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Tales of PR: Britney Spears as Poster Child for Professional PR June 24, 2006

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Pop princess, sultry teen idol and former Mouseketeer, Britney Spears, has been experiencing a wave of unfavorable coverage from the global media, including the venerated BBC, about her parenting skills, choice of husband (one of her former backup dancers and rap star, Kevin "K-Fed" Federline) and poor clothes sense.

To regain her public's support and sympathy, Britney held an intimate interview recently with Matt Lauer for "Dateline" in her Malibu home. Unfortunately, the result was not what was probably expected.

Awaiting the birth of her second child, Britney faced new criticism in the media and blogosphere for chewing gum with her mouth open as she apparently poured out her sorrows, wearing unflattering short, short cutoffs and a too low blouse, doing her own hair and too heavy makeup (one of her false eyelashes came down during the filming) and responding poorly to tabloid charges of freeloading husband, marital discord and poor parenting of her baby son.

According to news reports, Britney made a huge mistake in not having her new PR agents involved in pre-interview preparation and in-interview proceedings.  "Britney Spears Gives PR Team the Wrong Day Off" in the blog, Defamer, and "Why Britney Needs Handlers" in the NY Post's popular Page Six, pretty much said it all. 

Our celebrity, success-oriented and style-mad media don't like their fantasies destroyed (unless they do it themselves) – so it's pretty bad when media claim that had the PR agents been there it, the interview would have turned out quite differently.

Are there lessons here for those of us in the less glamourous field of corporate and non-profit PR?  Well, imagine that a company takes as its motto "Never hurt anyone," yet its actions include involvement with a repressive regime that may lead to someone's imprisonment.  Or, imagine that the head of a ministry is caught in some personal or financial scandal.  Or, imagine a company CEO going into an interview alone without taking the time to be properly prepared by a PR professional or including the PR agent; and the next day there are a flood of calls into Investor Relations by angry stockholders, because of a thoughtless remark by the executive on air or in print.

Perhaps it was a case of naivete in the case of Britney's fairly disasterous "Dateline" interview.  Whether it's a case of naivete or arrogance, any interaction with the media should never be taken lightly.  Don't make the same mistake as reportedly done here.  Giving your PR team a "day off" is the worst strategy when facing the press.


Codes of Ethics for PR & SEO are Welcome but Worrisome June 15, 2006

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I have been pleased to note a number of Codes of Ethics by various organizations in public relations and SEO (search engine optimization).  I welcome this, because of the deterioration of ethical behavior and practices that I and many of my colleagues in the business world have witnessed, particularly since the dot com boom and bust era.  Yet, it is worrisome, in that we didn’t seem to need to focus on such a plethora of explicit codes of ethics in various areas of corporate governance, marketing, public relations and so on, until recently.

This concern over ethics appears to be a global phenomenon.  It appears that if the London Stock Exchange — if taken over by a US company — will be governed by the costly Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance regulations, affecting companies seeking to go public on the UK Stock Exchange, perhaps due to the lower costs.

International public relations codes of ethics include those of the IPRA‘s, for example, in the area of Media Transparency, which includes not bribing journalists and not passing off paid coverage as editorial, when it is really advertising.  Bruce Clay has established an SEO Code of Ethics that benefits consultants and clients alike (the less fraud in SEO, the better for us all).  Virtually all reputable professional organizations have codes of ethics, but today, there seems to be a dividing line between those who really care and those who don’t.

I agree with Bruce Clay that following ethical practices is smart business.  Those practicing “Black Hat” SEO techniques may be able to get a quick result, but the search engines have dedicated significant resources to heading off the bad guys at the pass, so to speak. 

The cost to a company that thinks it can cut corners can be delisting from top search engines for years, as Bruce explained to us in his SEO ToolSet seminars, (which tools and ethical practices we at Agora Marketing are deploying to significantly enhance our clients’ marketing and PR programs). 

And, as I found out from speaking with some of the other attendees, can also lead to some pretty disatisfied customers with emptier pockets and nothing to show for it.

SVASE Funding Pitch Workshop a Winner June 13, 2006

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Wow – my partner, Ron, and I spent four very profitable hours at the SVASE Funding Pitch Workshop last night.  Given by SVASE president and angel investor, Chris Gill, it was an eye-opening experience. I have also added a link to my Blogroll – Hot in Silicon Valley – I met Vic last night and he covers many VC events on his blog.

We have worked with startups for over 10 years, so some of the information shared confirmed what we knew, but there was a good deal of new information and insider tips.  Gill is a very generous person – he shared solid information and entertained us with "tales of the VCs" – it was terrific.

We took this in preparation for submitting two of the startups with whom we are working as candidates for "First Impressions."  At this event, one's presentation and business model will be critiqued – invaluable.  Gill said that 20% of those who made it through First Impressions got to term sheet

The numbers he shared were sobering.  Only a very small fraction of entrepreneurs ever receive angel or VC funding.  Investors receive thousands of business plans and throw the vast majority away.  It reminds me of the publishing world with its slush pile – unsolicited manuscripts or queries filling waste baskets.

With some 400,000 entrepreneurs – investors look to TRASH biz plans not FUND them, said Gill.  They do a very quick sort, and we realized we still had work to do.

I can't tell you how much effort and education it takes to explain that editors are interested in NEWS vs. INFORMATION to technology companies.  Like entrepreneurs, technologists are in love with their technology, and think everyone else is, too – or should be.  In fact, investors, like editors, want to know how will what you have change people's lives?  What are you offering that makes people pay for it or use it?  How does this fit with the competition (and there is ALWAYS competition – the height of arrogance to think otherwise)?  And, what will make your company a success?

In other words, to speak with investors – technology entrepreneurs need to to TELL A BUSINESS STORY NOT A PRODUCT STORY.  I have seen dozens and dozens of technology companies FAIL – not because they didn't have a great idea or technology, but because they didn't have the right business mindset and capabilities.

OK, a few of the things that stood out in my mind from last night. 

The quick sort reject criteria:

  1. Not a Delaware C Corp
  2. A no "name" attorney ("name" attorney firms include Wilson Sonsini or Venture Law Group)
  3. Untried team with little or no relevant experience and who hadn't worked together before or done a successful venture in the past
  4. Inability to articulate the business proposition in 30 seconds
  5. Lack of direct consumer/buyer/market knowledge
  6. No evidence anyone is willing to pay for what you have
  7. Revenue and growth assumptions flawed (ie, not based on real-world understanding, but just multiplying factors on a spreadsheet)
  8. Lack of a trustworthy intermediary, such as a well-regarded Silicon Valley law firm, to make an introduction to angels or VCs
  9. Lack of understanding of the time and cost to sales and of the resources it takes to make it big
  10. Time to break-even or profitabiiity not attractive
  11. Lack of relevant marketing expertise or executive experience
  12. No credible evidence that the investor will receive 30-50% return of investment within five years – no reasonable exit strategy

Because of the costs of Sarbanes-Oxley legislation designed to improve the integrity of corporate governance since the Enron, et al. scandals, Chris said that acquistion is the most likely exit strategy for US companies seeking investment.  He also said that investors expect to get out by five years.  By five years, the company needs to have revenues in the range of $50-$100 million – and, as Chris said, and I know, that is not so easy.

Throughout the night, Chris stressed that investors need to see EVIDENCE – evidence of an experienced and trustworthy founding team, evidence of customers or partners willing to pay for the product or service, evidence that the business model was a sound one and would return 30-50% of the investment put in.

We also reviewed the PowerPoint template that SVASE recommends new ventures use.  We'll be reviewing our current PPTs and making adjustments as needed.  15 max, 10 is better and Band of Angels keeps you to one slide!  As Chris said, if it takes you an hour and a half to describe what you do, you haven't got a fundable business, or you better learn how to describe it succinctly and in BUSINESS TERMS.

The odds are daunting.  It's about 1,000 to 1 to receiving investment.  70% of companies don't take outside angel or VC investment, so one can make it on one's own.

Chris stressed again and again that it's the BUSINESS NOT THE TECHNOLOGY that will impress an investor.  He gave many examples – look at Starbucks – no patents on coffee! – they took something ordinary and made it glamorous.

Fortunately, both of our startups have made significant strides in the EVIDENCE categories, but we probably have some revision to make to our PPTs.  So, off to review them now.

Looking for the FUN in Funding June 12, 2006

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My partner and I are off to a Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs function at SVASE – see Blogroll for link.  We are part of the founding team of two of our clients: TeleVoce and GoFigure!  Both seem more suited to angel investors than venture capitalists

We've worked with both startups to develop the business strategy and plan, and are excited at how well people are receiving these ventures. 

This blog will record how we do, and what Web 2.0 PR strategies we'll be using to promote them. 

VoIP is Taking Off June 11, 2006

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I've been privileged to be on the inside of a VoIP personal communications technology startup, TeleVoce, for the past few years.  We've been a bit in stealth mode, but are beginning to make our approach more public. VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a fancy way of saying that you can make phone calls very cheaply or for free over the Internet.

TeleVoce-Connected products are "teaching old phones new tricks" by providing easy-to-install VoIP devices (such as phone adapters) from partners such as Multi-Link and Auvi, that allow one to use one's existing phone to make both VoIP and regular phone calls transparently. 

No annoying codes required as with competing VoIP adapters for the home and small office/home office (SOHO ) markets – it's pretty neat, I've been using Multi-Link's product with my Skype service – and this is a good time to do that thanks to Skype's offer of free calling to any phone in the USA and Canada – even if the other person does not have Skype.

The Mult-Link TeleVoIP Stick (check around for a good price) – because of the TeleVoce "secret sauce" patented technology, bridges the web with the PSTN (regular phone network), so that you can also make 911 calls – a problem with VoIP technology, since E911 needs to know your location. 

Because TeleVoce's philosophy is to allow consumers more choice and control over their telephone experience, in essence, TeleVoce makes the phone an intelligent peripheral to one's PC.  This enables TeleVoce's licensees to make VoIP phones, adapters and gateways that work with popular VoIP services such as Skype, SIPTalk and can soon be upgraded with useful software applications.

There are many places to get unbiased information about new developments in VoIP – but beware of bloggers who present themselves as VoIP gurus, but are actually touting only their client' products.  So, I have put some links on my blog so you can find generic VoIP information. 

I learned of a neat application of VoIP the other day.  One of our non-profit clients, International Antioch Ministries, used Skype in order for senior pastor, Dr Hormoz Shariat, to marry two Iranian converts to Christianity while they were in Cyprus.  Through the low-cost/free Skype Internet phone service, Pastor Hormoz was able to conference in crying mothers and happy witnesses worldwide.  Fantastic!!

Going Down the PR SEO Road, or PR for Web 2.0 June 10, 2006

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After a fantastic week in Simi Valley taking Bruce Clay's SEO Toolset Courses, I am convinced that "search engine optimization," if deployed as Bruce teaches it: methodically, rigorously and ethically, can be of tremendous value to our clients.  I also was in synch with Bruce's philosophy that a web site must earn its way into the top 10 in a free search engine result, this is known as organic, versus PPC or pay per click (going back to our definition discussion — organic search results = PR and PPC = advertising.)

We have been deploying this same philosophy with our clients' news releases.  There are many ways to bring SEO techniques into the news release process.  Once can embed links, provide key words and leverage the release so that it brings added value to the client web site.

Below are a few sites that can assist in optimizing a news release – but technique is not enough.  It also requires sophisticated strategy, business acumen, technology expertise and analysis to craft relevant, high payoff key words and links that can make one's news stand out and benefit the overall communication goal of becoming perceived as an industry leader.

The outside links provided below do not indicate endorsement and this blog is not responsible for their content.  Interesting to explore.

MarketWire Compares itself to Business Wire & PR Wire

PrimeZone Media Network Announces its SEO News Service

PR Web Discusses Search Engine Promotion of News

Business Wire's Smart News Release

PR Zoom Claims SEO PR Firm Use

In future posts, I will share my experience in using these various news distribution services and provide tips on how to get the most out of their service offerings.

What is Public Relations? I Thought I Knew… June 9, 2006

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What is public relations?  Unbelievably (to me) there appears to be no consenus of what the definition of public relations is!

My definition for PR is "the art of persuading third party information gatekeepers to communicate for free, client news or information that is beneficial to the client." 

This covers all media: print, online or broadcast.  And, the "client" can be external (as with an agency), internal (as with a company PR department) and either for profit or non-profit. 

The "information gatekeeper" can be a news editor, reporter, blogger, investor or "tell a friend" viral marketing campaign target.  The common thread is that someone independent of your organization, to whom people listen, will tell people something beneficial about your enterprise or organization based on the efforts of a public relations intermediary. 

Although the PR agent is paid for her/his time and expertise, the interaction that leads to a beneficial result — either a news story, blog post or wildly popular "tell a friend" campaign — has to be without payment between the client and third party, otherwise it is advertising and not public relations.

Since entities have many "publics" with whom to relate, some PR practitioners and agencies specialize in areas from investor relations to business-to-business communications.  Some are more practiced in inbound (ie, employee communications) than outbound (ie, partners, investors or consumers).  Some companies separate corporate communications from product promotion.  And some of us have experience communicating successfully to various classes of people or stakeholders.

Yet, when I do a Google search on "define public relations," I find all sorts of explanations, many of which seemed to me to be unecessarily obtuse.  First of all the search returned over seventy million records.  Gosh, it can't be THAT complex.  So, here are a few for your reading pleasure.  I can't decide whether to laugh, sigh or cry.  I suspect that it is one of those fairly straightforward things that people feel compelled to make inexplicably complex in order to either confuse the heck out of people or to create a priesthood of those in-the-know.

From the PRSA or Public Relations Society of America: "Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other."  Well, when I try and get editors to write about my clients' new products, I don't expect them to "adapt" to my request – I expect that they will pursue it if it meets their needs to provide relevant copy for their readers, and may even gain them some points with editorial management because of the resultant reader response.  I can just imagine the reaction I'd get if I asked an editor to "adapt" his/her professional responsibilities to my client's needs.  Ugly.  Although, on second thought, I guess that does obtain in countries where the media is censored or state controlled.  Yes, in that case editors DO adapt – or end up in jail.

From "Learn That": "PUBLIC RELATIONS is a form of communication primarily directed tiward gaining public understanding and acceptance. Public relations usually deals with issues rather than products or services, and is used to build goodwill with public or employeess. Examples of public relations are employee training, support of charitable events, or a news release about some positive community participation."  Hmmm, that's news to about 90% of my clients who put employee training under Human Resources not the PR or Communications Department and would shudder at the thought of promoting 'negative community participation'.  Not to mention that I personally find it unconscionable that Silicon Valley companies have a reputation for stinginess when it comes to supporting charities with dollars – instead they provide "in kind" products, but non-profits need CASH to operate.  And, for those who do – take a look at the "small change" they throw out and crow about.  For example, a public technology company with $15 billion or more in CASH reserves on its balance sheet giving around $700,000 to more than 20 groups one year would be better off NOT putting out a news release extolling their virture as a great corporate citizen in my opinion. 

This is cute, although to my mind publicity, promotion and public relations are not that differentiated: "… if the circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying 'Circus Coming to the Fairground Saturday', that's advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and walk it into town, that's promotion. If the elephant walks through the mayor's flower bed, that's publicity. And if you get the mayor to laugh about it, that's public relations." If the town's citizens go the circus, you show them the many entertainment booths, explain how much fun they'll have spending money at the booths, answer their questions and ultimately, they spend a lot at the circus, that's sales.

Then, there are firms and other sites that refer back to the PRSA's definition (without or with attribution), having appeared to, as the Brits might say, "lost the will to live" when it comes to giving a definition for the profession they profess to provide! 

You've read my definition and seen a bit of others' – how do YOU define it?  Because how you define it will impact your strategies, initiatives and management of a function that every company seems to have, but which no one can agree on what it is.  That means one can either be creative in one's definition or just come up with the PRSA's and let everyone think they know what the heck you actually do!

The Death of the Press Release? June 5, 2006

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Editors have told me that they get an average of 300 news releases a day in her/his inbox.  Business Wire, I believe, averages some 600 technology announcements per day – and that doesn't include all the other web-based news distribution services – some free, such as PR Leap and some pay plus free like PR Web

It's the sheer volume of releases being generated that makes me think of the lyrics in a Police (Sting) song "too much information running through my brain, too much information driving me insane."  Surely, this rainstorm of releases has to start degrading the value of a release. 

I believe, as we see in the trade show business, that clients who want a news release to stand out, need to start looking at distribution methods and search engine optimization techniques that are more targeted.

For example, for Christian news, there are Christian news services such as Assist News Service and Christian News Today

Perhaps its time to rethink how press releases matter in a world of "too much information."

Are Media Telling us to “Tear Down that Wall”? June 2, 2006

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There are many pressures on media.  As ads begin to flood to the search engines, ad pages in print publications have dramatically declined.  According to Jupiter Research, the online ad market will reach $18.9 BILLION by 2010, and that search engine advertising will surpass display advertising.

In the 1990s for tech PR, trade publications were a major outlet for stories on new companies and technologies.  But, since those pubs relied on advertising, as the ads dropped so did editorial pages.  This has led to consolidation of media under fewer and fewer publishers, and, in some cases, the end of some publications all together.  This was true even for business technology publications.  Remember Upside?

Well, this is about advertising – what does this have to with PR?  After all, isn't public relations the art of persuasion versus the pay your money and say what you will world of advertising?  In PR, we depend upon whether an editor is convinced through our efforts that the news and stories about our clients are worthwhile covering. 

Advertising is strictly "pay for play."  And, isn't there supposed to be an unbreakable wall between advertising and editorial that a PR person would attempt to breach in the past at her or his own peril? But, I have increasingly been noting what I call "pay for play" PR. 

For example, technology media often published directories and evaluated products for "product of the year" awards.  In the past, one could get one's client mentioned in a directory – and, if you wanted to stand out – there were payment options for logos or special formatting.  There might also be some form of editorial review and control, inclusion was not a foregone conclusion. 

Now, more and more directories want payment to include a company at all, and "product of the year" awards are coming with hefty fees and too many "winners" – after which one is solicited to purchase special plaques or other commemorative items. In the literary world, this sounds an awful lot like "vanity publishing." Are the media telling us in PR that we need to "tear down that wall" between editorial and advertising in order to ensure coverage for our clients?  Is this one of the reasons that news blogs are becoming more popular over traditional media? 

Am I the only one who thinks that network news is no better than People magazine or Life & Style? If this trend continues – what will be the value of PR?  We are already seeing that as presence in search engines, blogs and online media is racing ahead of traditional media, that PR is increasingly perceived as a commodity service.  After all, all one has to do is hire a content generating service – let them write articles that are really "advertorials," and a strapped-for-time editor will pick these up and print them without any human, let alone PR pro, intervention.

What then is the role of PR in today's search engine optimized world? Do we in PR even have a role?  We do, but it's changing dramatically.  News releases that used to be lovingly crafted and used sparingly are sent out over internet news distribution services, such as PrimeZone Media or BusinessWire, in huge volume (I call this "PR by the pound") – not so much for coverage by editors in publications – but to increase traffic to a company's web site and to show up on online sources.

As the client's web site really becomes the source for information, PR can add value by providing optimized and relevant content for web sites, news releases and advertorial-type articles that can be picked up by media with or without a placement fee.  PR can also provide the strategic counsel and overall management of our clients' overall outbound communications strategy in light of today's new realities. 

Our profession is changing – and, if we don't understand the dynamics of the publishing business and the shift toward search engines, pay-for-play PR and web sites as publications – we'll be left behind. 

I have to thank my client, and dear friend, Ed Prentice of TeleVoce (a PC-based Internet telephony start-up) for dragging me kicking and screaming to this year's AdTech – hey! I'm in public relations, not advertising – why do I need to know this stuff?  Trust me, we do.

Some media are letting us know that the "wall" between editorial and advertising is not as solid as it once was.  This is a signal that we in PR need to be well-rounded marketeers who can add value in a world where the rules seem to be changing every day.

Daughter of King Priam with Gift of Prophecy June 2, 2006

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As a young girl, I was always fascinated by the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra – daughter of King Priam of Troy who was given the gift of prophecy, yet was cursed in that no one would believe her.

In my decades-long career as founder and principal of Silicon Valley-based high tech PR and marketing firm, Agora Marketing International, I have been blessed with insights, especially concerning future trends.  I also admit to being cynical about fads, those who refuse to see things for what they are, name-droppers and people who prefer to obscure than make plain.

So, dear reader, it is my pleasure to share some of my industry insights with you, especially as we find ourselves in a time of extreme change. 

Come back often and come back with your views,  whether you choose to believe this PR Cassandra or not.

My intent is to create a blog with practical tips and how-to's, links to information and resources, "heard in the PR streets" kind of info, reports of PR "faux pas," and opportunities for increased knowledge and networking.  I hope to also shine a light on some of the major issues that we who care about ethical, effective public relations and marketing in the Internet age, need to better understand.

By dialoguing with one another, I hope that the PR Cassandra "prophecies" and sharing of information and experiences can truly become the "agora" or marketplace for our profession.

Thank you for visiting and check back, OK?