AirPR: What could be the biggest disruption yet in public relations

By Kym McNicholas , written on October 16, 2012

From The News Desk

When was the last time we saw a major disruption in public relations? Not in my career of 18 years in broadcasting. It’s still the same old, same old press release for the most part – with a few exceptions.

However, some agencies can get creative:

Horn sometimes does “Speed Interviewing” events, where they invite their clients and experts in a particular field to meet with reporters all in one spot.  So it’s a one-stop shop for a story.

Trainer Communications holds a “SharkTank” event once a year, where their clients compete for the best pitch in front of a panel of reporters. It’s a great way to get a reporter’s attention.

Weber Shandwick is creating a value-add for clients by putting together a video which features reporters revealing the secrets to getting their attention, new ways to get the word out on their own, and tips to most effectively communicating their message. It’s a great use of the booming popularity of video to send a message. It helps make the pitches more relevant and focused for each individual reporter.

The most creative group of PR folks actually is at Sonoma Raceway. I’ve worked with John Cardinale, Diana Brennan, and Jennifer Imbimbo for about 12 years and have watched their coverage of all racing events at the track just explode over that time. They’re very good at crafting stories for each reporter and giving everyone interested an exclusive on a particular story. They create fun events that put reporters up against racecar drivers such as go-karting or grape stomping, and they’ve even held a baby shower for Nascar superstar Jeff Gordon, when he was having his first child. That attracted a lot of press.

But when you think of the overall PR market, although there is some creativity, there isn’t much in the way of technological advancement.  A couple of startups have emerged to create technology-enabled platforms to help the industry: LittleBird and HackPR. But they have yet to truly create the transformational shift that needs to happen at a time when there is a flood of start-ups all vying for the limelight.

Solid communications is the key to a company's success, on top of a great product or service. But the PR business is antiquated and it's tough for startups to find the right person to help them create the right strategy. And when the company does send out an RFP, they receive 40-page proposals from each of the interested agencies. Who has time to read them? Just think, what if the entire search and bidding process could be streamlined?

In comes AirPR, an invite-only, for the PR business. The company, which recently raised $1 million in funding, created an algorithm that matches entrepreneurs with independent and boutique public relations specialists, who charge between $3,000 to $10,000 for their services versus a large agency that can charge three times that.

AirPR the brainchild of Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer. I’ve been following his progress for developing this platform for about two years since meeting him at an annual kiteboarding event for techies, called MaiTai. He’s a former Entrepreneur in Residence at Shasta Ventures, Senior Associate at Sierra Ventures, and has served on the Board of Makara, which sold to RedHat, as well as TouchCommerce.

Fouladgar-Mercer created AirPR to alleviate the pain he witnessed as a VC, whereby sourcing a PR pro became likened to finding a needle in a haystack. To be fair, it’s not that PR pros are hard to find. They’re not. The challenge is finding an independent or firm that actually fits: chemistry, budget, sector, and the list goes on.

I like a few things about AirPR:

1. It helps bring the cost of PR into a reasonable zone for startups.

2. Startups have access to experienced PR professionals, not junior account executives or interns. I've actually had an intern call me to pitch a startup from a large agency. The Founder had no idea he wasn't getting a senior person on the agency's staff to service his company's needs.

3. It's bringing back to life what PR is truly about: Not creating the next big story someone will write about your company, but to create an entire public relations strategy that's scalable.

A big problem AirPR will face is opposition from the large PR firms. They could easily knock down their prices, come together with other PR firms to digitize the bidding process, and create more experienced teams to help start-ups.

In the video above, Fouladgar-Mercer talks about the fierce competition he faces from the industry. It's nothing new for him. This Harvard (MBA) and Princeton (BSE, Computer Science) graduate played Division 1 ice hockey. To get to that level he must have had a lot of fight inside. A recruiter friend of mine actually told me Fouladgar-Mercer had the numbers to make it to the NHL. But he chose to become an entrepreneur instead. Check out his moves on the ice.