Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sorry, Mark, but many startups DO need PR help... and desperately

Dallas Mavericks owner, investor and tireless blogger Mark Cuban posted a defense of his "Why startups should never hire a PR firm" statement this week after he got blasted by various publicity folks. He backtracks a bit, but I have to say, a lot of what he says is rather disingenuous.

So let me turn things around and say, Mark, if you knew many of the startup executives I have known, if you were in my shoes, you'd be crazy not to think they didn't need a publicist. They desperately needed one.

Granted, there are some startups that should not hire a PR firm. I've been hired by a few myself. They have so many NDA's or what they do is such inside baseball, that journalists aren't going to get much out of them or they'll not be interested. So why even try to move that mountain? Don't bother.

Cuban talks about publicists having plenty of contacts but not being able to do the "vulcan mind meld" of understanding the elements of a growing business. Well that's pretty sad if you've been burned by some lousy PR firms. If all you're doing is hiring firms who excel at burning lots of money sending out press releases over paid syndication wires, have some good contacts and act like hovering control freaks, frankly, you deserve to be upset at the profession. But hey, you hired wrong! Not all PR firms are alike.

Did you examine the brains upstairs at these firms to see if they think strategically, know how to tell a story, have some genuine creative genes, and have passion for who you are? Do they rely excessively on sending out press releases for every little thing? If you didn't, then you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Cuban says that any executive writing an unpretentious letter to a journalist will likely get a response:

It’s amazing how often a simple email to a writer for a trade publication or local media will get a response. The key to getting a response is being short, sweet , hyperbole free and to the point.

If you're Mark Cuban, sure. But you'd be surprised how many startup execs don't know how to write or spell. Really. They are great at what they do, but they're not exactly Robert Browning or Elizabeth Barrett. Weirdly enough, the subject line Cuban uses in his sample letter to the press -- Tracking Traffic to Reduce Vacancies -- looks like spam or a press release. Not personalized. Upper and lower case, like the headline of a press release? C'mon, that's bush league and a good, smart publicist wouldn't let that happen.

Sure, a casual toss-off letter to a total stranger may get a reply, but more often than not, they don't. Mark, have you ever seen the inbox of the average blogger at a popular tech site? Good luck not getting deleted or overlooked altogether!

Besides, what happened to picking up the phone? Whoops, no mention of that in Cuban's advice.

Let me tell you about some of the startup execs I run into. A good deal of them need third party guidance on how to shape their story and message because they've been living inside it for so long, they can't get to the point. They may put their foot in their mouths by talking about things they shouldn't. Sometimes they don't know how to be confident when speaking with a reporter, or just too confident and get carried away, going overboard.

Some of them have brilliant complex concepts for their companies, but need another person to boil it down to something a journalist can easily understand and go "aha!"

Some have harangued me about going on video casts, but then when they are in front of the camera, they need somebody like me to tell them, "hey, maybe you should be enthusiastic about what your company does?"

Some have incredible delusions of grandeur, thinking the world is going to beat a path to their door. I have to break the news to them that if they don't walk before they run and think strategically over time, the only people arrive at their door will be the moving men to clean out their offices.

Where would Mark Zuckerberg be if somebody didn't bring him out of his shell and explain how to come across as less geeky and more approachable and humane?

Here's some more reality from the front line: a lot of startups are just plain afraid of approaching bloggers, and many of their top people are so busy, they don't have time to write nice little notes to them either.

It's really easy to say "startups should never hire a PR firm" and pontificate about some fantasy world where reporters answer all your emails and are dying to hear about what you're doing, and where all startup executives are Brad Pitt and infinitely quotable and articulate.

But they are not. Far from.

P.S. Isn't it ironic how some journalists jump on the bandwagon and say, we agree with Mark, don't hire PR firms, but then are inaccessible when startups approach them. Or better yet, when some executive goofs up publicly, maybe by accident, and they can't say tweet fast enough, "where's their publicist?" or "they should have had a better publicist!"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Is Cision enabling blast e-mail spam?

You would expect that with the highly-irate journalist backlash against impersonal publicist-driven spam and blast e-mails these past few years, database companies such as Cision and Vocus would bend over backwards to educate its users on avoiding this despised tactic.

Quite accidentally, I seem to have stumbled across a troubling practice at Cision that may be in fact enabling it with their users.

Let's start with this premise, as this is the reason why publicists and companies pay thousands of dollars to Cision for their database: to know what journalists, bloggers, producers, hosts and bookers want to be pitched, how they want to be pitched (if at all), and how to contact them.

Then take this rather unique situation: I am both listed in Cision's database because of this blog, and I am a subscriber because I am a public relations practitioner.

Now let's explain how this all came about...

In mid-December, I received an e-mail from Cision's Kristen Sala.

Hi Drew,

I hope this email finds you well.

Cision produces media directories in which we have a free listing for you with the title of Blogger at Drew Kerr's PR Rock and Roll. This listing with us allows PR and Marketing professionals to find out about you and your areas of expertise, helping to ensure that you receive relevant material from them.

I would therefore like to check whether we currently have up-to-date information around your contact details, contact preferences and journalistic interests.

To ensure your listing is up-to-date, kindly confirm and amend the below as necessary.

Best Regards,


My entry was quite bare bones, so sent back this amendment and asked it to be confirmed:

Please read the blog thoroughly first before contacting me, as I will ignore anything that is irrelevant to exactly what I write about. Not all public relations blogs are the same. Please do not send me blast e-mails or irrelevant press releases. I have no problem embarrassing you by posting about you if you don't heed this advice. Don't say I didn't warn you. Thanks.

The next day, I received a confirmation from Cision, stating "I've added your additional comments to this listing, verbatim."

And that was that, thinking I was informing the people who want to pitch me to read my blog first and don't blast me the same garbage as everybody else.

Until this morning, when I received a press release from the University of Missouri about "Emotional News Framing Affects Public Response to Crisis, MU Study Finds." Not relevant, so I replied asking to be removed from their mailing list. A few minutes later came this surprising retort:

"You are not on a mailing list. You have been identified by cisionpoint.com as a journalist interested in PR releases."

Huh? Not me. I clicked to my Cision listing and lo and behold, it was still the sparse entry from before mid-December. What happened? It's like my spam filter was never installed.

I tracked down Cision's Kristen Sala, who sent me the original e-mail asking to update my entry. She said she saw my amendment on her computer screen. I told her it was invisible on mine.

Then came the disturbing part: she said my additional comments were on Cisionpoint's "premium service," not basic.

In other words, the people who pay all that money to get the basic information on the do's and don'ts of how to contact the media were not going to see my entry. Only the lucky "premium" level spenders would know to read my blog first and not to send me blast e-mails and press releases. It seems the "1%" were going to get that privilege.

I didn't want to get all "Occupy Cision," but I had to make my displeasure known to Ms. Sala: does this mean lots of other journalists and bloggers listed in Cision don't have their communication preferences listed in "basic" service and it's only available for those who shell out more money? What's the point of asking me to update my entry if only the "premium" caste were going to see it? And if this advice and warning information about contact protocol was not there for all the "basic" users, weren't they helping make it a blast e-mail spam free for all?

She unhappily admitted my points were right, and offered to make my information available to all tiers of Cision, which I gladly accepted.

Publicists shouldn't have to pay extra money to Cision, or any other competing database company, to get rudimentary information about communication do's and don'ts with the press.

Lord knows what "premium" level gets you in additional background -- shoe size? favorite color? preferred Powerpuff Girl? -- but playing favorites with essential data is not a game Cision should be running if it wants to preserve healthy relationships between journalists and publicists.