5 Business Lessons to Learn From PR Flacks
This news just in: The worst habits of public relations specialists looking for media coverage can be duplicated by the worst salespeople. The end result is the same in both fields -- reporters and customers will do their best Usain Bolt impressions as they leave you in their dust. Cultivating relationships, doing your homework and avoiding stalker tactics inform the best PR -- and sales -- practices.
As a journalist covering technology, you get bombarded with material from PR people trying to get you to write about their clients. Although there are some stellar PR people, the majority of pitches I get are not targeted at what I write about, addressed to the wrong person, or make claims that are demonstrably false or inaccurate.
I was pondering the latest blast of time-wasting pitches -- lawsuits about solar power, computing hardware news, self-improvement books for review, none of which have the first thing to do with my areas of coverage -- when it dawned on me: The PR industry is simply mirroring what most businesses in all industries are doing with customer information.
They're ignoring it.
There are parallels to be drawn and lessons to learn from PR's poor attempts to sell journalists on their pitches. These can help you avoid making the same mistakes as you try to sell to customers.
Listen and Take Notes
Journalists are like customers on social media: their work is, by its nature, broadcast to the world and available to see for anyone who cares to make the effort. Since the advent of the Internet, the product of journalists' efforts is as close as a Google search. The results should tell PR folks what journalists cover, where they write, and their angle on that industry.
However, most pitches reveal a failure to pay attention to the facts that journalists reveal about themselves. They are aimed at the wrong reporter or on an aspect of a subject that's inappropriate for that writer.
Businesses do the same thing when they market to customers without fully understanding who those customers are. Blanket emails sent to a broad swath of potential customers are going to reach not just people not ready to buy but people who are ready to buy but who get the wrong message -- and thus don't buy based on what they receive.
Social media allows companies to tailor their pitches to customers based on the data the customer shares. It's the kind of data that allows the degree of segmentation and personalization long dreamed of by marketers but which are, in most cases, ignored.
The lesson: when potential customers tell you about themselves, listen and record the data in your CRM application. Then use that data to deliver to those potential customers messages attuned to their needs and desires.
If You're Going to Personalize, Personalize
Some PR firms think my name is Chuck. Others are more formal and call me Charles. Still others send pitches with the sadly ubiquitous, "Dear (RECIPIENT'S NAME)."
Nothing says you're interested in me and what I do more than a failure to get my name right. Here's a journalism secret: reporters are trained to get names right, because if you can't get that simple fact correct, why would anyone trust any other facts in your stories? We're sensitive to this.
Same goes for PR pitches. If you can't get my name correct, is anything that follows correct? And if you're trying to build a relationship, how can you do it if you don't know my name?
Think about the pitches you've received from people selling to you who fail on the name in the greeting. What does that say about the people sending the message? Do they really care about you as a customer? Can they be relied on to see you as a person with unique needs? Or are you just a name on a list?
This is a painfully obvious lesson, but it's one that needs to be taught again and again. Details about the customer are important -- especially to the customer.
Focus on Lead Quality, Not Lead Quantity
Some PR firms identify writers who are likely candidates to pick up a story and then work directly with them to place that story. They get the right people lined up for interviews and provide background as needed for that reporter's beat and angle. It takes more work, but it results in more and better stories.
In most cases, however, PR firms blast out press releases to every reporter on their list and then sit back and wait for people to come to them. The really clueless ones send mass-mailed follow-up "reminders," thus making themselves feel busy but doubling up on wasting reporters' time.
The parallel here is the idea of sales leads. Smart companies have realized that lead quality is paramount; it allows your sales team to spend time on the leads that are most likely to convert and ignore those who never will. They can deliver personalized service and become a useful partner in the education and decision-making process for the customer, and the result is a better experience for the customer and a more lucrative sale for business.
Not-so-smart companies focus on lead volume, expecting a proportional increase in sales when the number of leads handed to the sales staff increases. The result is that the sales staff has less time per lead, and thus can't devote adequate time to the leads likely to convert because they can't tell them from the leads that have poor odds of converting. Spreading the sales staff thinner has the reverse effect of what's intended: it actually reduces closed sales.
The lesson here: identify your best prospects and devote time and work to them, and avoid trying to play a numbers game you're doomed to lose.
Relationships Are Not Built Only When You Want to Sell Something
Some PR people do a great job of pitching stories, but then vanish for six months or a year once they've gotten what they wanted: a story about their clients. The next time they identify a reporter as a good fit for a pitch, they have to re-establish themselves and re-create the relationship with that reporter.
Good PR firms work to maintain their relationships with writers even when they have nothing to pitch them. For example, one firm engaged reporters with a survey asking about their preferences in pitches. Another asked reporters to be interviewed for their own internal training films for customers about interacting with the press. Yet another had regular lunches to allow reporters to address technology topics and definitions with the stated intention of avoiding marketing misuse of terms like "the cloud."
The parallel here is the drip campaign every business should be running with existing customers. If you're there to help solve customer problems, and you want to be thought of as a peer or a partner, you can't vanish when the contract is signed or when the customer's check clears. You need to be there with content, loyalty programs or some form of interaction that shows that your relationship goes a little deeper than your competitors.
Crying Wolf Will Get You Ignored
Some PR people, often driven by the desires of execs in their businesses, crank out press releases about everything the business does, no matter how small. This avalanche of releases creates a condition that takes real news and hides it behind a screen of trivia. Worse, it causes reporters to simply tune out. When a business puts four releases a day in my email inbox, and they're totally inconsequential, eventually anything from that business gets deleted without opening.
The same goes for your interactions with customers, especially electronic interactions. If you're saying too much, you're being a bad participant in the conversation with customers and they will tune you out. If you have a specific point you're trying to make, don't bury it behind a pile of unimportant information. You're competing in an attention economy; the customer has a finite amount of attention, and it's incumbent on you to be responsible in how you occupy part of that attention. It's not the customer's responsibility to devote time to figure out what's important to him or her out of a barrage of messages from you.
The good PR pros are very much like the good sales pros -- they learn about their customers, they understand the needs and desires of those customers, and they cultivate relationships over time that lead to results beyond the initial success. They don't take shortcuts just because technology provides them. They use technology to make them more productive in the human activity of building relationships by using information about people more effectively.