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Inbound PR: The Future of PR & the Most Important Book on the Industry in Years - Required Reading

[fa icon="calendar"] 19-Jun-2020 07:00:00 / by Matt Bergman

review of the inbound pr bookRepublished book review by Matt Bergman from Amazon. (Thanks, Matt!)

Iliyana Stareva has written what I’d call, with a considerable degree of confidence, the most important, actionable and forward-looking PR book of the past ten years. That’s true, I believe, for the following reasons, which I’ll circle back to and discuss in a bit more detail:

  1. The author sets a detailed course for the future of PR that aligns with the thinking and capabilities of the relatively few genuinely progressive agencies, as well as with the needs of forward-looking clients.
  2. The book beautifully, seamlessly and comprehensively integrates the inbound approach – which is unquestionably going to be the overarching structure that informs the future of marketing (AI and automation technology, by the way, are much more conducive to an inbound approach than to an outbound one).
  3. Ms. Stareva addresses head on what has frankly been the negligence of the PR industry in exhibiting little in the way of creative or scientific thinking in terms of measuring value.
  4. The offering provides a complete system that’s simultaneously sophisticated and straightforward – and in a breath of fresh air - moves beyond the vagueness of strategy at the highest level of generality and drills down into a tactical repertoire of true breadth and depth.
  5. Ms. Stareva deals in the reality that in my experience, many agencies – shockingly – seem to miss. If you’re a PR agency, you need to rigorously employ inbound both in terms of promoting the agency and winning business and you’ve got to offer clients precisely conceived packages of inbound services.
  6. This book does process almost ridiculously well. With perhaps only David Meerman Scott’s classic book on the same level, “Inbound PR” sets out more well-defined and highly actionable procedures and tactics than any of the 100+ books I’ve read on PR.

Before building out a little further on why I think this is such a meaningful work, it’s important to have some clarity on definitions.

The market reality is that PR, marketing and advertising are rapidly converging. But certainly many shops still hold themselves out as primarily specializing in public relations. I won’t dwell here on the laughable official definitions of PR, which are essentially entirely self-referential such as “public relations is the process of managing an organization’s relationships with its various publics” – like, thanks for that, my mind is blown.

But I will speak to the way public relations has in the past, and sometimes still is, defined via the functions it performs. There’s a tendency to equate a firm specializing in PR with a firm that is necessarily dealing exclusively in “earned media.” Earned media, in turn, is often – incorrectly – perceived as being the same as “media relations”.

There’s no question that PR shops indeed operate substantially in the earned media realm. But forward-thinking agencies - the kind that will benefit from this book and the kind that’ll still be alive in 10 years – unquestionably practice (or attempt to practice) content strategy and content marketing. If one wants to be a strict adherent of a PESO model (personally, I prefer “PEO” – I don’t believe shared media ought to be categorized separately, it’s not difficult to break out shared media, which is mostly social media, into its earned, owned and paid components) – content falls primarily under owned, but it also hits strongly on shared, and while not optimal, of course there’s a massive amount of paid content to be found in the world.

I say all this to make the point that if one accepts the notion of inbound PR, folks need to trash the notion – and by folks, I mean the agencies as well – that PR falls exclusively under the earned media banner. Not even media relations falls exclusively under the earned banner, as the book so righty emphasizes.

My concept here isn’t perfect, but perhaps my preferred tool to differentiate PR is to say that it deals largely in the realm of reaching clients’ target audiences through some sort of third-party intermediary – be it traditional reporters and media channels, the more modern notion of relevant industry influencers. or a social media platform (whether a platform is an intermediary is debate for another time).

But please don’t manage to read this wonderful book, and then do a Google search for earned media services – what you’ll find will be a highly limited list, mostly covering press releases and reporter pitch and place – and then be confused about where inbound fits. Good PR firms are completely at home in the realm of owned and shared media, too.

Also note that in the previous few passages I’ve taken a view of the perception of PR firms that Ms. Stareva acknowledges and quickly disregards (except for the measurement problem) – the author is very much on board with the notion of PR firms’ harnessing the myriad tools offered by all of earned, owned, paid and shared, most importantly for the inbound concept, content marketing.

Back to the book itself and some more specific items, related to the broader points above, that are so key and unique:

A. The book makes a masterful case for why “Inbound PR”?

  • For starters, there’s no needlessly complicating a definition of inbound PR – it’s the marriage of inbound marketing with a more wide-ranging, modern conception of public relations (much less about media, much more about stakeholders, with capabilities across all types of media and totally dialed in to digital).
  • While, IMHO, the case for inbound over outbound (pull v. push) has been made conclusively, the book summarizes the evidence nicely here. Traditional PR, btw, was very much centered on outbound functions, mostly pushing press releases and pitches at reporters. Fortunately, the world has evolved.
  • At the crux of the case for inbound PR is the notion that in combining public relations with inbound methodology, public relations becomes highly relevant in the current and likely future states of the market. An inbound PR shop will be able to measure the value of its services; it will be able to easily leverage all things digital; it will have the tools to establish itself as an authority in its field and to counsel clients in becoming the leading thinkers in their own respective industries.
  • The author herself puts forward a brilliant three-pronged case for the need for inbound PR: It’s the only avenue that aligns and integrates public relations entirely with the digital landscape in which practitioners operate. It takes hugely significant steps toward remedying any issues with adequately measuring value provided. And it’s the right fit for a marketplace that is evolving such that an agency’s demonstrated expertise is emerging as the leading differentiator for prospects as they hunt for the right agency fit.

B. The book doesn’t play games or dance around this notion: any kind of communications agency, PR included, absolutely must do real work to position itself and to meaningfully differentiate.

That means the agency devoting real time to managing a first-rate landing page, developing remarkable thought content, sharing that content socially, etc. It’s just not going to be optional. Customers aren’t looking for agencies that specialize in talking about themselves. They want agencies who are focused on addressing the prospective client’s needs in the context of the client’s line of business. Agencies who don’t run their own highly effective content strategy processes, and then perform masterfully in creating and promoting that content aren’t going to make it.

C. By getting PR much more engaged in the digital world, the book is terrific in then showing – with considerable detail – that the measurement challenges that have dogged the industry will no longer appear particularly daunting.

D. It’s great that the book gets the theory right. But equally as important, it applies the theory correctly.

Ms. Stareva is 100% on the mark in the way she combines PR with inbound. Inbound is about creating awareness of an agency or a business such that prospects with certain problems to be solved will naturally come to find the right universe of agencies via their own research, as opposed to being bombarded by advertising. That kind of awareness is rooted in a premise centering on agencies/businesses having a productive two-way dialogue with prospects that is valuable to both sides and that doesn’t jump immediately to a sales pitch.

Put simply, it’s a conversion funnel that provides the right kind of content to the right kind of personas at the right stage of the funnel, thereby pulling prospects through the funnel stages : attract, persuade, convert and delight or, if you prefer, strangers, visitors, media leads/leads, customers/publishers, promoters/repeat publishers. The model is presented flawlessly and the explication of why certain forms of content are optimally presented at various point along the buyer journey is perfectly done.

E. In what I’m sure is, if not the very first, certainly one of the very first, and no doubt the most comprehensively done effort of its kind to date, a wonderful entire chapter is devoted to applying inbound to the specific practice of media relations.

I love this chapter because it features concepts that my agency and me personally have embraced for quite some time and they’re objectively superior means garnering the quality and quantity of media and/or influencer coverage that clients are going to expect. Think more along the lines of researching your reporter targets, knowing their beats, the areas they prefer to cover, subjects where they might need some help, etc. – as opposed to a generic press release blast.

F. The highly detailed presentation of the “inbound newsroom” is worth the price of the book on its own.

G. The author makes what I think is a magnificent decision to treat “internal inbound PR” – i.e. agency business generation separately from “externally offered inbound PR services” i.e. the agency delivering inbound to clients.

It avoids confusion, yes, but it also hammers home how critical it is that the agency itself do its own inbound work. Agencies who don’t are going to fall off the radar screen. Even if such an agency could survive, it’d be hard pressed to convince a client that the agency is the right choice to provide inbound services and the challenge of actually so providing would be likely insurmountable. Agencies need to practice what they preach.

H. Terrific processes for agency positioning - and agencies are not naturally good at positioning themselves. These passages are of great and immediate value.

I. Remarkably, the chapter on delivering inbound to clients is perhaps the best in what is a great book.

  • First, the chapter takes a truly deep dive into the universe of services that might be expected to be included in a packaged inbound offering and links each service with the appropriate stages of the buyer journey and with the appropriate elements of each of the earned, owned, shared and paid levers.
  • Next, in providing outstanding guidance on how to make it work in practice, the chapter flows delightfully in the same manner as the agency ought to go about putting an offering together first, define inbound PR services, second, package the services, third, develop the capabilities and fourth, deliver the services.
  • Refreshingly, the author happily engages in a discussing re: pricing structure, introducing a really sound potential agency-client model that would begin with paid workshops, then move to a defined campaign before flowing into a general retainer arrangement. The author also shows in detail how an inbound program might be sensibly mapped with calendar-level specificity over a 12-month lifecycle. These passages are invaluable and are going to help sell a ton of inbound services.

J. Great work in summarizing the factors that will define success:

  • Clear vision and unique positioning
  • Being your own best client
  • Hiring the right people at the right time
  • Strong agency culture
  • Ability to say “no”
  • Top-notch ongoing client servicing
  • Drive to learn and share knowledge

K. Finally, the book happily concludes with a succinct yet practical and useful appendix that provides substantive definitions of key terms.

 

I’d recommend this book to any practitioner of strategic communications, even if just for his or her own personal and professional interest/education. But if you’re leadership at an agency that’s still mired in the older world of PR, I’d treat this as required reading. I have a strong inkling that there aren’t going to be any folks who will regret having read this book. It’s a book that I expect is going to be on practitioners’ desks (or smartphones) for at least the next decade. Bravo to the author.

 

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Topics: Public Relations, Inbound PR

Matt Bergman

Written by Matt Bergman

VP & Sr. Counsel @MarinoPR. Business Consultant, Integrated Marketing, Attorney, Investo, Strategist J.D.,M.S., finance, licensed RE broker.

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