OK, I watch too much TV. Why else would there be a Television category on this blog? TLC is part of this guilty pleasure, where I was happy to see Taking Care of Business (TCOB). TCOB is a reality TV makeover show for small businesses. It has fours hosts, including Richard Laermer, making him the first public relations professional to host a television series.
Laermer is also the author of Full Frontal PR, amongst other books, and a principal at RLM Public Relations. He has been pretty busy lately, including a move out to the West coast, but I managed to ask him a few questions via e-mail. Read on for the kind of opinionated insights that make a blog great.
SPR: What's toughest to promote: client work, a book or a TV show?
It’s toughest to promote a TV show by far; no one gets why they should care. Clients? We are ready to make the big pitch for in the media; if you’re a decent PR person you’re trained to handle accounts. Books? Well, that’s your passion and if you are immersed in the work and create angles, it is easy (sort of). TV shows? They are undoubtedly harder especially with a zillion channels and counting.
I had a lot of trouble getting folks to believe they’d like TCOB. I have to thank G-d that I’m not doing reality TV for a, ahem, living. Some people said “Oh my” to me and did it as a favor- you know, wrote up that I was doing this gig as the first-ever PR person to play one on primetime. Hey, I’d beaten Lizzie to the punch. After Taking Care of Business premiered, or I got them a screener, they realized it was a pretty great show–funny, dramatic, well-shot, learned (yeah!), and even a little inspiring then it got easier. Also, you need network support to get a show out there–they have to be running some ads and stuff.
For FFPR, my publisher, Bloomberg Press, worked like a dog to promote the book. Unlike most publishers I’d worked with (all others, really), they were aware and pleased they had a live one with me and did all they could to help and encourage. Others were threatened that we were somehow “doing their job” and, gosh, I could tell you stories about publishing PR types who actually sandbagged our efforts because they thought it’d make them look bad.
I wish that all parties worked together more harmonious in processes like this. But there is so much butt-covering in the major corporations. That’s my biggest complaint – and the main difference between small and biggish companies: small firms tend to work on the client situation and get their hands dirty. Big guys – the large firms that are all part of holding companies- are only looking at the business model 24 hours a day, nine days a week. Ah, that’s a whole other question and conversation. A long one.
SPR: While you are billed as the public relations expert on TCOB, I am pleased to note that none of your consultation on the show involves media relations. This is because the public relations role is usually misrepresented as merely providing "free publicity." Your thoughts?
I’m The Buzz Builder on the show, whatever that means. Some of my more recent contributions to a few stores have been about getting media coverage. To be honest, we don’t have enough time for that kind of outreach in the three days we’re doing it with ‘em. I also don’t think the producers of the show thought it made good TV. But watch the episode with the Bed & Breakfast in Harlem on January 8 2005 at 4 PM ET/PR; and you will see me and the owners calling up newspapers. It’s pretty funny.
I agree that most people think we in PR offer some kind of rabbit-in-hat service; everyone thinks a PR dude just calls up media and voila! if they’re a friend or we badger them enough they’ll do something. But the reason I wrote Full Frontal PR was to stop that sentiment from being what PR is. Post-dot com revolution, RLM PR learned a lot about how important it is for us to be exact and scientific about PR. I also wanted everyone to stop thinking that this was all creativity and art, when it really is so much more responsible than that.
Responsibility meaning--look you got a willing audience if you just work with them. Science—well, it is one darn it! I just think people believe we go “after” media rather than work with them, and maybe it’s because so many not-great PR folks think it’s a game of as-many-as-we-can-contact. Doing your homework is so much more efficient and effective. Reading a newspaper to find a contact. Watching a TV show to see who is the perfect “person on the beat” to do your story. Wow. No one, though, teaches that. So many reporters I talked to for the book said to me, Richard I’d love to get better stories but people in PR waste my time with crap.”
And as for our show…let’s talk turkey. The three other expert-hosts are all about design, sales force training, and retail enforcement. My job is to perfect the mission of stores and services, and then to show them how to make that better known – even by their own employees and supporters. So they can actually differentiate in the crowded marketplace.
I’m shocked that so many business people don’t realize how crucial it is to go after the customer, and to recognize their changing needs. It’s solid advice that we spent a lot of time enforcing. Then of course vehicles like flyers and…gimmicks, I guess, yeah that’s what I’d have to call them. And finally, my real job was to say to them: stop being so silent about your attributes. Let the world in on it!
SPR: You recently outlined five lessons learned for small businesses on TCOB. What five lessons would you offer public relations practitioners?
I have six to proffer:
1. Follow through on everything you say you’re going to do with journalists. Double check that you did it.
2. Think huge. If you want to make a stale story bigger, imagine the connection to something that’s already in the minds of reporters (and the ultimately-bored public). Make it the nuttiest idea – add some logic to it and send it out. What’s a trend, anyway? THREE THINGS. Find two others in the culture that connects to your product. Brainstorm the idea with some buddies. It’s like a paint party for the brain – everyone takes a brush and has some fun with it.
3. Stay informed. When I was a kid I read about the folks who made it through the Depression unscathed. They were the ones who had spent time carefully reading the teeny media (newspapers and blogs. Kidding!). I think about RLM and how fortunate –and smart – the group of executives there were, to make a conscious decision to step away from the wreckage of consumer dot com in the late 90’s. We read the writing on more than walls. There’s a selfish reason for me wanting PR folks to be informed. It makes you more interesting if you know a little about every subject out there. Heck, who wants to go to a cocktail party and meet dull folks?
4. Get immersed in the business or industry of your client. We need to understand and really help our customers with their goals. I was really impressed when PR News changed their mission to be, “Building the bridge between PR and the bottom line.” How much better is that for us than “the news of the PR world”? As if.
5. Pitch. Go and talk to reporters. I have seen more managers and C-type Public Relations professionals get to a point in their career where that’s, um, beneath them. Oh boy. If you don’t talk to reporters then you’re not a PR person. If you’re not in touch with the media you are not helpful to the troops. You’re just a suit. Sorry that’s harsh. Nah I’m not sorry.
6. Follow through. I know I said it –twice -but it’s the most important “teaching” I can dole. You can’t imagine how many reporters just shake their head at us PR types when we don’t do what we say we’re going to do. And we have no excuse. It’s our job!
SPR: You mention don’t assume a lot.
I would like to tell whoever cares, a lesson I learned doing TCOB. It’s that of how prevalent assumptions are in marketing. Everyone in our business assumes that what we do is so obvious but that people just choose not to do it. I now know better than ever before, it’s purely not. Perhaps we should use that bit of an “ah hah!” with our clients too: don’t assume they know what an embargo is, what a dateline is, what a reporter needs, what tools we gotta have to get our job done well. Do a little tutoring. It goes a hell of a long way in these dizzying, ever-changing, quixotic worlds of PR and marketing.
SPR: From PR to advertising, Donny Deutsch is over at CNBC and raising concern about his day job in the process. Can you be a “TV star and the head of an agency?”
Donny is the man now. What I don't understand is, what's the big deal. I'm a CEO with a TV show - I even do regular segments for Marketplace on Public Radio, for NY-1's Fortune Business Report. Big whoop. Donny can handle it. He just has to be scheduling really well and, like me, have terrific support both at work and at home.
But....there's more. He has to make sure he doesn't allow CNBC to turn his show into a clone of all their others. Right now he has both famous and notorious and "new to you" guests that are making it an amalgamation of really fun and unexpected TV chat. The other shows on CNBC are pretty predictable and I wonder if five days is going to be too much for them, too quick. If he has the right attitude - and his brashness may, like mine, mean he doesn't take too kindly to fools - that's for sure going to mean a successful show.
And who knows? If NBC plays their Deutsch cards right, heck they might have another late night show to run instead of that plasticized yutz Carson Daly. He's got to be a placeholder for something better. Tom Snyder is laughing. And Ed Murrow's spinning in his grave somewhere, wondering what the heck happened to the networks. Good luck Donny. I'm watching your moves as usual.
SPR: Stay tuned for part two of this post where Laermer discusses why he WON’T blog, his next book project and his take on public relations textbooks and why they should be replaced.