Marketing Trends: Public Relations Budgets going Social?

by Chris Kenton on November 10, 2008

Sudden stormI haven’t been up for air in weeks. Somehow, despite the economic downturn, despite the nuclear winter in venture capital markets for early stage startups, SocialRep is humming. I’ve been buried in social media tracking scans for customers and prospects, and new inquiries are coming in over the transom. I’m also excited about an invitation to present at Thunderbird’s Winterim in New York in January, where I’ll be talking about our emerging framework for integrated social media marketing and technology. So how can I account for the uptick in energy despite the gloomy market? I’m starting to see my theory about natural selection play out.

Over the past couple of months, SocialRep has been tracking a massive swath of online dialog about marketing. Not surprisingly, the trends in dialog are overwhelmingly focused on the impact of the economic downturn, with various flavors of speculation, panic and punditry. Some examples:

  • A few weeks ago, various reports on budget planning for 2009 highlighted a marked migration in marketing spend from traditional to digital media. The nearly universal read on this move is that online marketing is more measureable than offline, but there was surprisingly little citical analysis of  the challenges with online metrics, and how those challenges are being addressed.
  • As the economic crisis deepened, the panic did too. Sequoia Capital stoked the flames with a presentation they posted online telling their entrepreneurs to “get real or go home”. The presentation went massively viral, spreading the talking points for belt tightening and death pool speculation for various startup sectors, but few specifics on the tactics companies should pursue to refine their market approach.
  • As if in response to the panic–and mindful of the bloodbath marketing usually suffers in a downturn–marketing pundits took up the mantra that, whatever you do, DON’T STOP SPENDING. Some (myself included) cited the anecdotes that companies like P&G, Kellogg and Chevy increased ad spending during the Great Depression and pulled ahead of competitors. But most simply pronounced the incantation forcefully, that smart companies don’t cut marketing, but didn’t offer specifics on how companies should adjust their programs. Jonathan Baskin called this trend perfectly.

Notice a pattern here? Lots of punditry and trend analysis, but very few specific recommendations for how companies should adjust their marketing programs to deal with the economic crisis. There were a couple of exceptions, most notably a lot of dialog about the dangers of discounting and how price cuts undermine brand equity. But in terms of substantive recommendations for adjusting marketing strategy and operations, not so much. So I was interested to see a tangible sign of how some companies are adjusting based on the sudden increase of inquiries at SocialRep.

~  free  ~We’re still in the early stages at SocialRep. After beating the streets for Series A funding over the summer, we read the tea leaves and readjusted to focus our energy on customers and product. In this market, we’re going to live or die by our success in serving customers, not VCs. But bootstrapping a technology company can be tenuous. You need customers, but if you’re too opportunistic and grab at anything you can drag over the doorstep, you’ll quickly fragment your product and team by trying to be all things to all prospects. So you have to be deliberate in choosing customers, which means being a little more slow and quiet than would otherwise seem prudent. When you find a good market vein, you mine it, and pay close attention to the way your prospects frame the problem they want you to solve.

What surprised me was the sudden influx over the past few weeks in the number of companies that found us, and how they framed their interest in our social media offering. The common refrain was that, in the face of an emerging recession, these companies were aggressively reviewing every dollar of their marketing spend. One area in particular was not standing up to scrutiny: Public Relations. These companies complained about spending 5-figure monthly PR budgets on activities that produced activity without results. The mandate these companies had been given was to take the PR budget that was not performing and invest it in something innovative, like social media marketing.

Silencio!!! by Loud VillaNow I know this will provoke some howls, so let me make a preemptive disclaimer. I believe in PR. Or, I should say, I believe in good PR. And having spent 15 years on every side of PR, I can define the difference between good and bad PR. Years ago, when I was the editor of a magazine, my inbox overflowed every day with pitches and press releases that had absolutely no relation to what my magazine covered. Today as a blogger, I still get totally irrelevant PR-spam, more artfully framed as “blogger relations”. This is the lazily “scientific” ethic of bad PR: blast a fire hose of pitches and press releases at everyone that looks like they might be a journalist or blogger, and hope someone picks up your story. In the place of actual stories that influence the market, this approach produces monthly “activity reports” and media mentions in off-the-beaten-path blogs or news feeds.

Good PR is different. It’s about relationships and market expertise. PR companies in this category take the time to hire and train smart people who get to know a market, the competitive landscape, the products, and of course, the analysts, reporters and bloggers. They don’t spam their contacts with press releases; they build relationships based on sharing knowledge and insight. Reporters and bloggers answer their calls because they know their time won’t be wasted, and they may get an important tip. This kind of PR produces relevant stories that influence markets.

The problem is, the ratio of good to bad PR is not good. And even among the better PR companies, an understanding of how to manage the dramatic shift from traditional to social media is still largely predicated on the notion of cultivating asymmetrical influence more than reciprocal dialog. Moreover, few traditional PR companies have the culture to passionately embrace the tech-driven social media paradigm. So in the face of a market downturn, when belts are tightening, we’re seeing companies looking at the money poured into PR, and deciding that now is the time to try something new.

What does “something new” look like? That’s the topic of my next post. In the meantime, here’s a hint: social media marketing is just like PR, in the sense that there’s “good” and “bad” SMM. And the distinction is based largely on the same dynamic–activity vs. results, influence vs. relationships.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

fromtherooftops November 10, 2008 at 2:56 pm

So the burning question remains: Will PR firms successfully transition into the SMM space? As you point out, GOOD PR people have the appropriate skill set for SMM…but will the traditional PR firm be able to shift with their people? Some will, some won’t. As a result, I’d expect to see a continuing boom in former PR people turned SMM consultants.

Chris Kenton November 10, 2008 at 3:57 pm

I think you’re right, that GOOD PR do people have a lot of the appropriate skill set for SMM. The question is whether or no they understand and embrace what’s truly different about social media. PR needs to evolve from being “The Voice of The Company”, to being the choir director. They need to train people within the company not how to be interviewed or be on TV, but how to engage effectively in online dialog–social media training instead of media training. Instead of developing talking points to deliver, they need to develop engagement strategies that identify which conversations and topics the company should participate in, and how the company can add value to the dialog. PR skills are still important, but PR people need to learn how to delegate more and control less.

Finally, I think a big challenge for making the leap from PR to SMM, is the need to integrate more tactically with other marketing programs and initiatives. That’s always been a challenge for PR, but now, the links between SMM and search marketing, lead gen, content strategy, media buying, channel operations, etc. are far more direct, and far more sensitive.

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