It's been a while since I conducted an interview on PR Communications. Recently I attended the annual MITX awards ceremony and met Kevin Kosh, a PR professional at CHEN PR. Kevin was kind enough to agree to an interview by telephone and e-mail about his experience in the profession.
John: Tell me a little about your background, how did you come to work in PR?
Kevin: I always like to joke growing up I was a smaller kid so PR, or at least diplomacy, was a method of self-preservation. Really though, when I went to college, I knew I wanted to get into the creative area, so I took creative classes, I quickly learned the reality that the creative industry was not for me. When I signed up for a PR class I was hooked, and then started an internship with an agency.
I've been in the industry for fourteen years, and yet I've only been with two companies. I was with the first for four years and then I moved onto CHEN PR, I've been with them for nine years. My tenure within companies has been influenced by two things. First loyalty was a strongly encouraged trait in my household. Second, in the early 90's, when I got out of college, there was a recession. At that time jobs were seen as a privilege, not a birthright. This of course changed in the late nineties where there was a lot of job-hopping,
PR has also changed a lot over the past decade; in the early days I remember faxing press releases out to people, and lots of calling people on the telephone before the days of the active use of the Internet and email.
John: Would you give me some sense of the relevancy of a PR internship for those students thinking about the value of such jobs?
Kevin: An internship is only as good as the company you are working at. I'd say largely from a task perspective, a lot of the work is administrative, a lot of data entry. Where the value of the internship is found is the environment in which you work, and what you can take in from what goes on around you. In my experience, at smaller companies an intern will get to do more interesting work, out of necessity since the teams are smaller and not necessarily defined along hard functional lines. They get to partake -- or at least be party to -- a broader set of activities.
That being said, I don't want to minimize the research and administrative functions in PR. They are arguably the most critical functions, since success or failure starts with lists. As the media is a moving target, PR and pitching is all about timing -- the right people, at the right time, with the right hook. Accurate lists ensure we have the right contacts in the media. The time spent in adjusting an errant pitch or chasing down an alternate contact often is the different between success or failure.
John: From listening to your answer, I think it’s important to emphasize your points about list generation. How do make sure your list is up to date?
Kevin: Your team has to make sure the list is up to date, it's important to monitor the reporters, and determine what they are doing.
John: Do you think it's easier to track people today than before the Internet?
Kevin: My gut feeling is that it's easier to keep track of people today, but also from my perspective people didn't seem move around as much before.
John: How do you develop a PR strategy for your clients?
Kevin: First and foremost, knowing a heck of a lot more than you need to know, to have a better context to develop a good strategy.
CHEN PR's process is divided into three stages - we assess the situation, rationalize and prioritize the situation and then translate it into action. Here's how I frame that process:
* The Client - what do we actually have, their products, partners and customers? What's working and what's not working? What's unique? And what's middle of the road or lagging? Lastly, what's coming in the near/mid term?
* Audiences - Prioritization/Segmentation; Drivers/Needs - in business terms
* Market - Trends - real vs. hype; Competition - perceived vs. direct
* What UNIQUE business value do we provide
* What are our competitive strengths/weaknesses
* Where can we/do we want to stake a leadership claim - prioritization of the most strategically important
* What is our long term vision
* Define major milestones
* Create rolling 90-day plans -- follow them closely, but DON'T be married to them
* Be flexible and opportunistic
* ENSURE CONSTANT COMMUNICATION -- for brainstorming, on-the-fly adjustments, and to keep everyone focused
Having said this, I am always on the look out for the quick hit, plenty of opportunities out there to be visible; in the end the goal is not building successful plans but visibility. We make sure we are in constant communication with our clients to ensure we can capitalize on these opportunities. We set a standing weekly call, and track our progress every week.
John: Why do you think a longer-term perspective is so important?
Kevin: Journalists want to know what's next, the most successful pitches identify trends, and attach the client to them in a unique way.
John: What are the critical elements needed to build a successful PR campaign?
Kevin: I'll give you my top four
* Clear and prioritized messaging
* Executive commitment to and involvement in the program, this ensures fewer "false starts" and mid-course corrections, and projects confidence and respect to the press/analysts.
"Big Picture" thinking -- trends, fresh perspectives, aggressive ideas
* Constant idea/information exchange
John: What do you mean by aggressive ideas?
Kevin: Oh that can mean a variety of things, to be controversial, or to stick with your convictions, don't waver, don't set your self up for failure, don't be vanilla.
John: Can you recall any examples of crisis communications moments in your career and describe how you and the PR team handled those incidents?
Kevin: I really haven't had any major crisis events in my career that jump to mind. However, to my point earlier about being opportunistic in a PR program, as crisis communications is about rapid, coordinated and decisive responses to point-in-time events, every truly strategic PR program should have a well defined "event response" component. This requires clearly defining, in advance, key content owners, decision makers, spokespeople and a streamlined process for action. And most importantly, the process must be repeatable and require only minor customization from event to event.
As a company, we are constantly watching the news for our clients and when we see an article or event of interest, it is immediately sent to the client with a quick summary, call out of major points and ideas for potential response -- be it to offer further commentary if it's a major event, or to just offer alternative angles or ideas that may be the basis of future stories.
The most obvious examples of this are in the security marketplace and the ability to comment on breaking news. For one of our clients, we put the wheels in motion on a late breaking Friday story, and put the story, pitch and plan in front of our client on Saturday morning, and were off to the races. In the end, our client did an on-camera interview with the Boston ABC affiliate for segment that led evening newscasts in which he was the first and longest interview subject. He was also quoted in/on USAToday, National Public Radio, CNET, Computerworld and eWEEK. The best part was that five days after the breach, still only one of their competitors was quoted in one trade media article.
John: In your experience how do you get the most out of the wire services like PR Newswire, and Business Wire? Any tips for the reader? And lastly will press releases disappear?
Kevin: Regarding if press releases will disappear. First, no, I don't think that press releases will disappear. They will most definitely will evolve over time, but I think the concept of a general public messaging document will live on for a long time. That being said, I think the role of the press release has changed drastically.
There are obviously differences between press releases for public companies vs. private, but overall, a press release over the wire is an effective broad and general visibility vehicle. People live on the Web. From portals like Yahoo, to the targeted distribution lists the wires have relationships and reach that PR teams don't have. And in the case of tradeshows, being the organization of record is very important; they effectively are the news portal to which many people go. That being said, it's a shotgun, not a pistol.
To me, press releases when issued - at least the significant ones - are the punctuation mark on the end of a news event. Since the vast majority of our clients reach out to their most important media in advance of the release crossing the wire, the release is the company's official statement that supports - if we've been effective - a number of news stories on the topics/trends involved that have been published around the released date. And hopefully, the combination of the two will drive additional interest in speaking with the company from customers, media, analysts, etc.
John: What do you think about the idea of open source press releases? Letting your readers help write a press release before you release it for distribution.
Kevin: It's a really interesting area, and obviously time will tell, that being said, I haven't had direct experience with it and my gut reaction is that there are some obvious areas where challenges may exist. In my experience, press releases by committee tend to become diluted in trying to satisfy all audiences, and in the end may lose the messages you're trying to communicate - or at a minimum, not be differentiated. Maybe more effective to get feedback on the high level messages and things that you'd like to highlight in a more general sense, and not have people worry about the actual text and phrasings.
That being said, a company should be well aware of the views, biases and perspectives of all potential press release audiences - press, analysts, customers, partners, etc. before a press release is ever written. That's where a good PR firm can add value.
John: Does it really matter if you make an error in spelling and grammar?
Kevin: Absolutely. Beyond the most significant fact that some errors can change the message, pitches, press releases and the like are product we produce, and we should deliver nothing less than the best product possible. Not to mention that the ultimate buyers of that product - the press - are held to standards of quality in the articles they write and so should we.
John: What do you see as the biggest ethical question facing PR professionals today? And is it different from what you believe the main ethical dilemma was in the 90s, 80s, 70s, or earlier? How/why has it changed?
Kevin: My experience doesn't extend beyond the 90s, but the biggest ethical dilemma I see today for PR professionals is where to draw the line on the opportunistic front. With 9/11 in particular, and the level and immediacy of information the Web provides, there are events and topics that in my opinion should never be fodder for promotion. I think such efforts do a huge disservice to the profession.
Additionally, not to get on a soapbox, but in a more general sense, PR people should always be careful of "spin." PR people will be the messenger who gets blamed for spin. While we obviously want to paint our clients in the most positive light, the truth in the end is always your best friend - and mistruths will always find a way to the surface. And if the truth won't work, as mom always said, "if you've got nothing nice to say..."
This is of course more true now than ever with the Web's ability to open words and messages up to unprecedented scrutiny - and also give those same messages near immortality. PR professionals need to ensure that the actions they take on behalf of their clients, and the counsel they give to their clients, adhere to high standards. In the early 90's individual journalists might berate you, but today you are open to unprecedented scrutiny. You don't want to be responsible for putting something on the Web that will live in infamy.
John: Any last thoughts about PR in general?
Kevin: PR is an interesting beast, PR is more of a personally trait or personality make up. There are of course learned skills like writing, but the core is all about communication, and that's more inherent than learned in my opinion. It also encompasses traits such as ethics and integrity. PR is not about cover up and spin, but making sure the good gets told and bad does not get out of control.
John: Thanks Kevin for taking the time to chat with me and write up some of your perspectives on the industry. If my audience has any additional questions for Kevin, let me know and I will pass them onto him.