Anybody remember the movie “Jerry McGuire?” Tom Cruise (little guy, big in the 90s, kinda creepy now) played a high-profile sports agent who had a nearly career-ruining epiphany. His insight was that agents were doing a disservice to their clients by chasing billings and commissions without actually providing good service. “Fewer clients, less money,” he wrote in a late night, fever-induced
manifesto mission statement, earning polite applause from his fellow agents and a shove out the door from his boss.
I think about that movie from time to time as we meet with prospective clients and read the frequent articles, tweets and Facebook posts of journalists complaining about bad pitches from PR agencies. There is no question that a good percentage of those pitches are bad on their merits – poorly crafted, poorly targeted and ill timed. In other cases, agencies are simply working with what they have to create the pitches their clients insist on. No, that’s not good practice, but it is a reality. And it points to a deeper truth: some companies just aren’t ready for PR and, as an industry, we often do a bad job of just saying “no” to them.
If you’re seriously thinking about kicking off a PR program or hiring an agency, ask yourself a few questions:
Do we have a good story? Not every new product or service needs to be unique. Technology, in particular, is an industry where fast followers often learn from pioneers and make something better. But if your product or service has no discernible differentiation from competitors, offers no innovative features that actually matter to customers (hopefully backed up by research or testimonials) or a huge price advantage, it’s probably not going to interest too many journalists. Every good idea is followed by “me too” copycats, but the copycats rarely get much sustained attention.
Are we ready for the spotlight? Tech companies are often encouraged to go to market quickly with a minimum viable feature set. The problem is that some companies don’t have a good handle on what that means. If your product doesn’t deliver real value today but promises something awesome down the road, you’re probably going to get a lot of reactions like this: “call me back when it does that cool thing you talked about.” Journalists are a jaded lot. They’ve heard lots of promises from companies that never pan out. So if you can’t show the cool stuff today or offer a firm date when it will be available, they’re likely to pass on covering you. Or worse, they might cover you negatively. Launching a product that’s not ready can create the sort of negative first impression that’s hard to overcome.
Who are we trying to reach? You should be able to fill in the blanks to this statement: “Our product is perfect for ______________ [specific customer type] who wants to _______________ [specific accomplishment or objective].” Understanding who you’re talking to and what value you’re offering them isn’t just necessary from a positioning standpoint, it’s critical to developing a good understanding of what a successful PR program looks like. Lots of companies get consumed by chasing splashy coverage in certain outlets even though those outlets aren’t read by their target customers. It’s often more effective to go after outlets that have fewer readers or page views but with a focused audience that’s a better fit for your product.
Can we show customer support? Companies with breakthrough ideas often successfully use PR to acquire their first customers. But others, particularly those that are less cutting edge, need to prove that their product has a chance to succeed in the market by demonstrating some early traction. Whether it’s beta customers willing to go on the record or traffic/usage numbers that are trending in the right direction, it’s a lot easier to be taken seriously by the media when you can use customers to validate the premise of your product. That’s especially true if you’re a company that doesn’t have a track record of prior success.