SXSW this year will run in to many millions of dollars.  The return they are likely to get on it is questionable.  Part of the problem is that most will have set no clear goals; part is that even those that did will not have any way to measure whether or not they have been achieved, let alone quantify the value delivered as a result of their investment.

Let’s take Yahoo! as an example.  I use it because it is one of the bigger names and it had a huge presence at the event, taking over one of Austin’s premier event and live music venues [according to its website], Brazos Hall.  Other similar examples include GE, IBM and VISA.

I visited the Yahoo ‘Yodel’ House a couple of times during my trip to SXSW and they had spared no expense.  There were the standard free drinks, lavish decoration in brand colours [which was changed on a regular basis], an AV set up that most local television stations would be envious of, venue managers, security, bar staff… you get the idea.  On both occasions it was buzzing.

My question is what was the point?  What did Yahoo! get out of it?  The lounge was busy.  People had a good time. They were able to recharge their devices.  They had a few [more] free drinks. My question to them is, SO WHAT?  What’s the tangible benefit?  The return on investment?

My peers would claim that visitors were engaging with the brand. They’ll say the Yodel House created buzz; pictures were shared on Instagram; people were Meerkat-ing [sic]; tweeting; hashtagging… This is often called ’brand awareness’ or brand marketing [it might be awareness, but it’s not marketing] and that’s great, but it is also unquantifiable! It has no tangible value.

I use this not to single out Yahoo! but to illustrate a growing trend.  Companies through huge amounts of money at making on awareness but without considering whether it makes financial sense to do so.  Often there is little thought about what the long-term return will be, let alone the short-term one.

It’s a dangerous trend. Sure, companies like Yahoo! and their ilk can afford it. They have deep pockets.  Some smaller companies have VC money they can “invest”, but the majority don’t.  And, if there is no tangible value then surely the money could be better invested in other things?  Things that are likely to deliver a return. Things that are likely to support the growth of the business – not just brand awareness for its own sake.

How many people that visited the Yahoo! lounge at SXSW will have gone home and changed their default search engine from Google to Yahoo!?  I think you know the answer to that.

Startup and SmallBiz Marketing tip: understand what action you want people to take and focus your time, energy and money on achieving it.  Successful marketing begins with strong relationships built via public relations.

Meerkat has created a monster!

SXSW 2015 will be remembered as the year a monster was created. Make that many monsters.

In the week prior to the annual geek-fest in Austin two words entered common usage amongst twitter users.  The two words that should strike fear in to the heart of every social media professional, [LIVE NOW], followed by the short URL mrk.tv and the hashtag #meerkat

Meerkat, if you missed it, is a tool that allows video to be live-streamed directly in to a twitter feed.  It briefly enabled account holders to notify twitter followers when they were live streaming using the 140-character app’s social graph so that users didn’t need to create a new audience.  That changed shortly after the firm arrived at SXSW, the annual digital and interactive equivalent of spring break held in Austin, TX.

Meerkat is the perfect app for the self-publicist to broadcast every mundane moment of their uninteresting lives to the world.  People streamed everything and anything but, largely, nothing of any note.  Some have streamed pre-stream warm ups where the ‘main event’ was uninteresting and the pre-show stream was a nadir!

I’ve read, and heard, people saying that Meerkat is a game-changer for social and content marketers by allowing ‘brands’ to live stream video in their twitter feed.  But, for all the hype around Meerkat it is just another content creation and syndication tool that requires quality content and an engaged audience.  For all the hype around Meerkat these the two things that most companies struggle with most and until they fix it the app has more potential to annoy and alienate people than it has to engage them.

It’s a bit like giving a jetpack to everybody and telling them it will allow them to travel from anywhere to everywhere – unless you know how to use it it is far more of a danger than it is beneficial.

My suspicion is that, despite the hype, the appeal for twitter users will wear off quickly as audiences tire of viewing the minutia of day-to-day life.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and Marketing tip: Understand what content your audience wants and give it to them.  Don’t invest time and money creating content on every platform – focus on quality.

SXSW, Social Media, IRL

SXSW Is Social Media – IRL

As an entrepreneur and a PR ‘guy’ SXSW is an interesting experience.  2015 was my second time in Austin and as I sit in a bar on my way to the airport I wanted to share a few observations and some recommendations for other entrepreneurs considering attending next year.

I was fortunate to be part of the Canadian trade delegation this year.  As an expat Brit living in Canada it was great to be allowed to represent my adopted home.  It was also great to see what some of my co-entrepreneurs are working on across the technology, film and music industries.  Canadians have a reputation for being not tooting their horn loudly enough.  We need to fix that – there is clearly plenty to ‘toot’ about!

So, what stood out this year?

The same old buzzwords;  continued lack of substance. 

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word engagement I’d be a very rich man.  If I had a dollar for every time it was used correctly, I would probably not have enough to pay for a coffee at the airport.  The same is true for terms like brand, authenticity, “social”.

They have become mantras for the tech, PRublicity [my term for the army of ‘PR Pros’ that are actually publicists] and marketing industries but most within the industry – let alone their customers – understand either their meaning or their significance.

There’s no longer differentiation between PR, marketing and publicity

…but there should be.  My peers have lost sight of the value of each discipline.  The majority of events were public relations [despite the fact that most would not describe them as such.  The majority of what many would call marketing was, in fact, publicity.  SXSW has become a competition from companies to see who can make the most noise. and this leads to a lot of waste – wasted cash, wasted resources and wasted opportunities.

None of these are ever  long-term strategy for business success – but for many of the small businesses and startups attending it is the fastest path to running out of money.

This year, more than ever, the background noise was louder than ever.  Being heard was ever more difficult.  SXSW is a perfect illustration of how most companies are using social media platforms – as a tool for shouting messages in the hope they are heard, rather than a opportunity to better understand their customers, identify sales opportunities and complement customer service activities.

As a result, both social and SXSW are likely to become less attractive and less effective unless attendees change the way they use them.

The conference is about the speakers, not the attendees. 

I caveat this that I didn’t attend the conference but followed as many of the sessions that I could on twitter.  From what I saw it’s the same “celebrities” saying the same, hackneyed, vanilla stuff they’ve been saying for years!  There’s little practical value in the conference panels for the attendees paying thousands of dollars for the badge – it appears to be more a vehicle for people to promote themselves, rather than adding value to attendees.

[I also realize that my chances of speaking at the event are now zero!!]

The real value is in serendipity 

Everybody says that ‘south-by’ is about the people you meet in a bar or at a party.  And, it’s true.  It’s the random meetings; the conversations; the introductions to complete strangers, by complete strangers that will be the things that have lasting value in the weeks and months after we leave Austin.
Nobody can explain what it is they do – or why anybody should care

Part of what I do is helping customers figure out how they explain what they do and the value it provides for their customers.  I help them figure out why anybody – whether a prospect, investor, analyst or journalist – would care about their product or service.  At events I take time to ask people representing the exhibitors what they do – and I’m always surprised at how few are able to do it.  Most try; the majority use long-drawn out explanations that are full of meaningless words.  Almost none can do it in a sentence or two in words my parents would understand.

Having spent thousands of dollars to exhibit they fail to clear the first hurdle.

SXSW is social media – in real life.  

I was asked to sum up SXSW by a friend who has never been.  The best description I could come up with was that it’s like social media, only in real life.  Lots of noise, some interesting conversations and occasionally you meet somebody where there is mutual business benefit.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: focus on finding the people that matter most to your business and building and maintaining strong relationships with them.  Social media is fun, but real-life will always deliver more business value.

This is the first of a series of post-SXSW reflection pieces.  I’d love to hear your observations: the highs and lows, and the just plain weird.