When Bylines are Bygones

In slower times on the PR front, an enterprising firm thinks of ways to get their clients in print without the benefit of “hard” news. Many things can be done, such as proactive pitching for trend stories, announcing company milestones, etc. Creativity is king is such situations.

One of the most successful, tried-and-true ways to keep momentum alive is to craft a compelling byline article about the space in which your client plies its trade. Now, in an ideal world, the PR firm knows enough about the company’s market to write a thought-provoking piece worthy of placement in targeted pubs. Or at least they know enough to be able to come up with a solid skeleton – an outline of the piece.

However, it doesn’t always work out that way. First, some firms are given to charge extra for original byline writing (and just about everything else, for that matter). Second, many clients prefer to actually think for themselves. And that’s a good thing.

What’s not so good is that some clients have difficulty writing stories absent of shameless advertising for their own companies. Unfortunately, the publishing world universally agrees that advertising is something you have to pay for. It’s like a conspiracy in which publishers have banded together and made a pact to actually make money. Disguise an ad as a story and you may as well use it to ignite fireplace kindling.

But there are ways to get your company’s message across without repeatedly inserting its name in bold face in your “story.” You can get your point across by using simple devices such as: “According to industry analysts, companies that embrace the hosted model realize the benefits of …”

In the above example, the author didn’t name a specific company. Instead, the company’s “hosted model” is validated by analysts who discuss the many “benefits” of offerings like yours. This broad brush on the industry, backed by the views of a respected third-party, lends credibility to the messenger, and is therefore more palatable to editors with an aversion to self-promotion.

Bonus tip: a good byline article can be sliced and diced for many different purposes after it’s published. Pare it down and use it in an email pitch, for example. Reconfigure it and use it for an award submission or a speaking opportunity.

Creativity is key, as mentioned above. But equally important is tactfulness. As a rule of thumb, if you read the story you wrote and feel proud of your company, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Instead, you should feel excited about the industry in which you ply your trade.

Conventional Wisdom

So, today the DNC kicks off in Boston. For both the elephants and the donkeys it’s a long (some say too long) exercise in staying on message.

The Dems talking points will be largely absent of anti-Dubya comments. They figure they’ve already spent a good deal of time ripping the president’s policies, and that now is the time to:

1. Talk about Mr. Kerry’s vision for America (rather than what Mr. Bush is doing wrong), and;

2. Above all else, for the love of Pete, be “optimistic.”

This strategy makes sense for a few reasons. First, the Kerry camp picked up on Howard Dean’s success in bashing the president on Iraq, the economy and a host of other policy issues. This was done to “energize the base.” However, right or wrong, a candidate can only lob so many verbal hand grenades at the incumbent before the public turns sour on the tactic.

For the convention and moving forward, the Dems have scrapped the vitriol in favor of discussing what Kerry plans to do for the country, should he be elected to become the most powerful man in the world. And as a general rule, it’s best to sound “optimistic” when applying for a job.

The Bushies, meanwhile, won’t stand by idly. They have dispatched to Boston a team dedicated to dispelling just about everything Camp Kerry says at the convention. Their job is really twofold:

1. Repeatedly criticize Kerry’s voting record (without being viscous), and;

2. Use the words “liberal” and “Massachusetts” together in the same sentence as often as possible with discussing Kerry’s voting record.

From a PR perspective, it’s fascinating to watch interviews on various channels and have everyone on a given side saying EXACTLY the same thing. Whether or not you fancy politics, it’s a good lesson for businesses of all sizes.

If everyone on your team is consistent with the company messaging, there will be no marketplace confusion or embarrassing “clarifications” necessary in new business deals or to the press. And the only way to get everyone on the same page is to practice, practice, practice.

Media training is a good place to start. There’s a reason why politicians hire savvy media experts to advise their campaigns: it works.

Haystacks and Jabberwocky


Clients in general and client PR contacts in particular pride themselves in communicating the various “interesting” details of their product offerings or company news. Sort of like proud parents. Completely understandable, given the time and energy invested.

But just as some proud parents are hopelessly unable to stop jawing about even the most mundane accomplishments of their progeny, clients sometimes allow too many supporting details get in the way of a good story.

Editors confronted with this scenario while scanning the morning’s press releases quickly regard the crush of supporting details as being akin to a haystack, in which a needle (read: the news) must be buried. Not fond of unraveling tedious mysteries before their second cup of coffee, they simply mosey on over to the next release.

Before that happens, the company’s PR firm better step up to the plate and correct the problem. That means grabbing a pitchfork (delete key) and reducing the pile of what Lewis Carroll called “Jabberwocky.” That’s a made up word for “nonsense.”

Perhaps Mark Twain said it best. He once wrote a lengthy letter and concluded it this way:  “If I had more time I would have written less.”

Now, not to pick on any one company, but I did a quick google news search for press releases to find examples for quick discussion. Below is one of the first to pop up:

“IRVINE, Calif., July 19 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Broadcom Corporation (Nasdaq: BRCM - News), a leading provider of highly integrated semiconductor solutions enabling broadband communications, today announced the Broadcom® RAIDCore(TM) BC4000 series RAID host bus adapter (HBA), delivering the industry's most reliable, high performance Serial ATA (SATA) RAID controller cards currently available. Offering the industry's most extensive SATA-based RAID feature set, the BC4000 RAID controller cards are an excellent choice for small-to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and enterprise workgroups looking to improve data integrity and data access without the high costs usually associated with enterprise-class RAID functionality. Broadcom's new storage controller cards are available through authorized Bell Microproducts' resellers and other major distributors worldwide.”


No disrespect, but if the desired goal of Broadcom Corporation was to spark violent seizures in those brave enough to read this opening paragraph, it was a thrashing success. Most editors view this 102-word opener as an enormous haystack. A giant pile of jabberwocky.

Another quick search found the next one. Note: this one involves twice as many companies:

STRATFORD, Conn.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--July 22, 2004--Dictaphone Corporation's Communications Recording Systems (CRS)(TM)) Group today announced that it has signed a joint marketing agreement with Lucent Technologies.

Hmmm. Just 19 words. Two companies signed a marketing agreement.

The moral of the story? In press releases, including the headlines, less is more. Generally speaking, if your “news” release makes an editor’s eyes water, you might as well save some money and post your press release on the inside of a trash can.

Your company works too hard to develop its products and its reputation to alienate its most important audience.

Booth Blunders

Ah, tradeshows. Giant convention centers where products from all over the country migrate once a year (with their eager owners), in an attempt to beguile browsing “decision-makers” with their respective charms. Demos run their cycles. Hands gesture sincerely. Booth babes bat their lashes.


Walking by a booth invariably gets this siren call: “Hello there! Can I tell you about (so-and-so) today?” Before you can figure out where the voice is coming from, the speaker’s eyes are laser-focused on your name tag, trying to quickly figure out if you have enough juice to actually buy something. A glimmer of purchasing power.


Or maybe he’s a reporter?!


Specifically, the tradeshow experience is a slow motion riot in which companies spiff up their booths and their sales pitches in order to convert prospects from being casually interested to actively engaged in dialogue that could result in a closed sale. “Getting lots of leads” has long been the operative goal at such events (as well as a bag full of fun give-aways for little Billy and Suzie).


But most serious companies understand that tradeshows aren’t just for selling. Done correctly, a company can build terrific editorial momentum at tradeshows and its brand can be greatly enhanced by a logical, well-executed Public Relations strategy.


Problem is, most companies (and their PR Firms) have the strategy all wrong. And it’s not necessarily their fault: the old, time-tested techniques for generating editorial interest at tradeshows have simply become outdated and ineffective today. Sort of like a typewriter. Or a slingshot.


Don’t Make the Big Announcement at the Show


Time and time again companies of all sizes waste perfectly good news at trade shows. The thinking is that “making a splash” at the trade show with a big announcement will lead to increased buzz at the booth, draw prospects to the noise and help close deals.


But it doesn’t work that way, whereas 20 years ago this strategy made sense. After all, news didn’t travel as fast as it does today. Reporters didn’t have the luxury of immediately getting all of the information they needed about a company. They had to show up at events such as trade shows to get “the scoop” on the exhibitors.


And though the realities have changed, most companies’ thinking about tradeshow PR remains back in the 70s, when John Travolta’s sky-pointing disco gyrations were accepted as “the way people dance.” Try that routine today and you’ll discover “the way people aggressively get thrown out of nightclubs.”


Today, many companies continue to announce their “biggest news of the year” at the trade show, but reporters aren’t saddled with the communications difficulties of years past. And because they don’t need to talk to everyone to get their news (the Internet is a trusty tool, after all), reporters generally prefer to spend their time at trade shows digging around for that one interesting nugget of information that will make their respective stories different than those of their peers. And, sorry to be blunt, folks, but a press release at your booth isn’t that nugget.


Which is why, instead of  announcing your best news at a trade show, you should strongly consider making the announcement one week before the event – after briefing all of the relevant analysts and reporters. That way, prospects will have read actual news stories about your company by the time the show starts, providing them with a frame of reference that makes your booth infinitely more approachable:


I read about these guys last week. I should go check them out for myself. See what’s up.


And instead of having a boring stack of press releases sitting on a table at your booth (like every other company), you can have stacks of news articles that have recently been written about your company’s exciting new product. After all, a news release that your company wrote is far less credible than a comprehensive article written by an objective, third party. Just ask your prospects.


After you’ve established they’ve got juice, of course.

Mysterious Relationships

In our world, the ever-fickle world of PR, here's an ideal situation that actually happens: a prominent reporter calls one of our clients' executives for comment on the latest whizbang news from company X. Or to provide breadth or color for an enterprising trend story in progress. Or to simply ask him/her to lunch to catch up about the market, the competition, etc.

Good news, right? The PR machine is firing on all cylinders; a pithy quote from our client is sure to grace the pages of magazine X!

Know what's better news? Not a single PR person is involved in the above scenario. No middle men or women. No snappy pitches rigorously approved by the Agency's Chain of Command. No obnoxious/awkward "just following up on my email" phone calls from account executives who know darn well that their initial email contained exactly zero news. And that's never a fun call, save for those who thrive on abrupt rejection.

The reporter called the executive DIRECTLY because of a mysterious, seldom-achieved thing called a "relationship." Here's why that's important to know: a good PR firm can arrange appointments between executives and reporters. It can even arm the executive with a compelling story to tell. But a PR firm can't magically foster these reporter-executive interactions into meaningful relationships, ones that repeatedly pay editorial dividends.

One CEO understands this better than any other in recent memory. His name (indeed, his brand) is Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com. Sure, in the early days his PR firm did what any Agency worth its salt does: it made introductions.


But that's when public relations effectively hopped in Benioff's sidecar and relaxed for the blustery ride. Mr. Benioff is known to spend a large percentage of his work week romancing reporters. He calls them directly when he sees an article in which his company should appear, if not dominate. He sends them small gifts. He invites them to lunch, to dinner, to parties. He knows the ages of their children and which pro sports teams they follow. And he keeps in touch religiously, evangelizing and philosophizing and casting subtle and not-so-subtle aspersions about the competition.

And reporters gobble it up. Need a gutsy quote? Call Benioff. Slow news day? Marc will have something up his Hawaiian shirt sleeve.

His company has gotten more ink than it knows what to do with (salesforce.com recently went public), and it has very little to do with his quite able PR firm. It has everything to do with Marc picking up where his firm left off, and his commitment to fostering those seldom-achieved relationships.

The Ad Value Sham

Lacking our own true north when it comes to measuring PR effectiveness, some brainiac hit on the idea of Ad Value Equivalency, which - loosely defined - tries to measure the value of a PR "hit" against the value of an advertisement in the same magazine, e.g., "If the clipping in Newsweek is 4" x 4" and a 4" x 4" advertisement in Newsweek costs $225,000, then the PR clip is worth $225,000."

Yecch. This is so wrong. It's like saying, "How many apples does it take to make an orange?"

The measurement experts at KD Paine have thought about this a lot. While they do not, bless them, approve of Ad Value Equivalency as a measurement tool, they understand why it has its merits:

"Since ad rates are an indication of relative credibility, an argument can be made for using ad rates as a factor in analyzing media. How much a publication charges for advertising is a reflection not just of its circulation, but also of its reputation versus its peers. So for example, in Canada, the Globe & Mail and the National Post have identical circulations, but the Globe & Mail can charge considerably more for ad space because it is the more credible publication. While some would argue that an eyeball reached is an eyeball communicated to, Surveillance Data has looked at this issue and believes that when you factor in ad rates you get a higher degree of correlation with ensuing customer behavior."

That's all well and good, but it's still B.S.

PR's success must be measured by its ability to generate SALES LEADS. So looking at the example above, what if the core audience for your client's product is the "typical" National Post reader?? In that case, despite the Globe & Mail's more credible reputation and higher ad rates, its value to your company is inconsequential compared to the value of a feature in the National Post!

I hear this a lot when SHIFT replaces an incumbent firm: "We got a lot of ink, but it just didn't move the needle on sales."

The PR firm that waltzes into the client's boardroom, pleased as a peacock about their Ad Value Equivalency scores, typically knows very little about how to take their program to the next level. If you don't move the needle on SALES, you'll never get out of the driveway.

Gone Fishin'

I leave this week for a European vacation.

"Look kids - Big Ben, Parliament!"

In my absence, my colleague, Parry Headrick, will take the reins of PR-Squared.

Since Parry is funnier and better looking and smarter than me, I expect traffic to the site to quadruple by the time I return in early August.

Worth checking out

The Global PR Blog is an online event that will engage PR, marketing and business bloggers from around the globe in a discussion about blogging and communications. The event is scheduled for July 12 - 16, 2004.

The 10% Squidge Factor

As noted previously, my firm is advancing the state of PR measurement, with the goal of showing the hard-dollar impact of PR results, as it pertains to Sales.

An interesting conundrum, powered by Human Nature, has sprung up.

To be able to tie PR to Sales, we are going to need the buy-in of the Sales Department: specifically, we'll likely need to motivate tweaks in the Sales process and in sales reporting procedures. That's going to be hard enough. Getting sales guys to go out of their way to do anything outside their road-warrior ethic is notoriously difficult.

The problem is confounded when you examine Human Nature, and in particular the nature of a salesperson. These folks live on commission and personal reputation. It is in their best interest to not only book as many sales as possible, but to also take full credit for each deal. The booking generates revenue, the credit generates an unassailable position within the department... The salesperson becomes untouchable and thus more free to goof off, gain perqs, etc. (You've surely heard a refrain like this before: "That damn Jim - he's a major league pain in the ass, but, what a rainmaker!")

So consider this scenario: the sales rep cold-calls a prospect. The prospect takes the call, and 1/2-way into the pitch, he interrupts the salesman to declare, "Waitaminnit - I know your company! I just read an article about you guys in Computerworld, right? Good stuff. Yeah, I do want to book a meeting. What dates work for your team?"

Now the sales rep is thrilled and as he hangs up the phone he swings his chair around to the online Salesforce Automation system to log the new lead. In the field marked, "Lead Source," is he going to input "Cold Call" or "Public Relations"?

The "Cold Call" option makes him look like a star. "Yessiree, I called 'em up, and they wouldn't go for it at first, but I kept doggin' the guy until he agreed to set up the meeting. In fact, I think I got him pretty excited about us."

The "Public Relations" answer makes him look like a telemarketer. "I cold-called a prospect and he was already good-to-go for a meeting, thanks to that great Computerworld article. Thanks, Marketing guys!"

OK, I admit it. Unless properly motivated, the salesperson is likely going to tap in "Cold Call" vs. "PR". (More on "motivations" in a future post...)

We call that the "10% Squidge Factor" - that is, any factoid we produce is likely to be off by a solid 10%. But then again, even if we are off by that margin, the likelihood is that our results are 10% better than what we are able to report!

The Pushpin Fallacy

The economic downturn hit high-flying PR firms hard. The intergalactic PR conglomerates that used to insist on $50K+ monthly retainers as a point-of-entry now vie against mid-market PR firms, waging war for accounts in the $10 - 20K per month range.

The mid-market client companies, formerly regarded as "chump change" by the conglomerates Back In The Day, have been understandably delighted to be in the catbird seat; they think, "Thanks to the dot-com crash, I can get the same PR firm as IBM, at a price I can afford, with global coverage from a single organization!"

In theory it sounds like a no-brainer, but if you look at the economics behind the courtship it can be a costly misstep for mid-market companies to award their business to the "prestige" agency.

Face facts: these large PR conglomerates are structured to service large organizations. Period. Why do you think the PR giants' "areas of presence" pushpins started dotting the map in the first place? It wasn't because they hoped to capture a bigger share of mid-market client business.

It is expensive to open and maintain offices in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, London, Singapore, Brazil, etc. Very expensive. The infrastructure begs to be leveraged by very expensive programs (read: Fortune 1000 companies) in order to remain profitable.

Alas, even though business development efforts are finally regaining traction for PR firms of all sizes, a return to the fat-cat days of the mid-late 90's won't happen soon. So harking back to Economics 101, when a company can no longer rely on large contracts to make its numbers, the #1 way to make up for the shortfall is to increase overall sales volume – with smaller, less important wins. Put another way, yesterday’s "chump" becomes today's "valued client."

Indeed, large PR firms are courting mid-market VPs of marketing like never before. But the tickled-pink marcomm chiefs need to know that they are buying into a publicly held firm that is more keen on hitting short-term revenue targets for Wall Street than building the company's brand. The client honcho hears all of the magic words; signs the paperwork with a flourish; and then grimaces to find their account serviced by a low-paid, fresh-out-of-college PR team.

Essentially the PR conglomerates use these mid-market, middling-budget companies as training pens for young PR professionals -- a chance to cut their teeth before moving on to handle those big-time accounts. (Of course, a seasoned VP – who is likely also responsible for one of those big-time, big-bucks accounts – is committed to manage this greenhorn team. But ask yourself which client will get more of the agency VP's attention?)

And as for the promise of "seamless global coordination"? Doesn't exist.

Liquor up any PR pro from these big firms and they'll admit that the success of any PR program depends on the 3 - 5 exceptionally bright people who work the account day-in, day-out. Thousands of miles' worth of physical distance, inter-office politics, cultural misunderstandings and resentments, etc. can make the coordination within a big firm more difficult than the alternative PR method – in which a client manages a mid-sized U.S. PR firm along with a small number of local Euro and/or Asian PR shops. When the client takes responsibility for global coordination, there's far less ego and competitiveness involved: every firm plays in its own sandbox, with nary a hope of expanding beyond their country's (or the program's) borders.

(This approach often has the added benefit of being more cost-effective overall, since the client's marketing exec can competitively price geography-specific firms against their regional peers.)

Link to a big firm and you're not just helping to pay for the real estate leases in the 2 - 3 geographies that affect your own business, but also for that satellite branch in Kuala Lumpur. True, the budget is not much different (these days) as what you'd pay at a mid-sized PR firm, but, just think about how much more valuable your budget is to this mid-market PR firm than it is to the intergalactic PR entity.

Trust me, when that big firm's big clients sneeze, everyone in the agency will be running to the rescue with a box of tissues. Even your account team.

When it comes to PR, pay for service, not for real estate. Pay for genuine results, not the promise of the pushpins. If you are still smitten with the propositions of a PR conglomerate, at least insist on seeing a list of comparably sized clients: you’ll likely note that despite the whiz-bang credentials of the agency, there are still plenty of unknown mid-sized companies on their roster. Be sure to talk to those similarly sized clients about their programs, and happiness.

Or, trust in the factual simplicity of Economics and close the door on the desperate Johnny-come-lately lobbying of the big firms. For your hard-won budget dollars, you deserve to work with firms that not only feel financially motivated to get you to the next level, but also see the success of your account as a means to augment their own reputation.

A-Player Attributes

I am often asked by employees "How do I improve? How do I show my management that I have the right stuff?"

Obviously the WORK is important. But for me it's more about ATTITUDE. Anyone smart and driven can do the job of PR. But what are the personal attributes that create a star?

Honesty - the best policy

Loyalty - to SHIFT, to team, to client, to manager

Quality-Driven - if the tactics are sloppy, clients suspect the strategy may be sloppy

Initiative - identify, create, and drive programs that improve client programs and the Agency

Optimistic - a sunny disposition makes every interaction with clients, media and colleagues a pleasure

Fearless - welcome challenges, including challenges to your existing beliefs... confidence creates flexibility! - It takes guts to take on a client, and perhaps more fortitude to welcome a debate you might lose.

Still the greatest

I am as concerned as the next guy about the direction of the country. I'm among the 50% of Americans who think we've skidded off-track a bit.

But I still think, as Winston Churchill noted, that "democracy is the worst form of government, just better than all the others." Think about how lucky we are to be able to vote for our representatives, and to vote de bums out when we're sick of their politicking or ineffectiveness.

We celebrate July 4 with a vengeance at my house. And when November elections roll around, we always take the kids out to dinner and talk about the importance of what we've done.

What is INK?

INK, n. A villainous compound of tannogallate of iron, gum-arabic and water, chiefly used to facilitate the infection of idiocy and promote intellectual crime.

The properties of ink are peculiar and contradictory: it may be used to make reputations and unmake them; to blacken them and to make them white; but it is most generally and acceptably employed as a mortar to bind together the stones of an edifice of fame, and as a whitewash to conceal afterward the rascal quality of the material.

There are men called journalists who have established ink baths which some persons pay money to get into, others to get out of. Not infrequently it occurs that a person who has paid to get in pays twice as much to get out.

From Ambrose Bierce's brilliant Devil's Dictionary.

There Ain't No Light Switch

Yesterday I met a brilliant fool.

The guy is the CEO of a really cool company. Clearly he understands technology and market trends. But he didn't know jack about PR.

That's fine, by the way; we each have our strengths and areas of expertise. I don't expect CEOs to be PR experts. But I do expect them to respect the expertise of others (after all, they can't be everywhere at once, doing everyone else's job).

In this case, the CEO believed in the "Fallacy of the Light Switch" - i.e., once you hire a PR firm and "flip the switch," feature articles about the company instantly begin to materialize, in both trade journals and the business press. Page A-1 of the Wall Street Journal, above the fold, by the end of the month.

It just don't work that way, as any PR pro will tell you. Even a public company is going to need to put together a compelling story, replete with customer references, an intersection with emerging or prevailing trends, a cool technology, factoids and anecdotes, etc., to get that kind of ink...and even then it ain't a sure thing nor easy to accomplish.

Fine. This is all PR 101.

But here's what gets me: howcum no one ever told this CEO about how this PR stuff works? He must churn through VPs of marketing, since apparently none to-date have been willing or able to communicate the truth about the PR process. I know for a fact that he churns through PR firms: he's already fired two, and this is a start-up company!

Fact is, he has a pretty good story, and it'll only get better as the technology matures and his customers become happy references. Within 6-12 months I think he and his firm could be positioned as emerging leaders in their sector.

The only question is whether he is willing to wait that long. For a brilliant fool like him, 6-12 months sitting in the dark with an inoperative light-switch will seem like an awfully long time.

A Cardinal Sin

Ask any PR pro about the single most aggravating thing a client can do and in the Top 5 you'll always hear, "Re-scheduling a press meeting." Yet it happens all the time, despite our entreaties before and during the appointment-booking process to please - oh, god, please - block off some sacrosanct "PR Time" on the executive spokesperson's schedule.

Say you're headed off to the Big Apple. Many execs love making this trip. The genesis of the journey is a PR tour, but it quickly becomes a reason to also attempt everything else, from sight-seeing (boondoggle!) to meeting with customers and/or Wall Street analysts. Alluvasudden the 5 PR appointments become the least important items on the schedule, and the PR team is mandated with shuffling (or canceling) editorial meetings to suit the exec's changing priorities.

I'm not saying that meeting with Wall Street or customers is a bad thing - in fact we encourage our clients to work some "real" business into a PR tour. (Frankly we like our clients to have a full schedule of to-do's so that they are never twiddling their thumbs - and blaming us for scraps of "wasted" time.) But I am saying that:

1) PR is Business - Every editor should be treated as your single biggest prospect. Because their articles about the company/product can and will motivate true prospects to consider your offering.

2) Reporters are People, Too - Do you know any busy person who appreciates it when a meeting that they made time for (despite their reservations about the caliber of the story) is canceled or changed? At the last minute? What message are you sending to the reporter? - You are saying that something else is more important than them. Who likes hearing that?

3) It Hurts Your Reputation & Mine - If you peeve the reporter by jerking around their schedule, they'll think less of your company, and, they'll think less of my PR firm. (By the way, it ain't easy getting these appointments and it's even harder to change 'em.)

Sure, sh** happens, but if you are planning a press tour, please please please: try your level best to block out some inviolate PR-only time on the schedule. Changing or canceling a meeting with the media should be a last resort.