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Gini Dietrich

Are Service Businesses Now Facilitators of Conversation?

By: Gini Dietrich | January 27, 2010 | 
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No SpinToday’s digital age is about connection, conversation, and candy. Alright, not candy. I couldn’t think of another C word and I love candy.

Connection, conversation, and engagement. Even transparency and honesty. Open your door, pull up your windows, let people in and take a peek around, and decide if they want to work with you or, better, want to refer their communities to you.

It’s changing the way media relations (or publicity) is conducted because no longer do clients have to rely on a PR pro’s Rolodex to get someone to pay attention to them. And no longer are the critics and influencers the traditional journalists. The critics and influencers are all of us – we can rate and review products and services online, we write blogs, we even write editorials that can be featured in places we garner a lot of attention.

I say all of this because I had an odd situation I want to share…while we all fully realize I am not a traditional journalist. I write this blog, I write for two other business blogs, and I write for three trade publications. I don’t have tremendous influence, but I have enough in certain circles to make a difference.

Several weeks ago, I submitted an article I write for a monthly trade publication. Before I sent it to my editor, I sent it to my friend, who I interviewed for the article, for a quick look and approval. My friend is the social media expert at his company and does a phenomenal job showing real business return-on-investment so I wanted to showcase his work in my article, in order to give other companies in the industry some solid ideas they could steal.

A few hours after I sent the article to my friend for his approval, I received the following email from his PR firm:

“In the future, could you contact us first if you plan to feature any of our clients in Publication Name?”

Now, I have a relationship with their client, directly. It’s MUCH easier for me to go directly to him vs. tracking down their PR firm and going through them. This is the case for any influencer – traditional and new. And, until recently, I ran a very traditional PR firm. I would fire one of our account managers if they sent an email like this to a reporter or blogger.

It is the job of communication professionals (no matter if they’re traditional or digital) to facilitate conversations, not get in the middle of them. Likely the PR firm wants to take credit for the story and, if they’re contacted first, they can add it to their clip report. This is not in the best interest of the client.

Heck, it’s the job of any service business to facilitate, not get in the way.

So, I ask you, am I off my rocker or does it make sense that we should facilitate conversation, even if it means we don’t get to take credit?

Image credit: SEO Consultants

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

16 comments
Teresa Basich
Teresa Basich

You got some great feedback on this post, Gini. From a non-PR, outsider perspective, it sounds as if you'd interviewed this friend of yours because you felt his knowledge would be useful to the audience of the publication you were writing for. I could understand the PR firm's concerns if the article was meant to be some sort of coverage on behalf of your friend's company, but it seems a little odd they would contact you for this sort of thing, especially if they had an opportunity to review the article before it was published. Like you said, it was probably a matter of credit.

I think it'd be refreshing to see an expert interviewed outside the confines dictated by his or her organization's PR firm. While your friend does represent his company, his broad industry knowledge is his own to share, and if it's not against company policy to speak up about the work he's done, why does a PR firm need to track his every move?

Again, I don't have a PR background so I don't know. Just opinion. :)

Raymond Alvarez
Raymond Alvarez

My take on receipt of a terse email like that one: Things have not really changed much.

I was a business reporter more than a decade ago. I dealt with corporate PR people a lot. I often ran an obstacle course. There was always a person in the way of information, though it never deterred me. If there was a way to obtain information, I was going to find it. If pushed to extreme, I was even known to show up unannounced at a company facility and begin questioning people (after I had identified myself).

In one case, I had called the company headquarters in another city because I wasn't getting the information I needed. Obviously, I felt that the local PR person could be more forthcoming. They referred me back to the obstacle, who called a short time later and gave me an earful about trying to circumvent him. So, I got in my car and paid a visit.

I got what I needed for a story that was nothing even approaching an expose. It could have been viewed as flattering or unflattering, depending on the point of view of the reader. I got another phone call from the PR person after the story ran. He ran down his list of misgivings with the story and pointed out a minor mistake, which I offered to correct. Silence, then click. My future dealings were similar. I guess I don't have to say I didn't get a Christmas card from this guy that year. By the way, respect for me in the newsroom grew immensely after this episode.

The encounter was not that typical. More typically, I was shown consideration for my deadline and given cooperation - to a point. The turf thing, however, is inevitable. PR folks at corporations and institutions insist on letting them do their job. But, even back then, it was old school to take an adversarial posture (at least until I had given them a reason to not like me).

These days, people can hack into email and otherwise secure sensitive information. Soon enough, there will be no privacy. The move toward transparency was inevitable. But some are going to hold on. Human nature... and there may be reasons the R&D folks and an assortment of others might want to protect their privacy.

You had a turn at experiencing what it is like to be a journalist. For the uninitiated, this is a mild example of what a reporter can encounter.

I would measure what I have to gain by playing this game of respecting turf. If it's just aggravation, can anyone really blame you for blowing them off?

Rick Banas
Rick Banas

The biggest value of a PR firm is supplementing and complementing a company's internal talent and resources, not its Rolodex. Pitching stories to the media has always been much more dependent on the quality of the story than on the quality of the Rolodex.

And, PR spokespersons have never been as effective as the people actually involved. I know I am dating myself, but look at all of the positive publicity that the hospital that treated President Reagan after he was shot received because they had a doctor involved in the case addressing the media.

As mass media continues to lose and social media continues to gain importance, PR firms can play important roles in two key areas. The first is to help companies develop goals, objectives,strategies, policies and procedures for effectively using social media. The second is to help train employees on how to most effectively use social media.

To say that everyone must first run everything past PR before it is used in social media is much like saying that everyone in the company must run everything they say about the company at a cocktail party past PR before they say it.

Rob S
Rob S

I disagree with the response of the large PR firm for the reasons everyone mentions. As a client, I would resent this level of handling by an agency. But the main reasons aren't my main point of contention.

If I understand correctly, you weren't writing to directly promote the services of the client. You were using them as an example in an article that had a focus on how they work.

I have friends across the CPG world. Those companies are in the business of selling consumer goods. If I interview people at their firms (friends or not) about their products, I'd expect to deal with their PR firms. If I talk about how those firms approach problems within the CPG world, I see no obligation to work with their PR firm (as long as those people are following their internal guidelines for communication).

I frequently sit on panels for insights and analytics. I don't bring a PR person with me to these events. I'm not speaking to the characteristics of my product or firm, but rather how we're engaging in a process. While I am proud of the products we create, I never individually promote those products (unless I'm buying!).

There's an analogy in analytics that "if you wait for 100% of the information you lose 100% of the opportunity." I'd think that a totalitarian approach to communication eliminates the possibility of opportunistic conversations.

Dave Van de Walle
Dave Van de Walle

This world is goofy. Why, just today, I brewed coffee at home and Starbucks called and said "would you mind coming into the store next time, instead of brewing our coffee in your home? We have a real estate bill to pay."

Media policies are out the window now. In Ye Olde Tyme, we'd write a Corporate media policy and the folks in the trenches who had relationships with reporters would go off the record, all the while rolling our printed media policy up and smoking it, sipping port. Story got printed, life was good -- unless they said something stupid, then we got blamed.

Traditional PR has a fork the size of an Edsel stuck in it. It's done; move on.

Julie Cook
Julie Cook

Hi Gini - funny you brought this up. I was just discussing PR/journalists interaction on Linked In. http://bit.ly/cPfP3H

I agree with Abbi that the PR folks who "get it" are facilitators rather than roadblocks. But PR can add value by vetting writers, making sure you get timely responses and rounding out the info for a busy client who may or may not be media savvy (old school or bloggers). Roles are changing. It's not who you know but what you're adding to the conversation and how you are engaging. That being said, it was a snarky response you got for helping to promote your friend and his/her expertise.

Patrick
Patrick

"Connection, conversation, and engagement". The sole purpose of the article you were writing was to provide value to your readers and your online community. Facilitating a conversation takes a certain level of humility where "taking credit" doesn't matter.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

While I agree that the traditional model Brigitte describes used to work, it's a new day. I'm not "covering" this PR firm's client in order to make them work with us. I'm providing value to my readers, network, and community. And, if that means I can do it without a bunch of middle men, so be it.

I think the new age is exactly what Abbie describes. It used to be that companies hired PR firms for their Rolodex. Well guess what? They don't need us for that anymore. Influencers now have access to the top executives at all companies so it's time for us to get off our high horses and facilitate conversation instead of trying to take credit for a story that wasn't ours to begin with.

Molli
Molli

While I agree with Brigitte that the other firm probably felt threatened, they overlooked the situation as a whole. First, they should have done their research and seen that in this case, Gini is an influencer to the audiences of whom she was writing about. If it were me and somebody was writing about a client of mine, I would have tried and developed a relationship with them so that next time they might come to me for more sources. Second, it’s like a relationship in life. If they felt this client was going to leave, it’s on them to work with the client, not blame the third party. (Just a personal opinion.)

It is imperative for PR people to see that times are not changing, they have changed. Every day people, yes, even competitors, are influencers now. My guess is because of the tasteless email, Gini wont write about that company again. Whereas, if there was a relationship built, she might have mentioned them again in the future.

Kevin DeSoto
Kevin DeSoto

It is quite obvious that this dinosaur "PR" firm is behind the times.

While I understand going through proper channels- I do not believe in cookie cutter connections, blogs & articles where things are always "edited" for a "certain look".

A situation recently happened where I was interacting with an employee of a certain "celebrities" employee- they sent me several emails requesting anything I post on twitter to go via this individual first & not too mention I caught her in a big fat lie.

My thoughts are - be cautious. be transparent. be yourself.

Success to moving onward :)

Abbie S. Fink
Abbie S. Fink

The role of the public relations practitioner is to facilitate, add value, be a conduit to information. Instead of reprimanding you they should have asked if you had everything you needed for your story, asked if they could provide any photography or other images to supplement the story and let you know they were available if you needed anything else in the future.

If our team has done its job and positioned our clients as thought-leaders in their industry than it stands to reason media (traditional, bloggers, etc.) may contact them directly. As long as our clients keep us informed so that we can continue to be of service to that reporter, I say job well-done.

Brigitte
Brigitte

Gini - While I agree that the e-mail you received was tactless, at best, I'm not sure I completely agree with your take on it. I’d like to play the devil’s advocate for a minute and put myself in the firm’s shoes.

You're a writer, yes, but also a potential rival. Another PR firm could easily feel threatened if you're getting a client press.

Additionally, PR pros are constantly vetting reporters, etc., before clients participate in a story. How many times did we step in to get a sense of how a story would go before helping our clients finalize interview details? We weren't stopping the conversation, but often we'd send background information, etc., that would make for a more informed interview – in addition to handling logistics that our clients simply don’t have time to manage. So, from that perspective, the PR contact would likely be annoyed that their client is talking to a writer without at least giving them a heads up beforehand. Of course, this can often be thorny, because there's a fine line between helping and hindering. Since you're in PR, they might have felt that it was OK to send you this note, as they'd expect you to understand.

That said, I am giving the firm huge benefit of the doubt. And there are much, much better ways to go about this than the curt e-mail you received.

Deb Evans
Deb Evans

If I am following the story correctly you 1. sent the article to the friend to review and he 2. shared with his PR firm. The PR firm was notified, correct? They were aware of the article. Apparently the issue was not with the content but the fact that you did not contact them directly.So what? The friend received good PR. Great! Everyone should be happy here.

I don't know the protocol of PR and if any lines were crossed. I bet your friend is happy wih the press. I would think his PR firm would also be happy with the press.

You are not off your rocker. You do a great job facilitating conversations! Don't stop now.

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