A PR pro’s letter to Santa – what I’m wishing for this Christmas

Over the past few months I had the opportunity to talk to quite a few PR peers from the IT industry at various trade shows and conferences. And this has brought me to draw up a wish list and, given the time of year, I thought I could write to Santa and see what happens!

After the opening lines with these peers about the numbers and quality of the attending press, bloggers, analysts and generally writers and influencers attending the events, the conversations invariably touched on the topic of new clients and the growing number of vendors that are investing in PR. It’s exciting to see how, over the past few years, PR has regained the position it once held as a critical element of the communications mix for IT businesses. The number of start-ups looking for PR support is flourishing: these companies, like more mature businesses, understand that excellent sales people are (largely) not enough to get their brand noticed and get ahead of the competition. Companies need to establish, and then maintain and strengthen, their brands.

Having worked with start-ups for many years, I’ve learnt that sometimes the learning process is a two-way street: while we learn about what makes their business, their vision and their technology unique, the client has to learn about PR. A PR programme is not like a car, where you insert the key and drive off there are several elements that you need to create, refine and finalise before you even think of approaching a journalist, a blogger or an analyst. A PR team needs a clear message map for example, one that’s been agreed by all the relevant stakeholders on the client side. We need to understand the business and the marketing strategy before we can develop the PR one. We need to know where a client’s strengths and weaknesses are, where they want to be in a year, two years, five years. To ask an agency to put a plan together without the above is like asking a carpenter to build a wardrobe without stating what you need to store in it, what size room it’s going in, whether you have any other pieces of furniture to go with it, etc. You can still get the wardrobe built but it is likely not to match your requirements. At least not successfully. Don’t get me wrong: even seasoned marketeers can fail to provide the info above if they have never been asked to supply it in the past. The best way to address this is to sit down at the beginning of the partnership and discuss the company’s vision, position, its messages and its business and marketing objectives. Only then can you sketch some ideas around how the PR campaign could support them. So my first wish for Santa this year is for:

1.    All PR buyers to understand the need for a planning and ramping up phase before the start flag drops.

My second wish looks towards the other side of the fence: the press. In a press and PR group on Facebook, a recent post generated an unusually high number of comments. It discussed the way journalists treat PR professionals namely that generally they don’t exactly show much love for us. Comments ranged from those saying that we should take things in a more light-hearted way, to examples of rather rude responses to pitches, and everything in between. Luckily I must say that while I’ve experienced the odd unsavoury email, these have been few and far between. Most members of the media I work with are polite for a long time the worst I’ve come across is actually the lack of a reply that might happen every now and again, and which I can understand given that these writers get hundreds of emails a day. However, another point that Facebook discussion made, is that the two camps need each other in equal measure. I actually disagree with this: even just based on how the PR side far outweighs the media side in terms of numbers, it’s plain to see how the former needs the latter more than the other way round. It’s very rare that the press runs out of stories and has to email PR agencies for material. It occasionally happens that I get an email or a call from a journalist asking for comment from one or a few of our clients but, as a rule of thumb, that’s not how the relationship works. There are many more news announcements being pitched than the press has time to write about. And the press knows this. Sometimes it gives them a sense of entitlement that leads them to believe that it’s OK to make scathing comments about the PR industry, knowing full well that we’d never retaliate because they might then stop writing about our clients. So my second wish to Santa is for:

2.    More understanding journalists. PR pros are doing their jobs: if you’d like to spend a day or two working alongside us I’m sure most agencies would welcome you with open arms to show you how things work at our end!

My next point is related to the one above, and it’s about no-shows. Phone briefings are a massive part of all our clients’ programmes and not a day goes by when we are not staffing such calls. The process is not just a case of talking to a journalist and agreeing on a date and time. Often there’s quite a bit of toing and froing to identify a day that all parties can make (with time differences – mostly between California and Europe – and busy travel schedules on both sides, adding to the challenge), an agenda that meets everyone’s requirements and then calendar entries and a couple of reminders before the meeting. This means that everyone involved has made a certain degree of effort to make this briefing happen. So when a journalist doesn’t show up at the agreed time, or sends an email that day to say they can no longer make it, it’s not ideal. Rescheduling to find another suitable slot will take a while. Not to mention the fact that the client will not be a happy bunny. Luckily this doesn’t often happen but there are a couple of repeat offenders. And while no-shows can sometimes be excused, at trade shows for example, where an overrun meeting can easily trigger a domino effect, when it comes to phone ones I have found that the reasons given are often a little ‘light.’ So my third wish for Santa is:

3.    For journalists to give more notice if they can’t make a briefing. Or to understand the amount of co-ordination that has gone on to schedule the call and therefore to try to make it.

So we’ve had the energetic messaging and planning session with the client, all journalists and PR agencies are now on uber-friendly terms and all briefings are running like clockwork. So what next? Well, I’d like the resulting flow of coverage not to be missed! I am yet to find the perfect tracking supplier. In nearly twenty years in the industry I have not come across a clipping agency that captures all mentions of a given keyword. There’s always a reason: that the source is behind a paid-for registration wall, that it’s in an outlet that’s not covered by the licences we hold (if we are missing the relevant licence why not tell us there’s a relevant story somewhere we need an additional licence for and give us the option to take that out and get the clip?), or that it’s in print and that agency only tracks online sources. And so it’s back to Google alerts, Newsnow, Tweetdeck, and reading everything that might mention your clients (you should see the stack of magazines on my desk, fully adorned with multi-coloured bits of post-it notes indicating where the mentions are). So my fourth wish for Santa is for:

4.    A coverage monitoring supplier that doesn’t miss coverage!

My fifth and final wish is more industry-led and it’s focussed on our core field of expertise: enterprise data storage. Since the distressing and drawn out demise of Storage Expo in London, there hasn’t been a non-vendor event in the UK, solely dedicated to storage. And this has been an issue for vendors looking for a relevant, specialist trade show or conference: it has also been an issue for PR agencies looking to blitz an event with back-to-back briefings with expert storage writers. The likes of IP Expo are OK but they have failed to retain the interest of specialist media, bloggers and analysts in large numbers. There is no equivalent of what was SNW Europe/Powering the Cloud (disclaimer: A3 Communications has been the event’s PR agency since 2004) in the UK: no event where you have all the top storage influencers under one roof, where you can spend two days solid briefing them. So my fifth and final wish for Santa is for:

5.    A vendor-independent event focussed on data storage.

This concludes my letter to Santa. And, with maybe a little too long to go before we break up to indulge in merriment and holiday cheer, I wish you a very happy Christmas! And of course a very happy Thanksgiving to all my North American (based) readers. Happy holidays!

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