The Need to Be a Bridge, Not a Roadblock, For Michael Arrington and Others 4

By Kyle Austin

Michael Arrington has chimed in, again, on if he sees a purpose for PR practitioners in today’s digital landscape. His post, which follows a post by Edelman’s PR guru Steve Rubel on his Micro Persuasion blog, brings attention to what PR’s true value is in this new digital age. In reading Steve’s post which I commented on here (#18), I formulated several counter opinions to Arrington’s post that I wanted to share on our blog.

First off, Michael is right. We (PR folks) are busy. The economy doesn’t seem to be slowing down business and we are very strategic in the clients that we bring on-board.

At Fortune Brainstorm TECH I ran into Steve’s colleague and big-boss Richard Edelman and we had a great conversation on the excitement around the changes in the PR space right now and what lies ahead; which continued via his blog and ours after the conference.

We both somewhat agreed with the a few points that Michael and Steve raise in their posts on a PR shift away from pure product publicity. For instance, companies like Facebook, Google and Dell don’t need our help building publicity for new products (any announcement they make will be greatly publicized).

However, today’s global landscape – where brand interaction occurs 24 hours a day – creates new opportunities for PR agencies to assist companies like these in building digital and physical communities of key stakeholders in support of specific campaign goals and issues. In essence, PR professionals must become part of client’s brand management/reputation teams (through our interaction with Google, blogs and other social communities), while also assisting our clients with building their own content. Every company is a media company. That’s where we can really assist in truly defining each company’s brand, moral purpose and corporate mission.

In addition, as David Carr eloquently noted in his Media Equation column on Monday, “We are all arbiters of the news.” Yes, reporters have always enjoyed the thrill of chasing a scoop. This hasn’t changed since the inception of newspapers. The change is that today they go to Twitter, FriendFeed, YouTube, Mashable and other online destinations to find the scoop or subject to cover.

There’s no reason we, as PR professionals, can’t be part of this “groundswell.” Rubel uses the example of Robert Scoble, as a blogger who finds joy in uncovering companies without the assistance of PR executives. However, while Robert may attest that PR practitioners are useless as he comes down from a high reporting a PR-less story; he also values PR folk that are informative and in-the-know.

When I ran into Robert at Fortune Brainstorm: TECH in Half Moon Bay, CA I knew he had a trip planned out to Boston. How? Because I follow his blog and his Dopplr feed. So I offered him the opportunity to connect with a group of start-ups that have sprung out of MIT – during his visit. Robert is a busy guy and he doesn’t have time to go through thousands of non-relevant emails. However, when I provided him with an opportunity to create more value during a scheduled visit to Boston for a speaking gig – he jumped on the opportunity. We can be a bridge not a roadblock.

While Racepoint may be at the forefront of understanding how to cultivate and manage these relationships with bloggers in new ways (mail-merges are dead), I think there is larger industry shift towards understanding this still fairly new communications’ vehicle. I’d argue with Arrington’s assertion that “Most PR people don’t read blogs and certainly don’t understand them.” Yes, I work within a forward thinking agency where everyone unconditionally does both, but I can’t lie and say we’re the only ones. The Larry Weber’s and Richard Edelman’s of the world know where this digital age is going – and the bus has already left the station.

Steve Rubel is right in asserting “We need to stop spamming,” and understand what will be most relevant to each individual blogger and journalist. We also need to practice what we preach and start using all the new communication tools that are available – Twitter, QIK, FriendFeed, Digg, etc. We need to invest smartly in technology that will allow us to become nimble content providers along with other technology that will accurately monitor what the influencers on the Internet and the mobile web are saying.

Finally, Arrington’s advice to start-ups on when to hire an agency is just flat out wrong. “First off, don’t hire PR help until the volume of inbound requests by press are simply too much to handle without help,” he says.

It’s tough for me to think of a case where inbound requests have become too much to handle internally, without any proactive PR efforts. Sling Media, Cuil, etc – would never have been household names without PR campaigns. The first launch of a product for a start-up can be one of the most critical PR points in the life-cycle of the business and I don’t know too many entrepreneurs or VC’s (with an interest in the start-ups’ success) that want to leave successful launches to the chance of in-bound inquiries.

Yes, start-ups need to have their product and business processes far enough along for PR to be successful. However, if everyone just waited around for in-bound requests to come in before starting proactive PR efforts – they’d have little chance to compete for space in an evolving tech news cycle that spends much of its time covering Apple and Facebook in every angle possible. In order to increase your valuation you need people to see your product and eventually know your brand. Without incorporating communcations’ efforts into core business plans this is increasingly difficult (especially in today’s fragmented media landscape).

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