An inconvenient PR truth: experience and training are what counts

Last week saw the launch of the an Inconvenient PR Truth campaign. I’ve got mixed views about it.There’s been quite a lively debate on PR Week comments and the public relations blogs. While I applaud the initiative, I’m not totally convinced about either the approach or if it will work.

It also fails to mention the elephant in the room – the media database companies. When I started in public relations in 1989 I was taught to create proper media lists. That meant you sat down with a proper ring bound directory printed on paper (I can still remember the PR Planner section numbers such as 5B for enterprise computing, 72 for local weekly papers). When you started work on a new client you’d go through each relevant section and the individual media within it to decide which ones might be relevant.

Then you’d nip down to the newsagents to buy some copies and you’d sit on the phone and call up the ad sales teams to get sample copies and media packs sent to you. While at the newsagents you’d also have a browse to make sure you hadn’t missed anything.

Within a few days you’d have a big stack of lovely magazines and newspapers that you’d sit down and read. You’d take a look at the ABC figures to really understand what the readership was. You’d note what sections each one had and start thinking about what information your client had that might possibly fit into that section. You’d note the by-lines on every story and article and begin to understand what different journalists were interested in.

Then and only then would you begin your outreach. In those days it meant fax, post or bike. And you wouldn’t just mindlessly blast out the same news release to every contact. You might have five or even 50 different variants, each with an individually tailored headline and first paragraph just for that media or small group of titles.

Today the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to create that decent list in the first place. Every single media database I’ve tried (which I’ll admit isn’t them all, but almost) churns out lots of irrelevant targets and misses others no matter what you put in.

The databases give the illusion of research, but in reality are a lazy way out and are only ever a starting point that take you perhaps 10-15% to where you need to go. That’s just one of the problems.

Another is the ‘sweat shop’ mentality of some (but by no means all) PR agencies that perpetuate the junk mail approach to media and blogger relations. They’ll pressurise junior account executives into pumping out the releases and then hitting the phones with the dreaded follow-up phone call. Quite frequently these poor people have no real in-depth knowledge of the client so can’t provide any added value to the journalists they are phoning.

And this worst practice gets perpetuated as the account executives get promoted and work their way up the ranks, in turning teaching bad practice to those they manage. This presents a challenge to the good public relations consultancies, as they have to retrain people who join from elsewhere.

The third problem is PR agencies. Get a backbone people. Clients are paying you for your expertise. Just because they tell you to do something doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s your job to provide counsel and explain why your way is better. Stop focussing on outputs and start focussing on real business and organisational objectives, not fluffy publicity outcomes.

Finally, I’m not convinced by some ‘rights’ in the manifesto. The one that I most strongly agree with is ‘permission required’. I think that’s flawed thinking. If you’ve done your research properly and are convinced that what you are about to send is relevant to the recipient and it’s been prepared in the appropriate format (eg. not an idiotic file attachment) then it’s not really practical or necessary to seek permission. If you don’t have express or implied permission and the information is relevant then all you are doing is inconveniencing the person even more by annoying them by asking for permission!

Some of the other ‘rights’ are too ambiguous. For example, telephone chasing, really depends on who you call, when you call what you say and why you’re calling. It’s not always wrong, it’s just the way it’s usually done that is wrong.

15 Replies to “An inconvenient PR truth: experience and training are what counts

  1. Couldn't agree more – makes me realise how old I am, but sometimes the old ways are the best!

  2. Great post Stuart. I think that telephone chasing often happens because PR agency staff feels they should be doing 'something' tangible with their client's time to justify their existence (and it's cheap and easy to produce a long list of 'journalists called' and keep the client happy). However, this is a rather sad indictment of the unequal relationship between many PR agencies their clients. Other professional services don't feel the need to indulge in worthless outputs to prove their value – when will PR agencies start to see themselves as professional advisors who can make a real contribution to business objectives (and acting in that way)?

  3. Some very good points, many close to my heart. As a relative newbie to PR the 'ring-round' has been an interesting part of my learning curve. I think it relies on research (as you mentioned) but also relationships and technique.

    Yesterday I called a journalist regarding a story and managed to work the client in to wider feature covering their sector – if I'd left the release in their inbox I doubt this would have happened. But, this worked because I knew the journalist was relevant and we had formed a relationship.

    In another case I spoke to a journalist who hadn't used a release due to space in their magazine but was updating the website when I called. I managed to get her to upload the release on to their website while on the phone.

    Your points regarding experience are important but I think it can be worth remembering that experience from other sectors can play a part. Before moving in to PR I worked in sales and as a journalist (around six years between the two). This experience has given me an understanding of what journalists what (and don't want) but also a manner that helps me sell my clients and build relationships.

    To finish, I must add that online media databases can never beat good research.

  4. It also doesn't help when you have certain agencies such as the SPA way that say all staff must be on the phone during set periods of the day without fail, and then paying their staff effectively on commission for the coverage they achieve. PR is much more than cold calling and generating hits. It's about getting the right coverage and forging the right relationships. Companies like this just give everyone a bad name.

  5. I completely agree. It’s about forging relationships, not mass mail-outs via “media databases”. And If it's a news story, there's little point in email…get it on a reputable newswire.

  6. Stuart, I have a couple of things to add to this post – anecdotal evidence and intercultural perpective.

    I agree with the death spiral of bad practices within the PR agencies – the managers indeed perpetuate cold-calling and e-mail blasts upon the young execs, very often appealing to need to increase productivity. Some of my fellow PR practitioners keep hearing “There's no time for that!” or a more sophisticated argument “The journalists appreciate the information, not personalisation.”

    As for media lists, we are probably talking about two different landscapes in which the PROs operate – the Eastern and the Western. Given that the Czech media organisations are understaffed and the market is quite small, you can stuff the whole media list for the whole country into one Excel spreadsheet. Any media database company will go out of business, because the agencies are maintaining their media lists on their own. Paradoxically, this might be a good thing – the young PROs should get acquainted with the people they are catering to.

  7. Hi Stuart

    Excellent post. I particularly liked the reference to sending by “bike”, as half the RealWire team cycles to work you have given me an idea for a new distributon method 🙂

    It is fair comment to say that some of the rights are a bit ambiguous. Funnily enough the telephone point was one I thought about at the time as perhaps being unclear, but as these were for discussion we didn't want to go into too much depth as otherwise the list could have ended up being very very long! The main aim was, and still is, to get a constructive discussion started about these issues rather than a reactionary one in response to complaints and posts like this one are exactly what is needed to achieve that.

    On the permission point though I am not sure I agree. Where a journalist is concerned then your approach may well be valid, but when outreaching to someone who blogs in a personal capacity then express permission is surely absolutely required and in fact there are legal issues here that apply to reinforce this. You could of course seek permission as part of a pitch, but nevermind legal reasons, isn't it more polite and respectful to ask someone's permission to talk to them in a very brief way first before starting a conversation – however relevant?

    As the industry increasingly seeks to engage with the public in more direct means rather than simply though the traditional media, shouldn't we revisit how, and when, such traditional tools as press releases are used in these situations? Your own great work on the SMNR for Dolce and Gabbana is an example of this

    Right off to buy some bicycle clips….

  8. couldn't agree more. I seem to have reached my limit on making polite noises about the 'did you receive our press release' calls from prs who go on to ask 'do you cover this sort of thing?'
    . grrrrrr

  9. I've come late to this post. As many have said, Stuart makes an excellent point. There's no substitute to personal research into who might be interested in your story. And much as we'd all like superlative, blanket coverage, the reality is that well targeted PR may get you much better results with a handful of newspapers, broadcasters or bloggers.

    As an old hand (established in PR in 1987), I remember having to decide whether a story deserved a bike (in London), first class post or a fax. And yes, back in '87, I asked what my colleague meant when he asked me to send the news release to the news release distribution company by bike.

    By the way, do people still send photos to radio stations? That was one of the big howlers in the 8os!

  10. Absolutely true!Leading brands inspire trust, affection and life-long loyalty from consumers and giving their owners many times the margin and ROI of competitors. Top brands get the best deals from retailers and the best facings. Being a successful brand really matters. You have done good effort to spread such an important information among people.
    drive a man wild

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