Over the past few months, I’ve really come to enjoy reading Timothy B. Lee’s blog. The computer programmer, writer and think-tank worker bee is now pursuing a PhD in computer science, and is blogging his thoughts about “bottom-up” thinking.

What is bottom-up thinking? Its not something racy, nor is it about chugging beer. As Tim says:

“I’m convinced that Silicon Valley’s fundamental strength is the fact that it embodies what I’ll call a bottom-up perspective on the world. The last couple of decades have brought us the dominance of the open Internet, the increasing success of free software, and the emergence of the free culture movement as an important social and political force. More generally, Silicon Valley is a place with extremely low barriers to entry, a culture of liberal information sharing, and a respect for the power of individual entrepreneurs.”

For the most part, Tim’s posts have reinforced some of my own opinions about the way things should work. He has also occasionally caused me to second-guess my own actions; but never as much as a few weeks ago when he wrote a critique of the Public Relations industry (“The PR Firm As Anti-Signal“).

“PR people seem to be floundering in this new environment,” he writes, before going on to explain that hiring a PR firm sends the message that your company “doesn’t get the web.” Tim feels that if your product or company is good enough, you don’t need PR. People will talk about you, write about you, and do business with you. It was particularly tough to swallow considering I’d just made the move from Product Management to Public Relations (the two really aren’t as different as you’d think).

However, upon closer inspection, it seems that his complaint is about PR companies that also don’t “get the web”. You know, the kind that we always complain about, the ones that send the cookie-cutter pitches to thousands of reporters on the very off-chance that they might write about their client.

What Tim doesn’t understand is that PR isn’t just about sending pitches. Its about communicating.

Tim is fortunate enough to be able to write clearly, and I’m going to guess that this isn’t a skill that every computer sciences PhD candidate has. In fact, I bet that Tim is a bit of a renaissance-man rarity in his world.

But at the same time, there aren’t very many Public Relations professionals that know much about computers (seriously, as a group, we’re not as tech-savvy as we like to think we are).

Computer programmers (coders, developers, etc.) need PR pros to help them tell people about their product, explain what it does and communicate with the user base. They need designers to make it look nice. They need sales people to sell it.

And the patent lawyers that Tim talks about, the ones that he recommends start a blog instead of getting their PR people to offer to comment on various issues? If they’re really experts, they’re probably too busy with cases to start a blog. But a PR team could help lawyers set one up, and teach them how to write concise posts that draw on their knowledge but require a communicator’s skill to make them more palatable to a wider audience.

As I heard someone say about this same issue a year or so ago, “Sure I can paint my house myself, but why wouldn’t I just hire professionals who can do a better job?”

Tim, if you read this I hope you give PR a second chance. We’re not perfect, but we’re learning. And there are some public relations practitioners who are redefining the profession using the bottom-up thinking you preach.

-Parker

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2 Responses to “The Bottom-up Perspective and Public Relations”

  • This is a good point. My experience is probably skewed by the fact that I write about idiosyncratic topics that are rarely relevant to what for-profit companies are pitching, so the good PR firms largely leave me alone. So all I get are pitches from the bozos who have no clue what I write about.

    Second, I certainly agree that writing is a craft that many geeks aren’t good at, and that there’s very real value to be had in helping entrepreneurs communicate more effectively. Ditto with graphic design. I don’t think of these as PR activities necessarily, but it’s valuable whatever you want to call it.

    With that said, I would revise my opinion as follows: if your PR person is doing his job well, I shouldn’t know you’ve hired a PR person. If a startup is pitching me on a story, I should get an email from the CEO (or another relatively senior employee) written in plain English (not press release English). If a PR firm can help the CEO write better emails or choose better recipients, great. But press releases, or pitches directly from PR people, sends a signal that the company didn’t consider me a high priority. And if that’s the case, then why should I spend time learning about their product?

    Thanks for reading!

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