It’s been a quiet July 4th weekend and I was relaxing and catching up on my RSS feeds (for me, at least, Twitter hasn’t taken over the world) when I bumped into a new article by tech provocateur Mike Arrington entitled The Reality Of PR: Smile, Dial, Name Drop, Pray.
The premise of the article is that a company that’s launched through us tech bloggers and, specifically his news service TechCrunch gains visibility faster than a company launched using traditional non-blog social media channels (as he says of the non-TechCrunch launched firm: “I’d say this experiment in a pure social media launch failed.”).
The story is about a startup that I haven’t heard of, Wordnik, but that’s not what caught my attention. Frankly, the insanely low barrier to entry for new Web 2.0 companies means that oddly named firms crop up like weeds on a weekly basis — and I’m only half-joking with that statement — so not hearing about a new company isn’t worthy of even a short blog entry or tweet. (for the record, I haven’t heard of Topsy either)
No, what bugged me about Mike’s self-congratulatory article was his dismissal of the entire field of public relations with this statement:
“PR firms today … are paid to perform a service. They like to think of themselves as core to the strategic action of their clients. But more often, they’re just there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible. Then they smile and dial and pray for coverage. Occasionally they are called in to smother a story, which is mildly more exciting, I imagine. But when a CEO is wondering what she should do next to drive her business forward, she generally doesn’t call her PR firm for advice. Or at least I hope she doesn’t.”
Fair disclosure that’s germane to this discussion: in addition to running my own consulting business and a busy tech blog, I also sporadically work with the talented team at Metzger Associates, a hip public relations firm here in Boulder, Colorado.
And what do I do for them? Mostly host strategic planning meetings with clients, where we talk about the shortcomings of their existing products and services and brainstorm about how to introduce cooler, more compelling, and more exciting offerings to their market segments.
Public relations is to the diss “there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible” as tech blogging is to “regurgitating whatever press release happens to catch your attention”. Both are inaccurate assessments yet both have a sliver of truth to them. Nonetheless, Arrington is falling into the common mistake of thinking that PR = press releases, that it’s a matter of service providers throwing information sticks into the news river. PR is not about press releases but about something far more fundamental: how a company is perceived and interacts with its public.
As an influence leader in the tech space, I am constantly surprised and a bit saddened by Arrington’s constant drumbeat against mainstream marketing and public relations. This is by no means the first time he’s come out against an industry of professionals who are not easily categorized by the smug dismissal of it being “old school”, and I think that a lot of worthy companies are being inappropriately ignored by his bias and the reflected bias of many others in the tech community.
Not all great invention comes from the rebel underground and not all great startups include people who know how to play the modern media game and gain visibility for themselves in the ceaseless tsunami of information that washes over us every time we power up.
But apparently Mike believes that if these same firms need to hire someone to help them gain visibility, they’re already dead in the water. It’s all about eschewing those evil public relations people, not adding them to your team and valuing their savvy counsel.
And that, ultimately, is a disservice to their communities, because I rely on news service like TechCrunch (and yes, Mike, TechCrunch is a news channel for me just as the BBC and Variety are too) to help me identify the best and the brightest, what’s cool on the horizon, and the more I learn about his institutional bias, the more I discount what’s written there.
How about you? Do you think that being hip more important than doing a good, comprehensive job?
I feel like both you and Mike have valid points, but for the most part I side with Mike when it comes to start-ups. Sadly, in my experience with young companies and PR agencies has told me to stay away from PR agencies until your companies up and running and needs more PR management vs. PR creation.
(for context, I’ve worked with about 20 start-ups, and overseen the PR for 5 of them)
I’ve had great success with PR, but in every success case it was because we had someone in-house dedicated to the success of the business. One partial exception was The Kitchen where I worked with a very talented sole operator. But even in that case, the person was in almost every way was a core member of The Kitchen’s team.
I’m also blown away by how much a PR agency needs to charge to make their business work. Minimum $5K/month, but actually $15K/month ‘if you want senior management focus’. I get that their cost structure makes that necessary, but honestly don’t see how that goes back to the startup in any multiple of value.
Bottomline: for start-ups, I’m with Mike. Get an in-house person, or do it yourself. Stay away from PR Agencies.
My 2c. This is a great discussion either way. It’s probably one of the top questions in the mind of any entrepreneur.
I don’t read his blog post as saying “don’t hire PR” but rather that “PR is worthless”. That’s fine if you can generate buzz or find that all-important hire yourself, as you have done Kimbal, but for most startups it just isn’t that simple. Further, I will bet that your in-house PR was a lot more essential to the strategic direction of the company than just “spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible.”
Actually Dave, on that point I 100% agree with you. PR is core to a start-ups success. That’s why you can’t outsource it.
In-house people have bought into the vision and are giving 120% of their energy getting the message out, finding the simple use-cases that make people care about what you’re doing, promoting discussion in the space, and responding to the user community.
So I agree with you then. PR is not spin. Whoever thinks that has never done PR successfully.
Thanks, Dave. As founder of one of the first hi-tech PR firms, I’m used to technologists holding marketers in contempt. 20 years ago, I couldn’t blame them – we PR types weren’t the ones who built their better mousetrap, and the world would often beat a path to the inventor’s door without our help. But as technology matured and fell into the hands of millions of later adopters, it became necessary to show the world not only where the path and door were, but also why one mousetrap was better than another, and how it would help a buyer stay competitive. We built our PR/IR practice on understanding and selling the value proposition and ROI of complex products and services, while spinning in the integrity, management, support and financing of the company behind it, often setting corporate strategy through communications and positioning. But Arrington and other journalists are deluged daily by PR people that only know to smile, dial and superficially pitch a widget’s features and benefits. One of the hardest parts of our job has been undoing the damage done and the cynicism engendered by the last PR person who called the reporter.
Dave – Thank you for the thoughtful discussion. There are obviously two points of view on this topic between yourself and Mike Arrington. I believe the hybrid of your two points of view actually deliver the most value. When launching a new brand, product or service (and I do put social media networks into the services category because that is what I feel they ultimately deliver) you need to take advantage of new and old media opportunities to spread the word, create buzz, and build your brand.
Another important point that cannot be forgotten in this discussion is that businesses both big and small often do not have the internal resources to perform PR functions. Thus, they need the help of seasoned, passionate and effective external PR agencies to fill that void. Executive leadership in these businesses also have to run their companies and effective PR is a time consuming effort.
So, whether you believe you can be effective by just using social media sites, traditional PR strategies and tactics, or both (which I believe) you still need the personnel, either internal or external, to execute.
This is a great discussion and one I am sure will not end with this post.
You will be heartened to know that I know the Topsy folks personally, and, when I asked how they got TechCrunch to do such a big story about them, one of them said (and I quote) “Yep, we have a great PR lady.”
PR is not dead, and the smart tech firms know it.
This is a great discussion, and there’s one very clear thread of agreement here: communications, or PR, done well is valuable. Done poorly, and problems begin. Dave’s post is in defense o well-done, strategic communications counsel. Arrington pointed out the mistake of leaving out a critical channel in today’s world — not very sound counsel, if you ask me. Arrington’s criticisms, while painted with a broad brush, target those in our industry doing it wrong. Like Dave, I’d like to see some credit where credit is due, but it’s hard to disagree with the specific issues he raises.
Kimbal, I think, further reinforces the need for good work: a business, start-up or otherwise, needs sound, strategic counsel from an entity that truly understands the business. Having spent as much of my career on the client side as I have the agency side, I believe that can come from either source, and for every great example of an in-house person or department, I can show you a problem. Same with agencies. The key is to find the right fit for your business — just like you need to get your business in front of the right media outlets, from TechCrunch to People to Popular Mechanics.
And, Kimbal, I’ll bet there aren’t very many firms out there commanding $15K/month minimums for senior involvement any more. I was always disappointed in those who did. Coming from the client side, the focus must be, as you point out, on value and contribution, not driving a agency business model. That’s what’s killing mainstream media, and it will kill agencies that don’t adapt as well.
Thanks for kicking this discussion off, Dave!
As with others who have commented, I think you and Mike both have valid points. However, I do tend to side more with Mike. The PR industry has fallen behind the curve, and for the most part hasn’t kept-up with the strategies and tactics that really work for clients. I have no bone to pick with the PR firms who get it, just the ones who don’t. You might be interested in reading a post I authored entitled “The Truth about PR” http://www.n2growth.com/blog/public-relations-done-right
I come at it from an integrated marketing communications perspective. I don’t see PR as separate from the entire process of defining what the company does, explaining how it is different from other companies, interacting with various stakeholders, and so on.
Someone needs to address these issues, either a person inside the company who handles marketing and marketing communications, or someone outside the company with the skill to translate what the company does into an effective story and presentation.
Whether done in-house or through an agency, the process needs to start in the earliest days of the company and then continue on for the life of the company.
Effective PR people are effective communicators. Your company is going to want those skills one way or another.
Mike Arrington needs to remove his head from his ass. I have an email sent by him to my client at the time slagging off Mashable in no uncertain terms. No offence Mike, but I barely look at your site now. I find Mashable much more useful.
My opinion is that what works best is a combination of old and new. Traditional marketing techniques serve as a solid foundation, where new marketing techniques are a great way to enhance and promote a strong foundation. I believe a problem will occur if your marketing efforts are lopsided (too much old or new). It is also worth noting that a cookie cutter combination does not exist and that the marketing program should be tailored for each individual or company.
Wow he is totally saying something he has no clue about. Public relations is something you need for businesses.