Christina Farr on PR Technique

Fast Company senior writer Christina Farr teed off on PR last week. Stated her Nov. 23 Tweet: "PR needs to innovate in 2017: Press releases, embargoes, mail-merge all need to be a thing of the past. Not how journalists work anymore." Considering that Christina once worked in PR herself (Eastwick), her complaints carry extra weight.

Paraphrasing this well-respected health tech expert, here's what's wrong and how to fix it:

Press releases miss the point. Agencies and clients spend too much time on words she will never read. Instead, get to the point in a short email with three or four bullet points. What's genuinely new? Why will readers care? Pitch a path to a story, not the story itself. Christina says it's her job to find a story among your bulleted facts.

Embargoes are insulting. Christina says she has "fully withdrawn" from accepting embargoes except in rare cases, say, when the Fast Company braintrust wants its story atop Google News. "I understand the PR psychology of embargoes... and it's dehumanizing," she says.








When I'm pitched an embargoed story, I immediately get the sense that I am on a media list. No one who has been in journalism any length of time wants to write the same story everyone else is writing. 

Christina prefers IBM's approach. The company will call her and suggest a story tailored for FC readers. PR achieves no scale that way, right? PR needs volume! Or does it?

Honestly, if I'm in PR, what's in my client's best interest? There's a case to be made that one long, good article that has sources, and is evidence-based, has more impact than some generic story everybody has. Isn't that better? That's where journalists need to move.

When I started out at VentureBeat it was a four-story-a-day environment. In that world it made sense to accept embargoes. But [their] ad model doesn't make sense anymore, and editorially, you need to differentiate yourself as a media brand. So it's much better to write maybe two to three stories a week. I've seen plenty of three-thousand, four-thousand, five-thousand-word stories do very well. The old model doesn't work, and it doesn't get respect from the public.

Stop Interfering. Christina wants direct access to the CEOs you represent. No mediation, no SAE listening in. If she needs to email or DM the CEO, she wants zero grief from PR about it. Increasingly she gets those privileges, she says, but adds there are still agencies that would rather lose coverage than lose control.

We suggested that, just maybe, Christina's integrity has earned privileges not granted to other journalists, who for example might play "gotcha" if the CEO misspeaks. In those cases, PR needs to stamp out the flames before it's too late.

"That's totally fair," Christina says. "Here's how I see things. I play the long game. If [an executive] clearly didn't mean to say something, I'm going to let it go. Not doing so is not in my interest. No one would talk to me. I just want to get to know people, and the more direct the relationship, the better."

We also suggested that most CEOs rise to power from sales, where communication is purposeful and highly structured. It's the rare CEO who is equally comfortable with a fluid, unstructured environment. Not everyone is Benioff or Levie.

Christina agrees, noting that the CEOs with whom she has the best ongoing relationships are all active on Twitter. She DMs back and forth with these folks -- and guess who gets the coverage when the time comes?

Journalists are leaving media brands every week. Read the fruits of 16 confidential interviews with journalists now working at tech brands or PR agencies, and five interviews with the executives who hired these journalists.
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