There has been a lot of discussion this week in the A-List blogs about the role of a PR firm within the world of inbound marketing and social media. I have been thinking about this for a while, both as a blogger (who is now getting pitched by PR firms), an active social media person, and a client of a PR firm - and part of a company that has a strong presence on LinkedIn (group with 7,000+ members), Facebook (over 600 fans) and Twitter (still growing, but employees like me have 100's of followers). In fact, I have been asked to speak on this very topic at the upcoming Worldcom conference in Montreal (a conference of hundreds of PR firms).
Changes Challenging the Value of a PR Firm
Direct Relationships - Does the media expect direct relationships with the company (through social media) rather than having the PR folks as a "go-between"? If so, can the PR Firm play a role at all?
Speed of Publishing - The old world had quarterly or annual editorial calendars. Now A-list bloggers decide what to write that morning while having a latte in their robe in front of their laptop. HubSpot has gotten coverage within 50 minutes from ZDNet because I responded to a question on Twitter from a blogger. When the time between idea and article can be 30 minutes, can a PR firm really help a client get coverage?
Approachability of Media - The media today are really pretty approachable, unlike the old days where it was hard to get a meeting with a writer for the Wall Street Journal, today you can follow the key media players on Twitter, be friends on Facebook, comment on their blog, etc. So, if the relationships are easier to formulate today, what's the value of a PR firm?
To review some of the discussion going on right now, Steve Rubel at Micro Persuasion thinks that PR firms need to adapt, because bloggers and "new media" people want to "discover news for themselves" and not be pitched by PR folks. Michael Arrington at TechCrunch says that "PR as a profession is broken". Ouch. Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins from Mashable says those who "position themselves in the mindset that they aren't gatekeepers for information but connectors for entrepreneurs and resources for journalists" will be a productive resource for their clients. Robert Scoble from Scobleizer thinks that "there's no reason to go crazy with a PR firm if you build something that people want." And Todd Defren of PR-Squared posted a response (including a video of me). But probably the best summary and comment on the debate (besides this article of course! :) comes from Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWrite Web who summarizes his article with "Is it worth the expense and loss of direct experience for many startups to hire PR people? It probably is."
How a PR Firm Can Provide Value Today
Research - You could spend the time finding the best 100 bloggers who write about your specific niche, but having someone else do this for you can save time, especially if they do it for a living and have access to tools to make it easier and faster. Same things goes for researching conferences, events, speaking opportunities, awards, etc. HubSpot has won a ton of marketing awards, and for most of them our PR firm found them and did everything for us.
Training - Few people are social media and blogging experts, and if you hire the right PR firm, they can help bring their expertise into your company. Don't let them do everything for you, make them train and educate your marketing team (not just marcom, product people too!) and executives about social media, blogging, how to comment on blogs, how to use Twitter and Facebook, etc. Inbound Marketing relies on using your entire company for marketing, and teaching people how to do it can be a great way for your PR firm to provide value. Even though we think we know a lot at HubSpot, our PR firm has taught us a thing or two and we've tried some new stuff based on their suggestions.
Create & Publish Content - PR folks are experts at writing, and increasingly audio and video too. Your PR firm can help you figure out how to take your boring company announcement and craft it into an interesting story, even if it is not for a news release, it can be just for your company blog. Your PR firm can also interview employees, customers and others and post videos on your blog or website, etc. They do this stuff all the time (if they're good) and might be able to do it better and faster than you can. Our PR firm has written more than press releases for us - they don't write for this blog - but other stuff has been helpful.
Pitching / Relationships - There are some times when a PR firm does have relationships you don't have, and times when that makes sense. A lot of these relationships might be "old media", but old media is still important to a lot of companies. For instance, Business Week, Inc Magazine, and others will probably only cover you twice in the next 5 years (if you're lucky), so does the writer really want a "relationship" with you. Probably not. But a PR firm brings lots of different clients to the table, and having a relationship with the PR pro might make sense for the writer. Our PR Firm is really completely responsible for our relationships with print media. We just don't interact with those folks much ourselves.
Monitoring - Good PR folks will do a great job of monitoring all the right blogs, social networks and other conversations for relevant information. They then should email you and tell you to respond, comment, or react on your blog as necessary. Even if you have a ton of RSS feeds, alerts and more set up, you might miss some things. Our PR Firm doesn't send us too much in terms of monitoring because we use lots of tools (including HubSpot software) to monitor things ourselves, but about once a month they send something I missed, and it's usually good. But, we have about 10 people actively monitoring 100's of blogs and 100's of search feeds daily (not kidding, the joke is that we consume 40% of the Internet on a daily basis). I bet that your company has way fewer people in your company doing this stuff, so your PR firm will provide tons more value here.
Beyond these points, I also think there is something to be said for the ability for a PR firm to relatively quickly ramp up your capabilities, whereas if you were doing things internally it might take a lot longer to find and train a productive internal person. Don't take this as a glowing recommendation that everyone should go out and hire a PR firm today. But, I also don't think they should be swept under the rug as useless - there is a lot of value a PR firm can provide in the right circumstances for the right client. As always, understand what all your possible tools can do, then choose the right tools for the job. A PR firm might be one of those tools.
Here is some more of my thoughts on video:
Note: HubSpot is a client of Shift Communications, and we're happy with what we have accomplished working with them over the past year. But we also talk frequently with them about how to make the relationship work best for both of us. I recommend all companies do that with your PR firm. Maybe this article can be a starting point for the conversation with your PR firm.
What do you think? What is the role of a PR firm today? Leave a comment below and let's discuss.
Originally published Aug 13, 2008 6:44:00 PM, updated March 21 2013