PR is not an exercise in absolutes

I'm fascinated by the evolving rhetoric within and outside of the PR community regarding what "works" and "doesn't work" when it comes to tactics and strategies.

I'm fascinated by the evolving rhetoric within and outside of the PR community regarding what “works” and "doesn't work" when it comes to tactics and strategies. It often reminds me of how consumers view fad diets - first we're told the low-fat diet is the only successful way to lose weight, then a few years later it's the Atkins high-fat approach, and so on.

As with diets, there are no absolutes in PR. Simply because daily newspapers are struggling and press releases are not viewed in the same light does not mean both are obsolete. Similarly, the challenge some find in getting the coverage they want with influential tech sites such as TechCrunch and GigaOM does not mean today's PR launch plan for tech clients should eschew them entirely.

Yet that was the intonation I was left with reading Claire Cain Miller's July 5 story in The New York Times profiling Silicon Valley uber-publicist Brooke Hammerling. The article puts forward Hammerling's version of what qualifies as effective PR for tech startups – namely bypassing TechCrunch and the like in favor of non-media influencers with large followings on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.

PR professionals reading the article at face value might come away reexamining their entire approach to generating publicity. Of course the devil is in the details – or lack thereof. As TechCrunch's Michael Arrington points out in a follow-up post to the article, great publicists undoubtedly have invaluable rolodexes. But what were the actual results of a PR launch strategy that ignores mainstream media and tech bloggers in favor of social media influencers? In the case of the startup profiled by Ms. Miller, Arrington suggests the Web traffic results were underwhelming.

For PR professionals wading through the rapidly changing toolbox of approaches and strategies, dealing in absolutes is convenient but hardly effective. There is no such thing as a template “launch plan” for a client, because every client is different, and each is looking to reach its own unique group of decision makers. Mainstream print publications have certainly taken their fair share of hits as circulation numbers plummet. And PR professionals owe it to their clients to examine other channels for revenue generation. But this notion that one PR strategy must be pursued in lieu of another is self-defeating and a disservice to any client in any industry.

Turf protection is inevitable. Print publications will defend their value and reach, as will top tech sites on their role in helping to make or break a startup. Social media “experts” have a vested financial interest to continuously validate the medium. The savvy PR professional is the one that will take all of this input with a gigantic grain of salt and focus on:

  • Where the high-quality leads can be found – The barrier to have someone click on a Twitter link is low, but what will they do after clicking the link? Will they purchase? Come back? Spread the word? Similarly, a tech startup with a mainstream consumer offering might find fewer quality leads on TechCrunch than they would through an online lifestyle site.

  • What is sustainable and what is next – As Arrington referenced, site traffic for the firm profiled in The New York Times article blasted off with plenty of fanfare, but then came back down to earth. The problem with many launch plans is that they are just that – launch plans. A launch is not successful if there is no strategic plan to sustain the momentum beyond whatever artificial launch timeline is constructed.

  • What are the valuable metrics – Miller's article was respectably thorough, but one omission circles back to the chronic challenge in our industry to not only provide clients with metrics, but with metrics that matter to them. Print publication circulation, retweets, blog comments, white paper downloads all mean something, but do not all mean the same thing to every client.

Brian Lustig is founder of Lustig Communications, which works with technology firms, fast-growth companies, and startups.

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