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Value-Based PR: Do You Have a Reputation for Being Expendable?

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I have a confession to make. I left the agency PR world after six years because I didn’t feel like I was flexing my “strategy” muscles. I felt deeply mired in execution – a daily routine of pitching, responding to fire drills, hand-holding clients, and diving just deeply enough into diverse business areas to sound credible and knowledgeable to influencers. This isn’t a reflection of agency life in general or an indictment of my agency (which I did and will always love); it was just who I was at the time.

There was no doubt that I was adding value to my clients, but I was too deeply indebted to them, too loyal to them, too overwhelmed with the need to impress them that I stopped seeing the forest for the trees. In other words, I was pitching stories of corporate transformation and product advancement to reporters, but I was doing so to make my clients happy – it eventually had nothing to do with whether those stories were worth telling. And though the reporters with whom I worked were generous enough to let me get away with that to an extent, I knew that I was on a slippery slope to obsolescence if I didn’t stop, reassess, and become an indispensable resource.

This wasn’t about age or experience. I was high enough up the ladder to self-reflect. PR people just starting out in their careers often struggle with the line between give and take when dealing with reporters. They pitch blindly, without educating themselves on what a reporter covers and why they cover it. This is a much-discussed and simple mistake to fix, and it’s the hallmark of someone very young, very inexperienced, and ultimately very ineffective at his or her job. PR pros who can’t or don’t acknowledge that they have to provide value to reporters will inevitably be pushed out of agency life or burn out altogether within a year. No one is going to cover your client because you asked them politely. And they might just blacklist your client permanently if you pitch them on a CRM software story when they actually cover perimeter security. No one in PR can get away with being repeatedly stupid.

But there’s another factor at play here, and it has to do with understanding a reporter’s career and personal motivations. Sure, if you’re a competent PR pro, you will pitch a reporter on stories that are relevant to his or her beat and past areas of coverage. But great PR pros go beyond that – they help build a reporter’s influence by adding value and becoming a resource that nets that reporter a level of exposure and credibility that can propel a career. You might be wondering, “How can my small client, who has no name recognition and creates a deeply technical product, stand out and add value to a random trade reporter’s career?” Put yourself in a reporter’s shoes. What questions are you trying to answer for readers? What will get your articles shared on Twitter and Facebook? (Shallow, yes, but a reality nonetheless.) What will earn the respect of your colleagues and competitors?

Granted, you won’t always be able to influence a reporter’s career, and it’s very arrogant to think that you can. Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher don’t need your help (unless you run Apple PR). However, in many cases, you can at least make a reporter’s life considerably easier by providing ideas for stories that go beyond the surface and framing your client’s offering in a way that serves the reporter’s need…NOT JUST YOURS.

Part of providing value to reporters is staying educated enough about what they cover and what they pass on covering in order to anticipate their next move. Studying up on the psychographic profile of your target reporters is also a highly valuable exercise. What beats did they cover in the past? Where did they work? Are they young and hungry or established and comfortable? Are they lifer journalists, or are they looking to hop into consulting or AR or go clientside eventually? Do they have other jobs? Do they crave hard news scoops, or would they prefer to cover unsurprising stories in surprisingly deep ways? You can’t always afford to offer exclusives, but you can always tailor a pitch to provide a unique angle to an individual reporter based on how he or she writes. If you can keep track of the nuggets of information about and provided by reporters, you can get a sense of what they want to hear and what will help them achieve their respective goals. Of course, there’s a way to keep track of that information quite easily. It’s called a PR CRM system. But I digress…

PR is not a science. It is absolutely an art form. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise. With that in mind, however, it’s ridiculous to assume that art is predicated purely on instinct as opposed to education. The greatest PR people have undoubtedly brilliant instincts, but they’re also remarkably well-informed on how to appeal to the people they’re pitching, be it a reporter, an analyst, a client, a prospect, or a colleague. At a cocktail party, you would be instantly turned off by someone who spoke only of himself without taking an interest in your life and motivations, so why assume that your clients are interesting just because they’re your clients?

The key to adding value to a reporter while ultimately doing right by your client is in being an intelligent translator. Not all products and companies are interesting on their face, but they all exist to solve some sort of problem. And that problem exists within a larger space in a larger market and impacts real people. Stepping back to evaluate how that problem can be framed to create a unique angle that a reporter can take to present that problem and its solution to a wider audience of readers can separate you from the hordes of PR people blindly screaming, “Cover me! Cover me!”

Ask yourself – are you completely expendable? Or can you think two steps ahead?