WebInno Panel PR Bashing: Harsh, But Fair

by Holland-Mark | September 30, 2009

I was asked to moderate a panel at last night’s WebInno, the topic of which was “An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Bootstrapping PR.” It included heavy hitters Scott Kirsner, Peter Kafka, Bob Brown and Wade Roush, and we had a good time on stage and off.

Among the key themes of the panel was that, as far as these reporter/bloggers were concerned, PR agencies aren’t worth much. In a roomful of PR folks, you can imagine what happened next. As John Wall of Ronin Marketer described:

There was one question from the crowd asking why PR firms were not represented. David said it was because they wanted a panel of first person accounts from the reporters. I think a key point on whether or not you need a PR firm is your ability to tell your story effectively. You either want a PR firm that has existing relationships with the specific publications or channels you need to get into, or to help you craft your message if you are not a passionate and effective storyteller.

That question was asked by Bobbie Carlton, and she was first out today with her thoughts:

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.”

Lora Kratchounova posted a pretty balanced summary of the panel’s advice, including:

Best way to get journalists’ attention? Seek and get a personal referral — otherwise whether you do it or your agency does it for you, your pitch will go unnoticed. Then try and meet these journalists in person and tell them your story. Got the impression that journalists are looking for the raw material, that more often than not, they avoid media-trained people. Because they are after the juicy details, the things people don’t tell you — so the more authentic, first-hand info they can get, the better the chance that they will listen to your story.

Chuck Tanowitz posted a thoughtful critique, climaxing in this juicy anecdote:

After the panel, as I approached Wade Roush, I found myself in a very interesting conversation with one of the panel’s targets: a bootstrapped entrepreneur whose company is targeting application developers. He had a few questions of Wade that frankly were out of Wade’s range. The entrepreneur wanted to know how to talk with specific application development message boards and what impact news and information presented there would have on gaining coverage from Xconomy. He and I then had a nice conversation about communications strategy leading up to his launch. We agreed that getting coverage in the Globe, for example, wouldn’t help him reach his audience, but later may be useful in reaching potential investors, a move that affects his communications strategy. We also talked about his need for a “community manager” who would focus on working with the various application development forums.

And that leads to my main problem with the panel: they preached the misguided notion that PR is only media relations.

Look folks… It’s a fair comment to say the contrarian view should have been represented. And if PR agencies really didn’t add value, they’d be in worse shape than most of them are now.

For the record, as I stated in a comment to Bobbie’s post:

…the reason neither David nor I thought to include a PR person was that the panel’s subject was “An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Bootstrapping PR.” I’ve never seen a PR shop that would get out of bed for less that $4K/month, so the vast majority are off topic.

As for the individual practitioners who’ve broken with the old PR practices – people focused on networking and relationship building, on adding real value… there are a few out there, but in defense of the panel I would say those folks are the exception, and not the rule. Given that, the fact is most entrepreneurs who require coaching on the skills you describe are ill-equipped to distinguish the shamans from the shysters, so going it alone in the beginning does seem pretty good advice.

This isn’t really about PR at all, it’s about the whole broken marketing services model. I believe that social marketing / influence marketing / content marketing / inbound marketing / whatever-you-want-to-call-it marketing is going to take a big bite out of conventional marketing in the coming years, and that it’s already replaced conventional marketing for the kinds of businesses we were talking to last night. The marketing pros who want a seat at that table need to earn it by adding value, in the form of relationships, real-world experience, and the development of content that serves the interests of BOTH commercial entities and their target audiences.

I think what our audience heard last night is that the people who can do that are needed now more than ever. The problem with most PR firms is that their underlying economics are driven by a leverage model that surrounds a handful of the above folks with an army of earnest, underpaid young faces. In that sense the PR firm model is not something that serves the interests of entrepreneurs. In fact it’s something I think is destined for the history books.

We’re intimately familiar with this challenge at Holland-Mark, and are struggling with it ourselves. Is the “junior staff leverage” model really dead, and if so, what business model will support the next generation of great marketing services firms? The truth is I don’t know. But it seems to me that’s the conversation worth having among the “PR” digerati… not the semantic argument about what PR is or isn’t, but how, in the end, the people delivering it will build a sustainable and productive business.

I’ll post the video here when it’s available, please subscribe if you don’t want to miss it. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts – both on the question above, and on whether last night’s panel was fair or not.

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