PR is dead (again)

PR died again today. At best it’s broken and at worst irrelevant.

So do tech firms need public relations?
Surely the best technology will rise to the top and gain the attention of key bloggers and the press. Well, yes cream does float (and so does sh*t), but the vast majority of technology is by definition somewhere in the middle. It competes in a crowded space, with narrowly defensible differentiators. Under those conditions, the firm which proactively promotes itself should out-execute its peers.

It’s not a strategy to hope that your mousetrap is so good that people will beat a path to your door. Let’s hope for that, but let’s plan for the opposite. History is littered with better tech which was out-marketed – Palm wasn’t a patch on Psion for instance.

So yes, firms do need PR.

Do you need a PR firm though?
You don’t need to hire a PR firm, just as you don’t need attorneys, accountants, brokers, recruitment firms, lease agents, ad firms, or web design shops. To a greater or lesser degree of success, you can do all these yourself. But it will cost you time and your mistakes will cost you money.

No doubt reporters would much rather talk directly to the CEO of a company than a PR representative. Quite apart from the flattery, they get right to the source of the vision, strategy and planning, which they can directly quote. But the fact is that the CEO needs to do what only he or she alone can do. And while there are times that PR is the most urgent priority, that’s not always the case and the CEO must focus elsewhere.

It’s best to have some dedicated PR resource. There are many reasons to keep that resource in-house for certain types of firms and at certain stages. And many to outsource to a specialist agency for others. Most firms have a hybrid which works well.

Is PR broken?
Yes – but it has been broken for a long time. My friend Dennis Howlett taught me many of the things which PR firms do wrong in the mid-nineties: not reading the publication; not understanding the reporter’s beat; not having a firm grasp of the technology; not having a good story; not following up etc. These things have nothing to do with blogging or new technology.

Fact is, and I’ll whisper this, some PR people just aren’t that good. And, I’m afraid even good ones make mistakes (yes horrific huh?). And, others frankly are just busy sometimes.

Sure, the technical changes in communications can compound those mistakes and make them more public. And yes, we’re all learning how to use each new channel, and write new forms of more and best practice. But there are still low barriers to entry for PR, so there are still poor practitioners out there.

There are also poor reporters and bloggers who fail to understand technologies, miss deadlines, break agreed embargoes, keep review kit, steal ideas, change post timestamps etc. There are low barriers to entry here too – it’s just part of the game and in a fair world the best ones survive, and the worst close during a recession. Winter kills a lot of bugs.

Does the debate help?
No-one likes criticism and we can all do better. Some PR folk are thin-skinned and self-important, so get their knickers in a bunch about it. I personally don’t think that blogging the problems is the best approach, but if all you have is a hammer, it’s the easiest one. And perhaps it’s better to say something rather than be silent. I can empathize with the frustrations.

The facts will tell you that PR is not dead or even dying. The industry is growing at double digits and firms are continuing to hire new staff to handle the new clients which approach them. The power of the media is increasing, so firms need resources as both a sword and shield to compensate. There are some seismic changes going through the PR industry as there are in media and advertising. But those changes are not happening as fast as we all might think (or like). It was only in the last year that more than half US households got broadband for instance!

As the blog networks move closer to journalistic norms and look to replace the traditional media, they are learning how to cooperate with the public relations departments of the companies they want to write about. And vice versa -witness the embargo debate for instance. These are industries with a symbiotic relationship. For the most part it’s a collaborative and fruitful one, but of course there are pent-up frustrations on both sides. To an extent these periodic outbursts are cathartic, so let’s hope it makes us all improve our game.