Tag Archives: public relations

PR Playbook: Earning Your Seat at the Senior Management Table

While waiting for the PR profession-at-large to earn a place at the senior management table, current practitioners should develop their own company-specific strategies that will enable them to rub shoulders on an equal basis with their counterparts in finance, legal, marketing, operations or technology. The timeworn adage, “Think globally, act locally,” applies very well here.

Here are a few tactics to consider for your personal campaign to gain a seat:

  • Clarify PR’s Role – The most pragmatic answer to “What is PR?” may be: “Whatever your employer (or client) needs it to be.” Exploration of how the PR profession can be applied to achieve tangible benefits for your organization begins with frank and perhaps eye-opening conversations with senior managers to gain a first-hand understanding of their current perceptions and expectations of PR. You may be surprised at the depth of misunderstanding that exists within your organization regarding your activity and its value. This is an opportunity to clarify what PR does or can do for them, to identify their needs and establish expectations.
  • Get Quantitative – The nature of PR tactics can make it difficult to demonstrate a direct correlation between that activity and tangible business outcomes. Most senior executives accept that reality, and do not expect PR to be a profit center. However, PR practitioners who understand the bottom-line orientation of the business world make it a priority to connect the dots internally, by explaining and highlighting what role PR has played in helping to produce results – whether those outcomes are measured in lead generation, search engine page rankings, revenue growth, employee satisfaction or customer experience.
  • Speak Their Language – It’s not necessary to understand all the technicalities, issues or nuances related to various corporate functions, but you need to know what’s important. For example, your CFO does not expect you to be up-to-date on Dodd-Frank compliance, but does expect you to be well-versed regarding the company’s business model (how it makes and spends money), its competitive landscape, key legislation and enterprise priorities such as market share, acquisition or going public. Speaking your company’s language has less to do with knowing balance sheet terminology, and more to do with being tuned into what’s on the priority list of its senior team and your ability to adapt PR strategies to support those goals.
  • Get Strategic – As a staff function, PR is often viewed as corporate overhead, and expendable when times get tough. Making PR an essential element in line function strategies can build internal support as well as career longevity. To make PR indispensible within your organization, focus on activities that are valued by senior management. These are typically tactics that make the phones ring, or move the revenue needle. For example, drive a successful effort to get your company’s whiz-bang technology included in a respected industry benchmark such as the Gartner Magic Quadrant (ideally, without paying Gartner’s hefty subscription fee), and watch the PR department’s stature rise internally.
  • Act Like an Agency – Outside PR firms live or die by the level of service and results they deliver to clients. An agency’s motivation and enthusiasm are driven by an appreciation that if they fail to meet expectations or add value, they will likely be replaced. Corporate PR practitioners who adopt an agency mindset – treating each operational function as an outside PR agency might manage a client – can build internal support across the organization. From a practical standpoint, this means understanding what your internal clients need, developing tailored plans of action, being accountable for agreed-upon deliverables and maintaining a sense of urgency.
  • Be Fearless – You must serve as the PR function’s ambassador within your company. Keep the pom-poms in the file cabinet, but don’t be shy about discussing what’s working, as well as what’s not and why. If you don’t point out PR’s contribution to the top or bottom lines, no one else will. Conversely, if you don’t put shortcomings out on the table, someone else is likely to do that for you. And if you’re in an environment where honest conversations regarding success and failure are not fostered, then it may not be a management table where you want to be seated.
  • Get a Life – A PR practitioner’s internal reputation and stature are also shaped by professional involvement outside of the company. Your public relations skills can be of great value to civic, charitable and cause-related organizations, and regardless of the motivation for contributing your time, these affiliations represent 3rd party validation of your expertise. This experience also broadens your career horizons, sharpens your professional capabilities and can be personally rewarding and fun.

Best practices established by individual PR professionals – not PRSA lobbying, or PR courses in MBA curricula – represent the profession’s most valuable resource in its effort to move public relations from the management farm team to the big leagues. Over time, as more practitioners gain seats, including PR in the corporate decision-making process is likely to become standard practice, rather than the exception.

Bill Gates learned the “by invitation only” lesson the hard way when he was denied admission to the prestigious August National Golf Club, because he publicly expressed an interest in becoming a member. Similarly, if you want a seat at your company’s senior management table, you won’t get there by asking for it; so take the steps necessary to earn yourself an invitation.

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Stop the Insanity. Fire Your PR Firm in 2014.

The attribution is unsupported, but Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Its source notwithstanding, the axiom applies perfectly to the great number of companies that retain PR firms, year after year, to generate publicity that will have little or no impact on tangible business outcomes.

Over the past 5 decades, to rationalize hefty monthly fees, the PR profession has successfully promoted three underlying assumptions:

  • Any publicity is good publicity.
  • The more publicity, the better.
  • Publicity generates revenue.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s insane for most businesses to base their marketing strategy on any of those assumptions:

  1. Lots of Media Exposure is Worthless. The “worthless media” category can include one-off quotes or mentions in round-up stories that also reference your competitors…if you’ve gained no unique mindshare.  It can include appearances on network and cable TV…if the topics have a short shelf-life, or are unlikely to be of interest to target audiences.  And it always includes exposure in advertorials (regardless of the sponsoring publication’s stature) and feature articles in pay-to-play vanity publications…because you gain no credible 3rd party validation.
  2. Counting Media Clips is a Zero Sum Game. PR firms often justify their value by the sheer volume of media exposure they generate…regardless of whether it stakes out intellectual territory, supports a client’s value proposition, or differentiates them in the marketplace. The goal should be to create an arsenal of effective credibility tools; not simply to generate clippings to hang like hunting trophies in the “Media” section of a website.  This zero sum game is also played in social media, where scorecards of “likes” and “followers” are used as hollow substitutes for meaningful business metrics.
  3. It’s All About Merchandising. Business leaders must address two key questions in advance of seeking any publicity: “1. What type of media exposure will benefit us most?” and “2. If we gain that exposure, what will we DO with it?” Responses to Question #2 must provide clear direction regarding how it will support the firm’s sales and marketing strategy; how it will be used to drive leads; how it will initiate meaningful conversations with clients and prospects; and how it can be leveraged to gain other opportunities for targeted exposure.

Most PR firms fail to deliver on the potential of their craft because performing it correctly requires really hard work, takes time, and demands accountability for business results. Your role as a responsible client requires that you hold your PR agency’s feet to the fire by expecting results that have a measurable impact on your company’s balance sheet. It also means that you must provide your agency with the time and guidance necessary for them to deliver something more than a pile of useless press clippings.

If you’re unwilling to make that commitment, or if they’re incapable of delivering on your expectations, then it’s time to stop the insanity. Fire your PR firm in 2014.

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Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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Why Public Relations Does Not Sit at the Senior Management Table

In his keynote address two years ago at the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner, Richard Edelman – President & CEO of the world’s largest independent public relations firm – echoed the PR profession’s long-standing goal: “…to elevate public relations as a management discipline that sits as a full partner aside finance, operations, legal, marketing and strategic leaders in the C-Suite.”

If the Edward Bernays era is considered the profession’s starting point, then public relations has had nearly a century to earn its seat at senior management’s table. But there are two major reasons – involving credentials and values – why PR still does not, and may never, sit there.

  1. PR Lacks Credentials: Notably, the profession has no accepted body of knowledge, and lacks professional standards of practice that are supervised or enforced. Unlike law, medicine, accounting or engineering, it’s difficult to define or validate expertise in public relations – as evidenced, for example, by the volume of information and disagreement on issues as fundamental as press release protocol. Despite PRSA’s best efforts, its APR designation does not carry the same weight as MD, JD, CPA, CFA, an MBA degree, or even a Six Sigma belt.

This credentials dilemma for PR also involves the fact that other professions such as information technology, with far less than a century of corporate membership and a similar lack of credentials, have earned a prominent place at the management table.

  1. PR Enforces Values: Ideally, public relations should function as the conscience of an organization; defining what it stands for, and working to make it accountable on that basis. Unlike any other corporate management function, the role of PR involves holding a company’s feet to the fire in terms of institutional values. Either because a particular course of action is simply the “right thing” to do (for sake of transparency, honesty or fairness), or because it may cause unwanted problems (involving morale, public opinion or legalities), it’s the job of public relations to raise its hand.

This values dilemma for PR involves the fact that many senior corporate managers who have a longstanding and secure seat at the management table and who drive most decision-making would prefer not to make their decisions with Jiminy Cricket in the same room.

Not giving PR a voice in corporate decision-making, and instead relegating its role to spinning a decided course of action or to cleaning up a related messy aftermath, appears to be the preferred approach for senior management at most corporations. At the upper end of the corporate food chain, executives whose function is listed as either Public Relations or Corporate Communications are rarely included in the Schedule 14A proxy filings as a “Named Executive Officer” by FORTUNE 500 companies. Corporate America’s NEO list clearly defines what’s meant by the “senior management table,” and the PR profession is absent by design, not oversight.

PR’s Plan to Earn a Seat at the Table

Perhaps for the first time – reflected in Richard Edelman’s stated plan to harness PR’s collective brain trust to address this issue, and the current push for inclusion of public relations in MBA school curricula – the profession appears ready to take meaningful steps to gain the corporate legitimacy it has long coveted. But these efforts will take many years to yield change, and talented PR practitioners and potential industry newcomers may consider other career paths rather than wait, thereby compounding the problem.

Regardless of size or industry, companies change direction either when they believe change will provide economic benefit, to avoid defined risks, or when they are forced to change by regulation or competitive influence. The delta between the PR function and revenue generation eliminates that rationale from consideration as a means to argue inclusion of public relations at the management table. However, both risk and regulation are strong cards PR is entitled to play in its effort to gain a seat there.

For example, to quantify the tangible value of PR, it could be beneficial for the profession to conduct research that compares the long-term stock price volatility (or beta) of public companies that include PR in its senior level decision-making process against those companies that do not. If a stock’s beta reflects market uncertainty, then a company’s track record of consistently avoiding “PR problems” as well as its ability to address those issues quickly and effectively – as a result of having a PR professional involved in operational decisions – should have a measurable effect on its stock market valuation, cost of capital and brand reputation.

Armed with objective evidence that supports the inclusion of PR as a best practice of corporate governance, the profession will have a solid platform that resonates with CXOs. Corporate America’s boards of directors may then be far more likely to require that management include PR in all strategic decisions, and issuers of Directors & Officers liability insurance might begin to factor a company’s PR discipline into pricing of its policy premiums.

To earn a seat at the management table, PR must argue its case with hard, relevant facts that will either incent or coerce companies to change. Otherwise, the keynote speaker at IPR’s 100th Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner in 2061 will be echoing Richard Edelman’s aspirations for the profession.

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Five Life Lessons from Doc Martin

Entertainment Craftsmanship: What Missing from American Television

Entertainment Craftsmanship: What’s Missing from American Television

Although a similar-sounding name brings footwear to mind for most Americans, “Doc Martin” is a British television series that follows the fictional life of Dr. Martin Ellingham, a brilliant but extremely grumpy (dog-hating) vascular surgeon whose medical career is sidelined after he develops a fear of blood. This unfortunate turn of events takes him to the (fictional) Cornwall seaside village of Portwenn where, as a general practitioner, his gruff, short-tempered manner conflicts with the laid-back, folksy manner of the villagers.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, you’re missing several things that American television has long been lacking, including great scriptwriting and acting, sophisticated humor and genuinely interesting characters. Doc Martin is pure television craftsmanship and well worth your time to watch all of the episodes from the past 5 seasons on Netflix.

Worldwide followers of the series eagerly await Season 6, set to begin this fall, which is purportedly its last. Addicted fans are preparing themselves for withdrawal, as the show’s creators understand that it’s always better to leave fans hungry for more, than it is to jump the shark with sloppy scriptwriting and worn-out or ridiculous plot lines.

Because Doc Martin offers viewers simple but enduring life lessons, the show’s legacy is secure. Here are a few things this blogger will always remember:

It’s OK to say “No!”  There’s rarely any doubt regarding where Doc Martin stands on an issue. No long explanations regarding the motivation or feelings behind his decisions. No sugar-coating. The downside of this approach is that people can be put off by the lack of diplomacy. The upside is that when you do say “Yes!” people understand that your decision is genuine, and not simply intended to make them feel good.

Know Your Stuff.  Even people whose personalities clash with Doc Martin appreciate (eventually) that he’s a skilled practitioner who has their best interests at heart.  He has the observational skills of Sherlock Holmes, and encyclopedic knowledge of every disease and malady known to mankind. Importantly, despite his lowbrow patients (compared with his London practice) he continues to study his craft and works to improve it. People will forgive personality shortcomings if you can add value to their lives in meaningful ways.

Overcome Obstacles. Development of a mid-career blood phobia would have ended the professional life of most physicians, but Doc Martin simply shifted gears – moving from surgery to general practice. When he’s confronted with blood in his new role, Doc Martin pukes in a paper bag and addresses the medical crisis at hand without skipping a beat. Doc Martin is a dauntless spirit whose determination was shaped by a mother who did not want him and a father who had no time for him. “When life gives you lemons…make lemonade” is a cliché, but its underlying lesson helps to maintain one’s sanity in a world we often can’t control.

Set Clear Expectations. Although Doc Martin is not always effective in enforcement of his own rules, there’s never any question about what he expects from people. His receptionists (three of them, so far) understand what behavior he’s seeking and what will not be tolerated, which includes not serving hot tea to patients in the waiting room. Whether you’re managing an office staff, raising children (or lining up your putt on the 16th hole), it’s important to have a clear vision of the outcome you’re seeking, and to be very specific with people regarding how they can help you achieve it.

Find an Meaningful Outlet. Doc Martin is wound as tight as a clock, so perhaps the show’s creators intend for his hobby of clock repair to serve as a metaphor for self-examination.  Either way, it’s important to have an outlet for relaxation, expression or personal satisfaction; whether that activity be physical or intellectual, which is increasingly difficult in a world consisting of so many passive distractions…such as watching Doc Martin re-runs.

In advance of Season 6’s final 8 episodes, diehard Doc Martin fans can follow the latest series-related news and gossip on its official website / blog www.docmartinfan.com . In the meantime, readers of this blog post are invited to share a life lesson or two that they’ve learned from Doc Martin.

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The Herb Schmertz Era: When Public Relations Had Some Balls

The recent passing of Rawleigh Warner, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of Mobil Oil Corp., brings to mind what many consider to be a golden age for Public Relations: the period from the mid-60s to mid-80s, when the PR profession had the mandate, the skills and the balls to stand up to criticism leveled against the organizations and people they represented.

The tip of Mobil’s public relations spear was guided by Herb Schmertz, who served as Vice President of Public Affairs under Warner (and whose credentials included a law degree from Columbia.) During Warner’s tenure, Mobil operated at ground zero of the 1970’s energy crisis, and was a primary target of the American public’s frustration over the availability and price of oil. For more than a decade, Mobil remained in the media’s crosshairs and often served as the corporate poster child for greed and unbridled capitalism.

Herb Schmertz countered public criticism against Mobil with hardball PR tactics, under the pretense that if companies don’t pro-actively participate in pertinent discussions, they deserve what they get, in terms of reputation. Under his regime of “creative confrontation,” Schmertz applied a number of innovative and controversial tactics including:

  • Introduction of modern-day advocacy advertising, or “advertorials,” which first appeared on the OpEd page of the New York Times in 1970. Mobil’s weekly commentaries, which Schmertz called “the honorable act of pamphleteering,” covered a broad range of energy related topics – the environment, oil reserves, taxation, regulation – and also took on detractors. The Mobil advertorials eventually were published weekly in several leading daily newspapers over the course of three decades, and serve as the template for what the PR profession now calls thought leadership.
  • Corporate underwriting of artistic endeavors unrelated to Mobil’s core issues, including sponsorship of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre. Herb Schmertz called this “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” where audiences associate successful ventures with the companies that sponsor them.
  • Slash and burn public relations, where all communication is shut down with a media source considered to be biased or not acting in good faith. Notably, in 1984 Mobil boycotted the Wall Street Journal – refusing to provide the nation’s premier business publication with any information, to respond to its reporters, or to advertise – following what Schmertz considered to be history of inaccurate and biased reporting on Mobil. Although this over-the-top tactic was and is considered childish by many PR and media executives, it made a strong statement to the public and Wall Street Journal editors as well.

Herb Schmertz was no reckless PR cowboy. His communications philosophy was well-grounded in democratic principles, and his tactics well-reasoned and effective. In this 2-minute YouTube clip, Schmertz (who is now 84 years-old) eloquently describes how Mobil’s confrontational and sometimes abrasive public relations strategy reflected the company’s obligation, as a custodian of significant physical, human and economic resources, to maintain its role as one of the pillars of a free society.

In contrast to Schmertz-era brand management, most current PR practitioners are hamstrung by corporate legal counsel, who advocate non-confrontational PR strategies, advising CEOs to simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  This enduring one-sided focus on the aversion of legal risk not only has precluded many organizations from opportunities to manage their brand reputation effectively, but has also emasculated the Public Relations profession in the process.

As the PR profession’s role is increasingly relegated to management of Tweets, Likes and unread press releases, as its practitioners continue to lose their seat at the senior management table, and as the long tail of online content extracts a heavy price for avoiding legitimate and timely confrontation, PR professionals will likely wonder why their role as architect and defender of the company’s reputation no longer belongs to them.

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5 Ways to Merchandise the “Masthead Value” of Publicity

Not to be confused with "The Wall Street Transcript"

Not to be confused with “The Wall Street Transcript”

Many companies will invest considerable effort seeking positive publicity in influential media sources, and then fail to benefit from the masthead value of that exposure.

Originally a seafaring term relating to the brass plate attached to a ship’s mainmast that memorialized its owners and builders, a publication’s masthead lists the members of its current editorial and production staff. The industry term “masthead value” can be defined broadly as the level of stature, credibility and influence associated with a specific media source. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has high masthead value; the Wall Street Transcript…not so much.

Masthead value can be relative. A respected trade or professional publication in a particular industry may have greater masthead value – in terms of its influence with a particular audience – than well known publications such as the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. For example, physicians are likely to assign the New England Journal of Medicine greater masthead value than the Journal or Times on topics relating to clinical care of patients.

Masthead value should drive your publicity strategy. A placement from a single highly respected source can be far more valuable, in terms of influence, than a dozen hits with low masthead value. Because gaining inherent 3rd party endorsement is the end goal, in the publicity game quality always trumps quantity.

Here are 5 ways to leverage media placements with strong masthead value:

  • Put high value placements directly in front of your target audiences – Even if your coverage appears on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or makes the cover of Fortune magazine, don’t assume it will be read by clients, prospects, referral sources…or even by your employees. There’s simply too much offline and online noise to ensure that any media exposure on its own will gain the attention you’re seeking. If you’ve developed an internal CRM-driven discipline to communicate directly and regularly with target audiences, then you’re well prepared to apply that distribution capability to increase the chances that decision makers will notice, remember, and respond to your high value exposure. (Lacking that discipline, your time may be best spent building an effective distribution capability, in advance of seeking additional publicity.)
  • Avoid “Hey, look at me!” self-promotion – Pickup in a media source with high masthead value provides some reason for high-fives internally, but it should not serve as a platform for self-promotion. Extreme examples of this error include companies that issue a press release, or generate Twitter and Facebook postings to announce, for example, that their CEO has been profiled in Inc. magazine. This type of over-reaction to high value publicity suggests to target audiences that you were surprised to receive the media endorsement, and therefore may not have really deserved it. The key is to showcase the media exposure in a relevant context (you may need to create this), to make the media placement secondary to the underlying content (such as the reasons why your CEO was profiled in Inc.) and to pull off these tasks with a matter-of-fact level of self-confidence.
  • Rank graphics over content, in terms of impact – Most people are surface readers. Online visitors are more likely to scan images, heads, subheads and captions, than they are to read body copy. (Long blocks of copy on websites that require scrolling are rarely read.) If you’ve earned a placement with high masthead value, you can increase the likelihood of your company being associated with the “endorsing” publication by displaying its logo with the capsule description and link to the placement. To be clear: the critical element is the logo. If your placement is from the New York Times, for example, you should replicate the logo – as it appears on the front page of that publication. Based on how people gather information, simply typing, “from The New York Times,” or a similar attribution, is about 75% less effective than actually depicting the New York Times logo.
  • Prominently showcase high value placements – If you’ve invested and succeeded in generating media placements with high masthead value, why make it difficult for target audiences to find them on your website? Rather than burying influential publicity in an obscure “In the News” section that requires multiple clicks for visitors to locate, you can amortize your investment in publicity (and perhaps improve your website’s bounce rate in the process) if you create a location for these high value items on your home page. This can be accomplished by applying a design format in which the content either remains fixed or is refreshed regularly. For formats that supply current information, extend the shelf-life of each placement by not including its publication date.
  • Cite a relevant endorsement on your home page – One of the most effective  ways to  merchandise high-value media exposure is to select a very brief, relevant phrase from the coverage, for placement in a prominent position on your home page. Here’s a hypothetical example:

“…a recognized authority in Big Data technology.”

                                                       –Wired Magazine

By limiting your publicity efforts to media placements with high masthead value, and by ensuring that those placements are effectively merchandised through direct communication, social media tools and proper website visibility, PR practitioners will spend far less time worry about the ROI of public relations. The fruits of their labors will be self-evident in tangible business metrics, ranging from lead generation to high search engine page rankings.

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