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#21: "The playbook era of PR is over."
Or, how the profession must evolve, or die
There is a scene from the 2006 quasireality show The Hills that is painfully seared in my memory.
A pre-surgery Heidi Montag, still a student at the time, tells a university official she wants to go into fashion PR to simply throw parties.
For anyone in marketing communications, this scene and sentiment has likely haunted us all of our careers. We know in our hearts as professionals that what we do matters. But, communications isn’t always measurable in an obvious way. And in a tough economic climate, anything that doesn’t evidently add to the business gets cut.
And although to some, it may seem scary to pull away from the standard wisdom, there is so much opportunity for our industry to evolve.
That’s why I am so pleased to interview this week someone who has an incredibly pragmatic view of our industry: Katrina Dene, Head of Communications & Content at Memo, the only comms analytics platform that reports readership directly from publications.
Memo helps brands maximize the investment and impact of their media strategy and make data-driven decisions. It’s used by companies like Google, PayPal, MLB and Samsung, and I’m keeping an eye on how the tool could change our profession for the better.
Enjoy the learnings and smart takes!
How did you get into PR? Tell me a bit about your career journey.
Growing up in Silicon Valley, falling into some kind of tech job was hard to avoid. I originally went to college with the intention of majoring in sports journalism but got an internship at a tech PR agency, which changed everything.
I worked on any client accounts that needed support. At the time, that was cybersecurity–probably the furthest I could get from sports.
I fell in love with the competitive nature of the cybersecurity industry. It was technical and, at the time, very niche. I spent close to a decade in cybersecurity communications and incident response, watching the industry transform along the way. When I transitioned in-house, my role naturally evolved into content, customer marketing, events, internal comms, and social media. I thought of my role as a translator between technical and non-technical audiences.
You transitioned from an agency to in-house. Why did you make the change?
No matter what anyone likes to admit, there are always clients that stand apart from the rest. For me, it was HackerOne. They were a relatively early stage cybersecurity company spearheading responsible vulnerability disclosure, meaning they were making it easier for anyone on the internet to report vulnerabilities to companies so they could fix them. In an industry that was dominated by doom and gloom, HackerOne was (and still is) a bright spot. They were my client for about 2 years before I joined their marketing team full time.
Even more candidly, I was comfortable at the agency. The biggest threat to progress is comfort. So I decided to make myself uncomfortable at a company I really believed in.
I eventually left HackerOne to take the skills I learned to a larger stage at Stack Overflow, helping them through a $1.8B acquisition and SaaS transformation.
What skills do you need to transition from agency to in-house? Why?
I think every in-house communications job I’ve ever interviewed for asked me about media relationships. They are the bread and butter of PR, but I would argue that media relationships can be built so long as you’re reasonable, well-researched, and human. What makes you a stronger hire are 3 things that aren’t media relations:
A hacker mindset: Don’t be afraid to break things in order to make them better. So much of communications is research and figuring things out, whether it’s the “traditional way” or not. That, to me, is the hacker mindset. Figuring out how to get to the best possible outcome using a combination of experience and rethinking how something is built in the first place.
Ability to translate and collaborate: communications, whether it’s internal or external, is just as much translating stakeholders as it is collaboration. It is so rare for a team to connect with every single department within an organization. That’s what comms teams do every single day. With that comes a lot of responsibility. You need to take the time to truly understand what everyone needs and wants, translate into everyone’s terms, and find the solution that works for everyone. Communicators that have the skill to translate between business functions, have a unique opportunity to lead.
Affinity for data: I was recently at a networking dinner where the icebreaker was what you wanted to be when you grew up and everyone said some version of the cliché, “I wanted to do X, but I am bad at math/science, so I ended up in comms.” It was laughable. Comms is just as much a science as it is an art. Leveraging data to understand what’s working, what’s not, and anticipate outcomes strengthens narratives when you’re speaking to the board or speaking to media.
The best example of this was my first day in-house. My flight to headquarters was delayed so they didn’t have time to set up my computer with me before my first meeting. As I unwrapped a branded notebook and pulled out a pen, I learned that we were on the first planning call for the company’s first user conference. The conference was definitely happening in October (it was July) and the point person was me. Pros: Nothing else was on my to-do list. Cons: I had maybe one dinner party under my belt at the time.
Leaning into the three skills were what got me through that first conference, the several others to follow, and every job since then.
Is there anything you wish you had started learning/doing earlier in your career?
I wish I had learned the mechanics of financial reporting much earlier in my career. Understanding where the business is making the biggest investments, the most risk, and adjusting my own budget accordingly was something I learned by doing, sometimes failing, with very little guidance along the way.
Now, you market to PR professionals. What are the challenges/joys of reaching out to this audience?
Communications professionals are naturally curious and inherently skeptical. It’s what makes us good at our jobs. We are never satisfied until we know the full picture so we can make the most informed decision possible. The traits that make us strong communicators (and likely make Memo a perfect fit) can also make us hard to market to.
In any market ripe for disruption, whether it’s HackerOne in cybersecurity or Memo in PR analytics, it’s so important to cut the fluff and be direct. If people can’t understand it, they aren’t going to believe it’s better than the dated alternative everyone settled for. Fluff diminishes trust. Period.
Do you have any controversial opinions/takes about the state of PR?
I’m not sure if this is a controversial take or not, but I think the PR industry has been stumbling for decades, and the media industry is paying the price.
The relationship between PR and journalists has been full of friction. It’s relationship-driven but also transactional (in both directions). In relationship status terms: it’s complicated.
If we take more time to prove the value of media instead of just pitching stories or releasing statements, the very industry that contributed to our rise to the c-suite will thrive along with us.
What’s changing about the PR industry?
The PR industry operated with an unwritten playbook for decades, especially when it came to media relations. The playbook era of PR is over. It’s not a one-size fits all.
I always leaned on data to analyze if messages were resonating, if topics or campaigns we spent the most time on that quarter actually drove coverage, etc. But I settled for the idea that volume (coverage and social engagement) was equal to exposure and awareness. It’s not.
I aimed for profiles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I saw both transform brands that I worked for but the tangible impact was hard to measure.
I’ve heard so many people talk about the noisy media climate changing PR. But I think noise is a symptom of something else. It’s data that is changing PR most drastically. There is so much more data available today in terms of how many people are actually reading the coverage we secure. That’s going to change the way we operate and strategize. It might even reduce the noise.
The reason I joined Memo was because I saw an opportunity to be better – a better comms professional and marketer – and to be an advocate for progress in my own industry.