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PR’s self-perpetuating cycle of bad practice

The tweets that inspired this post

I was inspired to write this post by a Twitter conversation I had with Econsultancy’s senior reporter David Moth. The crux of his issue – poor targeting by PR people – is the same root of all evil as those other myriad anti-flack rants from journalists we’ve seen for years and years: junior PRs under pressure.

This is the reality at a lot of PR agencies: those conducting the media relations are usually junior PRs – the standard nomenclature is “account executives” – people who are often in their first PR role and fresh out of college. The people who are “coaching” (or more often than not, not coaching) them on how to pitch stories (again, more often than not these are non-stories) to media are account managers, themselves only two or three years removed from the coal face of pitching to media. They may still pitch, in fact, often in the same vein but tend to have more joy due to experience, accrued confidence and connections.

The people putting pressure on those account managers and therefore the account executives are the account directors. These ADs in turn are answerable to the client and their own agency’s directors. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of fear pressure: the client wants coverage as it’s under pressure to demonstrate value and improve sales, therefore a lot of unnecessary press releases surface from the client with often unrealistic expectations on the results. The agency is sustained by those client fees, thus the senior team is also invested in making the crap releases “work”; the account managers feel the heat if they don’t work and the poor old exec is the one that has to pick up the phone and make it happen. And so it goes on…

The best lesson in PR? Be a journalist

I recently posted on what skills a journalist needs to succeed in PR, but an equally valid truth is that the best lesson one can have in how to “do” PR is to spend some time as a journalist or blogger. I was a journalist many moons ago (Computing, the defunct IT Week and founder member of what became V3.co.uk) and I currently contribute to New Media Knowledge, so am still pitched to by PRs. I am also a blogger, having set up The Guest Ale (beer and pub reviews) in 2011, so receive pitches from PRs as a blogger – and, as all good PRs will know, bloggers and journalists are not the same.

Journalists complain about the massive amount of rubbish they receive on a daily basis and they’re right. This is why I really enjoyed my four years at Rainier PR (now Speed Communications) – founded by former journalists Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington – and partnering with ex-Rainier PR people in my freelance career that left with the same ethos, such as Uday Radia (CloudNine PR), Chris Measures (Measures Consulting), Paul Allen (Rise PR), Emily McDaid (Hatch PR) and Stu Campbell, founder of Fire PR. Think like a journalist and you’ll have greater success with your media outreach.

Ditch the scattergun approach to PR

I always cite Confucius in my digital media training courses: “When you speak, be sure your words are better than silence”. There’s so much noise out there, it’s key to keep your powder dry until you’ve got a genuinely strong story then hit your target media with it. And most importantly, understand that publication, its audience and your target writer. That way they’ll respect you as a PR practitioner – and trust is the key issue here – and you won’t get your email address sent straight to the spam filter. In other words, you’ll be a better PR and better results for your clients.

PRs need to be stronger and push back on clients demanding they scattergun out crap release after crap release. It’s not about the brand. It’s never about the brand. It’s all about the audience – the reader/user/customer – and the sooner those in the PR industry guilty of the above comms crime grow a pair and push back on clients – they are consultants, after all – the better it will be for everyone.

Is anybody listening?

16 Responses to PR’s self-perpetuating cycle of bad practice

  1. great post Chris, and i agree with the sentiment entirely – for two industries so intrinsically linked, it’s ridiculous how much one side annoys the other with silly mistakes and bad practice that could easily be eradicated.

    one thing this doesn’t address however, is the grads emerging with PR degrees who have no knowledge of the media landscape, media behaviours and how to handle them. If there were more hands-on training or modules looking at *practice* as much as *theory*, then those emerging into the PR world with degrees on the subject would have some proper, insight driven knowledge on exactly how to talk with the people fundamental to their own (and their agency’s) success.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Chris. I’ve always found PR degrees and graduates at odds with the reality of the job and often come up against the whole “well, we were taught that…” rebuff when those of us who are senior and been there/done that know what works. Like you say, no substitute for real workplace experience.

  3. I agree completely with the sentiment – I’m a PR and former journalist, and it does give you a different outlook on things. I was lucky to work in an agency that had the right outlook on things too and never pitched junk stories out this way.

    The trouble is, though: how do these junior members of staff ‘push back’? It is a hard profession to get started in, and if an agency has a culure of working this way, the junior staff are in a very difficult position. Pushing back may lead to no job at all.

  4. Nice Post. AEs get it in the neck from AMs who have had it in the neck from the AD who’s been getting it in the neck from the MD…who, frankly, probably doesn’t stand up to the client! Needs more balls from the senior folk, plain and simple – who sometimes lose all sense of what actually is news. Once had an MD stand over one of my AEs making her call NASA to see if they’d take a cooking pan into space…after I’d said ‘don’t bother, it’s a mental idea’. (NASA chap was very polite in his response). Would also help if there was some genuine effort to ditch AVEs amongst agencies – just helps perpetuate the volume vs. value argument and the relentless drive to churning out cra* on the off-chance of coverage….the ghastly ‘throw enough and it’ll stick’ mentality.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Claire. The onus falls on senior PRs – AMs and ADs to consult the client rather than junior push-back. AEs are probably intimidated/in awe of seniors but PR needs to avoid a “blind leading the blind” situation. I just hope senior PRs actually read the post.

  6. Thanks Martin – you’ve just articulated what’s wrong with so much of the PR industry in that one story. Just plain wrong on so many levels.

  7. oh god. don’t get started on AVEs. the sooner they’re banished to some far flung PR wasteland the better.

  8. I agree completely Chris, but would you agree that this post could have been written at any point in the last ten years? And will probably be wrriten over the following ten?

    PR is a funny industry in many ways, there are some great PRs out there but the same old mistakes keep getting made, as you highlight above.

    I don’t have an answer sadly, but PR seems unique in that it persists with bad practices despite overwhelming opinion and evidence to the contrary.

  9. You’re completely right, Paul. We’ve seen plenty of posts from journalists about where PRs go wrong in their pitching but do we hear the reality from the PR side? Not often. Alas, I fear you are right about nothing much changing in the near future but I think the fragmenting media scene will hit those bad practitioners hardest. The rest of us can but plug away following best practice.

  10. Great post, as always Chris. Love the Confucius quote. Sadly in the social media world this is about as far away from reality as we can possibly get.

  11. Thanks Phil, agreed. It’s all about cutting through the noise with a really clear signal. Quality not quantity etc.

  12. It’s a peach — I advise using almost the same line to PR peeps i.e. “think and act like a journalist” … but then, of course, there is that small matter of CLIENTS!

  13. Thanks Adrian, one would hope that in-house PRs would have the experience to understand the crux of the message in my post…

  14. Any PR professional worth their salt gives strategic advice to clients, does not write or pitch a non-story that they know won’t interest a journalist and does not scatter-gun anything. Am surprised this still goes on because the speed in which a brand can lose all credibility (via being relentlessly promoted the wrong way to the wrong people) is fast. Why would any MD of any company want that to happen?

    Clients I work with appreciate me saying “this isn’t a story, this isn’t going to work” because a) they are paying me to give them this advice and b) I have my own / my agency’s credibility to uphold.

    Astonishing lack of understanding about what PR is if this is still going on.

  15. Thanks Sarah – yes, it’s still happening, alas, hence the inspiration for the post. I receive pitches and I know a load of journos that do too, there’s so much wasted effort in the PR industry that would be better spent on content and thought leadership.

  16. Though I’m not in PR, my understanding of the issues from friends who work in PR is that ridiculous client expectations can often lead to some of these problems, as Martin’s astounding NASA anecdote shows! If you’re a new AE, I imagine it can be tough to find a balance between what’s appropriate and what the client wants.