The software industry is facing a plague in an area that affects just about every company’s business strategy: PR. The sickness has been with us for more than a decade, but a variety of factors have ignited an epidemic over the last few years.
Software companies of all sizes should care about this for a two reasons: They could be wasting thousands or even millions of dollars that could be spent more profitably elsewhere. (2) They are missing opportunities that could differentiate them from competitors, help them build loyal customer bases, and ensure long-term success.
The decline of traditional PR can be traced to how it is defined and practiced. PR is most often defined in terms of persuasion and influence. In practice, that has often meant inundating audiences with messages that are thinly disguised propaganda. It presumes a certain naivety about the audience, and faith that PR practitioners will be so good at persuasion and influence that those who receive their messages won’t know what hit them.
This type of approach probably never was as effective as PR practitioners and their clients believed it to be, but it is even more suspect in the freewheeling world of participatory journalism and the blogosphere, where scents of advocacy or self-interest are readily detected, and rebuked with an unprecedented vehemence.
Simultaneous with the rise of online forums and blogs has come another affliction: the rapid decline of print publications and news-oriented web sites, many of which were the depositories for the meat and potatoes of traditional PR – reams of press releases, 2,000-word white papers, product-promoting case studies, canned testimonials, and advertising-for-editorial trade-offs.
Forcing the change
The massive ground shifts of the past few years have PR professionals worried about the fate of their industry, but most are still in denial. As long as the checks keep flowing, things are presumed to be OK. So, we’re at the point where all reform must take place: The companies that are paying PR practitioners must force the change.
As with most change, this one must start at a basic level. That means changing the terms that define PR from persuasion and influence to information and integrity – words not normally used in the same sentence with PR.
PR programs based on information and integrity can be a scary notion for both the PR profession and its clients. From the PR profession’s side, it means, at best, retooling many of its entrenched methodologies, and retraining or replacing people. At worst, it means massive business losses and trying to start again from scratch.
There’s an equally daunting challenge for software companies: to make this form of PR work, they must deal honestly and openly with their customers, the public, and the media in all of its permutations. This takes a company that is secure in its skin; one confident enough in its competitive assets and way of doing business that it can deliver information and let the user community do the persuading and influencing. For companies that can operate in this manner, there is the rare opportunity of not just winning customers, but gaining long-term, vocal advocates.
The people to make it happen
As with all change, the most important element is finding the right people to make it happen. Most likely, these will be people already inside your company, new hires not encumbered by old PR ways, an individual (perhaps an ex-journalist) who knows your industry, or a small agency attuned to your business. The solution is unlikely to be found in large agencies, because their structures don’t normally accommodate the individualized attention a company needs in the new PR environment.
The people you’re looking for should possess an eclectic group of skills:
- They should be great writers and editors who can communicate what your company is doing in a way that is informative, entertaining and relevant to the audience you want to reach.
- They should not only be able to write, but rewrite according to client input.
- They should be capable of becoming knowledgeable, in a short period of time, about your company, its products and technologies, its competitors, and the industry as a whole.
- They should be able to work with your customers to generate stories that resonate within the user community.
- They should listen to your ideas, be willing to implement them if they are good, and if they are not good, explain the reasons in terms you can understand.
- They should be able to work with you as strategic planning partners.
- They should be skilled in communicating in a variety of formats (bulletins, e-newsletters, press releases, feature stories, editorials, blogs, video) to a wide range of audiences (techies, editors, upper management, all types of customers).
- They should be able to work with your engineers and developers, helping them communicate through personal blogs and postings to industry sites.
- They should be able to change directions swiftly and decisively if program goals aren’t being met.
- They should come up with ideas and approaches that you wouldn’t think of.
- They should be fierce advocates for your company, but diplomatic as well.
- They should respect their constituencies: you, the client; the media; customers; and other audiences to which they communicate.
What will they do?
So, what will these people work on if their time isn’t totally absorbed with traditional PR activities? They’ll be busy doing these types of things:
- Writing new product releases that focus on what a product does, how it does it, and why customers think it is noteworthy, without a hint of “robust,” “user-friendly,” “industry-leading” or [fill in your favorite overwrought superlative].
- Writing feature stories that focus on an industry problem and how it can be solved, or a technical issue that is on the minds of the user community.
- Establishing working relationships with media and bloggers based on providing valuable information, legitimate news tips, and strong editorial contributions.
- Helping the company publish blogs that offer unique technical and social perspectives.
- Transforming the company into a publisher, by producing e-newsletters, newsletters and/or magazines with compelling content that is welcomed by customers and potential customers.
- Building a community of influential people who share the same values, respect the company, and will serve as your spokespersons, advisors and promoters.
- Making sure that the company story is told honestly, consistently and credibly, without puffery, bombast or hype.
- Talking with your customers and reporting back on likes, dislikes, cultural touchstones and other elements that can help your company fine-tune its development and marketing strategies.
Throw out the old, bring in the new
Any company moving away from traditional PR will be forsaking some time-worn methods of measuring effectiveness. Instead of hundreds or thousands of press clippings a year – the vast majority of which are meaningless to your market – you might have 30 or 40 well-placed articles. You won’t need three-page activity reports each month that document every phone call and transaction; an informal reporting will do, and results should be obvious.
In place of the traditional PR paper trail, your new approach can give your company some things it probably has never had before: positive exposure in the most important media outlets; rich information exchanges with buyers and users; a sense of loyalty to your company and its brands; an opt-in list of people who actually want to receive your e-mails; concrete testimonials in a true voice of appreciation; and a sense of trust that will provide a bridge for introducing new products and technologies into the market.
As you read this, there are raging discussions throughout the Internet about whether or not PR is dead and how it should be conducted in the future. There are companies bewildered, frustrated and angry with their PR people. And, there are the trailblazers who are doing with PR what innovative companies always do: throwing out convention and blazing new paths that distinguish them from the competition.
Bob Cramblitt is principal of Cramblitt & Company, based in Cary, N.C. He has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry as a writer, editor, and marketing/communications and PR specialist.