Why PR Is Broken

Everyone’s a critic. No, seriously.

By now, it’s clear that the editorial landscape has changed, for better or worse. Small newspapers are dying, magazines are going under and a swath of online publications have replaced the old guard.

In the midst of the content revolution, PR firms slowly came to a conclusion: adapt or die. Some have successfully adapted. Others have adapted in ways that mislead their clients.

If you’re considering working with a PR firm, consider this: twenty years experience in public relations doesn’t translate to jack-squat in social media management. It means something for content development and SEO — but chances are firms are working with on-staff or freelance writers to develop the bulk of that content.

Today, PR prowess really comes down to contacts. Like any line of business, it’s all about who you know. That’s part of why PR is a dying industry.

Then he asked me if our PR firm was “full-service.” Bahahahaha!

You have hundreds of channels in your space where you can grab a little exposure. Are you really planning to pay $10k per month for a mention in the New York Times? How do you expect that to affect your bottom line? Even if it does, how can you measure it effectively?

I recently had the accidental pleasure of attending a PR roundtable with some heavy-hitters in the space. It was mainly an opportunity for the sponsor firm to schmooze some potential new clients. I attended with one of my clients and was completely ignored by our hosts. The roundtable eventually spiralled into an orgiastic discussion of self-preservation. The takeaway? “Our communications experience makes us well suited for social media management.”

The truth is that it doesn’t. One of the greatest moments of the discussion was when the firm’s president admitted, “We’re recruiting strong, young talent to help us move deeper into this space.” Because they aren’t native social media users, and they’re simply following the blanket trends. The company was in the process of enacting systemic change across their giant international organization. Without cleaning house, you’re basically positioning your company as experts in something related to but distinct from your actual expertise.

I’m not arguing that all PR firms are doing a poor job. What I am saying is that the value of true PR is lower than you think, especially for start-ups. And if you need a person or company to manage your social media or content marketing strategy, why not work with a more specialized firm?

So, again, if you’re evaluating your need for a public relations firm, think it out carefully. What exactly are you hoping to gain from the experience? Take a hard look at the value of public relations, and evaluate other options like SEO experts, writers and content strategists against it.

In Writers We Trust…Right Guys? Right?

Trust does not necessarily imply segregation.

It’s clear we writers are an egocentric bunch. Get a little experience under your belt and suddenly you have the world by its balls.

Then again, a crew of writers out there cater to their clients’ every whim. Many of those writers come from an agency background, where the client’s happiness is of the utmost importance.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with putting the client’s happiness at the forefront of your business. But your client may not know what makes them happy. The truth of the matter is that you’re hiring a professional writer to do the job correctly. In the end, would you rather have a mediocre or strong product?

Trust your writer.

Writing is a medium where egos constantly come into conflict. That’s what happens in a creative field. A good copywriter lets go of his creation and subjects it to the whims of the person paying for it.

On the other hand, taking pride in your work is another animal entirely. As the client, you’ll get your hands dirty. Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. But work with the writer and trust them instead of deciding they aren’t living up to your expectations.

Of course, you can always try to take the project on yourself. After all, you know exactly what you want, right?

To become a writer, you start with talent and interest. Next is training. Finally, it requires experience. Even if you have the talent, you don’t have the training or the experience. Trust your writer.

If you’re feeling disillusioned and misled by your writer’s strong resume/portfolio, ask yourself these questions before you give ’em the boot.

  • Have you clearly outlined your expectations?
  • Do you understand the purpose of the piece?
  • Have you written all this information down, perhaps in the form of a creative brief?
  • Have you given the writer all the information he/she needs about the piece’s topic?
  • Are you holding on to an assumption of strong copy that the writer doesn’t agree with?
  • Have you pointed out exactly what makes you unhappy about a prior draft?
  • Have you clearly explained whether you want the writer to work from the draft or start from scratch?

Yes, there are bad writers out there. But if you’re working on recommendations or a strong portfolio, chances are you’re working with a good writer. Remember that your expectations may not always align with reality.

You Get What You Pay For

Fat Joe and Lil Wayne: voicing the plight of the freelance writer since 2006.

Hey, you. Yeah you. Why you gotta be so tight with your pocketbook?

I’m talking to the business owners out there. We writers understand you’re careful with your money. We understand that you’ve set aside a strict budget for marketing.

Next time you plan your marketing budget, remember: you get what you pay for.

I’m not just trying to pad my own wallet here. (Okay, maybe a little.) But right now, with the state of the web the way it is, you need content. That content should be high-quality. It should take SEO and digital marketing know-how into account.

If a writer doesn’t understand his or her value, he or she probably hasn’t been writing very long. And if they haven’t been writing very long, they probably won’t produce high-quality content. If you want to give your cousin’s nephew’s boss’ illegitimate son his start in writing, that’s great! Thanks for supporting young writers. But if you’re skimping on quality writing to save a couple bucks, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.

And writers: stop undervaluing yourselves. Writing is absolutely crucial to start-ups and enterprises alike. If they aren’t willing to pay you a fair market price, walk away. You have projects in your portfolio, and you live to write another day.

Whenever you writers start considering lower pricing, read the great anecdote at the top of the page here. Reprinted below for convenience.

A well-known freelance ad writer stopped in at the shoot for a commercial he scripted, just to press the flesh. It was a big-time film production, with a huge crew and the requisite bevy of agency and client hangers-on.

He watched as the on-camera talent endlessly repeated a fairly pedestrian line she was having an uncommonly hard time interpreting.  As costly shoot time dragged on, the agency account executive and the client pulled the copywriter aside. ‘This is costing us a fortune,’ they said. ‘Could you come up with something that would work better?’  The writer nodded, grabbed a pad of paper and walked over to a dark corner of the studio. A few minutes later he returned and handed the account exec a sheet from the pad. The AEs face immediately brightened. The client read it and pronounced it brilliant. The talent delivered it flawlessly, thus saving the shoot.
Later at the wrap party, the client spoke to the writer. ‘Of course, I expect you to bill me for your work. How much will you charge?’
‘That’ll be $1200,’ said the writer.
‘$1200?’ the client exclaimed, ‘Why, it took you only three minutes to write!’
The writer fixed him with a firm, confident stare. ‘Buddy,’ he said, ‘that took me twenty five years to write.’

All I Do Is Write, Write, Write No Matter What

In the past, there was writer’s block. Now, there’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and…writer’s block.

You have a million excuses not to put words to paper. Are you going to let that stop you?

Writer’s block is an honest-to-god condition. In its simplest form, it manifests itself as a subconscious rebellion against creativity. At its worst, it causes anxiety and insecurities about your occupation as a whole.

This guy had writer’s block. So did the creators of this movie. All went on to do great, strange things.

Only fiction writers, authors creating from scratch, should experience the latter form. But the former can creep up on anyone at anytime. There’s always Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs.

Take a step away from the blank page for a moment and think rationally. If you have content in some form, you shouldn’t let writer’s block get the best of you. If you have no content to write about, then you’re missing a step in the writing process.

Starting content varies from interview notes to research to knowledge trapped inside your head. Here are a few tricks I use to get ink on the page. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

  • Work directly from your notes: When I interview someone, my notes are scattered phrases and sentences. If you’re good at interviewing, they may end up on the page in a linear fashion. Either way, find important snippets of notes and turn them into assertions. The supporting material will flow more naturally.
  • Put snippets of thoughts down as they come to you: Working from a blank slate? Don’t fret. Throw out any semblance of narrative and start writing thoughts as they come to you. When you have something beginning to resemble a piece, go back and reorganize the thoughts and add information where necessary.
  • Put audience in perspective: Sometimes, we get stuck because we’re not sure what best appeals to the reader. Start writing about your audience and trying to gain a little perspective on their needs and motivations. When you begin identifying knowledge gaps, you may be surprised how quickly you find a place to start.
  • See what other people are saying: This looks like a cheap one at first glance. Just to clarify: don’t steal other people’s shit. But reading about the topic may spark ideas. Some of your best stuff will come from points of contention you find in other articles.

One, Two or Three Spaces Between Sentences?

Don’t be a butthead.

Think McFly, think!

I had a fun debate with an ex about this one. I’ve always used a single space between sentences. In the business world, these corporate robots are constantly placing two, three, even FOUR spaces between their sentences.

The ex was adamant that you had to use two spaces between sentences. Of course, she works in PR and is consistently exposed to a bunch of chuckleheads masquerading as writing professionals. I kid. Sort of.

One space will do. Why are you forming such a wide berth? You have enough words on the page. You don’t need to leave room for later additions. A period denotes the end of one sentence and the start of the next. A little extra insurance really isn’t necessary.

So why do so many people do it? Ah, thanks for asking. It’s a pretty interesting anecdote.

An article in Slate puts this argument to rest like a boss. According to Slate writer Farhad Manjoo,

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.

To quote the great old balls Biff Tannen, “You sound like a damn fool when you say it wrong!”

5 Reasons to Create “5 Reasons” Posts

The biggest blogs on the web are stacked with “list” posts, or articles that include tips, tricks, favorites and the like. You may recognize list posts parading in such classic forms as “5 Reasons,” “3 Tips,” “15 Blogs,” “4 Ways,” etc.

You see these posts ad nauseam everywhere you go. There’s a reason people use them, like most marketing techniques that are done to death. Except for just about everything in GoDaddy’s playbook. That shit is beyond me.

Short digressions aside, people create list posts because they’re successful. For whatever reason, if you throw a number in your headline, you’ll grab the attention of your audience. Here’s some insight into why.

Courtesy The Official Blog of Gathering Books

1. Easy to read: My personal opinion is that the author projects the facade of a concise, organized post that serves as an easy, useful read. When you’re trying to appeal to an audience of professionals with ever-shrinking attention spans, that’s an important distinction to make right off the bat.

2. Organize your thoughts: Hey, even professional writers skip the “outline” process sometimes. With list posts, you can simplify organization by “skipping” the outline process and merging it with your post. And let me tell you; it’s a huge f-ing time saver.

3. Readers relate: Whether it’s laundry, grocery or to-do, people everywhere create lists to organize their daily lives. Your audience may have the capacity to read long, in-depth feature articles, but they’ll relate better to lists.

4. Attract content curators: Because list posts get so much traction, bloggers and content curators looking for high-quality posts may request to reprint your post. Or they’ll say screw it and steal your content anyway. As long as you get proper credit and a link, this is a good way to bolster dissemination of your content.

5. Why not? You got a better idea?

Content Dethroned: Communication is King

If these kings were content, would they be stabbing themselves in the head?

To those not in the know, this headline could be misleading. Let me clarify: content is still king, but content is also the byproduct of communication.

If you had a simple ability to connect members of your audience, would you actively block it? Would you close the comments section of your blog? If you had an active audience crying out for forums, would you deny them?

Executives with years of one-way marketing experience sometimes impose this hurdle. Before the internet, brand control was job number one. Now, entrepreneurs and executives must accept that people are discussing their brands in public forums.

They obsess over negative brand perception in a company-managed space. “This is my website, dagnabbit, and I’ll be dagnabbed if I’ll let dagnabbers speak ill of my company here.” (That’s how I imagine executives in my head.)

There’s a simple and absolutely critical policy that businesses should adopt immediately or risk failure. Stop trying to control the brand and start controlling the conversation.

If someone has something negative to say, they’re going to say it. Don’t you want the opportunity to respond? While I think this is the key selling point, there’s a ton more to it than just that.

Opening public communication channels like ‘comments’ sections or forums offers you benefits like:

  • FREE content: Yep, you heard it here, folks. Let people chat in a public forum and you gain a raging stream of free content. That means better search visibility, more new and return visitors and less time spent building content on your end.
  • Reduced support workload: How much time do you spend answering questions about your business and/or product? How often do you have to answer the same questions over email? Think of how much time you can save if the answers lived in one spot. Not to mention, other members of the community jump at the chance to answer questions. Don’t buy it? Ask Autodesk.
  • A searchable knowledge base: Beyond support, your content (in a blog or other social media channel) might open up to a wider discussion relevant to everyone in your market. That’s the point of your content marketing in the first place: to draw in leads with valuable content. Let your audience interact and they’ll support the cause.
  • Greater brand loyalty: Empower your followers with a voice and they’ll thank you. If they’re deriving value from your content and making useful connections, they stand a much better chance of becoming brand advocates.

A marketer could spend his or her entire day policing your brand across various venues online. Make your website a place to share and discuss, and you can get a better handle on brand perception.