Modern PR impact and consequences

Jessica Lessin wrote a great piece in The Information about her perspective as a journalist on how the practice of (tech) PR had changed (at least in Silicon Valley). The New PR Reality and What it Means outlines a number of traits emblematic of modern PR:

  • Press release as op ed piece on corporate or executive blog to promote one “story of record” about whatever you want to announce
  • Lessin considered exclusives with a friendly publication to be another variant of the same strategy
  • Lessin laments the demise of the press conference and the access that it brings to corporate executives for journalists.

Lessin also warns that the lack of information and dialogue reduces the variations and reflections on would see on the story in terms of analysis. The audience needs to have a greater capacity for critical thinking and a certain amount of cynicism to ask why?

The silicon valley bubble

Lessin and peers like Kara Swisher got to see an industry mature over time. They were in the right part of the world to build face-to-face relationships with the people that mattered.

The reality for journalists outside the Silicon Valley area was generally less access. 80 percent of the time when I arranged media access to my clients it was a ‘down-the-line’ telephone interview.

As an outsider who has had the opportunity observe public relations and media relationships in silicon valley I was surprised by the cordial differential aspect of it. There generally aren’t that many challenges, dissenting voices are usually shrill and stifled through a lack of access. The classic examples of this are Apple’s relationship with The Register, the 2009 blacklist of CNet by Google over Eric Schmidt’s opinions on privacy or Peter Thiel’s role in putting Gawker Media out of business.

This constriction of debate and access the Lessin cared about is in keeping with wider trend of silicon valley hubris and ego.

The reasons why public relations has changed

In the late 1990s through to the early 2000s the mass media was the best way to talk to the end consumer. Through advertising and PR. PR had a relatively low cost barrier to entry, but was relatively inefficient from a cost-per-reach and campaign impact point of view.

Online advertising offered new dynamics that changed the way marketing money was spent. This meant that you had to do more with  a static or declining marketing spend, this had a number of follow on factors:

  • Less budget for out-of-pocket expenses. The first agency I worked in launched Hitachi Data System’s Skyline Trillium range of IBM-compatiable mainframes. (I know, I know you want to sleep). We took a whole pile of journalists on a helicopter flight over London’s financial district as part of the launch, so they could see the iconic skyline (I know, grown at the crushingly twee creative concept). You just wouldn’t do that now.  There isn’t the money for decent gift bags or cleverly presented press packs either
  • Mid-and-senior agency staff salaries have been static for at least the past decade, which affects the quality of the thinking and the work done

There was also a corresponding change in the way PR was done in order to improve campaign impact. It used to be that you made a big bang  and hoped that the deluge of coverage would provide a 360 experience of sufficient reach, frequency and impact that client commercial goals would be achieved.

That theory fell down. Not only had PR spend changed but publication advertising spend had changed as well. There were less publications and less journalists writing for them. Those that wrote for the publications had to write more content.

That mean’t more time writing, less time research, thinking and networking. Less time to turn up at press conferences. Press conferences became a relatively high risk tactic for the agency PR to recommend; unless you had a landmark event.

What if you throw a press conference and few people show up or don’t stick around. Angela Eagle’s disastrous launch of her campaign to become leader of the UK Labour Party is a case in point.

Through little fault of Eagle’s campaign team, the Conservative leadership competition collapsed leaving Teresa May as prime minster. Eagle ended up with a poorly attended press conference with few questions from the media. Now imagine if a similar scenario happened to a Silicon Valley leader like Larry Ellison.

From an agency perspective this ‘journalist scarcity’ became a catalyst to change the approach to try and drive greater impact of coverage generated. It’s what agencies call ‘story-telling’; you work with a publication to craft all the right conditions including executive access – so that a story will run.

Working with a large corporate means that this takes a lot of time:

  • Building the story first of all, this is your product that you then reverse-engineer the journalist ‘journey’ through. It takes into account areas of interest that they journalist has previously written about, the publication style. The likely word count (a bigger canvas is better)
  • You pitch this to the client. This would include a complete plan including what you hope to get from the publication (likely headlines and synopsis), how this rolls up to business objectives
  • The pitching process to the journalist is a high touch process. The journey that they are taken on might take months based on executive and resource availability (such as lab tours)

With one agency client I worked with, my back-of-a-cigarette-packet maths had some disturbing numbers. Placing a story in the Wall Street Journal cost roughly the same as buying a full page of ad space.

Secondly stories need heroes: people. Bill Gates was framed as a superman – which was torn to shreds in the Judge Jackson anti-trust trial testimonial videos. A more cynical interpretation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would be having at least some role in rehabilitating Gates’ profile as a statesman of the technology sector.

Many of the heroes are drawn from the bench below the CEO; Microsoft used former research head Rick Rashid in that role for a number of years. Google had highlighted Marissa Mayer in a similar role – neither executive now work for those employers.

So how do you make the storytelling process develop greater agility and  become more  scaleable to improve campaign impact and frequency? Social media offered part of the answer for prominent technology companies. Corporate channels became de rigour and new media channels like The Verge and Buzzfeed news sprang up.  The technology sector even bankrolled some of these titles, notably Sarah Lacy’s Pando.

Hubspot have turned this into an industry as this approach is emblematic of the content marketing methods and tools they sell to businesses around the world. Codifying the PR techniques of silicon valley for a wider audience.

More information
The New PR Reality and What it Means | The Information (paywall)
Hitachi (finally) releases Skyline Trinium Nine high-end mainframe | ComputerWorld