by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director, Atomic Tango LLC
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 the public relations for her startup tech company. Her achievements certainly deserve kudos (whatever a kudo is), and she does provide some 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’re going to turn around and say, “Hey, someone I just met at a party, I’m gonna publish a story about you!”
At the same time, is media hounding the best use of time for an entrepreneur? 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, the main activities of your business take up most of your time, and what networking you do is primarily to find new customers, not score a piece in your local paper. So, 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 professional who not only has those relationships already built, but also 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 professional PR strategist who has been carefully reviewing the target media for years. That PR pro knows what’s selling and what’s not.
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.” Convenient, huh? What if Walzer were yet another guy with a tech startup? An editor can’t stumble through the sidewalk cafes of Mountain View, California, without bumping into at least a dozen dudes with business plans on their Blackberrys. 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 today are so bad that they destroy brain cells upon impact. Unless you’re a Pulitzer Prize nominee, most entrepreneurs are better off having a professional tell their tale.
Move Aside, Chuck…
Now I understand that entrepreneurs try to do everything themselves, partially because they want to save money, and partially because they believe they can. Pitch them on hiring 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, Chuck Norris, 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? They have the expertise, the experience, the connections, the tools and — most importantly — the time.
I myself know PR strategy. I write press releases professionally. But when it comes to pitching stories to the media and developing overall publicity plans, I turn to a true PR professional. 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, like replace the engine block in my car, retile the roof of my home, perform a root canal on one of my molars, put out a nearby wildfire with my bare hands, make sashimi from a live puffer fish that I’ve caught, stomp and ferment my own wine grapes, record a hit album with a hundred choral parts all sung by me, and defend myself before the Supreme Court of Macedonia.
After all, I’m an entrepreneur: who needs anyone else?