The Evolution of PR

In episode two, we’re talking with Meg O’Leary, who cofounded InkHouse about 10 years ago. InkHouse is one of the country’s fastest growing and best PR agencies.

Meg and I talk about the evolution of PR in that 10 year span—plus we discuss her recent move to become CMO of a startup. 

You can listen above, or read the handy transcript (lightly edited) here:

Mark Reed-Edwards: Meg, it’s good to have you here on Confessions of a Marketer. I appreciate you taking the time for our chat.

Meg O’Leary: Mark, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Mark: So you started InkHouse 10 years ago–just as the social revolution was starting with Twitter, Facebook and the like. How was PR changed since then and where do you think it’s heading?

Meg: Well, you know, it’s seen so much change over the course of my career of 20 years in marketing and certainly a lot of that in public relations. You know, a couple of things happened about 10 years ago or maybe even a little a little longer than that. One is that, initially in public relations–the value was in knowing how to reach reporters. So back in the day when I worked for a big New York City agency, just having the contact information for the reporter was a high-margin business because clients didn’t even know how to get a hold of reporters to pitch them. And then, you know, around the time of what many folks refer to as Version 2.0 of the Internet, and when social media and more user-generated content became available, there was a fundamental shift in the PR business. And that was that clients could figure out how to reach the media and pitch them on their own. And so suddenly if you wanted a gadget review in The Wall Street Journal by Walt Mossberg it was no longer a mystery not only how to reach him but to go ahead and try to pitch him on your own. So a lot of big agencies at the time were still charging huge, huge retainers.

But the value they were delivering, or at least part of the value, was in reaching that reporter knowing how to reach that reporter. And the mystery was gone. And so the PR industry changed because you knew you had to figure out how to capitalize and not resist this movement around user-generated content. And then, certainly also at that time, there were some fundamental shifts in things like Twitter happening and Facebook and, at that time, MySpace–and knowing how to leverage those tools for getting media or just getting end-user or end-customer attention directly with the new-fangled things.

So, those are those are maybe table stakes or PR now. But they were big changes at the time. And I think one of the biggest changes is that, traditionally in PR you would find the reporter and you would pitch that reporter and then you would hopefully get positive coverage and that coverage would get passed along–maybe electronically, but at that time print was king and you wanted to make sure you got it in the in the print edition. And now, you can generate news–and I’ve had news hit the New York Times and barely see a blip in terms of actual lead generation and people and customers you know flocking to a client’s site.  But I’ve seen something like Hacker News, which is actually a news curation service, generate huge leads.

In fact, even in my own experience now, in my next incarnation at the startup I’m working on, we just did a press release about our funding two weeks ago and we had a Fortune 100 company call us just based on the release and good distribution of the release through traditional channels but also through Twitter and through LinkedIn. And so, anyway, there’s sort of multiple factors contributing to it. But the difference is it’s all about content but the distribution strategies have changed and that’s created a huge difference in the craft itself.

Mark: So where do you think it’s heading? It’s kind of hard to predict, but is it just going to get more and more fragmented?

Meg: I will be honest and say I thought 10 years ago I was not sure that public relations was going to make it, just because I was of the mindset that the value of knowing how to reach reporters was such an important piece that it could actually dissolve PR in so many ways. Not that it would go away but it would become sort of just an intrinsic part of marketing organizations and not necessarily its own craft. So, I was wrong then so I could be wrong again.

But I guess what I would say in the next 10 years I think it is going to be a lot more about the convergence of inbound marketing and content marketing with public relations–just because there’s so much less emphasis on traditional media sources and they don’t generate the kind of response that they use to. So it used to be very exciting to get into Time Magazine because you knew that story was going to live there for a long time and that magazine you got to sit on a coffee table get passed along and lots of people were going to read it over time and then for a while it got exciting for that to become online.

But now if it doesn’t become curated into people’s social feeds they’re not looking at it. And people are becoming less and less discerning about what they share through their social feeds. And so as the result you could have a really interesting story on a home or homegrown blog. And if it’s written in an interesting way it could generate the same kind of traction and result for you as a story in a major media outlet. I mean–not all the time–that’s not to say that there’s not value in getting coverage in major media outlets. But I guess what I’m saying is that folks are looking for interesting stories and they’re looking to feed and be fed from their social channels. And so, to me, we’re going to see more of that of that going forward. And I think the biggest obstacle in that is going to be, you know, the integrity of the public relations profession, the integrity of the journalism industry because of fake news.

And I was just actually reading something yesterday–Gartner put out a prediction that said by 2021 Americans will receive more fake news than they do real news. And so, how to discern that issue is certainly much bigger than a public relations issue.

But I do think that’s going to become a challenge over the next decade, and I think as practitioners of marketing and public relations, I’m hoping that we stay on the protagonist side of that and that we actually help sort through that problem. But what I fear is that there will be people who will leverage fake news as a marketing tactic. And so I think that’s going to be a real challenge for the next 10 years. So, because we do know that people are not discerning, or as discerning as they used to be, about the integrity of the media outlet, it’s more about what gets into their social feed. And it’s easy for a sensational news story to get to their social feed and for that to be consumed. And it doesn’t matter if it’s from you know Newsweek or the Chicago Tribune nearly half as much as it used to.

So I think that will be that will be the challenge–to figure out how to really work into people’s social feeds and more emphasis on that. But, at the same time, grappling with the challenge of fake news–and, frankly, not capitalizing on it as a public relations professionals.

Mark: What’s interesting about fake news is it’s the same phenomenon–the ability to put up a Web site and pour content into it–that has given rise to fake news has also given rise to solo practitioners. In the security space, you’re familiar with him–Brian Krebs is one of these guys who has a Web site and is an authoritative source for information in the security space. There are others that you could name. But it’s interesting that same phenomenon that gives rise to someone who is authoritative can also give rise to fake news.

Meg: I think that’s right. I mean, I also feel like there is an ebb and flow in people that people consider to be influential and important. You know, five, six, seven years ago getting into Tech Crunch or GigaOm was a lottery ticket. You know, now–yeah, it’s great to get into those outlets but not sort of what it used to be–the same kinds of influences aren’t there. But I do think, you mentioned Brian Krebs–and what I think is interesting about him is that it’s his personal integrity that people are betting on.

And I do think that credibility will be linked to individuals instead of outlets going forward–or outlets that are synonymous with a particular individual. So I do think the good news is that I do hope and see true influencers and experts with integrity  rising to the top. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have the loudest voice, unfortunately. But it’s a tricky it’s a it’s really a tricky situation because, as consumers of news, we don’t want to pay for news anymore–or very few of us do. We claim to want really good news but we don’t want to pay for it.

Journalists are making less and less money and they have to write even more stories. Many of them are being compensated on clicks, which means sometimes they need to put more eye candy or sensational topics than actual factual news that could be seen as not being as interesting. And so, even at traditional high-integrity news outlets, these journalists are under such pressure. There’s not as many of them there used to be. They’re not writing a couple of stories a week, they’re writing a couple of stories a day. And they are being measured, in many cases, by clicks. And so they have to write things that are going to tug on people’s emotions or get them excited.

And, I hate to use the word sensational, but really dull topics or reporting in very straightforward ways, sometimes you don’t find that to be as exciting. And it’s made worse by the fact that we don’t want to pay for our journalism–and so we’re not paying for as many good journalists. That, to me, is the biggest part of what’s broken in the industry. And, so, I certainly don’t have the answer to it and there was promise in advertising and tech in finding ways to compensate media professionals and journalists. But you know we haven’t quite cracked that code yet.

Mark: Right. I think the extraordinary thing about some journalists–and journalists with national profiles–is they’re everywhere. So you’ll see them on a morning show, you’ll read their article in the middle of the day, see them on a show at night, then they tweet 400 times during the day. It’s an extraordinary amount of productivity for a 24 hour period for many of these journalists.

Meg: I think that’s absolutely true. And it’s really all to feed their news outlet to try to pull eyeballs to their news outlets and to their advertisers. And there’s a huge expectation on journalists to deliver eyeballs directly now. You know, it’s no longer about the marketing department or the publishing department really  getting readers. It’s up to the journalists now. So it creates tremendous pressure on them. I mean, that’s not to say that there’s certainly isn’t support from other parts of the media organization, but the journalists have to be rock stars. And I also think that they have to write so fast that they are unable to vet stories like they used to.

The statistic now is something like 80% of stories that you read in the news are pitched by a public relations person. And that is simply because the news cycle don’t give time for journalists to go in and sniff stories. They open their inbox or their Twitter feed or you know their Slack channels–or whatever it is–and they sort of say, “OK, there’s a hundred ideas from different PR people and companies on stories that could write. Let me let me dive into this one.” And they have to get it done in a matter of hours.

They’re not able to do a lot of investigation. And, you know it’s funny, I actually have a story. It’s from a while ago now, but it speaks to the issue. I had a major venture capitalist who invested in the new media space–moving traditional television programming over to the Internet, a la Netflix, Hulu that kind of thing. And so there was a major story that broke about YouTube and a very common public relations tactic is what we call rapid response or expert commentary–where you position your spokesperson as an expert on things going on in the industry. So, I pitched this particular venture capitalist to the New York Times to talk about this big YouTube story. But, at this time we realized that it’s not enough to pitch them anymore. You actually have to deliver a quote or you have to deliver what their point of view is.

So, knowing what this venture capitalist thought about this deal, I just quickly put together a couple of thoughts and I sent them to the New York Times. I never heard back and the next day my client the venture capitalist is like, “I’m quoted in The New York Times. I didn’t say that. I didn’t talk to them.” And, so I mean, he was fine because it reflected his point of view. But my story points to the incredible speed with which journalists need to produce stories but also speaks to the scrutiny that consumers of news need to put to a story. And so I certainly recognize that, as a part of the industry, I have benefited.

But that’s a dangerous game and I’m sure the New York Times would say that’s not their practice or what have you, but it was a it was breaking news and that journalist wanted to get a story quickly because the weather for the next day’s paper was who’s going to get the first story up you know on the New York Times Web site. And although I didn’t see it that day, you know, it had appeared within an hour or two of me or me sitting with the journalist, who frankly never responded to it. So, these are these are strange times in the world of journalism.

Mark: I’d like to say that’s extraordinary but it, isn’t is it?

Meg: Well, I have a few other examples as well. But, I don’t know, at that point, it causes deep self-reflection. So I don’t know, it’s definitely challenging. It’s challenging for journalists and it’s a challenge here for consumers of news. We want to read things and believe that they’re the investigated and that they are true. But there’s just a lot of pressure. The consumers are also the ones putting the pressure on the journalists. So it’s a double edged sword.

Mark: Right. So you recently left InkHouse to move to a startup as a CMO. So what’s going on there?

Meg: Yes. So I had a great, ultimately a nine year run, at InkHouse. We built it from the kitchen table, literally, to you know 100-plus employees on both coasts. And so it was it was a great, great journey and I was super proud of what we built there. But I also had a very competent business partner, in Beth Monaghan, who really continued to have tremendous passion for the business. And, while I was still was really enjoying the business, after some self-reflection I realized that I what I loved most about the business was building it. And, I think you know the Boston office at roughly 100 people had really grown to one of the largest agencies in Boston–in terms of number of people, maybe even like top two. And San Francisco was building, but of course I was in Boston, but there were a lot of people out there.

And so I decided that, although public relations is an interesting business and an interesting time, I was hungry to get back to the world of startups and kind of do it all over again, although this time I’m not a founder. I’m fortunate enough to have been asked to be chief marketing officer by two really tremendous people in the cybersecurity industry–Dino Dai Zovi and John Viega–to be part of launching their startup, which is Capsule8.

And what we’re really focused on is real-time attack disruption for modern Linux environments–so the whole world of cloud and microservices and containers, which is kind of the next big transformation in the IT industry, similar to what virtualization was 10, 12, 13 years ago. And, so learning how to secure that world is new territory. And so I’m super psyched to be with these guys to help figure out the market, figure out our product and bring something really new and exciting to the company. So I think I would employee three or four and joined about six months ago.

And now we’re at 20-something and we’ve just raised $8.5 million in venture funding. So it’s a whole new journey and I’m learning a lot of new things and I’m fortunate that these guys are betting on me to take care of of the full suite of marketing for them, which I haven’t done in a while–since my days that Novera software, which eventually became part of IBM, and RSA, where I worked in marketing for quite a while.

Mark: That’s wonderful. We could talk for hours about security and the like but this has been wonderful. I really appreciate you joining me here on Confessions of a Marketer.

Meg: It’s absolutely my pleasure. I’m really flattered that you asked, Mark. I appreciate you having me on.

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