[A note from Arthur: Every so often the tables are turned. Jeff Vance has contributed feature articles and editorials to such publications as Forbes.com, Network World, CIO,Datamation, Wi-Fi Planet, Cloudbook and many others. Jeff blogs at Sandstorm Media. Recently Jeff interviewed me about our agency and our Brandtelling approach. I asked Jeff’s permission to share the interview with my readers here on Brandtelling.]
Q & A with Arthur Germain – Part I
By Jeff Vance
I recently had the chance to talk with Arthur Germain, Principal & Chief Brandteller at Communication Strategy Group. Arthur originally ended up on my radar because account execs at CSG consistently send me good pitches. Later, a few CSG-generated press releases caught my eye. They didn’t read like press releases. Rather, they read like stories. I wanted to find out what they were doing differently that made them stand out from other PR agencies.
In our recent conversation we talked about the disappearance of media tours, what’s replaced them, how brand marketing differs from traditional PR and plenty more.
JV: How do you think PR-press relations have changed in the past 10 years or so?
AG: Many traditional PR practices have disappeared or are disappearing. For instance, in 2000 it was common for us to take clients on media tours. That meant the client came to town (I’m in New York), and we’d go to Business Week, Time and the New York Times. We’d set them up “desk side.” We just don’t do that anymore.
JV: Definitely. In the early 2000’s I lived in Boston, where I edited a couple high-tech magazines. I could have spent pretty much all day, every day on media tours or dinners with vendors. Today, I live in L.A., and while L.A. isn’t as much on the tech circuit as Boston, it’s not far off, especially with Silicon Valley so close, yet I rarely get the kind of in-person meeting requests I used to get pretty much every day.
With so many journalists, editors and analysts working either remotely or as freelancers, a media tour would have to log a heck of a lot more miles to have the kind of reach you used to get from just visiting a few major cities.
AG: Right, and then there are bloggers outside of major cities and just overall media fragmentation. So, today the media tour is replaced by phone interviews or web conferences. What that means is we have to work with clients to train them to speak with media on the phone. We have to teach them not to give “yes” or “no” answers. We have to remind them not to start reading bullet points. These are mistakes they’d be less likely to make in person. Over the phone, though, visual cues are all lost, and that can be a tough transition for executives who thrive on those face-to-face interactions.
You have to introduce a whole new set of skills in media training now. If I have three bullet points I want to get across to you, I have to state up front: “okay, Jeff, I have three things I want to talk about. The first is this; the second is this; the third is this.” Talking in person, I could tap my fingers on the desk, or when I say “my second point is,” I could reinforce that by holding up two fingers. The gestures and body language that we all rely on in face-to-face interactions are useless over the phone, so you have to find ways to replace them, and those replacements should sound natural to listeners.
JV: Judging from my discussions with PR pros and other journalists, the press-PR status quo isn’t really working for anyone. Ideally, how do you see the role of PR evolving and how can PR better work with the press – or is it better to lessen the emphasis on the press in favor of speaking directly to potential customers?
AG: It’s true that PR is changing greatly. However, I classify CSG more as a brand marketing agency than a PR firm.
JV: What’s the difference?
AG: We’re as likely to get tapped to write a feature article or a case study as a news release. This changes how we approach things. Even when we end up writing a more traditional news release, we ask, “What’s the call to action?” We’re always looking for ways to get customers and the media engaged. So, we’ll do things like offer editors slideshows, rather than just bombarding them with pitches and press releases.
JV: So, is the press release dead?
AG: The printed press release certainly is. I remember when I was a journalist I used to have press releases and press packets piled up around the office. That’s not the case anymore.
JV: Even at trade shows, smart companies don’t leave stacks of packets and folders in the press room. No one wants to lug them around. The smart ones leave USB drives, which will disappear quickly.
AG: Sure, and you can reuse them.
JV: Whether the info stored on them is ever looked at or just deleted is another matter . . .
AG: Another thing to consider is the rise of search and inbound marketing, both of which deemphasize traditional press releases. Inbound marketing targets content to customers and potential customers, not journalists. That’s part of why we think of our releases as “news” releases, not “press” releases. There has to be some real news within, and it’s not necessarily targeted only to the press.
This approach also gives us an opportunity to do something that press releases don’t usually do. We use our releases as thought-leadership tools. That is where we feel that we’ve really made a difference. It’s changed how we think of ourselves.
Today, we help companies tell brand stories. And we offer some PR services as well.
JV: Besides writing “news” releases and not “press” releases, what’s the difference between traditional PR and brand storytelling? The cynic in me would say that it sounds like a nifty euphemism. Is there more to it? Does your emphasis on stories mean that you’ll pass on potential clients who really don’t have compelling stories? As you know, all PR agents have experienced a few of those clients in their careers, the ones who just don’t have anything interesting to say, and what they do have to say is in no way newsworthy.
AG: Good question. Let’s look again at press releases. We focus on two categories of news release: the first is a “milestone and momentum release”. For instance, we’ll put out a release if our client just achieved some sort of Cisco certification. Or we’ll write something up if our client has a new customer in the financial services industry.
These are important because they make a statement to your customer base. We’re out there getting key certifications and we have customers. This news validates what the company is doing. It’s hard to make a sale these days if you haven’t done it before, so it makes sense to publicize those milestones.
On the other hand, if our client wants us to publicize something that we can’t classify, we’ll push back. We won’t distribute a press release for some small local event. We may alert local press, but why would you distribute that release globally?
JV: Yet, you see plenty of those releases out there.
AG: Right, or you see releases that say “we have a new version of our software under development.” Who cares? Is it available? Why are you telling me this?
JV: Half of my communication with PR is spent saying “that’s not news,” or “there is no story here.”
AG: Now, some of those releases are news, but to a very specific audience. If you’ve moved your offices, that matters on a local level, but not to a wider audience. Rather than using a shotgun approach of distributing a press release for that kind of news, we set our sights on the right audience for the news.
The second category of news release, and the one we prefer, is the “thought leadership release.” This type of release allows our clients to really showcase what makes them special, their approach or process.
Next week, in part 2 of this interview, Arthur and I discuss surprising ways to package content for specific publications, how services like HARO are changing press-PR interactions and what Arthur believes is the number-one challenge for PR.