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You Can Learn a Lot From a Public Relations Pro

Kelly Larabee is one of my favorite public relations contacts, someone who can help a lot of people in the PR industry simply by sharing her knowledge. I decided to just fire away at Kelly with some questions via email. As many of public relations pros know, this is the kind of interview you want — essentially one on your terms. Unlike being under the gun while on the phone, television, or radio, a written response to interview questions allows you to set an agenda and take time to polish your answers. Take a few minutes to digest her ideas because what she has to say should be very helpful to anyone in public relations.

Q: When you were working with [P2P software company] Kazaa, what was the most difficult aspect of your job?

A: Staying focused on longterm strategic initiatives in a rapidfire environment was the biggest challenge. Often news would break, we’d first learn about it from a reporter, on deadline. With a client 16 hours ahead in Australia, the logistics of gathering the executive team, evaluating the issue, and making a statement were challenging.

Q: Did you feel that Kazaa’s “renegade” status caused problems when dealing with journalists from major media outlets? Was it helpful with smaller or more independent-minded media outlets?

A: Surprisingly no, the major media outlets quickly understood the significance of file sharing as they’d had the Napster experience. From a pure control standpoint, I developed relationships with the most significant reporters in the space — who were widely read — and spoke to them primarily. The smaller media outlets took their cue from the majors. It’s important to note that these journalists had a clear vision of the future trajectory for Kazaa, and largely created the “renegade” status.

Q: Is there any one story from the Kazaa era that sticks out in your mind as far as being amazingly helpful to your public relations efforts? Or amazingly hurtful?

A: The first round of coverage, dubbing Kazaa the “next Napster,” was both helpful and hurtful. To the average reader, it was the most powerful motivation to check out the new software. The peripheral damage was that the legal scenario that was unfolding for Napster was immediately inferred for Kazaa — and the important technical and end user license agreement differences [between Napster and Kazaa] were not fully articulated.

Q: Looking back, would you have handled public relations for Kazaa any differently?

A: I don’t have any regrets about building Kazaa. With hindsight, I would have developed a bigger team of smart people to work on the business and develop deeper vertical expertise. The biggest lesson is to leap as quickly as possible from start-up mentality to process excellence.

Q: Do you find journalists are well-informed about the issues that your clients deal with? Do you sometimes scratch your head and wonder how someone got a job writing for a newspaper or magazine?

A: The basic rule with journalists is to assume that they’re not 100 percent focused on you, and to achieve the results you want and the beneficial story, you have to be able to provide perspective and deep context. In providing the back-story, you have to be honest, straightforward, and willingly give insight to the opposition’s information and view — all without overly spinning as this time is the foundation of your credibility.

Q: Do you use information embargoes? If so, what’s the strategic reasoning behind their use? And have you every had a journalist break an information embargo?

A: I’ve had journalists break embargoes and I’m still too mad to talk about the latest instance. Generally you use embargoes so that the news is able to appear the day you’re making an announcement. A good story on announcement day carries the news and develops exponentially better than any press release. And you also give reporters the time to speak with academics, analysts, partners, etc. the reporting that gives depth to a story.

Q: At the time of this interview, your current client Skype was essentially still in its start-up phase. Is this the time in a company’s life that they need public relations the most?

A: If not the most important, certainly the most interesting phase for doing public relations is the start-up phase. This is the time where we’re still setting the lexicon and making major strategic decisions about what Skype is, what Skype will be. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Q: When you look around and see how public relations is used by various companies, organizations, governments, etc., do you ever stop and wish you could change careers?

A: I assume you refer to the spin teams that attempt to alter facts to divert attention from real issues and progress. If that’s the case, then no. I’m just grateful to have a profession that allows me to spot the perversions. I love the role I have in promoting technologies that change the rules, and the world.

Q: Who makes more mistakes: the public relations industry or the media?

A: We certainly all make some mistakes on a regular basis — but I’d argue that journalists are better suited to learning from them then the average PR person. A common public relations problem is the failure to act as the advisor your client pays you to be.

For example, requesting a correction or a retraction is generally not going to yield results and will alienate an entire newsroom. Yet many public relations people will seek this after the client screams about a negative story. In these situations, you need to have an after action review, with the client, and determine why the story wasn’t right; where, when, and how mistakes were made; and what the opportunities are to fix it moving forward before hitting back at the reporter. Often you’ll have a reporter to thank for helping the client change bad behavior or business practices.

Q: Generally speaking, does the typical public relations client understand public relations and the real impact of PR? Or do they just want to see their company’s name in print?

A: I don’t know. I’ve heard of circumstances where a marketing department is tasked to “hire PR” and then pushes hard for publicity without understanding messaging, strategy, and that the most important part of news is NEW. I wouldn’t work with such a company or report into a marketing department because I believe any organization gives and gets better value when public relations is part of the management team.

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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