The Bad Part of Mouthing Off in Public Late at Night…

The bad part about mouthing off in public late at night is that you have to stay up late to write your blog post defending yourself. (And those of you who know me well know I don’t do late night very well.)

So, earlier this evening, I was mouthing off at #WebInno23.  [I did manage to get around to all the panelists in person to apologize for being obnoxious but never managed to catch up to David (the organizer, whom I love, right, David?)]

The occasion was the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Bootstrapping PR, ably moderated by Michael Troiano and with panelists Bob Brown, NetworkWorld; Peter Kafka, AllthingsD; Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe; and Wade Roush, Xconomy.  If you are like me, you immediately notice what’s missing.  That’s right, there are no PR people on a panel about PR.

These are all good guys — best in the business.  This is a blue ribbon panel — with a couple hundred entrepreneurs lapping up their every word like cream from a bowl.  And here are a few of the choice words:

Bob (talking about the smartest approach from a start-up), “…and there were no PR people attached to the group.”

Scott “…and the PR person brings over the CEO, and it’s all kind of stiff and uncomfortable.”

Scott (talking about dumb things entrepreneurs have done) “and, the PR agencies, with their expensive retainers have to make something happen so they fire off an email offering to make an introduction for me to an entrepreneur I’ve known for years.”

Every PR person in the audience is squirming.  (Most of them, unlike yours truly, were smart enough to sit on their hands.  I popped my hand up and asked if there had been any consideration to putting a PR person on this panel.  And the worst of it is, I think the guys are not far off the mark but there wasn’t anyone on the panel to defend PR as a practice, and point out the flip side.  Good thing I really don’t do just PR any more — and certainly not the kind of PR they are talking about anyway.

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.”

The reality is that PR = public relations and in today’s world the best PR people are skilled communicators who coach entrepreneurs as they think about how they communicate with their communities.  (All those words have “comm” as a root for a reason. )  The relevant skills found in a traditional PR tool kit include: excellent writing and communications skills, a broad knowledge of business and marketing,  an understanding of what makes a good story, and thus, what a community cares about.  Maybe you are calling it a Community Manager or Content Creator but it sounds like PR to me.

One question from the audience had to do with the value of PR Web, and Scott shot back that he had no idea what it was.  (It’s a press release distribution service, ostensibly competing with PR Newswire and BusinessWire.)  There’s a reason Scott has no idea what it is…it’s an SEO tool — it is used to build links around keywords to help direct traffic to your website and increase your Google page rank.  It certainly isn’t used to communicate with reporters.  (Actually, Wade said he was familiar with it and saw it as an archive.)  Bob said it quite well, “Anyone with any sense communicates directly with the appropriate reporters.”

Press releases aren’t press releases any more — they can be news announcements but most likely they are a messaging document that serves as a tool for driving traffic to your website.

Scott had a lovely quote about how the PR system is really broken and how we should think about PR as a “retail system versus a wholesale system.”  (That could be one reason why some agencies call themselves boutiques.)  Many agencies, AND their clients, see PR as a volume game — looking for the most coverage with the biggest circulations — but this is a dated notion that ignores things like specific goals and targeted coverage.  One audience question was about “when is it too early to talk to a reporter.”  The panel very astutely turned around the question and asked what the goal is.  It all depends on what you want to accomplish by talking to the press.

I could probably go on all night — and in the morning I need to be up early to link to the others who will undoubtedly be writing on this topic too.  It is too bad that some people in the PR industry are still using a dated business model and tactics that irk the media to this extent.  But if you are going to publicly flog an entire industry, at least give us a voice to defend ourselves.  Oh, wait — we do have a voice — our own blogs.

As a side note, Wade made a gift to the crowd of his ONLY areas of interest. So if you have a story like this, pitch him:

  1. We just raised a boatload of money.  (He actually said “lots.”)
  2. We’ve got a new CEO (probably because we got rid of the old CEO.)
  3. We completely changed our strategy.
  4. We launched a brand new product — not a v2.1456 but a brand new product that lets us tackle new marketplaces, and new customers.

21 thoughts on “The Bad Part of Mouthing Off in Public Late at Night…

  1. Bobbie – Your question was totally appropriate, if a little snarky, but none of us thought it was obnoxious. There were a lot of people in the room that felt as you did, so here’s to you for representing them.

    As for the panel, 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 beleive, as you do I think, 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 thier target audiences.

    I think what you 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.

    1. Hear, hear, hear. Thanks so much, Mike, for the comment. And, for attempting to balance things out last night. (It was noted by all the marketers in the audience that you did try to get the panel to “look on the bright side.” I expected to hear some examples of PR heroics; they do exist. I have a friend who vividly remembers me chasing him down while he was working out in the corporate gym so he could answer a reporter on a deadline’s question. And there are dozens of others.)

      In the past, I’ve worked at agencies. Like any consulting business it is hard to balance the needs of the client with the needs of the agency to have a profitable business model. I just think that while the marketing people in the audience know enough to differentiate between an agency and a sole practitioner, and know when each is appropriate, the message that the primary audience got was “stay away from PR.”

  2. Thanks Bobbie– while you put yourself out there, I was passive-aggressively Twittering (and badly– I got Scott Kirsner’s statement about retail PR totally wrong)- I also missed half the panel because I felt I should spend a little time with my client (show favorite Book of Odds for those who must know)- you know, “showing value” (rimshot).

    I think there was a great panel in there bursting to get out, but we are left with second prize– some great morning-after discussion

  3. Bobbie, thanks for your excellent, accurate writeup…I think you’re correct that the PR industry was not adequately represented last night.

    I just wanted to clarify something. Those four areas that you list at the end of the post are not the only ones that I’m interested in. I was responding to a question about whether companies should try to emphasize “news hooks” in their communications with the press and what I said was that those four items are the only things that make me pay attention to a press release. I am interested in a far wider range of stories — it’s just that I tend to find these stories on my own, through conversations with entrepreneurs and technologists.

    1. Whoops, sorry about the “miss” on the quote, Wade. Thanks for the clarification. Having reporters provide examples or guidelines of their preferred or best stories is a great way to make sure they get pitched The Right Stuff.

  4. Wow. Where to start? When entrepreneurs are done pitching their story to reporters, should they then write their own legal contracts?

    Isn’t the sign of a good businessman or businesswoman that he/she knows when to bring in experts? Or are they supposed to do everything themselves.

    I challenge entrepreneurs in the audience to ask themselves – if they needed, say, an Ajax programmer would they decide to do it themselves? Or consult/hire/contract out to someone who knows Ajax? Why would they consider PR different from any other business or technology expertise?

    Sure, you know Scott, but after he covers you in the Boston Globe, what’s your next step? Or do you only need one story in one newspaper to make your PR goals?

    Now, I’m not advocating start ups need to run out and hire the biggest tech agency on 128; in fact, I’d argue that’s not the best solution for most companies. Look at boutique agencies; check out freelancers; hire a PR pro; bring a PR guru into your “kitchen cabinet;” there are many options to getting PR counsel.

    But DIY PR is probably NOT where you should be spending your time.

  5. Interested in PR solutions that do not include an agency? Go to almost any social media Tweetup and you’re bound to meet some of the excellent and seasoned PR folks out there.

    Yup, the agency model is broken. And I don’t think it’s “fixable.” From fees to ignoring social media to focusing on pitching ever-shrinking trade mags, the model and biz just doesn’t work anymore.

  6. The more I thought about this, as the panel went on, the more I realized it was the panel’s premise that was most bothersome. Granted, I am biased, but I would argue PR is not something to be bootstrapped, any more than a startup’s legal/IP/patents work can be bootstrapped.

    Yes, startup execs can share their stories directly with applicable reporters, but they are likely to achieve better results, and match those to their evolving business goals, if they first consult with a skilled PR rep. He/she should be able to, at the very least, help with initial story development, identifying key audiences, and mapping a timeline for interviews, launches, and announcing what’s new and significant.

    I’ll leave it for another time as to if and when a startup should engage a PR agency or solo rep, or add someone in-house.

  7. I’ve been on both sides of the issue: first as a financial PR professional during the IPO heyday and, now, at a bootstrapping start-up.

    I agreed with a lot of the statements the panel said last night. As a “bootstrapper,” cost is paramount. In the tech and new media space, a traditional PR strategy isn’t going to be the best use of cash.

    As an entrepreneur I wear a lot of hats, as cash flow improves I will jettison some off to qualified people I hire. Believe me, if I had the cash I would gladly hire the extra help, when it becomes appropriate. For now, Inquisix’s strategy is pretty much what the panel was suggesting– and of course it helps that I worked in PR in a former life.

    I agree with Bobbi though, it would have been a more robust discussion were there the addition of one of the new breeds of PR professionals. Perhaps the discussion could have touched upon when is it appropriate to hire a PR firm and how to suss out the best fit for one’s company and strategy. But that may be another panel all together.

    Just as traditional media is changing to remain competitive, so is Public Relations.

    Good question Bobbi.

  8. Let me weigh in on this as someone who is an entrepreneur, was not at the event, and who’s primary business is helping companies produce printed marketing materials (aka “old media”).

    I talk to people all the time who have tried to “bootstrap” their printing – whether it has been through an online service like Vistaprint, a copy shop at a national chain like Staples or Kinko’s, or off their own office printer. Rarely are they completely satisfied with the results, but they go that route because it’s cheap. Well guess what – if it looks cheap to you, it looks cheap to your clients, too.

    It’s the same way with PR. Hiring a professional, while more costly, will yield better results than what 95% of entrepreneurs will do on their own.

  9. I found the panel last night useful. I think an opportunity to discuss the changing, complex nature of how your company relates to its surrounding community (press included) is definitely a conversation worth having, but I see it as a different topic than what was covered last night. The focus, as I saw it, was “bootstrapping PR”, not “PR for bootstrapping companies”. For me the distinction here is that the focus was towards an entrepreneur who was forgoing formal PR agencies. I thought the frank conversation from the journalists that this was a viable option, and some best practices was informative. A panel on PR for Bootstrapping companies on the other hand might look at the useful role that a PR/community relations professional could play for a younger company.

  10. Bobbie,
    Little controversy sometimes is good. Everyone in the audience should have had thick skin (and if they didn’t, they were in a wrong event, wrong market).

    I agree even with the raw interpretation what the panel suggested – do PR yourself. Why? Entrepreneurs need coaching, not someone doing it for them, because many of the bootsrapping 1st-timers are also 1st time entrepreneurs too. Until someone puts in the effort and/or makes their mistakes, they WILL NOT value ANY professional help, let alone PR.

    I have an article on my blog on the subject ( ) and one of the main points I am making is: “Vast majority of true 1st time entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know.”

    So why get angry about journos telling entrepreneurs to do it themselves. They are helping you! An educated client is a much better client than a naive one.

    BTW there are plenty of founders out there who can do their own basic legal work. Attorneys love using scare tactics, that is how most are taught to “market” themselves. I personally don’t have a law degree, but I will whip up NDA, IP assignment, or register TM without any need of an attorney. That is commodity type stuff they bump down to paralegals anyway. There are times for a good attorney and there are times you should know how to do it yourself.

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