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March 25, 2010
A Smaller List of Targets Can Equal a Greater Audience

Ironically, one of the toughest things about being a public relations counselor is getting clients to actually take our counsel. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the process of determining media targets.

Long, long ago it seems, PR pros let themselves get pigeonholed into a “yes" mentality when it comes to any request from a client. For example, if you were to eavesdrop on a typical PR agency pitch meeting, when a typical question about coverage in The Wall Street Journal comes up, the answer will many times go something like this: “Sure, we have many contacts there. They all know us and are always eager to feature our clients.”

Of course, nothing would be wrong with that if it were typically true. It's not that it's never true; the question is impossible to answer honestly with the level of information you typically walk away from following an initial pitch meeting. In a sense, these meetings involve everyone putting on their best face -- even the prospective client.

While it's true that the prospect holds all the cards in terms of the buying process, the fact that they're looking for a PR firm illustrates they're eager to get the third-party validation that comes from an objective news article in a leading business or trade publication. In a sense, they're working hard to have the agency or consultant come away believing they've got the best thing since sliced bread, and the agency or consultant is working hard to get them to believe they know how to butter that bread better than anyone. The problem with this approach is it paves the way for unrealistic expectations and/or a problematic relationship from the get-go -- and that's if they hire you.

As I've written many times before, one of the biggest problems with PR is its high client turnover rate. I believe one of the biggest reasons for this high rate is PR pros are too hesitant to give feedback and counsel that clients may not want to hear. When a prospect asks whether a placement can be secured in a particular media outlet, rather than instantly affirming, the focus should shift to the PR program's objectives, including the audience the prospect wants to reach. While there's an automatic notion that a placement in The New York Times is the best thing you can have, depending on the product or service you offer, that may not always be true. In media relations, you don't just want to reach the most people, but the right people. Thus, if only 10 percent of the readers of The New York Times are potential customers but 90 percent of the readers of a well-respected trade publication are likely buyers, the trade publication may be your best bet.

Likewise, when it comes to determining value from a PR program, be careful in how you say you're going to do that. Last week, I saw a PR pro write on a well-known social-networking site that he or she still uses the ad-equivalency model. For those who may not know, this model basically multiples the space your story occupies and translates that into what it would cost to secure an ad of the same size. It was created in large part because the number that you will arrive at will often look impressive. Problem is, it's not really connected to the business objectives of the client.

Everything in a program or proposal you put together should be tied to the business objectives that are important to the client or the prospect. Not only does this approach allow a new program to start off with both client and agency/consultant on the same page, it also helps eliminate much of the confusion and frustration down the line. Using this approach, instead of filling in blanks to simple questions -- like “What media outlets do you want to reach?" -- you and the client go down a path that has both examining what the PR program should accomplish and how best to get there.

The answers to this question may generate a program that has a smaller list of targets and places an emphasis on fewer program elements. However, the long-term dividends may be much greater than a program that emphasizes numbers for their sake alone.

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Cyrus Afzali is president of Astoria Communications, a New York City-based PR consultancy serving clients in financial/professional services, technology and real estate. Before opening his PR consultancy in 2004, Afzali worked at several New York agencies managing accounts for real estate, technology and legal clients. He started his career as a journalist, working as an editor and writer for nine years at outlets ranging from small, daily newspapers to CNN Financial News.

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