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)

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.