In PR, You Get What You Pay For

In the new economy, mind share is all-important, and nothing secures share-of-mind better than public relations.

With a company’s success or failure in the balance, does it make sense to entrust such a crucial function to agencies with limited resources — or worse, to a recently graduated English major who knows how to use Microsoft Word?

I don’t think so. Yet it happens every day.

It happens because PR is one of the most misunderstood and undervalued components of any marketing initiative, online or offline:

  • The first big misconception is that it basically consists of writing press releases and then faxing, emailing, or overnighting them to editors and analysts.
  • The second misconception, which is even bigger, is that editors and reporters actually write stories based on all these faxes, emails, and “extremely urgent” packages that pour into their offices every day.
  • The third misconception is that compared with engineering and funding, “all these words” don’t count for much.

Where Value Lies

Public relations has long been considered a “necessary evil” that no one was quite sure how to manage or measure. More often than not, start-ups as well as established businesses launching a new product allocate only a small percentage of their marketing budget to PR.

After all, the thinking goes, how difficult can it be to write a press release? How long does it take to learn to use the fax machine and the email program? And who could know your target market better than your own internal product marketing team? Anyone can do all that, right?

Wrong. Why? Because in the new economy, products are based on information. The more widely distributed that information is, the more valuable it becomes. In academic circles, this relationship between value and distribution is known as Metcalfe’s Law, but on the street it’s known as the reason why Microsoft, IBM, and Intel clobbered Apple.

So let’s get down to the street-level reality of a typical editor. Put yourself in this position: As you walk into the office, your voice mail light alerts you to retrieve 20 voice mails. Your computer is acting sluggish as it attempts to download 75 emails. A stack of faxed releases has filled the tray to overflowing. Twelve boxes from UPS and FedEx are teetering on the edge of your desk. And that’s just for breakfast. Imagine yourself trying to meet unmovable and looming deadlines while your phone rings until you feel forced, not pleased, to answer each call. More emails, more faxes, more calls pour in.

Well-Armed Agencies

It doesn’t make sense to send an inexperienced person or under-resourced agency into such a war zone if you really want to win the battle. So, how can a top-tier PR agency really help? Here are some ways:

  • Credibility. Experienced, sophisticated practitioners (and their agencies) have a reputation for credibility that individual companies can’t match. Editors know that a press release from a long-established agency is worth reading. Otherwise, it wouldn’t get out the door. (One of the greatest values that PR professionals provide is talking their clients out of ill-advised stories that will only hurt their cause in the long run.)
  • Objective counsel. Experienced product managers may have gone through a dozen or more launches. Their peers in PR have gone through hundreds: They can give honest, unbiased feedback about the freshness, relevance, and clarity of the key messages in relation to current and projected market conditions.
  • Experience. Every trade has its tricks. It takes someone who knows the ropes to thoroughly explore every option and to focus on the opportunities that will pay off, without wasting time on those that won’t.
  • Creative thinking. Should you persuade your chief technology officer (with the agency’s help) to write a book? Are you in the right market segment or should you create a new platform? Should you reposition your product? Should we rename the entire company, kill two-thirds of the product line, and focus on core competencies? Should you change business models and give the product or service away? These are just a few of the many unconventional options that should be explored.

In the current competitive environment, public relations is the most integral and crucial part of an overall marketing strategy. It can take companies and intellectual property to unforeseen heights, create trends, and build markets.

High-Tech Challenge

Each day, Silicon Valley and its high-tech “silicon cousins” produce new technologies, exciting applications, and innovative solutions that directly affect the way the world operates. In the early days of clearly differentiated technologies, products were successful because of the various capabilities they delivered. Now, dozens of companies compete for the same audience with very similar technologies. Products are crammed into overcrowded channels with little or no definition of ideal usage scenarios, inevitably causing confusion in the marketplace.

Public relations has grown to meet this challenge with more than media relations, press releases, media alerts, and tradeshows. PR has assumed an overarching marketing role that often encompasses brand creation, channel marketing, marketing communications, direct marketing, and product marketing. The right PR agency can create the complete messaging platform and compelling, pinpoint execution tactics for all those facets.

In the realm of high tech, effective PR professionals must live and breathe technology so that without flinching they can engage the experts in detailed conversations regarding the appropriate marketplaces. This is a far cry from, “Uh, I don’t know what SCSI is… Can I put you in touch with a product manager?” Given the information overload suffered by editors and analysts, PR practitioners must be able to get the deal, and close the deal, in one conversation.

Hiring PR firms that can accomplish all these goals may come at a slight premium. But the old adage “You get what you pay for” holds true. For starters, spending more on the front end can yield higher returns in both the near and the long term. In fact, venture capitalists require that a significant percentage of financing be allocated to implementing a strategic public relations campaign. Why? To protect their investment.

High-tech marketing has enough risks as it is. Don’t increase your risk by shortchanging your PR effort.

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