Lying to Yourself: What Public Relations Really Does
Part 1: How to make something very simple very hard.
PR improves reputation.
This is a simple statement that everyone will nod their head to in agreement and then immediately forget when trying to do PR. Reputation is a core metric, the way to determine value. If you are spending money on PR and it is not improving your reputation, something is wrong.
A while back, I worked with a massive, decades-old global B2B company to help them refine their comms strategy. (They had asked me to start with a smaller, more targeted project, but as I often do, I wheedled my way into an attempt to fix their top-level strategy first.) I spent several weeks interviewing leaders and stakeholders across their astoundingly large in-house comms department—hundreds of employees—as well as reading anything I could get my hands on: audience survey data, business strategy documents, and major advertising and comms efforts going back at least a decade.
Eventually, I had enough of a snapshot to give my recommendation to their head of communications and her senior staff. I created a beautiful deck, rehearsed my voiceover for a couple of days, and cleaned up my office so my background would be as appealing as possible. The night before the presentation, rehearsing things for probably the 10th time, I had a bit of a panic attack. It wasn’t performance anxiety. It was the realization that, despite many good insights and supporting data, the core of my message was simply that her team and their PR agency needed to do less.
The presentation went fine. The client agreed with my diagnosis, if not every part of my proposed solution. But when I tried to later work with her direct reports with her sanction, most of whom managed a few dozen comms people, everything went to hell. What do you mean we’re doing too much? Don’t you think we know that? And who are you to tell us that most of the work we’re doing is pointless?
I had never said pointless, for the record. At least not to their faces. I had said it was too complex. And I was right. Most of the work they were doing, costing tens of millions of dollars a year, was perfunctory. A press release with a quote from a VP might improve his reputation, but it did next-to-nothing for the company. A product announcement in a dying trade publication could possibly reach some net-new sales leads, but what did it cost in billable hours to execute? What could that money and effort have done instead?
Now some comms people reading this might raise a hand and say: That work protected reputation. And protecting reputation is an important job of comms, too. To which I would say: You must work at the most beloved company in the world. Congratulations! I hope you are rich, or at least relaxed.
If reputation isn’t improving, it’s declining. We take this for granted when it comes to a company’s value—if your revenue isn’t growing, it’s shrinking. Why accept maintaining the status quo when it comes to reputation?
Before you let me claim it’s as simple as that, let me erode the utility of comms a bit more:
Without a clear strategy, you won’t be able to distinguish pointless work from reputation-building work. And pointless work is expensive.
Reputation isn’t built solely by PR: product, customer experience, and advertising affect real-world reputation as much or more than PR.
When it comes to protecting reputation, sometimes doing nothing is just as effective as doing any PR at all.
But okay, fine. I will admit that for some companies, simply protecting reputation is enough. So how do you determine what’s right for your company?
Also, a little terminology clarification:
I tend to use “public relations” and “communications” interchangeably. You can, too.
Broadly, external agencies tend towards using the term “PR” while in-house departments tend to use “communications.” Your “Head of Communications” may hire a “PR Agency,” or your “Public Relations Lead” may hire a “Communications Specialist.” “Public Relations” is an older term that connotes proactively reaching out to the media, while “Communications” connotes something more reactive, in-house, and more comprehensive, but in normal conversation you can use either and nobody will think anything of it.
Growth Comms vs Defensive Comms
Let’s say you are the founder of a company that has finally found its product-market fit, like the person I spoke to recently that completed a two-part Series B within a six-week window to the tune of a quarter-of-a-billion dollars.
You’re a couple of years into the lifecycle of your company. You are growing like a weed, both in customers and revenue. You have hundreds of employees, and you intend to quadruple that in a couple of years. You currently pay a PR firm $15k a month for comms support, but you don’t feel like you’re getting much out of them, because your company’s name isn’t mentioned very often outside of business journals, TechCrunch, and a few industry trades.
Do you need growth comms or do you need defensive comms?
The short answer is: I don’t know. Probably both, to be honest. But there are some questions I’d ask to determine some next moves. But first, let’s define the major ways that companies tend to approach their PR efforts.
What do I mean when I say “growth comms” and “defensive comms”?
Growth comms is a high-risk/high-reward way of using earned media to change reputation by actively seeking attention. It is proactive, not reactive. It is, in the best-case, a profit center, not a cost center. It is often, in practice, indistinguishable from publicity or even advertising. In fact, growth comms has slowly become the backbone of many full-funnel advertising strategies almost by accident, as brand advertising budgets get smaller, programatic and targeted advertising gets more expensive, and the executives who approve budgets still reliably are impressed when they see their picture in a story.
Defensive comms, on the other hand, seeks to create a protective barrier—a force-field—around your reputation. It establishes practices that allow news to pass out of your company into the wider world with the least chance of negative reception. It stops, or at least manages, questions from inquisitive reporters. It is generally seen as a cost-center, but only because accountants haven’t found a way to write down the value of avoiding bad publicity.
In a vacuum, growth comms and defensive comms are perfectly compatible and in practice often overlap. In fact, most large organizations need a little of both. But a great source of confusion comes from not distinguishing between the two when thinking about how you apportion your comms budget.
If you talk to people who specialize in growth comms, you may come away with the impression that it is a newer variety of public relations. Experiential/stunt agencies like Mischief do well by staying loosely mysterious about their model, but only their boldness, taste, and channel strategy is novel. Read any history of public relations—Harold Burson’s autobiography will do, although it’s no Act One—growth comms is the original.
Many of the early PR firms were hired by clients to help them tell a story in a newspaper about the gastro-intestinal value of a new type of breakfast cereal or to place a segment in a nightly news broadcast about how leaded gasoline safely allowed commerce to thrive. And before public relations became a clearly defined white-collar career in the early 20th century, it was the full-time discipline of countless mandarins of statehood or religion. (Ghengis Khan’s emissaries? Great flacks. Awful metrics, though.)
Growth comms is publicity, more-or-less. But in the 21st century, the definition of “publicity”—like the definition of “strategy”—has shifted. We tend to think of publicity as a service for celebrities or movies: throwing a party, arranging a photoshoot, booking an exclusive interview. And “publicity” connotes something less strategic and more one-off, although the best publicists are certainly trying to improve their clients’ reputation over time.
If anything, the defensive comms practice is the more modern invention, as companies started bringing communications staffers in-house instead of relying solely on third-party agencies, then saddling them with more and more service duties: writing press releases, fielding queries from journalists or investors, and overseeing and editing public-facing—or potentially leak-able internal communications—of all types.
In practice, these two types of comms often overlap. So why delineate them?
Because one of the biggest mistakes that founders make is conflating—and then funding—growth and defensive comms as one line-item.
That founder I was talking about before? The one with a quarter-of-a-billion dollars sitting in the bank now? He came to me stressed out about his $15k-a-month agency retainer. He thought that he should be getting more for his money than a couple of press releases sent out to the wires every month. The money wasn’t the problem; he was frustrated with what he felt like was missed opportunity.
I pointed out some mistakes he had made:
He had waited too long to hire a full-time Head of Comms. $15k-a-month to an agency is $180k, for which he should be able to hire an experienced in-house comms person, especially with the promise of some stock options. That in-house comms person should have been able to write (or edit) press releases, put them on the wires, and do at least some basic outreach to reporters—most importantly they could be around, learn how the company truly works, and know how to find answers quickly. (Although that single, first-hire comms person in a startup really should have an agency to work with; more on that soon.)
He also hadn’t given the agency clear direction of where not to spend effort, shared the importance of the investment with his own team so they would play nicely with the agency, nor taken the time to stitch a clear strategy that charted a path from his desire for more attention with his measurable business goals.
He was also just being cheap and impatient. Building reputation takes time and money. (Or a high threshold for risk. And money.)
But he also hadn’t had anyone off which to calibrate until he hired me. I’m happy to be a high-paid counselor, but it wouldn’t be necessary to anyone who educated themselves about how PR works, how to be a good client, and what to expect in the first place.