Once upon a time PR was all about working with the media. Back then, we didn’t need to qualify the word media with a word like “traditional.” There was no such thing as “new” media or “emerging” media or “social” media. These were simpler times.
Back then — as it is today — the term “press release” was used interchangeably with the term “news release.” But even back then, there was some debate about which was better. For the most part, the PR community was indifferent as was the majority of the editorial community. But there were some editors — mostly old-school journalists — that did express a preference. They preferred the news release. They would argue that a news release was the vehicle a company should use to issue news; and if it wasn’t news, it shouldn’t be released. To these reporters, calling it a “press release” made it seem disingenuous — as if the company was subtly admitting the intent of the communique was to manipulate them rather than to provide them with the facts. Journalists back then cared about facts. Some still do.
In those days, it seemed that we were always fighting with clients NOT to send out meaningless drivel via news release — even if their competition insisted on doing so. It tended to piss editors off to have to wade through a mountain of crap just to get to something meaningful. But things have changed.
Today, there are plenty of practitioners who argue that companies should be a lot more liberal with news releases and they are correct to do so. Releases aren’t just for the media any longer — they are used to directly communicate to a whole array of audiences who read them online. News releases can — and should — also be used to help out with search engine optimization and as part of a social media strategy.
Strangely, many of those practitioners who most actively evangelize non-media uses of releases still insist on referring to them as press releases. I say the time has come to purge the term “press release” completely from our vocabulary. The term is no longer technically correct. What say you?
Respect for old-school journalists is just one reason to retire the “Press Release”
The cover story in the current issue of Time Magazine is about what can be done to save the newspaper industry, which currently teeters on the brink of financial ruin as it struggles to find successful ways to monetize its online content. In that same issue, Managing Editor Richard Stengel talks about the importance of the press and its role in maintaining a healthy democracy as he tries to make the case for micropayment for online news coverage.
Until you can wrap a dead fish in a Website, I won't be able to declare the Oregonian completely useless
Indeed, an educated and informed electorate is vital to our system of government. The importance of the media cannot and must not be overlooked. It is clear to me that the mainstream media should be highly compensated for giving “we the people” all the information we need to make sound decisions and choices. What is not so clear to me is if the mainstream media, as it exists today, is still living up to its end of the bargain. More and more often, it seems the answer is no.
The recent Presidential election provides a stunning example. The number of journalists who seemed fine with being openly and unashamedly active in helping build one of the most successful brands in the world – Brand Obama – was astounding. It seemed as if they were more interested in being part of a historical movement than investigative journalism. Ultimately, it appeared as though the final, triumphant headline they so badly wanted to be able to write had a very strong influence upon what they decided to cover (and opted not to cover) along the way. Obviously Team Obama wasn’t the only team to enjoy biased coverage. Not all members of the press shirked their responsibilities to the American people, but the number of those who did was far too high.
Of course, media bias isn’t limited to national politics. My local newspaper, The Oregonian, routinely disguises editorials as news. I wrote about one horrific example of this on my Rolling Thunder Communications blog last year. This example was a four part series on the dangers of ATVs. Each article appeared on the front page (above the fold). Each was filled with heart-wrenching stories designed to blame an industry for the irresponsible behavior of a few unfortunate individuals. Alas, it does not look like this problem is unique to The Oregonian.
The Move to Online News
Today, many newspapers have more online readers than they do print subscribers. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that most newspapers make content available for free on the Internet. Rarely does the mainstream media recognize that another major factor in driving people online is often its own shortcomings. One of the reasons web-based “citizen journalism” has been so successful is that it can and does fill the growing informational void created by the mainstream press.
Citizen journalists are not bound by editorial policy or professional standards. This means that you have to take coverage with a pretty major grain of salt. On the other hand, a lot of the people who are publishing stories do so because they are passionate or feel a sense of duty to report about important topics that the mainstream media overlooks (sometimes, they believe, intentionally). The best citizen journalists hold themselves to self-imposed standards that can be every bit as high as traditional press.
Regardless, readers who are willing to wade through enough biased online muck can regularly come across nuggets of important information that they can’t get anywhere else. The more of these nuggets they find, the less value they are likely to see in traditional journalism and the less likely they are to begin paying for it. More importantly, as the quality of mainstream journalism continues to decay, the more likely we are to base political decisions on the wrong factors and, in the end, we will all pay for that.
The use of outside public relations counsel can help build your brand and raise your company’s profile quickly and cost-effectively. Bringing a new agency on board can be a significant investment and deserves a fair amount of investigation. Since PR is a practice more difficult to define and quantify than many other types of services, this can become a daunting process. Sometimes, the best solution is to create a formal request for proposal (RFP) that is answered in writing, presented in person or both.
The trick is developing an RFP that will help you find an agency to enable you to meet your marketing objectives and provide maximum return on investment. In addition, it should help you identify a team that is able to work within your corporate culture and one you will enjoy spending time with. Below are some suggestions for putting together an RFP that will allow you find a firm to best fit your needs while making the process easier on you and your team and setting a positive tone for your new working relationship.
Define your needs
Developing an RPP for a PR agency can be a challenge. Before you begin your search, have a clear understanding of the business objectives you are trying to achieve and how a PR program might be used to help reach them. Communicate this clearly to the prospective agency. This will ensure that the recommendations they make will map to your needs and will help the agency focus its strategic and creative thinking. If your company has not yet clearly defined its business objectives, this may be a sign that it is too early to engage an agency.
A good agency will insist on learning all about your company before providing recommendations. Understanding the good, the bad and the ugly is critical from the beginning. Before you share your dirty laundry with an outside company, make sure they sign a nondisclosure agreement. Once this is signed, share everything.
Define the scope
Be realistic about the scope of the PR program you want to develop and be up front about your budget. If you have specific ideas about the PR program you want to implement, a quick conversation with a prospective agency should be able to provide a ballpark idea of what it might cost.
Even if you are unsure about the specifics of the program, providing a budget range will help the agency prioritize recommendations and develop programs and campaigns that you can realistically implement. It is also helpful because it allows the agency to build the right team for your needs from the outset.
Discovering at the end of the review process that you and a prospective agency do not agree on a budget can waste tremendous amounts of your time, your executives’ time and the agency’s time.
Insist on meeting the account team
Meet the team that will be staffing your account – particularly your day-to-day contacts and account managers. If you are asking an agency to do anything more than a basic capabilities overview, you should expect the account team be involved from the start.
Assess the right skills
To get the right answers you need to ask the right questions — a great RFP can make all the difference
There are a number of skills the people on your account team should possess. These include interpersonal communications, attention to detail, follow up, writing, creative thinking, strategic thinking and thinking on the fly.
Think about how to assess these skills before, during and after the presentation. The ability to develop and deliver a creative, polished and snazzy presentation is great, but a much wider skill set is required to deliver reasonable results. Consider the complete process, not just the presentation.
What are your first impressions of the people? Would you enjoy working with them? How did they prepare for the pitch? Did they ask insightful questions? Did they uncover good information? Did they do their homework before the first meeting? How about follow-up?
If you would like to see what it will be like to partner with the agency, bring them in for a working meeting to discuss an issue, campaign, new product launch or a specific idea. See how they react to an interactive discussion and what kind of ideas they have on the spot. Then what they come up with after a day or two to think about it and conduct additional research.
Prepare your decision-makers
Let the decision-makers know ahead of time the scope of the RFP and what you have asked the agency to discuss so that they can understand the full context and scope of what is being recommended or presented.
Also, if it is a presentation, make sure the people in the room are committed to being there. Consider limiting presentations to one a day. This makes it easier for your executives to give each presentation their full attention. Also, consider asking that all cell phones, lap tops, PDAs, and other devices be turned off.
A PR program requires a strong commitment from the client in order to be successful. Keep in mind that a the best agencies are selective about the type of clients they work with. They need to make sure that a strong partnership can be forged and are using the RFP process as a way to evaluate whether or not they want to work with you and your team.
Even the most modest RFP response or new business proposal can be extremely time consuming and expensive for an agency to put together. In addition to various hard costs, thousands of dollars worth of staff time goes into every one. The costs for a large and competitive pitch can be staggering.
While this cost is admittedly a cost of doing business, it is only fair that an agency asked to come up with ideas and recommendations for your company should be able to expect the possibility of seeing a return on that investment.
Conducting an RFP for the sole purpose of gathering research, insights and creative ideas, or intentionally misleading a prospective agency in regards to potential budget, is dishonest and can reflect poorly on your company.
Finding the right agency can have a positive impact on your business. Getting the RFP right is an excellent step toward that goal.
Do you want to be entertained or do you want to find the best agency?
One of our favorite PR blogs recently did a piece on flack vs. public relations. The author’s definition of flack was “to provide publicity or engage in press-agentry.” While this definition is technically correct, flack, like another popular F-word, can also be used as a noun. My definition of a flack is a PR person who is willing to represent any company, no matter how despicable or someone for whom the truth is an irrelevant inconvenience.
Unfortunately, flacks are the reason that public relations professionals are often considered to be bottom-feeding lowlifes. What’s worse is that it has somehow become accepted that people like PR professionals, lawyers, politicians and others of their ilk can, do and SHOULD lie in order to be successful.
You need look no further than the recent DNC and RNC fibfests to know what I mean. A quick stroll through www.factcheck.org will provide example after example after example.
Perhaps the fact that people are now looking to each other as one of the most trusted sources of ideas, information and opinions is a sign that the general public has had enough of being constantly barraged with lies and half-truths. This gives high-integrity companies willing to do the right thing, be transparent and engage in a direct and honest dialog with its customers a huge competitive advantage. That same advantage extends to PR and marketing people who work within this framework. It can mean a harder road to travel, but the long-term payoff makes it worthwhile.
KoiFish Communications was founded to help companies that choose to put the needs of their customers, industries and communities first gain the recognition they deserve. By working exclusively with companies we can believe in wholeheartedly, we become authentic champions and evangelists for our clients. We feel good about helping them engage in a two-way dialog with key audiences because we know that the discussion has meaning and value to everyone involved. In addition, we’ll never be asked to compromise our own integrity and we will never have to be flacks. This is important us.
Everything I really needed to know about PR I learned when I was a kid
There is currently a lot of talk among the high-tech blog community about the relative uselessness of PR. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch advises startups not to bother engaging a PR agency until the flood of inbound media requests becomes too overwhelming to handle. Robert Scoble talks about the pleasures of discovering the next great innovation without the ham-fisted intrusion of PR tainting the process. It appears that both subscribe to the theory of “if you build it, they will come.”
Death of PR? Nope.
I’m not sure how many technology start ups would be happy with a marketing plan based on a strategy that favors sitting idly by and waiting to be discovered by a high-profile blogger over proactive media outreach.
Brian Fuller, a former editor himself, points out why that isn’t likely to happen any time soon while Jeremy Pepper weighs in ever so delicately with his own thoughts on this recurring issue. It is worth pointing out that I’ve had the pleasure of working with Brian in his role as an editor for EE Times. He and his colleagues never seemed to take issue with PR agencies bringing them stories that were of genuine interest to their readership. In fact, one EE Times editor – considered to be THE guru of the niche industry he covered – even took the time to e-mail the PR community about his upcoming deadlines, vacation schedules, etc. just to make sure he wouldn’t ever miss the ability to cover something important.
Of course, bloggers aren’t the first to complain about public relations. PR has been the subject of justified (as well as completely unjustified) rants from traditional journalists for decades. One of the most controversial came from the Editor-in-Chief of Wired when he actually published a list of e-mail addresses from PR folks he deemed as “lazy flacks.”
The funny thing is that what most of these journalists fail to understand is that media relations is just one tactical element of a much larger strategic PR campaign, albeit a very important tactical element. Most of the real work happens before the point where media contact begins.
The true art of public relations lies in coming up with creative ways to get the client’s message out – across a whole range of media or even directly. It lies in determining when and how to reach specific audiences and in defining positioning. A cool new technology is great, but it is nothing unless the implications of that technology can be clearly demonstrated and communicated. Only then can you create the perception of need that will motivate the customer to go out and buy it.
Moreover, as customers rely less on media and more on each other for information, the role of the media – both traditional and new media – can be greatly diminished. And more than a few PR practitioners are becoming aware of how best to facilitate a dialog between clients and the end user.
Does this mean I’m ready to declare death of journalism or say it is broken? Hell no. But like PR, it will have to change and adapt over time if it is to succeed and this is a good thing.