This is a guest post by Aaron Perlut, a founding partner of Elasticity.
I’ve long believed there are two types of media relations practitioners: hunters and centurions. I am unquestionably a hunter, for better or worse, and having worked both in the agency world and on the corporate side, I’ve seen the best and worst of each.
“Good communications professionals should always know the right time to alternate between proactively telling their company’s story and knowing when to shut up—without going overboard on either side,” said Brendan Lewis, the former communications chief at LivingSocial, Foursquare and Shazam, who now consults through Pramana. “Fundamentally, the one thing good comms people should provide press [with] is trust—that they are being upfront, the information they are providing is accurate and their interactions are genuine.”
Indeed, there is a yin and a yang.
Hunters are more aggressive opportunists who are always looking for ways to bolster the brands or organizations they represent. Agency-side media relations practitioners tend to lean toward the hunters profile as, quite frankly, they have no choice but to prove their value day in and day out.
Recently, Danica Babb on our Elasticity team was scanning Twitter and noticed that TechCrunch’s John Biggs was in St. Louis on a night when roughly 500 people in the startup and innovation community were gathering in the Cortex Innovation Community for the weekly Venture Café event. She used the Accelerate St. Louis Twitter account (@AccelerateSTL) we operate to invite Biggs to the event. This helped our needs—our role for Accelerate St. Louis is to elevate the profile of the St. Louis entrepreneurial community—while providing John with the opportunity to meet a large contingent of the community he covers. The results? A story about an area tech startup, and the fact that we’re now working with Biggs on a regional event for TechCrunch that’ll be sponsored by Accelerate St. Louis.
Hunters can have downsides, though. We push, oftentimes too hard. As a contributor for Forbes for roughly five years, I saw so many poorly contrived pitches and worthless news releases. It became clear to me that there were no filters, no brakes, no instincts, no understanding by these PR practitioners of what I would, and would not, write about. It was simply pitch, pitch, pitch, without regard to who was on the other end of the communiqué. I’ve admittedly been guilty of this myself at times.
Centurions, on the other hand, guard the castle. They are defensive specialists. It’s not a question of how taking action can help, but rather, how can this hurt? And oftentimes, this profile fits the description of people who are hired by large organizations to manage corporate communications.
“Most in-house PR folk are concerned with one thing: not screwing up,” Chris Steiner, the former Forbes feature writer, current contributor and New York Times bestselling author told me. “They don’t take risks, they don’t tell good stories, and they don’t, ultimately, have their company’s best interests at heart. They’re only concerned with preserving their spot on the corporate ladder, which, in most cases, means not making a mistake, even if the job they’re doing in the end is mediocre or worse.”
Last year, we were asked to schedule a media tour in New York for a group of C-suite executives from a well-known financial services organizations. The goal was to collectively meet with editors and reporters covering the vertical and demonstrate the savvy, in aggregate, of large financial services organizations that are embracing technology in order to grow and succeed in a complicated space. Each company involved had an impressive story of innovation to tell, and it was a layup. All of the major media outlets wanted in, so we began coordinating with senior media relations leaders at four well-known companies. One of them, however, declined a few days prior to the meetings. Her rationale? “If this succeeds, I’m screwed because it wasn’t my idea, and if it fails, I have to take the blame.”
I kid you not—and this is not an isolated incident. I have unfortunately witnessed example after example of this type of behavior by centurions.
To wit, we were once working with an enormous global agriculture company to create a thought leadership platform around a relatively groundbreaking study that its chief nutrition officer had co-authored with a leading international academic. We worked with the two of them to develop a strategy, an infrastructure and a trough of compelling content that included a Web platform, videos, white papers, third-party data and the list goes on. We worked on it for some six months, and about two weeks before launch, a centurion caught wind of it. After a conversation with her where she condescendingly lectured us about their brand and message as if we were six graders—even though the brand was something we had studied diligently and intertwined into the narrative of all materials—she engineered the death of the entire project a week later, principally because it wasn’t her idea.
The centurion’s principle function is examining risk to either the organization or their own personal brand within the company—not finding ways for both to mutually succeed, which can easily be done with the right mindset. Forbes’ Steiner says this is not simply a failing of PR people, but rather, a failing across corporate America.
“It’s a problem throughout middle management at all large companies, and it simply extends to those in the communications department,” he said. “Those flacks who try and police every word in every quote while insisting on pedantic controls over every interview and media interaction only limit the good exposure their company may deserve.”
Am I suggesting that centurions have no value? Not at all. They very much do, just largely in crisis communications positions and not in roles that require leading broader media relations functions, which are reliant upon an opportunistic spirit, with some exceptions.
“Comms people need to know when to be confident enough to take a position internally that might not be popular or ‘put them at risk,’” added Pramana’s Lewis. “Because the aims of their organization should always come before their personal glory.”
Certainly the role of a savvy media relations professional is not only to promote but also to manage reputation. We are not supposed to rubber-stamp every and any opportunity with a blind eye toward risk. However, if there is one trend sweeping corporate communications departments of large companies in the U.S., it is one of centurion behavior: doing nothing but mitigating opportunities and irritating reporters from coast to coast.
Take note, media relations pros. Caution is one thing, but don’t be a centurion.
Aaron Perlut is a founding partner of digital marketing and public relations firm Elasticity.