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Bad PR – The Bane of My Existence: Seven Suggestions for PR Workers

Disclaimer:

Lest my intent be misconstrued, let me be clear up front: I both understand and value the role that PR plays. My negative experiences with PR stem from a distinct minority of less professional PR reps, but unfortunately, like apples, or analysts for that matter, the bad few PR workers can threaten the bunch. The following is intended to provide a few suggestions from someone who is the target of a relatively high volume of PR pitches, both appropriate and not, on what might be effective for PR workers attempting to reach analysts like myself. What this piece is not intended to be is an indictment of the PR industry, let alone its workers, because the overwhelming majority of the reps that we work with are competent, professional and a pleasure to work with. – sog

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One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren’t about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.” – Paul Graham

Like Graham, the existence of the PR industry, though I understood it intellectually, came as something of a shock in practical terms. The early years of RedMonk featured limited interactions with the type, primarily because we were a newer firm flying below the radar. The ensuing years and a more established presence have seen us attract our share – or more than, if some are to be believed – of attention, which has had both positive and negative ramifications for RedMonk.

On the positive side, the PR industry has been periodically excellent at matching our interests to firms that we had yet to discover via the usual methods. Even when working with firms with which we already enjoyed solid relationships, PR reps have been adept and timely at making new connections for us, keeping us abreadst of a constant stream of releases, and facilitating conversations where interest dictated. In several cases, in fact, we’ve fostered good enough relationships with PR representation that they’ve brought us into new accounts, which obviously we appreciate and try to reward whenever possible.

The value of good PR representation, in many respects, cannot be overstated, as Graham acknowledges.

Core to those that do the work well, in my opinion, is an understanding that relationships are integral to good practice. These need not be personal, though they often become so in my experience, but demand that PR staffers know their targets well: what are their interests? What are their research channels? What level do they prefer to function at? And so on.

Sadly, there are those in the PR world that have turned to the dark side, and have become little more than glorified spammers. Hell, one of the emails I received recently even contained the line, “I know I’ve spammed you a lot this year, hope you’ll indulge just one more.” No joke.

And while none of the following can top my all time most hated PR spam – one I received concerning “compact mini travel zip-up bag that contains individual towelettes” – these are the subject lines from PR sent emails that have found their way to my Inbox in recent months:

  • “‘Fill Rick’s Boots’ Campaign a Success with help of Sens. Webb, Tester”
  • “Wired’s Danger Room blogs about next-gen laser company”
  • “High-Tech Solar Power for the High-Powered Executive”
  • “Dare County, North Carolina to Install Elster AMCO Water’s evolution™ AMI”
  • “SkyWay USA’s Affordable Satellite Internet Service Available Today to Rural America”

How I got on PR lists concerning Texas politics, industrial lasers or individual towlettes is a question you’d have to ask the senders. I suspect, however, that these disreputable PR agencies who I’ll decline to out here simply purchased bulk lists with no targeting or segmentation whatsoever and mass mailed them. Or in other, truer words, they bought spam lists and spammed them.

Just as spam can limit the effectiveness of the email channel generally, bad PR email habits can dramatically limit the effectiveness of good PR by testing my already limited patience for the channel. Thus it is today more difficult to reach us via email than it was previously, for which a portion of the blame belongs to PR reps that have fallen to the dark side.

Besides the blindingly obvious “Don’t Spam” suggestion, six other items that PR firms might consider when working with analysts.

  1. Analysts Are Not Press: Don’t Treat Them as if They Are:
    A fact which is obvious to both analysts and the press, but apparently non-obvious to everyone else. Among the more critical distinctions is this one: analysts are not – typically – working off of story deadlines as are the press. We’re not under the gun to produce content, as our publishing schedules are generally far less regular.

    As a result, pitching me with an email whose subject line reads “STORY IDEA: [REDACTED] and Google send a wake-up call to video platforms” or “Story idea: Beauty IS the Geek” is almost guaranteed to fail simply because it is aimed at an audience who has no need for “story ideas.” Neither is it likely that an analyst could use a “story idea” as pitched by a PR representation, simply because the nature of the work is different.

    I can’t speak for my analyst colleagues, but I personally will never write up a piece based on an incoming email that reads “STORY IDEA:…”

  2. Caller ID Works: Don’t Just Keep Calling, and Calling, and Calling:
    Possibly because I have a toll free number, on more than a few occasions I’ve been the victim of an overzealous PR rep who might have drunk a little too much of the “don’t take no for an answer” kool aid. During one particular two hour client call, as an example, I was called six times by the same PR rep. Which, on my system, breaks the call up with a tone to indicate a waiting call, thus disrupting my own discussion. And of course said rep could not merely leave a voicemail. It’s difficult to imagine how, in this day and age, one could decide that it was acceptable to call dozens of times per day. If you leave a voicemail, and don’t hear back, it’s probably because what you were pitching isn’t relevant to me and I’m saving us both time.

    Either way, I can pretty much promise that if you spam my telephone line with multiple calls, I’m unlikely to listen to your pitch.

  3. Personalization: Don’t Address Your Notes “Dear Blogger”:
    As one firm apparently did this week. Obviously outbound and direct marketing tools can fail, or be difficult to configure and use and so on, but the more personal you can make your pitches, the more likely they are to succeed. It all comes back to relationships, remember. This is obvious, but screwed up surprisingly often.
  4. Press Releases: Don’t Use it as the Only Channel:
    I’ve been outspoken in the past in my lack of affection for press releases, and little has changed since. I still have little personal use for them, aside from the few facts that they bury within their stilted, awkward marketing-speak prose.

    That said, I’m very well aware that they remain not only relevant but vital to audiences of significant volume, and as a result I recognize that they’re a virtual necessity for many types of announcements. But I would always encourage PR representation to consider the possibility that, depending on the audience, the release may not be an appropriate vehicle for the news.

    We’ve seen much more sophisticated approaches embraced by PR types over the years – to the point that we’re frequently asked to blog news as it is broken – but there remain areas for improvement. Press releases should be just one facet of a multi-pronged approach to reach analysts; one that incorporates additional channels and media such as screencasts, FAQs, and wikis. This allows analysts to pursue the channel with the best signal for them, while avoiding the noise that often characterizes press releases.

  5. Snail Mail: Don’t. Please, Just Don’t:
    As analysts, we’re subject to inclusion on direct mail campaign lists. Lots of them. Besides the obvious waste of natural resources, the physical mail generally is beyond superfluous, as we obtain virtually all of our information through other channels.

    Worse, we also receive occasional “gifts” from PR firms. While these are no doubt well intentioned, they’re more often inconvenient than appreciated. I’ve received all kinds of knick-knacks from PR firms in the past: toy plastic lobsters, framed four leaf clovers, binoculars, a compass, broken and jumbled up candy, and – most recently – a squirt gun/float tube combination. Once, I received a wooden locked box which would open with a code that only the sending PR firm could provide. I think that’s still locked around here somewhere.

    While the thought is certainly appreciated, the mail and packages present a problem because of the volume. Travelling as much as we do, it all piles up and most of it, candidly, ends up getting thrown out. So save yourself the expense and us the trouble.

  6. Scheduling: Don’t Push the Burden On Us:
    One of the biggest time sinks we have at RedMonk, traditionally, is scheduling. This is likely less of an issue at the larger firms, where analysts are seldom responsible for their own schedules, but for smaller firms with less support staff available arranging meetings is a loathsome activity, thanks to a lack of attention from traditional collaboration vendors whose design assumption has been LAN rather than internet.

    That scheduling is difficult is, of course, not the fault of PR staffers. But they can act to minimize the hassle by proposing meeting times, and factoring in timezones when they do so. With a high volume of requests, inbound requests for time that ask us to propose times are likely to be served last, because of the overhead they impose. Instead of looking up a specific time and giving a Yay or Nay, I need to look and propose a few times that may or may not work for you.

  7. The Tools of the Trade Suck: Don’t Use Tools Where They’re Not Necessary:
    It happens less frequently these days than it once did, but it’s far from rare: I get a Webex invite for a call in which I’m just being presented a deck. Why the Webex, then? Even on Windows, it’s a hassle and rarely “just works.” On Linux, it means I have to spin up a Windows instance just for the purposes of viewing a deck. It’s inconvenient for both of us, as it results in five or ten minutes of dead time to start a call while people try and get connected.

    If you’re demoing software, ok, use a desktop sharing tool. Just don’t use Webex. Try Adobe Connect instead; it’s worked seamlessly on every platform I’ve ever tried it on. But if you’re not demoing software, let’s just skip the Webex. Send me the deck, and a.) I’ll have it for later reference, and b.) I can skip around in the deck to reference earlier or later slides.

Response Strategies

Over the years, I’ve evolved a few simple defenses that act to mitigate some of the more egregious offenses of the bad PR out there.

  1. Email Filters:
    While our court systems might favor a three strikes policy, here it’s one strike and you’re gone. The email has to be particularly misdirected; I’m certainly not banning someone for sending me an email for an area of software that’s a bit out of my coverage area. But if you send me a message about industrial lasers, that’s the last message of yours I’ll ever see. I’ve experimented with filtering Press Releases into an Archive Folder, but can’t get this to work reliably without cutting false positives.
  2. Mail Filters:
    I’ll have more on this in a later post, but as of my transition out to Maine, all RedMonk mail is being processed via a mail forwarding service called Earth Class Mail (that’s the reason for our new mailing address in Seattle, in case you were curious). This allows me to filter and recycle all direct mail that’s not required through a web interface.
  3. Scheduling Software:
    We at RedMonk have been using a tool built by the Crowd Favorite gang that is unfortunately still in a private testing phase, and it’s met with nearly universal approval from the PR staff we work with. Instead of negotiating multiple steps to schedule a meeting, outside requesters can view a near-real time version of my Free/Busy information, pick and open slot and request a meeting – all in the same place. This has greatly reduced the overhead associated with meeting scheduling, and I would encourage all PR staffers to look into MyFreeBusy and similar tools.
  4. Telephony Filtering:
    The vast majority of incoming calls I receive now arrive either through Grand Central or our alternate telephony service, which permits me to screen calls very easily. It also allows me, when necessary, to forward over a voicemail to one of my colleagues if they’re the more appropriate recipient for the message.
  5. Webex Out:
    Whenever possible, I try to accommodate clients by queuing up a Windows instance to run Webex where they choose, but for the most part I try to proactively drive briefers away from the gratuitous usage of online presentation clients. In other instances, we’ve redirected over to a test version of Connect Adobe granted us usage to in order to ensure a more seamless process for everyone involved.

But those are just my ideas. What suggestions would you have for those who would practice better PR?

Categories: Marketing, RedMonk Miscellaneous.

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