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Things to consider before signing off on PR

Are you an MSP or channel partner looking for a good PR and/or content agency? Gina Hough, managing director at MCC Int Ltd, reckons it’s all about being prepared

One channel player told me recently: “Dealing with PR companies is like stumbling about in the dark waiting to get mugged!”

You’ve got to love his honesty. And I’ve been working in this sector long enough to know why he feels that way. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Not all PRs are like the shark that Louis Armstrong once warned us all about. Yes, we may have pretty teeth and we do show frequently show them. But there the similarity ends.

I loved this joke, because it was a great line, but I am certainly no Flack the Knife.

My confidant was wittily pointing out the PR and content maze that he has had to tackle over the years. He’d almost given up until I persuaded him to give it one more try. That’s why interpreting his problems and interpreting all the problems that clients are trying to articulate is my raison d’etre. It’s a craft I have been perfecting for 30 years in the channel.

I started off in the late 1980s as a true PR greenhorn, having just set up my own agency and working with distributors including First Software, Kode, Xitan and Skytech. I was incredibly lucky to act at a PR taster service that Skytech provided for its customers during that that time, as they included Cisco, Novell, Banyan and a host of others who grew to be a lot bigger than they first started out as part of Skytech’s extended stable.

Fit the technology around the story

Over the years, I have seen the business partners for vendors evolve enormously. It was no longer enough to see the technology, you had to have an intimate knowledge of how your customer’s business actually works and how to fit the technology around it.

In the old days, a reseller might expect the customer to work around the technology. The modern service provider is fine-tuning the technology constantly to make it work around the client’s business.

Which is why the managed service providers (MSPs) these days seem to be defined by the industries they support. They really have to know how those internal processes and external supply chains work before they can create demonstrable productivity boosts. That is an incredibly difficult full-time challenge.

So, it’s little surprise that they can be vulnerable and struggle to understand the PR and media industries. They’ve already got enough on their plate.

Given those circumstances, it is understandable that they might become a little suspicious. How do they know they are getting value for money? Some of them do get taken advantage of and spend a lot for very little return.

Many companies can be led down a back alley and mugged by Flack the Knife, as my friend feared. Yes, there are often scarlet billows from marketing budgets that are “oozing life”. The more modern term for them would be “account retainers” and that particular sting is likely to be set up in a company with a huge reception area and enormous seats that could swallow a channel swimmer whole.

Demystifying the process

I always think the best way to treat an MSP is to treat them how they’d treat me. So, let’s kick off with demystifying the whole process.

We need to talk about content – it’s such a little word that cheapens everything it includes. To some, Shakespeare’s plays, classic novels and films are “content”. Imagine the conversation: “I love that content Citizen Kane. For me, it’s right up there with the Shake’n’Vac advert and Love Island.

Imagine if we treated technology services with the same irreverence, lumping Amazon Web Services (AWS) in the same category as a teenage website developer.

I would encourage any MSP embarking on the road to marketing communications to work out what conversations they want to have, with whom, when, why, how and in what context? If those questions sound familiar, that is because those are very similar to the classic questions that journalists ask.

Everyone thinks they can do someone else’s job better than them. That’s why professional footballers are shouted at by fans to “sort the defence out”. It’s why millions of people bought their own PC networks in the 90s, only to discover that this IT business is a lot more complicated than they thought.

Now, with all these publishing platforms, everyone is (apparently) an expert on writing. So instead of doing the job they profess to be passionate about, they are filling blog space with lines of clichés about ‘innovation’ and the clunking ugly product names that would even drive a robot’s eyes off the page.

I like to keep it simple so that the client knows exactly where we are on our journey and we all understand our shared objective. We work as a team with mutual respect and understanding of our respective talents. That way, we can get the most out of each other and achieve those results we all want. It’s important to shape your language and tone around the people you want to be having conversations with.

What you have to be prepared to do

You will have to be prepared to give some of your time to your agency. We don’t carry wands in our pockets, and will need input and information from you to do the job properly. The longer we work for you, the more we know, but at the outset please understand that we don’t know what we don’t know – if you invest time at the outset, it will be well worth it.

We will get to know your business and be able to prepare comments and quotes on your behalf to take some of the burden from you. When we have deadlines from editors to meet, we always strive to give you the most notice we can, but sometimes we hardly get any and so, to get the coverage, a quick turnaround is required.

Unless you are paying for the coverage, we cannot ask a journalist to show us the copy they are going to file after interviewing you, either. It’s a huge no-no and PR people rapidly get themselves to the top of an editor’s idiot list by even asking the question, so any good PR won’t do it. There are certain magazines that you will have to pay to get coverage these days, too. It’s the way the market is going.

If you can talk about some good wins, please do. It’s what editors want to hear about. Case studies are also a big favourite – even though they are difficult to get past clients. It’s their rarity that makes them like the holy grail – and you will score massive brownie points with vendor partners by producing these out of the hat for them. I have found over the years that they’re great bargaining currency for market development funds (MDF) applications.

You want to reach the right people? Interact with them, share experiences and confidences and build trust in what could be a highly valuable working relationship. Accept that not all PRs are the cliché you’ve come to expect them to be. But choose wisely, because the channel is a very special place and not many agencies really get it.

They will have to understand the way it works and have decent contacts to make an impact. Don’t be afraid to ask them who they know and what they’ve done; they should be proud of their track record. I eat, sleep, breath and repeat the channel, and I know it very well but it can be like the Wild West at times (even now) and you have to know the audience. It’s crowded out there.

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