Gini Dietrich on the unstable future of PR
Gini Dietrich, creator of the PESO model, and author of Spin Sucks, on standing up to injustice, and why PR might not survive the next 10 years.
You’ve been running Spin Sucks for 14 years, how has it evolved?
In the beginning, we were terrible in comparison. In fact, every year on our anniversary, I republish the very first blog post just so that people can see it, because it wasn’t so good and it’s important to see how far we’ve come. You just have to start. Your business is going to evolve and in the beginning it will be bad, but that’s OK. If you wait to be perfect, or you stand still waiting for the right time, nothing will happen. It's been a journey.
You’re host of the Spin Sucks podcast, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast. Why do you think people like voice as a medium so much?
I think most people learn better that way. And you can also multitask, right? You can exercise, you can commute, you can do housekeeping, whatever it happens to be. You can do things when you're listening that you can't when you're reading.
You once said you have to create the very best content on the internet, to rise above. One of their main concerns for comms people I speak to is it can take time to create something of quality. How do communicators convince management that time spent making content is worthwhile?
That's a real challenge. I think it comes down to a couple of things. The first is you have to be working with executives or clients who value quality work because if they don't, you'll never convince them.
A really good example is ‘The Definitive Guide to SEO in 2020’ which was made by backlinko.com. It's massive. I looked at it and I was overwhelmed. But it has 20,000 shares already. 20,000!
It has nine chapters and I'm sure it took them six months to create; because it's well designed, it has some infographics, screen grabs; all that kind of stuff. But when you look at it from the perspective of 20,615 shares, that's a massive deal. All you have to do is type in ‘SEO trends’, and it's one of the first things that pops up.
So I think you can use examples like that to show people that yes, it's going to take some time, but look at the results you’re going to get. And you have these calls to action in there that allow you to drive marketing qualified leads, that then lead to sales qualified leads, so you can show the relevance to the funnel.
If you spend time creating something like that, then you can take pieces of it out so that you can use it on social, you can use it in your media relations, you can use it in paid, you can boost it, for months to come. It’s like an event. If you're doing an event, it takes you all year to organise it. But it's one of the biggest pieces of revenue that you will generate for the entire year.
How much of the content you produce is a wild card- ie. not based on data?
All of it, from a blog perspective. But the data informs the strategic decisions. So we're in the middle of relaunching the PESO model, and the data has informed that strategic part of it. Because February's PESO model month, I have to write on the PESO model. But I’m going to take some creative licence with it, because who wants to read about the PESO model every single day?
I don't think we're going to exist 10 years from now, I think we will be under marketing. And you know, depending on what skill set you have, you could be content marketer, and if your skill set is Media Relations, then you will be relegated to a corner where that's what you do.
What does your average look like now, compared to 15 years ago?
It used to be in- and I can visually see this- this tiny tiny office that had one window, and my desk barely fit in the room. And I did a lot of travelling for clients. I would come back from travelling and walk into my office, and there'd be stacks of magazines on the desk, because you had to actually subscribe to magazines back then. This makes me sound ancient. But in order to know who you were supposed to pitch what they were writing about, you had to order in magazines.
So the mere fact that I can go to Google and type in, ‘food and PR’ and bring up whatever I need in an instant - first of all, my office is a lot cleaner- but it all takes so much less time.
You’ve written about talking about politics at work. What are your views on this, in the era of Trump?
Here's where I land on the spectrum. I don't think you should talk about the personal reasons why you do or don't like him. But there are so many things going on in the world, not just this country, that are a violation of basic human rights. That's the stuff that you should stand up to. Like building a wall, and putting immigrant families in camps and separating them from their children. That’s not okay. I read in article about the Holocaust and Hitler that now we look at that and go ‘How did they let that happen?’ Well, we're letting that happen.
So 50 years from now, people are going to say ‘what do you mean people were put in camps and separated from their children? How did you let that happen?’ This is where we are. So it's especially important to stand up for the things you believe in this climate, but not focus too much on the person who's in the White House.
[Ed: Since this interview the Black Lives Matter movement has started, you can read Gini's stance on racial justice here]
Your business was built on the platform of fighting spin, which is especially pertinent in the era of ‘fake news’ What was the industry like when you started?
I don't know that this is necessarily the case anymore. But when you'd get on a plane or you'd be at a cocktail reception, and people would ask "what do you do?" And you’d say ‘communications or PR’ they would say, ‘oh, you're a spin doctor, or, one of those people who lies for a living’
Hollywood and politics sort of moulded that caricature for us. That's what people saw. They just assumed that we were party planners, who love being around people. That we were flitting around, like Samantha on Sex and the City from party to party with our martinis. But that's not the case at all. And so, the vision of Spin Sucks has been to change that perception.
While it was once an industry where certainly you had Spin Doctors and liars, it's grown beyond that.
How do you see the PR industry evolving in the future?
I don't think we're going to exist 10 years from now, I think we will be under marketing. And you know, depending on what skill set you have, you could be content marketer, and if your skill set is Media Relations, then you will be relegated to a corner where that's what you do. I don't think people will hire PR people anymore. They'll hire marketeers and PR will be folded up under that.
That seems crazy to me because marketeers already wear so many hats. How will they have capacity to absorb another role?
Well, part of it is that artificial intelligence is starting to replace some of those tasks, right? The global communications study from USC Annenberg came out this year, and one of the questions they ask is, ‘how much will artificial intelligence change the way that you do your job?’ And I think that’s pretty significant. And another question is ‘in 5 years from now, how much of these types of articles do you think will be written by AI?’ So a marketeer won't necessarily have to do more, he or she will have to conduct an army of robots, who will be doing the work. The person who is overseeing them will need to understand how they all work together.
It seems we're all going to need to be upskilled quite dramatically to adapt to these changes.
Yes. Unless the PR industry as a whole begins to stand up- and we're certainly trying to do this at Spin Sucks- unless the PR industry says ‘Wait a second, this is what we do. And great, marketing, you should do those things, but we don't do those things. We build relationships. Through content, through social media, through communities, through influencers. So stop stepping on our toes, let us do our thing, and we'll support you.’ But the industry is not doing that.
Why do you think some companies still don't value reputation?
They kind of do, in a broad way. But when you ask them to put money into it, they don't see it as a good investment.
I think this is down to a couple of things. Number one is you don't sell a business to Wall Street on reputation, there are rumours that this may change, especially at a large corporate level, where they are starting to put financial value on reputation. But we're not there yet.
Also, marketeers tend to be more left brained, so they have a business degree or a business understanding. And because of that, they understand how the work that they're doing affects the growth of an organisation. People in PR tend to be more right brained, we're more creative, or more relationship based; all of those things that build reputation and thought leadership. But we don't have the business background. So we don't truly understand how to take all of this and say, okay, without this, you don't get this. Because we can't make that connection. So most executives don't see the value.
So: what should we be measuring to prove that value?
I think it’s staircase steps. So first you have your vanity metrics, to understand where you're starting, and what your benchmarks are. And then you have to look at attribution, both online and off. If you take just one human being coming into your funnel- Where did they come from? Did they read a story? Did they read six stories? How are you reaching them and what's making them decide to engage with your organisation?
Then you ask: are they qualified from a marketing perspective? Meaning, do they download content? Do they attend webinars? Do they read every article? How are they engaging with your organisation? And then do they become sales qualified?
So you have to be able to show how the work you're doing is affecting each of those four steps. And you can! With vanity metrics, for example. Let's just say you're doing content and media relations, you can attribute an increase in website visitors from an article that ran about the organisation.
And then, a certain percentage of those who downloaded content, watched a webinar etc, will eventually ask for a demo or fill out the contact form. Then you can demonstrate that everything you did up here leads to a sale down here.
I’d imagine it's easier to do that when you're a big organisation and have more data.
Actually it’s easier when you're small. It’s easier, too, when you're not selling toothpaste or candy, but instead you have very specific triggers. I'm working with a startup right now. And so I can mould everything. It's kind of fun because I can send an email and I can see exactly who's engaging and what they're doing. And then I can call the sales guy and say ‘Have you talked to this person yet? Because they've done this, this and this.’
And sometimes they have, but sometimes they haven't. So then they can make a phone call. So as I build, I build in a process that will allow them to grow and expand.
Purpose-driven brands seem to be doing especially well at the moment. In this context- where the perception of business is changing- do you think that PR could still fit into the business landscape?
I think it's possible we are starting to see valuation on those kinds of things, like TOMS shoes, or Thrive cosmetics who donate makeup to women in need who are looking for new jobs. For every tube of mascara that you buy, they donate a tube of mascara. And it is creating bigger valuations for these organisations, whether they're public on Wall Street, or they're going to go sell. It's idealistic but it's also very powerful. And in the next five years, you'll see that continue.
Perhaps, as Gen Z enters the workforce
I'm a Gen X but I think it was Millennials who really started to affect that change. And as more and more Millennials actually start running organisations, not just working for them, you'll see an even bigger shift. The nice thing about it is that Millennials as a generation are as big as the Baby Boomers so it will affect change a lot more quickly than if my generation tried to do it.
You started your company to stop spin. What proportion of the PR industry do you think is still ‘spin-y?’
I don't think it's much. I think it's probably about 20%. I think most of us live by a code of ethics and we strive to do the right thing.
You have a very strong value proposition in your company. How do you keep everyone aligned?
Oh, we talk about values constantly, everything that we do goes into that. My intuition is pretty good with this stuff, but if you manage to skate past me in interviews, and we hire you, and you don't fit in with that, you don't last very long at all.
We talk a lot about premium level stuff, exclusivity, and doing the kinds of things that are really going to evolve the industry, versus just letting anybody in. You have to demonstrate that you have some really strong ethics if you're going to work with us.
Of course, in every business, there's going to be an element that's not like that. You’ll always have the crappy attorneys and the crappy used car salesman. But I think for the most part, people are generally pretty good human beings. We all want to do good.
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