Gini Dietrich

The 10 Percent of Communicators Who Get it

By: Gini Dietrich | August 26, 2014 | 

CommunicatorsBy Gini Dietrich

For most of my career (until I started a communications firm of my own), I did what is called AgFood PR.

We used the phrase, “…from the farm to the fork” to describe what we did because it was communicating everything from growing America’s food source to preparation and even eating out.

I learned not only how to grow food and how to prepare it, but how to eat in the fanciest restaurants with confidence (it’s an art and there are many rules!).

Many of the communicators I mentored were taught how to order wine for a client and how to “pick” potatoes every late fall/early winter.

I loved that world a great deal. In fact, if it weren’t so competitive, we’d be doing more of it (and will someday).

One of the things that is different about how I was taught communications is to go out into the field and work with the sales reps.

I’ve spent many a day in cornfields, identifying weeds or insects and recommending herbicides or insecticides. I’ve spent many a day in professional kitchens, learning how a chef might use catfish or cranberries or juice in their recipes. I’ve spent many a day on manufacturing floors, learning how to package frozen foods.

These are things you would not expect for communicators, but it is extremely important for us to fully understand how our clients work, what their sales process is, why customers buy (or don’t) from them, and how that all integrates with communications.

When a Communicator Gets Fired

Five years ago, an executive fired his PR firm in the comments of a BusinessInsider post.

As some blogs are wont to do, they published a pitch from the executive’s PR firm. It touted the executive’s very controversial opinion on music startups and it offered an interview.

It was a pretty good pitch.

The only thing the PR firm did wrong, of course, was mass distribute the same email to many journalists and bloggers.

Had they done their research, they likely would have discovered Dan Frommer isn’t one to interview executives; rather he prefers to use his ink to knock down anyone and everyone he can find.

But the firm’s client was, apparently, fed up.

Screen Shot 2014-08-25 at 3.28.01 PM

I was reminded of this story when Timehop Abe told me I tweeted it five years ago (I LOVE that app!).

BusinessInsider got a lot of mileage out of the snafu.

They went on to write, “When PR Firms Get Fired,” and “90% of PR Firms Add No Value.”

As much as I’d like to discount the latter story, I agree. And my AgFood experience is why.

PR Metrics

Last week, PR metrics extraordinaire, Katie Paine, wrote, “The #1 Reason Why PR Gets No Respect: Stupid Metrics.”

In it, she describes how communicators are focused on measuring activities, not outcomes.

Many communicators still track advertising equivalencies, media impressions, and an increase in Facebook likes or Twitter followers.

She calls for a clearing of the cobwebs and a focus on what’s important: How the work we do affects an organization’s growth.

A couple of months ago, I spent a really long time writing about PR metrics for you. If you haven’t read and bookmarked that, I encourage you to do so.

Not for my ego, but for you to understand how you can measure the things that really matter.

The 10 Percent of Communicators Who Get it

Then I want you to return here and think about how you can be in the 10 percent of communicators that really get it.

The things you have to have a really grasp on are:

  • Strategy. For some reason, strategy is really difficult for many communicators to understand. Think about it this way: What do you want life to look like a year from now? Now take that same thinking and put it into play for your client or for the organization where you work. Ask yourself what success looks like in a year. What will you have accomplished? Where will you have made the most improvements? What fun things will you have done? That’s the strategy. If you can’t understand, strategically, where the organization is going, you won’t be successful in generating results.
  • Conversations. Just like my AgFood experience, you have to actually go out and talk to people. We all work in this virtual 24/7 world where it isn’t necessary to meet people in person. And that’s great. It certainly makes us more efficient, in many cases. But it also hampers our ability to really understand our organizations, the customers, the detractors, and the industry. The communicators who will win talk to journalists about their opinion on your organization…and your competitors, if they’ll share that. Ask them about the industry. Go into the field and work with the sales reps. Get on to the manufacturing floor. Often. Talk to customers. Talk to former customers. Learn as much as you can.
  • Sales Process. I know some of what we do can’t generate leads or convert to customers—because it’s building awareness and reputation—but you should most certainly learn about the sales process. How long does it take? What kinds of questions do prospects ask before they buy? Is there anything that prompts an uneducated buy (like a new brand of toothpaste or laundry detergent)? What concerns do customers have? What solutions do you have that can solve problems? You have to understand the answers to these questions to make the best recommendations.
  • Consensus. It’s really, really difficult to gain consensus and involvement from executives who think they are hiring a PR firm or in-house team so they can walk away from it and let the magic happen. Au contraire! The more involved an executive is, the more successful communicators will be…because an organization’s audiences want to hear from the big guns, not the PR team. It’s your job to figure out how to build consensus and keep them involved. In some cases, it may be to require their attendance at a weekly meeting and, in others, it may be showing up in their offices once a month with a laundry list of things to cover.

I could, of course, go on and on, but this is a really good start on helping you stand out from the crowd.

It will help you better understand how an organization works before you try to execute on something that may or may not make sense.

What else would you add?

photo credit: Tim Dolighan

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Fired in comments. Wow.

    What I see, among your points, as most lacking is the sales side of things. As you state, what we do won’t always directly lead to a sale, but it sure as heck fills the sales funnel for sales. The problem? Too many PR people I talk to don’t even know what the sales funnel is.

    It is a lack of understanding of how PR and digital marketing tie into the business’ goal, which is to make money. They can list all sorts of things but at the end of the day no money, no business.

    But you develop this understanding by studying, learning and talking to lots of people.

  • I think these 4 attributes are definitely good starting points. I would add 2 things to that list.

    First, I think it is critical communicators adopt a never stop learning mindset. It surprises me that there are so many communicators that don’t take advantage of the free online learning resources at their disposal. Too many are trapped in 2005 ways of thinking about communications and PR. Just dedicating a few minutes every day to learn about the latest trends in are ever-changing space can go a long way.

    Secondly, I think it is critical that communicators be organizational educators. This somewhat ties to your point about consensus building. I think so many executives and other stakeholders don’t really understand how communications / PR work. Better explaining how things work and keeping others abreast about the latest developments (based on what we learn regularly) leads to better alignment and consensus around goals.

  • kevinanselmo I was just about to say that about the “never stop learning” mindset. Gini and I were discussing this just yesterday. Professional development IS part of our job. Not an add on, not a nice to have… a fundamental part of what we do and must have for proper client service.

  • Occupy PR! once again the lower 90% are left out.Help us Take Back PR!

  • LauraPetrolino kevinanselmo its part of the circle of life.

  • ginidietrich

    TCoughlin Two days in a row! Thank you!

  • Howie Goldfarb LOL!! Oh boy.

  • ClayMorgan I think it’s because most of us have liberal arts degrees. We’ve never taken a business course in our life. And, unless we are in charge of a P&L, it’s rare we have to answer to anything but impressions and advertising equivalencies. If we don’t change the tide, no one will.

  • kevinanselmo Last week, jesslaw wrote a blog post about how frustrating it is to go to PRSA events and hear the same old, same old about how you should pitch journalists. I agree with her, BUT… too many still do not know. To your point, they still are trapped in the early 2000s. It makes me sad. And you’re absolutely right.

  • ClayMorgan Also, as you well know, there are clients who are not above firing a PR firm in the comments of an article. They always act like they’re blameless, but what they don’t tell anyone is they haven’t shown up for a meeting in months and they expect you to read their minds. Argh.

  • The consensus word scares me. So many big companies couldn’t achieve consensus on a brand of pencil to order. Maybe the word is “involvement?” Because I often see that. Company hires a firm and thinks their involvement is over, when really it’s just begun.
    And speaking of farms, I shot a commercial in a 100-degree cornfield a couple of summers ago. What the hell are those GIANT (okay, inch long) flying bugs that are EVERYWHERE. Like gnats, only GIANT. Geh.

  • SavvyCopywriter

    Consensus is a hard one. The reason why so many firms hire PR firms and communicators for their organization is because they have such an enormous deficit of time. They’re already struggling, reach out to someone for help, and then get asked for more of their time. With that said, I couldn’t agree more that it’s essential to a strong communications plan and PR strategy that executives are intimately involved in the process. Tough line to walk. It takes a lot of educating at times, but when everyone is on the same page… magic! (And by magic, I mean the communications people actually want to hear/read/consume from companies).

  • What is funny, is that so many communicators get parts of the picture, not the whole thing. The ones that I’ve seen stand out also have mastered (or trying to master) the following things:
    Facilitation: Being able to coordinate others and somewhat moderate the planning and strategic processes. 
    Understanding the science of communications: As Gini mentioned, many PR folks have degrees in arts as opposed to science. Understanding the psychological and scientific components of communications can really set apart those who get it. 
    Rhetoric: It stuns me how many folks in this industry never think about rhetoric and the art of argument. Most of the time what PR people do is make arguments. However, it you aren’t really thinking through the right strategies of persuasion, then of course you won’t be able to validate efforts effectively.

  • EmilyNKantner

    The consensus part is so important, but it can be a real challenge! Even within a smaller organization, getting involvement from the top down is like pulling teeth sometimes.

  • jenzings

    Katie’s post was very interesting–Chip Griffin and I talked about this on the CustomScoop podcast yesterday. I’ll admit I am still somewhat pessimistic about the future of PR when so many just do not seem to want to get a handle on the points you’ve outlined above. How can people *not* get strategy? It’s so important I’d say it is fundamental. The thing is that all of what you’ve listed (strategy, conversations, sales process, consensus) all take time and too often PR pros are still encumbered by an outdated view of PR that says the entire objective is to get media coverage, preferably print (oh, and front page of the NYT or WSJ, please).

    Clumsy monikers notwithstanding, I am beginning to believe we need a “slow PR” movement (like the “slow food” movement) that emphasizes that good, effective, long-term results take time to achieve.

  • gchesman

    It’s too bad that the progress in the technological areas of PR are hindering others. We get so overwhelmed by social media and overflowing email inboxes, the basic purpose of PR gets lost in the clutter.

    Great article!

  • Gonna put it back on the other side and argue it’s also the companies that don’t ‘get’ it. 

    Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told not to talk to customers, not to go to that meeting, that I could go to X event if I wanted .. being it’s my own time, dime and they wouldn’t pay for it. Why? Because I’m “just PR.” Because they’ll pay for outcomes, not all the steps it takes to earn them; they want to hire PUBLICITY and walk away.. get media hits and then poof, sales magic would happen. Or they could send out one newsletter and presto, the franchisees or employees would ‘get’ it and step to. And not for nothing, often b/c the people doing the hiring are in the marketing silo and IME are equally 1) misguided about what PR (and now social) can or ‘should’ do and 2) cautious about turning over the keys (aka budget) to anyone but them. YMMV.

    Had a little debate not too long ago about sales not being the only, sole, lone driving force to business. Of course it’s a key metric; yes money matters. Maybe I’m naive, I rank profit above sales; I put efficiency, sustainability, growth potential up there as well. Sales are what you’re doing today; and what are they costing you? How about 10 years from now, what are we doing then? That’s when the strategy comes in, that’s why you need to have no barriers between silos, so that R&D can talk to customer support, so that PR can work w/ HR about recruiting and retaining the best talent, so that PR can do some IR, keep vendors happy, investors interested and execs all focused on the bottom line. Growing a successful business, building a reputation is not accomplished by sales alone. It’s not either or; both PR and sales drive business success. That’s my ‘new Coke’ always been the hardest sell; the consensus I can’t seem to make others ‘get’ is that improved, integrated communications across the board is an investment in their business, not just an expense. FWIW.

  • I just love “you have to actually go out and talk to people.” So simple yet so ….. not done enough. I am SO SO SO excited that three days into her college career (which is now 7 days old), Tenley declared PR as her major. I know she may change majors (I sure did) but I think this would be such as good fit for her. I just am trying to act all cool and non-intrusive about it and not flood her with AWESOME guidance like this post because it doesn’t take a PR expert to know moms don’t know much (yet). 🙂 🙂

  • I’d add knowledge about your client’s competitors to the list of what you need to grasp as a communicator today. With all the tools available today, it’s not that difficult to keep track of the them and the knowledge gained can have a huge impact on the strategy. It also speaks to the sales process. For example, understanding why Customer A is purchasing a widget from your competitor instead of your company, etc. 

    Although I hadn’t thought about it much until now, your point about consensus building is probably why I prefer working with small-to-medium sized businesses. They tend to be heavily invested and engaged in the marketing/communications process.

  • I want the job where you get to taste all the great food….

    You touch on some good points, and just by ‘getting it’ you can rise above the rabble and set yourself apart. If you core premises are true and you stick by your guns you will have success. It’s finding that point of differentiation (10%) that allows you to shine and be ‘referable.’

  • bdorman264 you have mcdonald’s on one corner and the BK Lounge on your other corner you are set.

  • ccprmaven

    Thanks, ginidietrich! Completely agree about measuring outcomes and communicating across an organization. Makes a great leader.

  • They fired their PR firm IN the comments!!?? That’s amazing. Scary. But amazing!!!

  • Wendy Marx

    Love your point about needing executive involvement even though some executives think we can simply wave our magic wands. I wrote a post on a similar subject though came at it a little differently. Thought you might enjoy it:

  • belllindsay I’m not sure what’s so amazing about it…you’re fired in the comments here almost every single day!

  • Wendy Marx I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  • LauraPetrolino belllindsay She has a point, Lindsay.

  • bdorman264 Hang with me…

  • EdenSpodek Typically because the business leader is accustomed to wearing many hats. Maybe it’s also the difference between entrepreneurs and hired guns. Hmmmm…

  • biggreenpen OMG! She has already!? OK. We’ll be cool. How long should we give her? Another week before we flood her?

  • 3HatsComm You know what? You’re right. I’ve also heard clients say they don’t want to pay us to learn about their businesses. It’s nearly impossible to do our jobs without knowing about how things run internally. And industry expertise won’t cut it. You’re absolutely, absolutely right.

  • gchesman You are so right!

  • jenzings I’m trying! The whole mantra in Spin Sucks is “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” The problem, of course, is the instant gratification we all want. We think social media or content or getting on the front page of the Times is the magic bullet. We forget it takes 10 years to have overnight success.

  • EmilyNKantner It’s a HUGE challenge. A client emailed me several things today—in separate emails. He apologized for filling up in my inbox. I said, “If you continue to send me stuff like this that helps us do a better job for you, you can fill it up as often as you like.” But he is rare. Very, very rare.

  • JasKeller Perhaps everyone needs to be on the debate team before they join the professional workforce. Hmmmm…maybe I should require it of my team!

  • SavvyCopywriter I agree … time is definitely a resource not many of us have. BUT. We cannot be successful without the help of the executives. It’s impossible. In fact, where we have the most success for clients is when the CEO is intimately involved in working with us. It doesn’t require daily or even weekly meetings. But it does require information sharing.

  • RobBiesenbach A friend and I were laughing about a former job she held where they had committees to decide on the color of pens they were going to order. I could not work in that environment. I’d definitely walk to the top of the Sears Tower and jump off.

  • biggreenpen Didn’t I respond to this? What the heck?? I want to know how long we have to give Tenley before we bombard her? Three weeks?

  • Wendy Marx Yes, yes, yes to this! Thank you! I’m so tired of people thinking they want media relations when they want to hire a PR firm. Come on!

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen I don’t think the time period matters. The key is not to infer “your mother sent me.” The sooner she realizes “PESO” is more than a unit of currency, the better for her future in the profession!

  • Wendy Marx

    ginidietrich, thought we were in sync. 🙂 Yes, it is very frustrating that so many people don’t recognize the breadth and scope of PR.

  • gchesman

    ginidietrich gchesman Glad we’re part of the 10% 😉

  • ginidietrich No just host an in-house debate on a regular basis!

  • howiegoldfarb

    Includes free recipes RT ginidietrich: “90% of PR firms suck”…here’s how you can be in the other 10%

  • ginidietrich if I had a dollar for every “research? how long?! can’t you just hit the ground running?” And then another five bucks for every ‘why didn’t it work?’ after I wasn’t afforded the time, given the access and insights to do my job, b/c how dare I the ‘PR lady’ make suggestions on pricing or labor, then … grr.  I mean I still get this; this is why I can’t get coverage b/c clients won’t share news, won’t respond, won’t engage; yet expect earned media. 

    It’s a deal breaker for me now; I either get the intel and access or they can get someone else. It’s a partnership, only way it works.

  • ginidietrich Yeah, anyplace that sets up “process streams” would kill me.

  • In your bulleted “Sales Process,” I think I’d like to suggest: Where and when possible visit the client’s place of business giving especial attention to the employee’s break room. It is here you’ll likely find the bulletin boards announcing managements immediate  concerns and what management  expects the employees to do about them. Oftentimes, this is quasi-sensitive information not likely to be found anywhere else. Naturally, congratulatory messages will be posted when something noteworthy has taken place also.

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