PR Does Not Equal Publicity

Jason Calacanis at GnomedexIn recent post entitled “Jason Calacanis On How To Get PR For Your Startup: Fire Your PR Company” in Silicon Valley Insider, Jason Calacanis gives ten tips on “how to do PR” yourself:

  • Be the brand;
  • Be everywhere;
  • Always pick up the check — always;
  • Be a human being;
  • Bond with journalists;
  • Learn how to email journalists;
  • Learn how to speak to journalists;
  • Invite people to “swing by” your office;
  • Attach your brand to a movement;
  • Embrace small media outlets.

These are some great tips, no doubt. Read the post and learn from the tips there — there’s more detail under each tip, and there’s some great advice. Calacanis also popped up in the post’s comments and noted that he didn’t write the link-baiting headline.

Narrow view

Here’s the problem: Calacanis assumes that if you do all of these things you don’t need to worry about public relations folks. He assumes public relations is just publicity.

He’s wrong.

These tips might work to generate publicity for a company that’s launching, but the reality is that public relations isn’t all about pitching and publicity.

What about issues management and crisis communications? What about event planning? What about internal communications? What about building relationships between an organization and its publics?

In fairness, Calacanis’ post is about startups that may not be considering some of these functions early on, but (Update: It seems Calacanis’ thinking applies to all companies — see his comment on Richard Edelman’s post which, despite his concerns, did get published) I would take issue with anyone that thinks issues management, for example, isn’t necessary. Also, his approach isn’t scaleable, as Valeria Maltoni noted (her point about bootstrapping is good too):

Yes, when you are a start up you are bootstrapping and wearing many hats. However, if you ever hope to grow even a little, you will need to start letting go of playing gods in the Olympus.

Non-expert “experts”

I keep seeing posts from people who think they’re public relations experts purely because they’ve managed to get their names in a few newspapers. They’re not. The same goes for people who blog or post to twitter a lot. These things alone don’t mean you understand public relations.

I don’t consider myself an expert and I even work in the field.

As Calacanis says:

“…for over 10 years I’ve been the subject of many stories, including features in the New Yorker and WIRED (twice!), as well as on television programs including Charlie Rose, 60 Minutes, Nightline, CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg and countless others. I’ve gotten more press than any entrepreneur could dream of–certainly more than I deserve–and I’ve never had a public relations firm working for me.”

The hidden side of public relations

Perhaps part of this common misperception is due to the fact that a lot of public relations happens behind the scenes. You never (or rarely) see the planning behind the issues management process. You don’t see the detailed logistical work needed to pull off a good conference or media event. You rarely see internal communications materials.

Even if you don’t see it, all of this work still happens. Most people don’t think of this when you say “public relations,” because “public” must mean “out in the open,” right? No. That’s part of the reason I prefer the term “communications” — it reflects the broader nature of the work our industry does.

What’s more, I’m sure there are a lot of CEOs that don’t see their primary role as generating awareness for the company. Many are likely far better at coming up with great ideas and implementing them than at articulating and promoting them. That doesn’t mean they won’t be involved in this side of things; it just means they’re much more productive doing what they’re good at and leaving the rest to others.

Bottom line: Calacanis is a smart guy. He didn’t get where he is by luck; he got there by hard work, he’s got a lot of experience and his recent post is full of great tips and examples to learn from. However, there’s much more to public relations (or communications) than meets the eye.

Be careful generalizing about industries that you know little about. Public relations is much broader than wining and dining, and to assume otherwise is to do it a great disservice.

Update: Richard Edelman has weighed-in on this discussion, drawing a vitriolic reply from Calacanis. Seems I gave too much credit – from his comment, he wasn’t just talking about startups after all.

(Photo credit: ElectricSheep)

  • I think part of the issue that people have with PR companies, is they start a relationship with them for the purpose of generating publicity for their company and that’s where the focus remains.

    At a previous company I worked for, we hired a PR firm for the sole purpose of buzz generation and media relations. Perhaps Calacanis’ mistake (for lack of a better word) was that he failed to identify in his post that his PR needs were also narrowly focused on publicity generation.

    With respect to public awareness and media generation, I think certain types of entrepreneurs/CEOs can generate their own publicity and do it in a better way than many PR experts can.

    However, in the case of issue & crisis management, conference and certain longer term strategy planning, I think you’re right– many companies would benefit from an agency… or at least an individual with the appropriate skill-set.

    In my opinion, The Calacanis article was a decent piece about being an engaging, likable entrepreneur, not a PR machine.

  • @ben: I think that Dave is trying to get the point across that many people have NO IDEA what the PR function actually is. I personally take offense when I hear it referred to as a “machine” because a ton of thought and strategy goes into managing an account.

    I do think that some PR firms have failed the start up entrepreneur because they have focused solely on “media relations/publicity” rather than the relationship building aspect and communications planning that a new startup needs to create a sustainable environment for itself to start those marketing and advertising functions later. Perhaps that is a flaw of the agency system because the client is paying for a certain service and not receiving adequate counsel on what strategies and tactics will work for them. They are getting what they asked for – nothing more, nothing less – for better or for worse. That’s where Calcanis would have picked up the ideas for his post. But they are not PR best-practices and will, at best, yield mediocre results.

    Fire your PR firm if they’re just doing this for you, but find a better one that will do your startup justice.

  • Joseph, There is and always will be a need for companies to hire a PR firm solely for their ability to help generate publicity for companies.

    I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, that’s just the way it is.

    The point I was trying to make is that if Calacanis was making sweeping generalizations about PR strategies, then he should be clear what functions of PR he was focused on.

    Based on his article, I *think* Calacanis was speaking about one small facet of PR: media attention and buzz generation. But I could be wrong.

    Many startups focus their money on projects that have measurable KPIs. Because of this, they hire PR firms for the sole purpose of generating buzz and media attention.

    I’m not going to say that’s right or wrong, but in many cases, it’s done this way because startups are not always able to put funds in an area that doesn’t always produce tangible results.

    This all complicated by the fact, that the industry is full of PR firms and “experts” that take on clients without a proper scope of work and fail the customer, resulting in negativity about the industry.

  • More than once I’ve been introduced by one of my journalist friends to someone as “This is Ryan – he’s a publicist.” They don’t seem to understand why exactly that bothers me until I introduce them as bloggers without a website.

  • Dave, these are not good tips.

    They are crap.

    While he undoubtedly belives all this and is sincere in presenting it, the real purpose is to promote Calacanis as some sort of marketing guru. Evidently he is a successful marketer. Bully for him. he is certainly good a self-promotion.

    He knows squat about public relations.

    Like the overwhelming majority in the huckster business, Calacanis thinks that PR is about publicity.

    Let him think that.

    He’ll undoubtedly make a fortune as a huckster and good on him for it.

    For those of us who are PR professionals, we can see his comments for the vacuous nonsense it is.

  • I’m stating the obvious when I say that many people may not have the full picture about PR.

  • @Ed, PR has many benefits, including publicity. I wouldn’t discount the benefits of that, or say that PR “is not about publicity”, simply because people don’t understand the rest of the benefits PR has to offer.

  • I have been getting really sick of the bloggeraterie & others like Calcanis trashing PR. They (IMO) don’t have a clue!! EVERY biz needs a professional PR presence. Emailing press releases to the press is such a small small piece.

    It’s not your father’s PR anymore. Start up & Web 2.0 launches:

    1) Interactive press kit – Beside hard copy needs online elements . ie ; Corporate Blog/s

    2)YouTube videos both product demo & viral / fun campaigns (*think Superbowl ads on a start up budget).

    3) PR Blitz to industry/product specific bloggers (*must be done prior to general press)

    4) Podcast from both a corporate & product perspective

    5) Website SEM/SEO

    6) Launch via high visibility events ie- Demo / Showstoppers / etc

    7) Gotta have a widget and ties to social networks when possible

    8) Share functionality for viral effect

    9) Beta launch invites need be limited at first ala google email launch

    **Updated in response to a question someone asked on whether PR should be run in or outside:

    I have dealt with, and there are many agencies that will work with you on a “per hit” pricing scheme. I do not recommend this however and I am a big believer that you get what you pay for. PR is NOT and should not be practiced how it was even ten years ago (though it is not that far off).

    You can get a very competent PR (outside) team for as little as $5-$6k per month. To be done properly however, I would strongly suggest that they be managed by someone in house. This is for a few different reasons. No one will know your product as well as you do, nor will they be able to pitch your product with the passion you will have. An outside agency should be used for their contacts and introductions… Most of the time saying only what they need to walk you in.

    Another reason it is important to manage this resource internally is that if you let them simply run loose, they do not necessarily know your needs/what’s available outside of basic media contacts. For example, when I managed PR for a consumer software company, not only were media hits (newspaper,wire,Tv,radio,blog) important – but equally important was getting the company in front of, and entered into different “award” offerings (download.com Best Software of the Year, Crunchies, SIA awards,etc).

  • Jason’s post (or should I say e-newsletter article) is a classic example of someone who knows just enough about something to be dangerous. I have no problem with him telling start ups how they can help generate news stories on themselves. He undoubtedly has done a good job of that. But, as Dave and others have pointed out, he assumes that PR = media relations.

    This frustrates me, too. It’s like saying “fire your doctor because I can tell you how to put on Neosporin and Band-Aids.” There’s nothing wrong with that knowledge. In fact it’s very useful, especially if you have a 2 1/2 year-old with the coordination of an 8-month-old, like myself. 🙂 But it doesn’t do justice for all the things a doctor does. It belittles his skill set to reduce him to just that.

    Likewise, I squirm when someone says “oh, you throw parties. That must be fun.”

    Dave, maybe we can rally the troops and drop the name Public Relations from being used to describe our industry and just go with communications. Given it’s current perception – or lack thereof – it may be easier than getting folks past the name to understand that it’s bigger than what a journalist or Hollywood thinks we do.

    On another note, maybe that’s why I get annoyed that many people assume all former journalists will make great PR people. They may be good at media relations, but as we’ve said, that ain’t all PR is cracked up to be. A much smaller percentage would actually be great, well-rounded PR people because of all the other talents needed.

  • Ben:

    Please stick the word “just” in the right place in that sentence and you’ll see what I intended. My bad for not editing more closely but I am in line with Dave Fleet on this point.

    Overall, the article is crap. None of us should feel under any obligation to find anything nice to say about it. Giving it any credibility just encourages people to listen to advice that – quite frankly – is about as useful as what one might get from a psychic in the average late night infomercial.

  • Dave, thanks for this. It’s a myopic view of PR. This guy sounds like one of those sideshow hucksters – all hype and no substance.

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  • anne stephaniuk

    I agree publicity has it’s place. But the problem with this view PR=Publicity, is it does a company and pr practioners a diservice. A large part is about building mutually beneficial relationships and that takes skill, time and effort and companies who don’t understand that will when the bad stuff happens.

  • Thanks for publishing this piece, Dave, for I subscribe to your feed and hadn’t seen this topic until now.

    Before before posting my comment here, I read your links, posted comments there and subscribed to their feeds, too. So thank you for spreading the link love!

    That said, while I agree with you that public relations and publicity are not synonymous, you are also making the argument (as is Jason Calacanis) that the only type of organization that this applies to is a company.

    What about governments, schools, and grassroots nonprofit organizations who can’t afford to outsource anyone without cutting a program? The more affluent communities with access to more resources (staffing and funding) can make things happen either in-house or out; but the typical taxpayer-oriented enterprise must make due with what they have. In this sense, Calacanis is right-on.

  • Great post, Dave, and great comments. My concern here is that I don’t see any of our fellow practitioners talking about building relationships or having two way conversations with stakeholders who don’t read blogs. I’m always so concerned that when we don’t define public relations clearly no-one will really understand all that we do.

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  • nalubwama

    so what is Public relations,if it’s not=publicity?

  • @nalubwama – if you read carefully, you’ll see I’ve given several examples, which even then only give a narrow view of communications – issues management; crisis communications; event planning; internal communications and more. For a more thorough view, the Inside PR podcast had a decent show about this: http://tinyurl.com/5qqpot

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  • I think Nalubwama may have been making a joke… At least it was amusing for me to see all the well-thought out & fully explained comments that took me a few minutes to read through, and then a 1-line question that in some way makes a funny point.

    Ari Herzong makes a good point, I think in the spirit of what Calacanis is saying.
    “What about governments, schools, and grassroots nonprofit organizations who can’t afford to outsource anyone without cutting a program? The more affluent communities with access to more resources (staffing and funding) can make things happen either in-house or out; but the typical taxpayer-oriented enterprise must make due with what they have. In this sense, Calacanis is right-on.”

    Andy Finkle – Thank You for the great comment & explaining it all

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