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PR Spin, Gatekeeping, and Who-You-Know – NOT!

I recently read the New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller “Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley” July 5, 2009, and came away thinking it was an informative article on how public relations is changing due to new social media tools that are “blurring the lines between journalists and everyone else”, and an excellent chronicle of one start up company and PR professional’s experience.

However, some of Ms. Miller’s references to public relations practices got me thinking about how many of the perceptions of PR are just plain outdated, incomplete or wrong, and what good public relations really is and requires.

The following terms were used in the article: 1) Spin, 2) Gatekeeping, and 3) Who-You-Know PR. In my nearly 20 years of practicing PR, I can honestly say these terms don’t really describe the activities I am involved in on a daily basis and what the goal of good PR is.  Brian Solis’ comment that “PR is much more than what most think it is” and is “at the very least misunderstood, under estimated, misused, and most importantly, under appreciated” within his blog commenting on the same New York Times article “PR Does Not Stand for Press Release: Equalizing Spikes and Valleys” July 6, 2009, rang very true to me.

When I think of the above mentioned terms, here is what I believe really happens when good PR is practiced:

1) Spin – While this term often implies an element of misleading or being dishonest with the way information is communicated to the public, or at the very least over hyping company news, good PR professionals know this approach is not effective, and the media and other readers/audiences can see it for what it is. What good PR really does is find the great stories, information, perspective and achievements within a company that are already there but haven’t been told/communicated yet – as often clients have difficulty seeing these being close to their own company, products and job function – and package it up in a way that makes it fresh, relevant and differentiated each day to engage prospects and influencers and propel them through the buy cycle. If there happens to be negative information that is relevant for customers and public audiences to know about, good PR people advocate and practice being proactive in communicating this information to the public.

2) Gatekeeping – This term suggests that a PR practitioner’s job is to play guard, hiding company executives, employees etc. from media people anxious to speak with them. The truth is that good PR professionals welcome and seek out media interviews and the opportunity for their clients to tell their story each and every day – even if there may be some expected negative questions asked by the media. A PR practitioner has typically has worked very hard with the company to have one of several spokespersons prepared, willing and able to discuss a variety of company and industry topics when the chance arises. However, there are many reasons why interviews sometimes don’t happen, which are often out of PR’s and even the marketing department’s control, and it is most often with regret that PR declines an interview. If this happens, PR professionals are looking for a chance to later to make up for this, in offering an interview to the same media person at a different time perhaps on a different topic to keep them up-to-date, engaged and getting the information he or she desires.

3) Who-You-Know PR – PR has the image of its success being all about having personal contacts and relationships in the media to get press coverage. The New York Times article reinforces this idea, and highlights Brew Media Relations Founder Brooke Hammerling’s relationship with industry luminaries like Larry Ellison of Oracle and Evan Williams and Biz Stone of Twitter, calling her the “doyenne of who-you-know PR”. While having these types of relationships has many rewards, for a PR professional working with a start up company I believe this: While it is somewhat true in that it’s easier to gain a reporter’s attention when they know you, what’s most important is that you have something of value to that media person when you approach them – a good story or information that is of specific interest to them. This will get their attention more than anything. When you do this, you demonstrate your credibility, competency and value, and this is what will create the kind of professional relationship you need. As a PR practitioner, I could never trade on my established reporter relationships for a story that is not newsworthy, so it really doesn’t matter if I know a lead editor at the Wall Street Journal if my client doesn’t have a story to tell. While I understand that this type of Who-You-Know PR is practiced and was witness to much courting of reporters earlier in my career at a large technology company, I believe the approach is a bit outdated as the media has grown, become busier and stretched thinner with the increase in media outlets/online competition and decreases in print media revenues and staff. With the fast turnover in the media, securing press coverage can’t just be about a PR professional’s “personal” friends in the media, it has to be about giving reporters and writers what they need to do their jobs.