By Vanessa Horwell
When I was a young adult, I did what many Australians do — go travelling. I eventually settled in London, in a quaint little town called Richmond Upon Thames. Beautiful in the summertime; miserable, grey and cold for the remaining 10 months of the year.
It was at this time that I discovered the concept of DIY, do-it-yourself home improvements. Temples devoted to all things home decorating were popping up everywhere. The home improvement center, it seemed, was becoming as ubiquitous as the English pub.
It was also around this time that the ghastly trend of sponging paint blobs onto walls took hold. Like the recent trend of becoming a foodie, back then it was being a home decorator. Garden pots, flowerbeds, wallpaper and mouldings. Easy-care, faux wooden treatments and under-floor heating — I was going all out. My Aussie feet couldn’t stand the British cold. Thankfully, I stayed away from refurbing the hot water system, but my home had begun to resemble a construction site. My tiny Victorian cottage was in various states of “improvement,” — my decorating talents and skills having reached their respective limits long ago. It was time to call in the professionals, or risk turning my digs into home decorating hell.
Why it pays to use professionals
My short-lived calling as a DIY home decorator taught me a valuable lesson. When you need something done for which you do not possess the requisite skills (or time), seek out a professional.
This applies to virtually every industry I can think of: auto, legal, real estate, medical and so on. I can’t imagine performing a root canal on myself any more than I can imagine fitting and aligning new tires for my car.
Why then should PR be any different? It is a skilled, bona fide profession, and it takes years to learn the “tools of the trade” and then continuing education — applying learned theory to an ever-changing reality, to help companies and brands build relationships with their publics.
The proverbial plaster of Paris
And so I was somewhat offended by the following quote: “PR Agencies Are Dead, Handle Press Yourself,” posted on Business Insider by the president of a networking site. I’m going to call him Mr. X — no need to give him unwarranted PR — who had the following to say:
“When you had to go through mass media, there’s really a handful of media outlets or influential/important reporters. Because there were so few of them that had the ability to publish, there was this whole layer called the PR industry. Well, (now) everybody has the ability to publish. You engage in direct conversations with both traditional journalists and bloggers through the Web. As long as you are willing to be more open and sharing than in the past, now it’s much more of a conversation.”
Everyone is not an expert
Disregarding the jibberish nature of that statement, what Mr. X is telling us is that now everyone can be a PR expert by “publishing their content” (using his company’s tools, no doubt) and making the whole business of relationship building, strategic thinking, the execution of specific campaigns to achieve specific goals, researching and developing pitches that are individually relevant and targeted to, oh, I don’t know, hundreds or thousands of editors and journalists — completely obsolete.
“Publish” and you’ll strike up a conversation. Next, you’ll have yourself a media placement. Poof, just like that! And of course, all of this can be managed among other work responsibilities — no need for experts here. Any CEO can do it. Who knew it could be that easy?
Well, it simply isn’t.
Like my misadventure with home decorating, doing things without knowledge or expertise can — and most times will — lead to disaster.
Putting aside the fact that most people have a hard enough time managing their existing workload before being tasked with PR or communications duties, in an age when media is exceptionally unforgiving, when newsrooms operate on the new normal — i.e., far fewer staff covering multiple beats working 16-hour shifts and unreceptive to off-target pitches or nonsense releases — the concept of a one-size-fits-all strategy of blasting out stuff sends nasty cold shivers (and I think I speak for the PR industry), down my spine. This, dear Mr. X, is the exactly the opposite of what good, effective and powerful PR is. But don’t take my word for it — ask any journalist.
PR can mean different things to different organizations, especially as the boundaries of PR, marketing and social media have blurred beyond recognition — but for most, PR starts off with reputation and relationship building. It is not simply crafting a message or statement, and pushing it out there, particularly in a world where spin is out, and transparency and authenticity reign. It is, to quote a fellow colleague, “a strategic, planned, time-consuming and multi-disciplinary process best left to professionals.”
So may I suggest that next time Mr. X chooses to become an expert about something of which he knows very little, he should consult with a PR agency that can advise him on the best strategy. That way, he can avoid a DIY PR disaster, like the one he is creating now.
Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at email@example.com.