Time’s up for the billable hour

For a guy who’s the head of a company called Media Relations Inc., Lonny Kocina has a lot to say about what’s wrong with PR.

Kocina founded the Minneapolis-based company in 1988. It didn’t take him long before he hit upon a

billing model that’s practically the standard in other industries: charge your clients only if you deliver results. Kocina has foregone the typical billable-hour model, instead billing his clients per interview he sets up with a journalist. Clients of any industry expect results when they pay for a service, so why should PR be any different?

“”If Domino’s was to start to sell pizza by the hour, with no guarantee that they would deliver any pizza, they would become a much, much smaller company,”” says Kocina.

“”People would still buy pizzas if they really got hungry, but Domino’s wouldn’t be the giant company that they are. That’s what’s happened to this wedge of using PR as a marketing tool. It’s just so chancy.””

Kocina talked with Pipeline recently about his approach to PR, why he thinks advertising dollars are being misspent and what it takes to get on Good Morning America.

Pipeline: What sort of challenges are companies facing in trying to convey their marketing messages to potential customers?

Lonny Kocina: As you probably know, the sales message that most businesses have is quite lengthy. If you just ask a company, “”What is it that you’re selling?”” they’ll go into a list of features and benefits and it takes them a little while to explain the problem that their product solves and all the different ways that it can solve it. It might be price is cheaper, it might be a little bit safer. It’s usually a combination of things and it takes a while to explain.

Smaller and medium-sized companies — even the bigger companies — come out with products that are not necessarily intuitive. They take some time to explain. The sales messages can be quite long.

Why do you think PR is a more successful way of reaching an audience than advertising?

LK: The advertising model makes it difficult for a long sales message, because you have to sort of capsulize everything. Businesses are looking for ways to give a longer explanation of what they do. Using PR as a marketing tool has always been a great way to do that, because you can talk to a reporter and they’ll do a nice, long story about your product. The problem has been that PR firms do so many different jobs — there’s community relations, employee relations and investor relations. The way they’ve charged for that over the years is an hourly billing, like an attorney bills you for the time they work on something. Unfortunately, when you carve out one facet of public relations, which is using PR as a marketing tool, the hourly billing doesn’t work. It kind of trips up the system.

When people buy advertising, they get something for their money. If you buy an ad, you get an ad. If you put money into direct mail, you get so many direct mail pieces for your money. But with public relations, it’s like buying a cat in a sack. You’re supposed to hope you get some media coverage. What we do is we charge per placement. We have a menu of prices and they’re loosely based on circulation. Businesses really like that. They always feel like they’ve been taken for a ride when it comes to PR and marketing.

Pipeline: But you can’t control the end result if you try to market a message by getting a reporter to write a story.

LK: No, but if you go back to what the sales message is, generally it solves a problem. Your product solves somebody’s problem. So that’s the catalyst for the article, usually. Oftentimes, the story is about the problem the product solves, but it’s real hard to talk about that issue without talking about the features and benefits of the product, so it just tends to go back that way. The articles just sort of unfold naturally. You don’t have to control it. You don’t have to necessarily worry that they’re going to get it wrong. Most of these reporters are pretty smart; they’re great communicators. We’ve done tens of thousands of media stories on behalf of over 1,000 clients. I can only think of maybe two that went wrong.

Pipeline: With enterprise technology, most of the better known companies sell expensive, often very complicated technology for reasons like security or data management. How would you set up a client in that industry?

LK: You have to fit the audience. That’s the first rule. You have to package whatever your concept is so that it fits the media outlet’s audience. They just aren’t going to write stories about things that don’t match with their audience. You have to understand that. Then just package it to fit the publication.

Pipeline: How would you approach daily newspapers versus trade press?

LK: Trade press is going to be much, much easier to get. They’re just zeroed in on it. They almost have to do a story if you have a new product or something that’s interesting, they’re obliged to cover it. On a newspaper, you might have to move away from the core concept of your product just a little bit. Let’s say a company has created some new technology that’s going to make it safer for folks to travel because they’ve figured out a way to read the luggage a little bit better. What that company might have to do is, rather than just talk strictly about that topic, they might have to say something like, “”How should you pack your luggage for security purposes?”” That might be a little bit more of a Good Morning America or a soft news issue.

Pipeline: But don’t most clients go for both advertising and PR representation?

LK: It’s smart to use both. They both have their positives and negatives. With public relations you can tell this nice, long story and it’s delivered by a third party reporter that has a lot of credibility. With advertising, you can control the message to the nth degree. You can place it exactly where you want it. Once you get a good article in a (paper), it’s not very likely you’re going to get in there again for a while. With advertising, you can just buy your way into whatever you want. They just have different features. But in my opinion, public relations is this under-utilized marketing tool that’s just so powerful. Not many businesses buy it because of the way PR firms have traditionally sold it. Every single day, the media needs new articles. Quite honestly, I pin the blame directly on the PR firms for not figuring how to sell media content. But we have.

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