The Bad Part of Mouthing Off in Public Late at Night…

The bad part about mouthing off in public late at night is that you have to stay up late to write your blog post defending yourself. (And those of you who know me well know I don’t do late night very well.)

So, earlier this evening, I was mouthing off at #WebInno23.  [I did manage to get around to all the panelists in person to apologize for being obnoxious but never managed to catch up to David (the organizer, whom I love, right, David?)]

The occasion was the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Bootstrapping PR, ably moderated by Michael Troiano and with panelists Bob Brown, NetworkWorld; Peter Kafka, AllthingsD; Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe; and Wade Roush, Xconomy.  If you are like me, you immediately notice what’s missing.  That’s right, there are no PR people on a panel about PR.

These are all good guys — best in the business.  This is a blue ribbon panel — with a couple hundred entrepreneurs lapping up their every word like cream from a bowl.  And here are a few of the choice words:

Bob (talking about the smartest approach from a start-up), “…and there were no PR people attached to the group.”

Scott “…and the PR person brings over the CEO, and it’s all kind of stiff and uncomfortable.”

Scott (talking about dumb things entrepreneurs have done) “and, the PR agencies, with their expensive retainers have to make something happen so they fire off an email offering to make an introduction for me to an entrepreneur I’ve known for years.”

Every PR person in the audience is squirming.  (Most of them, unlike yours truly, were smart enough to sit on their hands.  I popped my hand up and asked if there had been any consideration to putting a PR person on this panel.  And the worst of it is, I think the guys are not far off the mark but there wasn’t anyone on the panel to defend PR as a practice, and point out the flip side.  Good thing I really don’t do just PR any more — and certainly not the kind of PR they are talking about anyway.

A lot of the statements from the panel this evening came straight out of a time warp.  A time warp where press releases are written for the media, where PR = media relations, and all a PR person is good for is writing said press releases and carefully “managing” media relationships.

There was a lot of great information served up in the panel but if I was an entrepreneur, all I would have heard was, “Run away from PR people, they are useless to you.  In fact, probably worse than useless because top reporters look down on them as a breed.”

The reality is that PR = public relations and in today’s world the best PR people are skilled communicators who coach entrepreneurs as they think about how they communicate with their communities.  (All those words have “comm” as a root for a reason. )  The relevant skills found in a traditional PR tool kit include: excellent writing and communications skills, a broad knowledge of business and marketing,  an understanding of what makes a good story, and thus, what a community cares about.  Maybe you are calling it a Community Manager or Content Creator but it sounds like PR to me.

One question from the audience had to do with the value of PR Web, and Scott shot back that he had no idea what it was.  (It’s a press release distribution service, ostensibly competing with PR Newswire and BusinessWire.)  There’s a reason Scott has no idea what it is…it’s an SEO tool — it is used to build links around keywords to help direct traffic to your website and increase your Google page rank.  It certainly isn’t used to communicate with reporters.  (Actually, Wade said he was familiar with it and saw it as an archive.)  Bob said it quite well, “Anyone with any sense communicates directly with the appropriate reporters.”

Press releases aren’t press releases any more — they can be news announcements but most likely they are a messaging document that serves as a tool for driving traffic to your website.

Scott had a lovely quote about how the PR system is really broken and how we should think about PR as a “retail system versus a wholesale system.”  (That could be one reason why some agencies call themselves boutiques.)  Many agencies, AND their clients, see PR as a volume game — looking for the most coverage with the biggest circulations — but this is a dated notion that ignores things like specific goals and targeted coverage.  One audience question was about “when is it too early to talk to a reporter.”  The panel very astutely turned around the question and asked what the goal is.  It all depends on what you want to accomplish by talking to the press.

I could probably go on all night — and in the morning I need to be up early to link to the others who will undoubtedly be writing on this topic too.  It is too bad that some people in the PR industry are still using a dated business model and tactics that irk the media to this extent.  But if you are going to publicly flog an entire industry, at least give us a voice to defend ourselves.  Oh, wait — we do have a voice — our own blogs.

As a side note, Wade made a gift to the crowd of his ONLY areas of interest. So if you have a story like this, pitch him:

  1. We just raised a boatload of money.  (He actually said “lots.”)
  2. We’ve got a new CEO (probably because we got rid of the old CEO.)
  3. We completely changed our strategy.
  4. We launched a brand new product — not a v2.1456 but a brand new product that lets us tackle new marketplaces, and new customers.