Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Guest Post: LaunchSquad - Best Time To Be In PR

Posted by Tom Foremski - July 27, 2009

[Guest Post from Jason Mandell (@jmandell on Twitter) from LaunchSquad, which PR Week named Boutique PR Agency of 2009. Please send your guest post to Tom(at)Foremski.com]

By Jason Mandell

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I know you've been hammering PR firms for years, and to be frank, in many instances I've disagreed with your predictions on the death of the industry and it's decreased value for companies. However, your most recent post on the subject aligned much more with our views on the future of PR, so I wanted to pass along some of our thoughts here at LaunchSquad as well.

One idea that you allude to in your post, but do not outright say, is that this might be the best time ever to be in the PR industry.

Modern communications revolves around good stories that lead to interesting conversations that ultimately drive positive outcomes.

And no marketing discipline sits closer to a company's "story," and has the ability to engage with consumers both directly and through the media, better than public relations. PR people tend to understand "story" more deeply than any other marketing discipline, and as a result we have an advantage in figuring out how to inspire and engage in a credible way with people. The changes going on right now fit right into the sweet spot of skills that PR folks have been required to have.

The bigger question is not if PR will survive, it's how long it will take for the industry to evolve and what its next form will look like when the dust settles. One thing is for sure, it will look very different than today, and we're doubling down that PR will be a driving force within the greater sphere of marketing in helping companies compete and succeed. It's already clear from what many companies are doing that there's a lot of PR firms that understand this well and have embraced this exciting new landscape in very profound ways.

The PR firm of the future in our view is based on the following key elements:

1) Story: A deep understanding of how to build and develop compelling and inspiring stories from the various assets our clients have.

2) Distribution: Using a confluence of methods to disseminate those stories to the world through a constantly evolving mix of channels.

3) Results-based: Transparent, direct and outcome-based to the core.

3) Measurement and Optimization: Using technology to drive and maximize real results.

With that said, I also wrote in some comments in response to your prior post:

- Why do PR agencies bring in their "social media experts?" Shouldn't they all be social media experts by now? Why make the distinction.

Absolutely. Those that figure this out the fastest will be at great advantage. Having people specialize in social media and everyone else do the same old "traditional PR" is not a formula for success. I think ultimately all agencies will figure this out and many already have, but for the big ones it could take a while.

We have a unique focus on working with some of the most innovative companies in the world who are ahead of most in understanding the applications and implications of social media. Some tech-focused PR firms have decided to go upstream to the less savvy big companies to share their early expertise in this area. We think this is a short term opportunity that will ultimately fall flat as these companies mature and the firms focused on this lose their bead on the pulse of innovation.

- PR needs to focus on outcomes, and not outputs. Outputs are just ways to charge for time spent, outcomes is where the value is.

- Too many people are managing others rather than doing the work that needs to be done.

The focus on outcomes and not outputs is something that is essentially tied to the hourly billing model, where PR firms make money on labor, not results. This is at the core not a client-focused model and is clearly broken, and has been for years. Once more clients figure this out and become themselves most concerned with results and less with billing accountability, firms will have no choice but to change. Until then, those firms that are proactive and make the change themselves will be ahead of the game and be well positioned for the future.

The PR industry has a bad history of having it's most skillful practitioners become non-practitioners (i.e. managers and salespeople) just as they've mastered the art. This must change. Much of it again goes back to the hourly billing model which forces senior talent to focus on client-by-client profitability instead of generating results and satisfying the needs of a client. If you make a client happy, they will be more than glad to return the favor financially.

- Is it PR, marketing, or advertising? Which department pays for PR? You should compete with the best ideas getting funding.

I'm bullish on PR long-term, again because of our training in getting to the guts of a story and figuring out how to get that story out to the world in a credible manner. Our skills transfer to the new world of communications more easily than advertisers, who in general have been trying to convince consumers to behave in a certain way, as opposed to serving in an informational/educational role. Advertising is more about sizzle and magic, whereas PR is steak and transparency.

- PR firms need to figure out how to drive traffic to news stories and to client web sites. They don't know how.

This is at the core of the value that many PR firms provide already. The ones that figure out how to do this best, and are constantly stretching, expanding, and experimenting, will master the art of facilitating consumer/customer conversation and engagement, which is what companies want most and we are uniquely positioned to deliver. And this ties more directly to results/outputs than ever before. It's no longer about just pitching and generating a media hit. That's just the beginning and our role is to utilize all of the tools and channels at our fingertips to spread the word about and encourage people to engage with our clients.

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