26 May In PR small equals mighty
A friend of mine started her PR firm about the same year I did (2002). Today she’s got a big office with a bunch of people working for her and pretty much everyone in Minneapolis knows who she is. I am working fairly anonymously in the smallest office I’ve ever had, with a couple contractors who might or might not get work each week.
You might think that my friend is more successful and depending on your definition you could be right. As a refugee from corporate America I still get a little pang of jealousy once in a while when I see how she’s scaled up her business.
But you know what? Although her firm may be a better “model” based on the standard business measurements, I think I deliver a better product. Because at the end of the day what I’ve learned is my clients want a personal relationship with ME. As soon as I start to pass off writing pitches and determining media strategy to someone else, my product begins to deteriorate. And it’s not because I’m so brilliant either. It’s because I have nearly as much passion for their product as they do – after all I work with it personally almost every day.
In the summer of 2007 when everyone else was spewing money out of their armpits, I was almost out of business. I even took a part-time job writing the back covers and inside flaps for a book publisher to make ends meet (super fun job BTW) Finally I called one of my clients, a genius management consultant named Ashish Gadnis, who came over and fixed everything in about an hour. Ashish told me to layoff my employees, fire several clients and double my rates. Then another friend handed me a copy of Free Agent Nation by Dan Pink, which although a little outdated is still my company’s informal “constitution”. (Free Agent Nation makes the argument that the self-employed, the “free agents” are a groundswell of productivity in this country – it’s a great read) Other changes included a much smaller office and more attention to my clients, and less to payroll and bookkeeping. Although those seem like no brainers anyone with a small business will tell you it’s easy to get sucked into the administrative stuff.
Within two months my business had righted itself and in 2008 I had my best year ever. 2009 is looking very good, despite the recession.
I turned things around because I finally got it through my thick skull that public relations is a personal business. There has to be that guy or girl who really knows your company, knows your book, whatever, they HAVE to have s a personal interest in making it succeed. Otherwise it’s a cookie cutter approach and that just doesn’t work anymore – there are too many messaging channels to put together one great pitch and expect it to resonate.
Unless you’re managing an already-created brand, corporate or personal, an agency can’t deliver multiple iterations breakthrough messaging for the same product – the process just doesn’t allow it. And all the teamwork and rah rah in the world, while it could make for a decent PR business, won’t create those killer angles that really sell something nobody’s ever heard of before. In ad agencies the creative director is king (or queen) for their ability to create fresh ad ideas for the same brand over and over again. In PR agencies the really good people who can do this usually go out on their own. For them, the process a bigger PR agency needs to use is just too stifling.
I met with an author recently who used a communications firm to promote his first book and was really disappointed with the results. We had lunch with another author, a client of mine. I’d gotten her almost 50 radio interviews in a couple weeks, including several national spots, driving her book into the Amazon top ten list for that niche. I explained to the first author that a factory approach doesn’t work unless it’s pay for placement. You have to have that person who really KNOWS you, for whom it is also personal.
This doesn’t mean that freelancers or tiny agencies are always the best – there are alot of slimeball smallfries in PR so check references on your potential person carefully. But mainly, look for that PR person who will fall in love with your product, book or service nearly as much as you do. Don’t worry if they have a BIG presence. Worry about whether they have a GREAT reputation – because in PR the smallest are often the mightiest.
By the way, for those of you too young to remember Mighty Mouse that was the best cartoon ever made.