The threat of disruption has loomed over the PR industry since the digital revolution took hold now more than a decade ago. The fear of drowning into an oblivion is the reason that — to this day — PR agencies are hurriedly reinventing their business models and stacking on modernized offerings atop their usual media and messaging services.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has made its fortunes on the back of disrupting industries that are seen to be laggards. Despite the PR industry’s genuine investment in new services and models, it has found itself playing the role of dawdler on a few occasions among the tech set. Last year Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer’s AirPR jumped into the “disrupt PR” fold with a digital matchmaking service for PR. AirPR has since turned its attentions specifically towards disrupting PR measurement tactics.
Now PR Hacker is putting a stake in the ground, making its own case that “the PR game is ripe for change.” Its founder Ben Kaplan says he’s been inadvertently practicing PR (or at least the media relations bit of it) for more than a decade while promoting his self-published book How to Go to College Almost for Free. His efforts, he says, landed him on more than 2,000 media outlets.
“I was right out of college and had 5,000 self-published books delivered to my parents’ garage in Portland,” Kaplan says. “So I convinced a bookstore to let me have an author event.”
The event, he says, taught him “how to move a physical product with no distribution.” Since then, Kaplan’s tried his hand at starting a few companies and took on several gigs as a “scholarship coach” for media outlets before launching PR Hacker in Portland, Oregon last year and moving operations to the Bay Area soon after.
His model relies on A/B testing and 1% conversions from massive media blasts to generate lots media coverage quickly for clients — without the status reports, weekly update calls and other administrative overhead of traditional agencies.
Here’s how that works. The PR Hacker team blasts pitches to a database of 7,000 tech media and expects a 1% conversion to land its client, at least, 70 hits. Kaplan also keeps databases on money/business media and relationship/romance media that each have upwards of 5,000 contacts — so a multi-vertical pitch, by his estimates, should yield close to 200 hits assuming the minimum 1% conversion. To keep the pitches from seeming too much like spam, he personalizes various fields within each pitch.
“We A/B test our pitches on the lower tier guys first,” he explains. “Then we go to the top-tier with what’s been tested…And a great story will trump all. So rather than focusing too much on personalizing, we focus on getting the story right.”
He gives a few examples. For instance, the team boosted conversions by nixing the word “crowdsourcing” in a headline for startup CrowdMed and replacing it with the concept of “Medical Detectives.” Or, by just changing “5 Simple Ways to Finally Stop Texting and Driving” to the emotionally-charged “How to Convince Your Kids to Never to Text and Drive Again.”
Communications Startup Style
Jared Heyman, founder of CrowdMed, started working with PR Hacker a few months ago after attending one of the firm’s “PR hacking” networking events in San Francisco.
“We had been working with a traditional PR firm for five or six months,” Heyman says. “But I was getting frustrated because our PR firm was getting hits, but not enough to justify the retainer.”
The traditional firm he worked with focused on the “softer” services that can help extend a retainer beyond media relations, like corporate messaging, media training and briefing documents on reporters and publications. It is understood the retainer with the traditional firm was below $8k. After keeping both firms on for a trial period, he ultimately shifted the business to PR Hacker for about the same price as the more traditional firm.
“PR Hacker communicates with me like a startup — they use as few words as possible, they send quick emails and we have informal conversations,” Heyman says. Rather than being mired down in attachments and documents, Heyman likes PR Hacker’s digital style — preferring to use collaboration platform Basecamp over conference calls; Google spreadsheets over extensive reports.
While he says PR Hacker has garnered more media hits in one month than his traditional firms did in six months, it’s not surprising the quality of those hits varied. While the traditional shop focused primarily on top-tier outlets, because of its numbers game, PR Hacker inevitably catches a slew of lower tier outlets in its net.
“That’s the biggest cost to my time — waking up at 7 a.m. to do an interview with a local TV station,” Heyman says. “We have a hard time measuring ROI with individual media hits, so it’s hard to know if it’s worth it.”
Collectively, however, Heyman suspects the aggressive media push is working. He says CrowdMed has seen a “significant uptick” in user sign-ups and traffic since switching media tactics. And ultimately, at this stage, Heyman is more interested in seeing CrowdMed’s name in the media than in message pull-through.
The Surgical Strike Force
Despite all the talk of “disruption” Kaplan says he thinks PR Hacker is best working alongside a traditional PR firm, acting like “a surgical strike force” that’s deployed to get a massive number of hits quickly. He counts about 15 to 20 clients right now, estimating that he gets each 25 to 100 media hits per month.
The PR Hacker team has been operating with five people who work quickly by limiting brainstorms to 30 minutes with ice-breakers like “let’s pretend our client is Coca-Cola” or conversely, “let’s pretend this is pro-bono.”
“When we go to the client with the angle, we’ve already pitched it and already have data on it so we know it works,” Kaplan says.
He divys PR Hacker’s offerings into three revenue streams: media relations, training and its mass pitching software. As it grows, rather than investing heavily in talent, he plans to replicate a model of assigning a four person team to 20 different clients — or more. These teams comprise of a data analyst, a writer, a media contact and strategist.
The investment, he says, will come organically as the business grows — not from external funders. He declined to disclose his retainers, but sources say it’s lower than a standard Silicon Valley media retainer of $20k/monthly.
But as a self-proclaimed PR outsider, Kaplan still looks to more seasoned pros as he figures out where PR Hacker sits in the competitive sphere. Among them is Silicon Valley PR veteran Andy Cunningham who is now CEO of marketing firm Series C and interim CMO at Avaya.
“PR is so broken so there will be lots of attempts to do things differently,” Cunningham says. “Ben is doing a piece of that. He has a knack for storytelling using a handful of formulas. The reason why he can scale is these are very good formulas.”
But these formulas are also the reason PR Hacker’s critics would dismiss Kaplan’s approach as a gimmick and doubt its sustainability especially as client need grows beyond simple publicity to strategic communications.
If there’s any segment of the PR industry that PR Hacker is poised to disrupt right now, it’s the publicity machine that certainly some segment of the PR industry has built a business model against. To put it plainly, Kaplan is applying the direct mail model of blanketing targets in hopes for a small conversion that yields relatively big results to PR.
At a time when so many agencies are trying to grow their talent and capabilities beyond the somewhat commoditized media relations business, it remains to be seen whether PR Hacker will ultimately be seen as a competitive — or a partner.
Featured Photo credit: Thomas Hawk