What I’ve Learned in 15 Years of PR Consulting

Earlier this week I hit the 15th anniversary of my PR consulting business. When I left my job as vice president of an advertising agency to strike out on my own in 2002, I wanted to test the waters, see how well I liked consulting and find out if I could make a comfortable living as a PR consultant.

It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed, and that during that time I’ve served nearly a hundred clients from a variety of industries, including ad agencies in need of PR services. Some of my clients have been with me for many years.

Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs I’ve known, I never had a burning desire to be self-employed. But once I got a taste of running my own business, I discovered it was exciting to have my own clients and energizing to handle their PR/communications needs.

Fifteen Years in Biz Post

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from running a consulting business that specializes in ad agency PR:

Technology makes it possible to work from just about anywhere and still provide top-notch service to clients. With a laptop, e-mail account and a mobile phone, you can connect with clients, prospects, reporters and colleagues throughout the world. This is something I knew before venturing out on my own, but it was driven home to me within days of going into business for myself. I was blessed to land a huge piece of business immediately—an energy company that covered fours states in the northeast. From my home office, I was able to service this client effectively and generate extensive publicity regionally on its behalf.

Social media and blogging can make you “discoverable” by people you want to reach. Providing great content is important in establishing one’s expertise, but it takes work to promote that content and get in front of decision makers. Still, it’s worth the effort because the entire conversation changes when a prospect approaches you rather than you approaching the prospect.

A niche is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Having an area of specialization enables you to speak to a specific audience and establish a foothold in a particular industry. In my case, I’ve focused on ad agency PR, which involves providing public relations services to small- and medium-sized advertising, digital and media agencies. That doesn’t mean I turn away business in other industries, but with my corporate communications, journalism and agency background, I can speak to the specific needs these firms have when it comes to using PR strategically to increase awareness of their agency and drive new business.

A blog is the best way to showcase your expertise. I know, I know. There are a gazillion blogs out there all competing for attention. That’s why having a niche is so important—it positions you as a subject matter expert in a specific area and makes you easier to be found by prospective clients searching for the solutions and expertise you offer. Being seen as a credible and knowledgeable thought leader who offers useful (as opposed to self-serving) content can have big payoffs down the road. When done right, your blog will become a magnet for search engines, bringing business to you when a prospect is ready to engage your services and usually has a budget to do so.

Being a trusted source for reporters is a great way to gain credibility as an expert and expand your reach. That’s because publicity allows an objective secondary source–the news media or bloggers–to tell your story to the people you most want to impress. The bottom line is that strategic use of PR, especially publicity, can help small- to mid-sized agencies level the playing field with larger agencies.

Cold calling for new business is unproductive. With only a couple of exceptions, over the past 15 years all my business has all come from repeat business, referrals, someone finding me while doing an Internet search or from having one division of a company see what I’d done for another division and contact me. Cold calling is annoying to prospects and makes you look desperate.

Trust is at the core of any partnership. A lot of consultants have expertise in PR and good technical skills, but not all of them are trustworthy or provide the kind of service that is conducive to long-term relationships. If you do all of the things listed above well but fail to keep your word or deliver on your promises, you’ll have a hard time keeping clients. While many things go into a successful client-agency relationship, trust and character are at the top of my list.

photo credit: chrisinplymouth 15 via photopin (license)

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Citizen Journalism & What It Means for Ad Agency PR

As newsrooms continue to cut back on staff, citizen journalism continues to grow. Starting this month, Fox Television Stations has begun employing citizen journalists and is the first major media outlet to do so, according to an article in the New York Post.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a citizen journalist is someone outside of the news business who does the kind of reporting that was traditionally done by professionals. Some citizen journalists analyze, report and disseminate news through their own online outlets.

Fox has partnered with Fresco News, a crowd-sourced news startup that has signed up hundreds of citizen journalists in cities across the country. Once you sign up, Fresco says it “notifies you about nearby breaking news events when news outlets need photos and videos for their coverage. When a news outlet downloads or uses your photo or video, you get paid instantly!”

Close Up of Reporters’ Cameras Image medium_3082476355

This is quite a change from the “old days” of traditional journalism, and I believe it is a positive one. Audiences that in the past only received information increasingly have opportunities to engage and participate. While a letter to the editor used to be the primary way to agree with or challenge something written in the local paper, today articles that appear online as well as in print often give readers a chance to add comments.

There also are more ways for readers or viewers with expertise on a particular topic to be available as a source to answer questions and/or provide insight. Help A Reporter Out (HARO) is one example of a resource that connects journalists looking for sources with people who are interested in sharing expertise in exchange for publicity. (Bringing qualified leads from reporters seeking sources directly to one’s inbox is every PR person’s dream.)

But citizen contributions are different than having citizens reporting news. With social media, blogs have made such reporting possible—and empowered average people in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. Now, if the news media ignore a story, one or more bloggers can cover it and create a buzz online. Sometimes they can even shame reporters into covering stories that otherwise would have gone unreported. Or, if the reporting is biased, social media can quickly get out corrective facts and documentation.

In other cases, citizen journalists can get to the scene quicker than a news crew, or add extra arms and legs to the reporting team.

“News consumers generally receive a single angle to a story, because news outlets almost always assign one camera or one reporter to any one news scene,” said John Meyer, the 21-year-old founder of Fresco. “But we’re already seeing video on TV from three or four Fresco contributors who are covering the same protest, which adds a new dimension to how stories are presented.”

One example cited in the Post article was a March 7 pre-dawn fire. “Fox 29 sent out a Fresco alert about a fire in Moorestown, Pa. — a 20-minute ride from the station. The station instantly received ‘great video of a huge fire’ . . . whereas crews dispatched by its competitors were lucky to get ‘smoking embers’ by the time they arrived.”

This naturally raises some questions:

  • Will citizen journalists be perceived to have the same level of credibility as traditional journalists?
  • With surveys showing a decrease in trust in the news media, could citizen journalists actually be seen as being more fair and objective?
  • How will busy news outlets verify the authenticity of photos and videos?
  • Who will bear the brunt of legal actions brought against a citizen journalist?
  • What will this trend mean for public relations professionals?

To this last question, for the purpose of this post, I will refine it even further to ask how the trend toward citizen journalism will impact ad agency PR.

The short answer is I believe it will broaden opportunities for agencies and their clients to become sources for stories. As newsroom staff shrink in size, being available to provide expertise and credible information to reporters who are already stretched will become increasingly valuable. Agencies also need to expand their relationships to include citizen journalists who regularly contribute content to media outlets.

Today there are more opportunities than ever to not only have your voice heard, but also to engage and even shape news coverage.

photo credit: Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious via photopincc