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#PR – Ask the experts: David Meerman Scott, author of the new rules of PR and marketing

Written by Paul Stallard


Last month I was privileged to have the opportunity to speak with one of my PR heroes David Meerman Scott as part of my #PR – Ask the experts series.

I greatly admire his work and was delighted when he agreed to speak to me about the PR world and how it is changing. I appreciate it is slightly longer than a post should be, but the content is so rich there simply wasn’t anything I wanted to cut out and I didn’t want to split it. You will understand as you start reading. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did conducting it.

Paul Stallard: David, would you mind introducing yourself and what you do?
David Meerman Scott: Prior to starting my own business I was Vice President of Corporate Communications for several different US based publically traded companies, and a little bit more than 10 years ago, I started my own business to write books and deliver speeches in seminars and serve as advisory with several different companies about the ideas of how marketing and public relations have changed with the world and the web.

PS: I know that you were over in the UK just before Christmas and I know you are trying to visit 100 countries. How many have you visited so far?
DMS: Let’s see, its 84 countries as of this moment. Next month I hit 85, and I have presented in 35 of those countries. There’s an organisation called The Traveller Century Club. I don’t really care about becoming a member but I do like the idea that there’s a goal.  So I actually think I might hit it by 2014, that would be kind of cool.

PS: That would be very cool.  Is there a piece of advice that you would give a PR professional?
DMS: Well I think we’re going through a revolution in public relations, there’s no doubt about it.  I mean, we’re in the middle of that revolution that started probably 10 years ago and it’s probably got another 10 years to go. I probably get 100 PR pitches a week, and most of them are terrible.  The idea that PR people are supposed to be still spending their time doing traditional pitching is kind of silly in this environment.  I’m not suggesting you always abandon the old ways, but I think that anybody who’s spending time doing the traditional ‘send a broadcast email to a few hundred or a few thousand people and hope that somebody writes about you’ just doesn’t really make sense in the new world, on the web.  So I think that PR people need to just understand that this revolution is happening and it presents tremendous opportunity to those people who understand what’s going on, and I think the biggest change, is a really simple thing to understand but very, very difficult to actually implement for most PR people.  The biggest change is that years ago the only way that we, as public relations professionals, could get our information into the marketplace was to have a member of the media talk about us, but today we can get ourselves into the marketplace ourselves, we don’t have to go through the media.  So either you become a media relations expert and your only job is working with the media, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re truly a public relations professional then you have to understand that there are better ways to get your organisation, if you work on the client side or your clients, if you work on the agency side, there are better ways to get their information into the marketplace than exclusively relying on the media.

PS: So you mentioned there that there are so many more ways now to approach people, do you think that that is helping businesses improve their ability to tell their story, or actually in some cases it’s actually muddying the water because they’re now trying to use so many different channels that they’ve lost a little bit of clarity in what they’re trying to say? 
DMS: Well I think if they have a good strategy that it’s a tremendous benefit, but if they’re just flailing around and trying to use the latest tool they’re going to fail.  So public relations has always relied on strategy, that hasn’t changed.  10 years ago you needed a PR strategy and you executed it by going to the media, today you still need a PR strategy but you can execute it by creating the content yourself as well as going to the media.  So sure, if you don’t have a strategy and you’re just trying to willy-nilly stick your stuff onto the latest social media craze of the day it’s not going to work.

PS: What tips would you have for a business looking to start on the social web? 
DMS: I think what you need to realise is that what we’re really talking about here is that you are becoming a publisher of content, and every organisation, to be successful in this world, needs to be a publisher of content, that’s what public relations is really becoming, you become a publisher of content.  So that means that you need to think and act like a publisher, it means that you need to understand who your audience is, and by the way your audience is not just a handful of 12 or 20 media representatives, reporters, your audience is however many potential customers you have out there, thousands or millions.  So you have to understand your audience and then you have to create valuable information that you create especially for them that helps to solve their problems, and that by the way does not mean that you talk about your products and services, because that’s the biggest mistake I’ve seen.  The biggest mistake I see by far when people are trying to implement these new ideas is that they just talk and talk and talk about what their stupid products and services do; nobody cares about that.  To be successful you need to think and act like a journalist and create the stories that will be interesting for people, and that’s a hard transition, it’s a very difficult transition.  So I’m not suggesting this is easy, it’s not, it’s difficult, but if you can make the transition you can be wildly successful.

PS: It’s something that I am a firm believer in, that you actually have to become story tellers, the best leaders out there are story tellers, and no one actually gives a damn about version 1.3 or whatever, it’s actually the problems that they can solve and how you can make that come to life. 
DMS: That’s right, that’s exactly right, and it means that the vast majority of the content you create, maybe 90% or even more, has nothing to do with your products, it has to do with telling interesting stories that people will find and most share, and that’s where the social media aspect comes in, because if you’re creating a story you can deliver it through a number of different mechanisms; you can have a corporate blog, you can have a website, you can do it in the form of images and graphics and photos, you can do it in the form of a video, and the social media aspect comes in when people start to share it and you share it through networks like Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and what not.  I think another big mistake people make is they immediately jump to the sharing part without having any content that’s worth sharing.

PS: The first time I came across you was a few years ago when I picked up The New Rules of PR and Marketing.  I’ve obviously also read your book, Newsjacking, which in our office, we’re a bit more British about and call ‘rapid responses’.  Could you please introduce the concept and why PR people in the UK should take note of ‘newsjacking’? 
DMS: Sure.  So there is a major change to Google within the last couple of years that most PR people don’t understand.  The change is really simple; what happened was Google now indexes content in real time.  What that means is that if you write a blog post or you update and create a YouTube video or you update your website, that change is reflected by Google in the search engine results instantly.  That is a fundamentally important concept, because what it means is that if you create a timely blog post or video or update to your website, that adds your take on the breaking news story of the day to the marketplace, and you do that very quickly then you have the opportunity for Google to index your stuff very highly, and then reporters who are looking to find sources or data on a story that they’re writing about will find your stuff.  You know, it used to be that when there was a breaking story the only way to get noticed was that you had to proactively pinch journalists and say ‘I’ve got an expert that knows something about this particular breaking news story’.  But now, with this approach of newsjacking, all you have to do when there’s something that’s happening in real time is that you just write a timely blog post, and I’m talking about putting a blog post out within minutes after something happens.  If there is an explosion at a factory in the town that you live in and you’re an expert in fire safety, you’ve got to get that blog post up instantly, because then, as the reporters from the local city newspaper are looking for sources to quote as they write their story about the explosion in the factory and they do a search on your town’s name and the name of the factory that blew up, guess what they’re going to find?  Only one story and that’s going to be your story because you’re the first one to write it, and all of a sudden you’ve got all the media clamouring to interview you.  That’s the idea of newsjacking, and it’s a really exciting way to generate lots of media.  I’ve seen people get hundreds and even thousands of stories in the press as a result of newsjacking.  I mean, I’ve seen people who generate more press interest in one newsjacking attempt than they did the entire previous year of stupid-ass pitching to me.

PS: I saw in January that you made your book, World Wide Rave, available for free on all platforms.  First of all, how the hell did you get your publisher to agree to that, and what was the idea behind it? 
DMS: Yeah, World Wide Rave is my book that is about how to spread your stories and get people to pay attention to them.  It’s about what some people call ‘viral marketing’, so I just thought ‘Why not make it totally free?’  In fact, when the book originally came out several years ago it was free on Amazon Kindle for the first week and we moved 12,000 copies in the first week when it was available for free, and that got people talking about my book, it got people Tweeting, writing about it on Facebook, so it was a great way to get the information of the book out there.  So what we did this time was I said to my publishers ‘You know, this is a book about how to spread ideas, why not make it free?  I’ve got eight books, why not make one out of the eight completely and totally free?’  So that’s what we did, and my publishers agreed instantly.

So yeah, and it’s been free now for a couple of weeks.  The hope is that that will be the first book of mine that people will read, doesn’t cost anything, and then hopefully they’ll want to maybe get another book.

PS: Yeah, it kind of reminded me a little bit of a few bands that have done it; I remember Radiohead did it, they gave away an album to get in front of new audiences and to get other people to check out their stuff, so I think it’s a cool idea. 
DMS: That’s right.  So yeah, I think it’s a great idea too.  You know, that’s the idea, we’re going through a revolution and on the surface it just seems crazy that anybody would give away a product that they used to sell for $9.99; why would you give away a perfectly good product that’s got a revenue stream for your business?  And the reason is because the more people who know about me the more they might buy something else, and then that will increase the revenue stream over time and in aggregate for the stuff I sell.  I think that’s the idea, that I think lots of other organisations can be using in whatever business they’re in, how can they figure out what to do, what’s different, based on the ideas of public relations and the web.

PS: How do you personally stay on top of best practice and what is hot and relevant out there?  
DMS: So I read blogs, I follow Twitter, follow my friends on Facebook and LinkedIn and that helps me.  I’m on the Boards of Advisors of six different companies and I help out with their public relations and marketing efforts, so that helps keep me honest.  In particular I’m on the Board of Advisors of Hubspot and they’re doing a lot of great work, so I’m spending a lot of time with them.  And then, I’m at conferences all the time, I speak usually about 30 times a year, so most weeks I’ve got a gig somewhere.  I’ve got a gig this week in Orlando, Florida, for example, so I have a chance to meet with people who are doing these sorts of things and get a sense for what they’re doing that’s new, and I’m always looking for new ideas that I haven’t been exposed to, so I can learn about those and maybe write about them.

PS: Are there any other blogs in particular on the US side of the pond that I should shout out to any of the UK readers, that they can acquaint themselves with apart from your own
DMS: Yeah, so specifically in the public relations area I think Todd Defren’s blog is really good. I read Seth Godin and Bob Lefsetz’s blogs.  Neither of them are PR people but they’re just people I read that I like.  I also read Chris Brogan and Paul Roetzer.