Everything-PR Q & A With Dick Grove – CEO INK Inc. Public Relations
Dick Grove has managed the gamut of business and consumer communications from financial and investment relations, to high-tech campaigns and products, crisis management, and the vagaries of the entertainment world. He’s served in the MarCom C-Suite with companies like Itel Corpration, GE Capital and IT&T as well as a V.P. with industry powerhouse Burson-Marsteller. In 1997, the Kansas City-based Grove launched his own Public Relations firm, INK Inc. Public Relations, notable for being one of the first to utilize a “virtual” PR team and “pay for performance” client model.
What was your career prior to launching INK Inc. PR and your motivations for going out on your own?
I was lucky. I began my career in New York with the preeminent public relations firm at the time, Burson-Marsteller. And over the years, I worked for several large agencies, including Burson-Marsteller a second time as a general manager, as well as moving to the corporate side with a couple of NYSE companies and a few start-ups. But what I found consistently throughout all these career stops, was that while companies hire PR firms for a variety of reasons, they invariably fire their agency for one reason above all else – a lack of consistent media coverage. And the larger the PR firm, the more they became highly paid consultancies and the less they paid attention to their client’s basic need for consistent solid press – not mass mailed company press releases but solid stories about their products, services, and management. I watched this over and over again from both sides; and decided to recreate a PR model that would focus first on this need, then add other core services as required. I say ‘recreate” because press coverage first was the original idea of the first PR pioneers.
As a pioneer in creating a “virtual PR office” in the mid-90’s, what were the advantages and disadvantages at the time?
To me the advantages to the client were obvious. I could recruit senior level PR pros, some directly from the media itself, and allow them to work from home saving them from the time, stress and expense of commuting into New York, LA, or San Francisco. I wanted our clients to have the benefit of their experience and skillset that they seldom saw from traditional agencies because their heavy hourly fees they couldn’t afford. One of the real “Catch-22’s” of big firms. Plus, by keeping my overhead low, it allowed me to share in the financial risk with my clients. If there was a disadvantage it was that when I started INK, technology was lagging…little to no internet, mobile computing was still confined to a desktop, and some of my early field PR pros, still preferred a typewriter! It didn’t take long however, because communication technology was emerging as we were, and soon INK was swept along with it.
You were also a PR pioneer in implementing a “pay for performance” model. How was that received in the early stages and how has it evolved over the years?
The Pay-for-Performance or Pay-for Results model was ridiculed by the PR establishment mercilessly as “ambulance chasers” and by the many in the PRSA as “unethical” because it was thought to “guarantee media coverage.” Which, of course, it does just the opposite. The only thing it guarantees is that a client will only pay for actual coverage. Clients mostly loved the concept. A few clients were hesitant because of the noise from their established firm; until of course they saw the results of the model.
With so many years in the business, what are some of the changes you’ve seen – both with how the media covers stories and the strategies for attaining press?
Other than the shift to online, the most obvious change of course is the great reduction in the media…the number of outlets and decimation of editorial staffs. The one thing that hasn’t changed, and hopefully never will, is the media’s reliance on news. Real news, not puffery, not technical jibber-jabber, real news that will resonate with their audiences. Yes, with the reduced staffs and internal budgets, we have to step in on some of the heavy lifting to make a story happen. But the client’s story still has to be newsworthy or it won’t be considered.
What advice can you give businesses and entrepreneurs who are considering PR programs?
Simple. PR programs are designed to bring newsworthy companies, products, services, or events to the media that is read or seen by your designated markets. PR programs are not designed to sell or influence. That may sound like PR blasphemy, but “selling and influencing” comes from the message that, yes, PR can help create, but the real role of a PR program is to spread that message through a variety of media. And to do that, the message must be newsworthy. Good PR firms know how to help craft that message and where it will resonate most effectively in the most credible way through earned media. But be realistic in your expectations. Even the best PR firms aren’t miracle workers.
What do you look for when bringing publicists on board? What are the traits needed for success?
INK is in the news business, so I look for people that have good news instincts. I want people that are news junkies…all kinds…hard news, business news, pop culture, politics, and the silly parts of everyday life. I want people like a good story and like tell other people about a good story. And lastly, I look for people experienced in the job and in their lives.
How do you maintain a work/life balance and what is its role in a successful career?
I have followed a simple philosophy all my career. A piece of advice that is rumored to have been told by Spencer Tracy to a young actor long ago. “Take your job very seriously, but never yourself.” That, plus a long motorcycle ride every once in a while, has kept me going for a very long time in this business.