Thursday, April 16, 2009

PR Firms: Adapt to the Social Web, or Die

I lunched today with PR agent extraordinaire Abigail Johnson, who gave me great tips for my upcoming trip to Russia. I reciprocated with a lesson I learned from a recent exercise in amateur PR.

I had wanted to tell the world about an exciting development at MashLogic -- a startup we're incubating at Bessemer -- so I blogged about it. Having posted the article, I congratulated myself on a job well done. But weeks later I noticed a blog post titled Why I Uninstalled MashLogic from a user (Zoli Erdos) spooked by privacy concerns. Our mission at MashLogic centers on user empowerment and privacy, so this negative post might have easily erupted into a contagious meme on the web -- a potentially fatal backlash against our young product.

Fortunately, though, MashLogic's architect and co-founder Ranjit Padmanabhan (photo right) had been combing the blogosphere, so minutes after Zoli posted, Ranjit responded with a very open acknowledgment of the issue, a full explanation of our privacy policy, why we think our approach is right for users, and what we're doing to improve it. Ranjit showed genuine appreciation for the feedback. Zoli's response: "Kudos to you guys for recognizing the issue :-)" and then he updated his blog post with a commendation of MashLogic for the immediate response.

The conclusion here is probably obvious and intuitive to some readers, but it may bear elaboration for those among us saddled with more outdated expectations of the PR process...

As everyone knows, PR agencies cultivate relationships with journalists and editors who are in a position to generate product awareness among their readers and viewers. In a world where most people were reading a concentrated set of newspapers and magazines, these agency relationships -- combined with diligent follow-through to address the journalists' questions -- promised significant value to companies who wish to get their message out. Plant the story in a few key chokepoints, and everyone would read it more or less as pitched to the media outlets.

But in today's world, it's not enough to hit the major news sources. For every story printed in the New York Times, hundreds or thousands of reader comments, blogs, emails, and tweets react to the story. Indeed, user-generated content now dominates professional content in both volume and mindshare, and so the tenor of user-generated commentary is far more important to the agency's client than the tenor of the original article.

For almost all agencies, though, favorable press hits represent the end of the PR process, not the beginning. But favorable press hits themselves should not be the metric of success. Rather, PR firms today should document an intense followup in the two or three days following press hits to actively engage the market through comment pages, blogs and Twitter.

Specifically, a great PR firm should help its client companies address the inevitable questions and reactions that skeptical readers should and do express, and to do so quickly while the public reaction is still forming through social echoes of the story. Responding to a "backlash" a week later is much more difficult than pre-empting the backlash in the first place.

Really I'm just talking about listening to customers, giving them straight answers, and doing it quickly. In today's transparent world, spin doesn't work. Questions must be addressed with humility and honesty (just as Amazon did yesterday); today more than ever, a great PR firm must help its clients respond fast, without defensive thinking.

I hope Abigail appreciated the advice as much as I appreciated her pointers to the Czar's palaces near St. Petersburg. I do hope to see her agency and others adapting to the dynamic, transparent PR requirements of social media.

Blogged with the Flock Browser


  1. Great article David. This is why services like and are so important.

    If your in the business of managing a brand those two sites are a must!

  2. David,

    Thanks for citing my post as the case study:-) It made me realize Google is king, and the original title was still rather negative, despite the blog update - so I now updated the title, too.

    And the bigger point: I have yet to meet a startup that does NOT respond to such writeups honestly, at least discussing the issues, better yet, fixing them. None of the denial-user-is-stupid BS you get from large companies.

    I guess that's one of the reason I love startups :-)

  3. Getting coverage and placement used to be the end game for PR agencies. Today its just the beginning.

    In addition to developing multi-channel communications strategies, my firm helps clients monitor the "conversations" in the comments and also finds opportunities where they can offer their own perspective in these discussions.

    While the dynamics of the PR business is changing, along with new journalism and advertising models, it is important to focus on developing compelling content and finding the appropriate channels to share it.