There’s a pretty epic rant by small business owner Bruce Buschel on the New York Times Start Up Chronicle blog about why he doesn’t like PR people. He details his personal experiences opening up the Southfork Kitchen in the Hamptons when he hired a PR firm for $4,500 a month (for the busy months – he paid half that price for the slow months) to promote and help to launch his new restaurant. Wow! As someone who owns part of a start up, I find it amazing that he has that kind of initial marketing budget. I suspect that most of us who are slogging to build our businesses are not quite so flush and that this may actually be a good thing (more on that later).
Here’s a quote:
The opening date was quicksilver, always moving, and never closer. It confounded the P.R. people. As the October opening approached, nary a word had been written about the restaurant … According to the P.R. team, we were too Long Island for the New York media and too uncertain about the opening date for Long Island media. We were too hip to be square and too fishy to be hip. We were unknown and untouchable — Michelin stars be damned. Sustainable seafood be drowned. Paumonak wines on tap be stuffed.
Buschel goes on to fire his PR firm and replace them with a boutique agency, which initially seems to do everything right. Until they follow one of the pre-launch restaurant rehearsals by handing Buschel “three pages listing what we had done wrong. Let us count they ways: wrong food, wrong presentation, wrong prices, wrong service, wrong approach, wrong recipes, wrong name. really. Wrong name.”
The Two Biggest Reasons Your PR/Web/Content Strategy Consultancy Isn’t Working For You
The first possibility is, of course, that whomever you’ve hired might suck. It could be that they are lazy and aren’t really working on your project with the diligence they should be, it could be that they are inexperienced and don’t have a solid strategy in place or maybe they just don’t have the right contacts or the means to make them.
The second, and in my experience, most common reason is that people often believe that hiring an agency (usually for a hefty sum of money) means that internal business decisions and strategy are no longer important because the very existence of a well paid firm guarantees success. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you don’t have a cohesive brand, marketing strategy, or at least a strong vision for who your target customer/user is and what your unique offering is, no amount of schlepping by an agency is likely to make your business a success. I suspect the reason Buschel’s PR people were so confused and ineffective is because they were dealing with an entrepreneur and a company that didn’t have a clear mandate. He wasn’t willing to narrow down the target customer and user base or the brand and unique offering enough to really connect with anyone effectively and he didn’t really want to hear that his decisions were unfocussed.
When I look at the Southfork Kitchen website, I see this same issue reflected there in the form of generic, albeit nicely shot, pictures of ingredients – the kind of ingredients that are probably used at thousands of restaurants every day on the US east coast. I see a nice clean, lean navigation with some good information, but there is nothing about this website that communicates to me why it’s different than a hundred other restaurants, why I should seek it out, why I should care. There is almost no narrative.
The biggest mistake the Buschel’s PR people made, is that they were ‘yes’ people who should have red flagged this project from the outset rather than leading its owner on while collecting their pay check. If PR strategy wasn’t the focus of the Southfork Kitchen, and Buschel just wanted to cook good food and hope that’s enough (and it might well have been!) they should have been honest about the limits of what they could do for him given where he was with his positioning.
As a business is getting its legs, undertaking PR internally can be a powerful way to really solidify the message – the all important question of: who am I? Most small business owners take on PR themselves through activities like blogging, interacting with people on social media and telling their story to anyone who will listen. A DIY PR endeavour can be hugely successful if undertaken by someone with the time to do it – there are many examples of businesses for which this kind of grassroots PR has been successful. The early days of Innocent Drinks comes to mind. Their unique proposition: we sell the healthy, natural and delicious drinks. Their overarching strategy for communicating their message: be natural – including in tone, PR interactions, everything.
If you are the rare company that is time poor and cash rich and you’ve decided to hire consultants, don’t hire ‘yes’ people because ‘yes’ people are not going to give you the benefit of their expertise. And if you don’t need their expertise, then they don’t need your money, honey.
Get To Know Each Other Before Hooking Up
As a small consultancy, we are often approached to contribute to projects that we know fairly quickly are likely to not work out. Our philosophy is to identify deal-breaker issues at the beginning of a client relationship, before any paper work has been signed. It is incumbent on us to try and find out if our way of working and our experience are a good fit for the specific needs of a potential client.
We determine this by asking a number of questions, depending on the focus on the consultancy:
- Are you willing to consider ditching content that isn’t maintained properly or isn’t working for you?
- What kind of resources do you have to devote to maintaining and updating content? Is there a connection between what you want on your site and your resources?
- What portions of your website or app are up for debate? What are you willing to change and what is untouchable?
- Can you boil down your calls to action into three things and can you prioritize them?
Digital Marketing Strategy:
- Is there a correlation between what you want to do and your resources? Resources are most often related to time and expertise: do you have the right mix of staff with the right level of expertise to undertake a digital marketing strategy (i.e. developers, designers, etc.)? If not, do you have the money to hire the right people?
- Do you understand that the creation of the strategy is not the execution of the strategy?
Social Media Consultancy:
- Do you currently engage in activities that could be considered social media spam? If so, are you willing to try different tactics?
- To what degree are these two elements important to you: quantity of engagement or quality of engagement.
- Do you already have knowledge or experience using social media? If not, are you willing to invest in basic training?
- How much time do you intend to devote to social media? Is there a correlation between the amount of time you plan to spend on it and your expectations about return on investment?
The Importance of Focus
Above all, the most important question we ask, regardless of the area of consultancy is: who is your target user? What does she look like? What does she care about? Why should she care about you?
If the answer in any way sounds like: “we want to be everything to everyone” or “our users are everyone” or “all women” or “all men” or “all North Americans” or “everyone in the Commonwealth” then our job as consultants is to be absolutely honest with you by telling you that without more focus, your project is unlikely to be as successful as it could be. And we can help take you through this process of calibration, but only if you are willing to entertain the journey in the first place.
I’m sure that Bruce Buschel’s restaurant is lovely and I’m sorry that he had such a bad experience with the agencies he hired. But most of all, I’m sorry that the people he was working with weren’t up front with him that without a focus – a written-in-ink-not-pencil kind of strategy – an agency is unlikely to be able to solve your problems.