Old school PR isn’t going to work forever

A few weeks ago I went out to California to pitch a piece of business. It was a large enterprise software company and we pulled together a big and very competent team to think about and present our ideas about their communications challenges. We did an awesome job; but learned last week – unofficially at least – that we did not get the business. (Hence the fact that I am not going to name the company – which isn’t that germane to the story anyway.)

The reason that we lost was that we weren’t felt to have the same depth of knowledge of the enterprise software space as some of our competitors. I don’t believe that this was the issue; members of our team had a great deal of enterprise experience – both internally and on the agency side. What we didn’t have was faith that enterprise software matters to the media in the way it did in the past.

I spend a fair amount of my time talking to reporters and analysts and most of them are pretty frank that this stuff just isn’t that interesting for them anymore. It isn’t that they don’t think it’s important or valuable; it’s just that it isn’t as newsworthy as it once was. One conversation in particular – about the company we pitched – illustrates the point. A reporter at one of the major business magazines said that she hadn’t written about their category in a while because it was “boring.” She mentioned that four or five years ago it was cool but that things hadn’t changed that much since then. She pointed out that she understood that businesses benefited by working with them; but that the benefits were the same today as they were in the past. In short, what they were doing just wasn’t that new or newsworthy.

There are a couple of things that are coming together that are going to make this a more and more common refrain. The first is that the IT industry is maturing. While there is lots of very cool and exciting stuff being done, not EVERYTHING that is being done is cool or exciting. This doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable or important or worthy of attention; it just means that it needs to be presented and discussed in different terms.

Fifteen years ago, when I started in PR, you could talk to the media about a technology and odds were that if it were interesting enough it would be covered. Very quickly reporters started saying, “sure, it sounds cool, but does it work?” Reviews became the order of the day for technology products and every publisher began investing in larger and more complete testing labs.

After a while, reporters would say, “OK, it does what you said it would; but how does that help a business?” Case studies and user stories were critical – some publications wouldn’t even talk to a company unless they could provide a referancable customer that would lay out the benefits, dollars saved, ROI, etc.

Now, we’ve reached the point where reporters are saying, “right, I accept that the product is what you say it is, does what it it meant to do, delivers some form of measurable business benefit; but it that all there is? Is the whole purpose of this just to add a few fractions of a cent per share? Does this really matter?” And that’s where we are now. Yes, a company’s hardware/software/service may be all that it says it is, preforms as promised and delivers some legitimate business benefit – but it might also not be different enough or relevant enough (to the larger world) to get the level of attention that it did in the past.

The other thing that is changing is that there are just a whole lot fewer publications out there – and for many companies, print publications continue to be seen as the standard for success when it comes to coverage. In the early 90s – during the time when the technology and reviews were the focus – think how many publications there were: PC Magazine, PC World, Windows Magazine, Byte, Windows Sources, PC Computing – and these are the ones just off the top of my head.

As the focus moved from the technology to the business story, a whole crop of other publications came up – Fast Company, Business 2.0, Red Herring, Wired, Industry Standard, etc. – and the technology coverage in traditional business publications also expanded. The failure of so many Web 1.0 companies – and the loss of the ad revenue they represented – knocked out many outlets. The result is that there are fewer and fewer outlets in general and even fewer that are going to cover technology the way they did in the past.

Too many PR people (and their clients) are clamoring around a dwindling pool of media, talking about things in the same old ways they did in the past. That just isn’t going to keep working much longer.

That was essentially the message we delivered to the client we lost out on. Not that we were all doom and gloom – we were excited about the possibility of telling their story (which could be an exciting one). Unfortunately, it wasn’t necessarily the story they wanted told. I think I know the very moment we lost – a colleague and I were presenting our ideas – which had nothing to do with the company’s technology – when we were asked how we would work the products into what we were describing. We explained that the products wouldn’t be a part of the story – that the story was about the company, the business issue they sought to address and how they were taking a much different approach. The program we had come up with relied heavily on Web relations and non-traditional elements – not because (as the client felt) we didn’t understand enterprise software; but because we did.

The days of simply telling clients what they want to hear need to end.  This is not in anyone’s best interest – even if it feels good doing it.
Old school PR isn’t going to be able to carry on much longer – at least not for technology companies. PR needs to bring relevant topics for conversation – not just company/product/benefit/customer to all constituents – and not only the traditional media. PR needs to also be an open, honest and active participant in the conversation.  Trying to manipulate things from the sidelines is a sure way to screw yourself and your clients. PR already gets the cold shoulder from the Wikipedia – which somehow sees us as not being a part of the community – and that has to change. But it isn’t going to change until PR people recognize, understand and act like a part of the community and help their clients do the same.
[tags]PR, public relations, technology, enterprise software, social media, web relations, media, communications[/tags]

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