A friend recently was complaining to me about having trouble with her PR firm. "What's the problem," I asked. "Well," she huffed, "They just aren't getting me the coverage I want. I just don't think they're working hard enough. At Powerset, SHIFT must have had it so easy. Your story just told itself."
I didn't have a decent response at the time. Powerset did have an amazing story. To convince someone that natural language is a better search interface than keywords is a piece of cake. Additionally, our product was cool, innovative, and solved user problems. We spent a lot of time getting the message right, but it was more about perfecting the words to communicate our story than perfecting the story itself. On the other hand, our PR team worked their butts off, turned around some from doubters to believers, and got us an insane amount of coverage. What was the secret sauce?
After reading Julie's post about firing a client, something important struck me: my was just playing the PR Blame Game. My friend's company had a mediocre idea and a lame product. It's not the PR firm's fault that coverage was spotty. Instead of jumping down the throat of her firm, I think she should have taken the following steps.
First, maybe it's not your product that's the problem, but the way you're telling the story. Instead of pitching more reporters, go back to your product messaging basics. Figure out who your audience is. Understand what their problems are and articulate how your product solves those problems. Communicate that message in crisp, clean, simple language. This kind of strategic PR can be time-consuming, but it's something that your PR firm should be able to help with and will make subsequent pitches much easier.
But, there may be a deeper problem. If your product sucks, no amount of product marketing will fix it. Make sure that you're getting feedback from your PR firm about your product. And, ferchrissakes, listen to it. Your PR firm is on the front lines talking to experienced reporters who can give valuable suggestions for product enhancements. Empower your firm with the ability to bring this feedback to your company and then act on it. Obviously, don't forget your core strategy or your users, but you'd be remiss to ignore an expert opinion.
Finally, if your PR is stagnant, the feedback you've been getting is largely negative, and you can't find an easy way to improve your product, maybe it's time to take a drastic measure: shift your monthly PR budget to product development. This is kind of like "firing" your firm, but done with an "it's not you, it's me" realization. Your PR firm will appreciate the honestly and will likely be ready for you in 3-6 months after you've produced something marketable.
My friend was absolutely right that Powerset did have it easy. But, that's only because we had a cool product and a compelling story around it. So, next time your coverage report isn't as rosy as you'd like, take a step back and don't play the PR Blame Game. If you haven't armed your PR firm with a great message about a killer product, you only have yourself to blame.