A Public Relations Profile: Kelly Larabee

In my career as a journalist, I’ve dealt with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who work in the  public relations industry in one capacity or another. Unfortunately, not many of those public relations professionals stick out in my mind. There is one PR rep who I’ve had the pleasure to know for the past few years, engaging in regular and long discussions about public relations, the media, and other issues of interest to PR Fuel readers. I thought I’d share a few of Larabee’s public relations insights and tips.

I first met Larabee a few years back when I was covering the digital music sector. Larabee was the public relations rep for KaZaA, the file-sharing sensation that picked up where Napster left off, causing quite the firestorm. What I liked about Larabee from the start was that she was honest and engaging–two things that people in the rogue world of digital music had never been. We’ve developed a friendship since we first met–amazingly, we still haven’t met in person as she’s on the West Coast and I’m on the East–and when I emailed her this week that she would be the subject of my next PR Fuel column, I gave her a warning.

“Alright,” she wrote, “but know that a good journo always inspires worry–and a good PR person worries.”

Did I forget to mention that she’s funny? That sense of humor has helped her since graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in Political Science. A Wisconsin native, Larabee took her degree to Washington, D.C. where she landed as staff assistant to U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D – WI). Working on Capitol Hill, Larabee learned her first big lesson in public relations.

“Distilling a message to its most simple theme is what turns ideas into action,” she told me. “You have to give people a message they can understand and then [the people] need to decide whether they believe it or not to be true for themselves and whether its something they can take action on.”

Larabee says that one of her professional influences is surprising, even to her.

“As stupid as it sounds, Rush Limbaugh was one of my educators because he understands how to simplify complex issues,” she says before letting me know full-well that she doesn’t agree with Limbaugh’s stance on, well, anything.

According to Larabee, one reason Limbaugh is so persuasive is that he understands some of the most simple aspects of public relations.

“Repetition is part of PR. You have to have the same talking points and same explanations for one issue. You can be as intellectual as you want in putting forth an argument, but if all the supporting ideas are different from person to person, no will understand why the main theme should be important to them.”

As she said before, the most simple theme is what turns ideas into action; Limbaugh is a natural at hammering home the same point time and time again, using the same argument. Another thing Limbaugh excells at, which many in the media and the public relations industry alike don’t understand, is estimating the intelligence of an audience.

“I assume that people are smart,” Larabee says. “It’s overwhelming to me that people are so smart. The most common error in PR is thinking that people are dumb and assuming that they’re always going to be interested in your issue [or client, product, etc.]. You have to distill your message to a degree that people will become interested and investigate more.”

Getting people to “investigate more” has been a big part of Larabee’s job. After her stint on Capitol Hill, she went the public relations agency route. Her first big campaign–helping a credit card company raise public awareness about online privacy and security–won a Public Relations Society of America Silver Anvil Award. From there, she helped America Online battle Microsoft, helping build a coalition that fought the software giant’s bundling of internet access tools with Windows 95. Moving back towards the political arena, Larabee worked on the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids before finding herself in the dot-com arena at Idealab.

“We helped coin the term ‘internet incubator,'” Larabee says with a giggle.

Since Idealab, she’s worked with the aforementioned KaZaA and two PR clients that made a lot of waves: Skype’s “peer-to-peer global telephony” and the Distributed Computing Industry Association. “[DCIA’s] mission is to find compromise solutions for the digital future and to bring telecommunications technology and the entertainment industry together to monetize the digital future,” she says.

Larabee’s public relations work with Skype and the DCIA thew her right into the intersection of technology, media, telecommunications, consumer choice, and the government, which means she has to be on her toes when dealing with the media.

“You learn who [in the media] is smart,” Larabee says. “Dumb journalists are opportunities to get the puff story that you want. Smart journalists are the ones who ask smart questions and help you direct strategy. Sometimes you have clients who can’t handle smart journalists – so get them away from your clients.”

Considering both of her current clients tread on dangerous ground by doing battle with gigantic multinational corporations that have strong relationships with the media, Larabee knows her message needs to be clear and concise.

“One of the biggest mistakes PR people make is that they’ll take something that should be a directed pitch and give it broad implications,” she says. “How many bad pitches have you got over the years that will say this product will revolutionize the way something is done or will change the landscape or is just the best? Media people are generally incredibly intelligent people who feel like they’re the stewards of public trust. You have to know how to deal with them.”

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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