public relations

9 October 2009

Don’t Attempt This At Home: Your Own P.R.

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Occasional Publicity Seeker; photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash…

Handling your own public relations is like serving as your own lawyer in court. Possible? Yes. Advisable? Not so much.

I write this in response to the NY Times article “Which P.R. Firm Do You Use?” by entrepreneur Jennifer Walzer. Walzer describes her success in handling PR for her tech startup. Her achievements certainly deserve kudos (whatever a kudo is), and she provides smart tips on scoring media coverage.

The problem? The same as with any recitation of “best practices”: these tips won’t work for everyone. Even if you’re capable of doing everything Walzer prescribes, there are good reasons why you shouldn’t bother.

It’s About Time…

Take Walzer’s exhortation: “network, network, network… You’ve got to be willing to put yourself out there and tell your story over and over and over again. Then and only then will someone pick up on it (occasionally).”

That “occasionally” should be written in all caps, boldfaced, and triple underlined instead of casually slipped in between a softening pair of comfy parentheses. Indeed, I’d also throw in “if you’re lucky, amigo.”

An entrepreneur can spend weeks networking directly with editors and writers — not just the connections of editors and writers, as Walzer suggests — and still not generate any interest in a story. Seriously: just because you meet the editor of a major publication at a party doesn’t mean they’ll say, “Hey, someone I just met at a party, I’ll publish a story about you!”

At the same time, is media hounding the best use of an entrepreneur’s time? Perhaps if your business model is mostly on auto-pilot: your movie is already in theaters, your product sales are being handled by Amazon, or your coffee shop is run by capable managers.

But if you’re like me and most other entrepreneurs, the primary activities of your business require your hands-on attention, and your networking focuses on customers not journalists. Sure, you can hop parties in hopes of finding a New York Times editor or Oprah’s producer hanging by the punch bowl. But your better bet is to hire an experienced PR pro who already has those relationships and — critically — knows the right way to approach that editor and that producer. The editor and producer in turn can trust that the PR pro knows what she’s talking about and isn’t just some schmooze artist with a fancy business card.

Doing the Write Thing…

Walzer also says that “your story has to be interesting.” No kidding. That’s like telling an aspiring athlete “you need to impress the pro scouts.” Details, por favor! Trying to identify a newsworthy story usually takes the savvy of a PR strategist who has evaluated the target media for years. That PR pro knows what sells and what doesn’t.

Walzer admits that her own story is a no-brainer that’s “not something I think about very often”: as a female CEO in the tech industry “my status as a minority… has gotten me attention.” How convenient. What if Walzer were yet another guy with a tech startup? An editor can’t stroll through the sidewalk cafes of Mountain View, California, without bumping into at least a dozen dudes with business plans in their back pockets. What could their compelling stories be?

Well, that’s what a PR pro has spent years of training and practice to determine and to create. Sometimes the story has to be brainstormed and developed and involve, say, collaborating with a non-profit or doing something outlandish. Contriving a story or staging a publicity stunt unprofessionally could result in little more than rolled eyes in an editorial office. (Unless the stunt makes for a great FAIL article.)

Finally, there’s Walzer’s suggestion that entrepreneurs “try writing your own stories.” That’s simply scary. As I lampooned in an earlier post, most press releases coming out of corporate America destroy brain cells upon impact. Unless you’re a Pulitzer Prize nominee, have a professional tell your tale.

Restrain Yourselves, Renaissance People…

Now I understand that entrepreneurs strive to do everything themselves, partially because they want to save money, but mostly because they believe they can. Tell them to hire a professional photographer to shoot their products, and they’ll pull out their Canon PowerShot and say “I’ve got my photographer right here!” It’s this can-do ‘tude that makes them entrepreneurs in the first place. That’s why I love hanging with entrepreneurs: their confidence is inspiring and contagious.

But what I say to them is, yes, you’ve got mad skills, but even if you’re a Renaissance superhero, you’re still limited to 24 hours per day. Why not focus your valuable hours on your key business activities and trust experts to handle the rest? The pros have the expertise, the experience, the connections, the tools and — most importantly — the time.

I myself know PR strategy. In fact, I teach it. I also write press releases professionally. But when it comes to pitching stories to the media and developing overall publicity plans, I turn to true PR professionals. Although their services cost money, it’s money well invested. By doing what they do, they free me up to do what I do best and what I enjoy most.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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Jeff Yablon
14 years ago

True enough; hire experts when you want something done . . . more efficiently. Not RIGHT, Not BETTER, just efficiently.

OK, with any luck, right and better, too.

Jeff Yablon

14 years ago

As a content creator, I’ve often mistaken my ability to engage with my ability to “market.”

Thanks for the blog, Freddy. And helping me to appreciate the pros.

14 years ago

The debate on whether to outsource anything or to keep it in-house can never be decided in a vacuum or summarized in a pithy phrase (“Don’t Attempt This At Home” and “leave it to the pro’s”). There have been times when I’ve wasted more time helping these “PR Pro’s” understand my business, only to have them pitch it wrong and leave us a mess. Has a PR firm never failed when staging a stunt?

No offense — I do think your piece provides good food for thought and contributes to the debate — but you do seem to go further than Walzer. She shares her experiences and successes and tells people how they might try the same. You tell people that doing your own PR is like “serving as your own lawyer in court.”

No, I don’t think so.

Freddy’s Comment: Just as there are bad lawyers and bad doctors, there are also bad PR professionals. I’ve met a few myself. If your doctor does a poor job, you don’t suddenly turn to self treatment. (At least I hope not.) You find another doctor.

Walzer’s success story was anecdotal based on her unique situation; I can also find anecdotes of people who successfully served as their own lawyers in court. For most entrepreneurs, whether in court or on the media circuit, the best route is to hire experienced professionals. I think my comparison rocks, but that may just be the four cups of coffee talking.

14 years ago

In my mind, doctors and lawyers are pretty far over on the “got to have professional advice” spectrum, but PR isn’t there with them. (And as far as I know, the state agrees… are PR professionals state licensed? Do they take regular board exams to maintain their license? Do they have a fiduciary duty and can they get disbarred? I’m pretty sure I could hang a shingle tomorrow and call myself a PR Firm, but I couldn’t practice neurosurgery.)

I’m sure every professional likes to think that there’s no way anyone could get by without them. Money managers are sure they’re always better at managing your portfolio than you could be. The data doesn’t support that though. On average, you’ll do worse with a pro than buying an index. Of course, everyone likes to think that they’ll pick the good money manager and do better. But someone’s a sucker for hiring the pro, paying the fees, and doing worse, right?

So, what’s the data on PR firms? On average, will my sales go up 10% if I hire a PR firm, but only 5% if I do it myself?

Anyway, sorry for the rant. I just get riled up when people tell us entrepreneurs what to do. 😉

Freddy’s Comment: Basically you’re saying that experience, education and established relationships aren’t worth anything, and you’d rather spend time away from your core business to go schmooze the media. All the power to you. I’ll look for your success story in the New York Times. 😉

14 years ago

Yeah, sure, I probably am over-confident. I hope you found it “inspiring and contagious!”

But no, I didn’t mean to imply that experience/ education / relationships aren’t worth anything. Sometimes they can be quite valuable. I just don’t put doing your own PR on the same level as practicing medicine on yourself or defending yourself in court. That doesn’t seem so crazy to me.

Freddy’s Comment: You’re right — defending yourself in court and running a public relations campaign are not on the same level. At the worst in a civil case, you might lose some money. At the worst in PR, you might destroy your entire brand.

There might not be the equivalent of a bar association validating the credentials of PR people, but there are these measures of competence called university diplomas, customer testimonials, case studies and track records. How to pick a PR pro is the topic for an entirely different article, but let’s not belittle the level of skill and professionalism evinced by the top practitioners of this craft. I’ve seen what a great PR person is capable of, and they’re worthy of praise and every dollar of investment.

Daniel Lovell
Daniel Lovell
13 years ago

I worked for several years as a newspaper editor — the guy who decided which stories actuall made it to print. My experience is that most business owners are so woefully out of touch with what PR actually means as to make their self-written releases embarrassing. Worse is that they don’t know enough about PR to actually know the right questions to ask when hiring a firm, so they hire based on price and complain later that they didn’t get the results they were looking for.

My advice? Hire a PR professional who has experience in journalism — one who knows what a good story is, and can write it so it’s print ready. In today’s shrinking newsrooms, that’s more appreciated than most editors would admit.

Thanks for the column, Freddy. Well done as always.

Mark Armstrong
5 years ago

A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.
–Sir William Osler, physician

Osler also said: “There is no more difficult art to acquire than the art of observation, and for some men it is quite as difficult to record an observation in brief and plain language.”– which infers, I think, that he had great respect for illustrators. ?