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PR marketplaces: Relationships are not a commodity

We’ve recently seen a succession of new offerings that some are calling disruptive to the PR industry. The latest was the launch of a new company and service called AirPR — what some have lazily called a “Match.com for startups and PR pros”. This closely followed the emergence of HackPR (a HARO-like service connecting journalists with startups) and Visual.ly’s marketplace for infographics designers.

The concept of online marketplaces is not new. We first saw them during the dot-com boom with the advent of B2B supplier marketplaces as an easier and cheaper way to buy commodities like auto parts. This was part of a bigger shift towards “supplier relationship management” and led to many big companies running PR agency searches in same way they source commodity parts suppliers to get the cheapest deal possible.

This still exists, and with AirPR, as well as other services like HackPR and Visual.ly’s new marketplace, the commoditization of PR has come down-market to startups. The platform is a place for small businesses and startups to find and recruit, in essence, solo PR pros to support programs with budgets of $3,000-10,000 per month.

Technology only automates so much

Peter Himler, whose incredulous, tweeted flash reaction was included in the TechCrunch story about the AirPR launch, put forth a viewpoint that I believe gets obfuscated within all the discussion of the “broken PR industry.” No technology can automate matchmaking where success fundamentally comes down to relationships.

Relationships with clients need to be based on a PR pro’s or agency’s ability to deeply understand the client’s business objectives and its go-to-market strategy, and tailor the PR program with the creativity needed for the client to rise above the noise through results that are centered on outcomes vs. output (hits).

Relationships with journalists and bloggers need to be based on a PR pro truly understanding what makes a good story from the standpoint of a journalist and pitching that story to the right journalist. That means taking the time to read what the journalist or blogger writes, going to events to connect in person, pushing the client to get the proof points needed to make a good story, and connecting the dots between the bigger trends and issues and the unique viewpoint a client can provide. It doesn’t mean blasting e-mails for a launch and ending the job there.

All of this is hard and is what separates the best agencies and PR pros from the ones that land on journalists’ black lists and cause TechCrunch and others to perpetually declare the industry as broken. Like Peter Himler, I’ll reserve judgment for now, but on the surface, I don’t see how marketplaces will help assess chemistry and relationships.

In fact, I could see these marketplaces making the industry problems worse. If too many small business or startups expect the matchmaking to be automated and the intangible qualities aren’t properly assessed, it will perpetuate the bad practices that have existed for a long time.

Over to you. Should we reserve judgment? Do you plan to join the marketplaces, or use them to source PR help? Or do you plan to source PR help based on personal relationships or referrals from trusted networks?

(Image credit: Bes Z via Flickr Creative Commons)

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