Seamus Phan signature

Some companies hop from one PR agency to another PR agency, blaming one after another about the lackluster PR. However, it is important to understand what PR is and is not, and what PR agencies actually do.

Having done marketing and PR for more than 26 years on, I can safely say I have seen the best and the worst from all three sides – clients, media, and agencies.

Some prospects make some unfortunate presumptions about PR and what a practitioner “should” do.

For example, one of the classic assertions from such prospects would be, “do you have good relationships with the journalists?” These prospects imagine PR practitioners to be “social butterflies”, rather than hardworking and dedicated folks who often skip meals and work behind their desks most of the time, slogging away at multiple campaigns for clients. Sure, PR practitioners have a professional relationship with the journalists, who demand nothing less than strict professionalism and usable content from PR practitioners. No matter how “good” the relationship may be, a journalist will need to see good content on the table any day. After all, journalists are beholden to the public, as custodians of quality content. Likewise, a good PR agency will discern judiciously and distill your body of knowledge, to find the best bits to communicate with the public through the media and other means.

Another assertion from some prospects is that PR agencies should be paid based on media coverage. This means that the holistic field of public relations has been summarily and ignorantly truncated down to mere media relations by such prospects, and that reputation building and management is not seen as important. Having an inch-thick media clippings book might seem impressive and may placate some people for brief moments. But at the end of the day, what matters even more is how well the public view a brand and its products, and how responsive the public gets with the brand’s products in terms of conversions and retention. Plus, the media landscape is dramatically fluid these days, with media channels starting and closing, and increasingly, digital channels (web, tablets and mobile) and blogs are becoming more important new media channels. PR practitioners are strategists and consultants, not commission-based sales agents.

Some prospects imagine PR to be simply a “cheap” (or “cheaper”) form of advertising. Advertising is advertising, and PR is PR. Advertising can have “call-to-action” mechanisms, while PR is really about building your reputation for your brands and your company. Putting X dollars into a PR retainer does not mean that it will translate to Y dollars in revenue. And some prospects imagine that they can command the control of editorial content, either because they are advertisers, or because they want to. The reality is that PR is about presenting news information that is beneficial to the stakeholders, whether external or internal. It is not the prerogative of client companies to make any sort of demand on journalists, such as wanting to “vet” the news before they are published. The PR agency should not be threatened by the prospect or client company to make unreasonable demands on journalists and their editorial integrity. If a prospect demands information the way he likes it, there is a way – through paid advertising. In my opinion, the hierarchy of needs (from the most important) is (1) the public, (2) the media, (3) the client. The prospect or client company needs to understand this hierarchy of editorial needs.

Prospects should not enslave PR agencies. PR agencies are strategists and consultants who bring value to the table by offering sound counsel that is not normally found within the prospect’s organization. If a prospect merely wants “yes men,”, such an organization would suffer not just a vacuum of creativity and innovation with a revolving door of PR agencies, but also a revolving door of its own employees. A good friend is one who would tell you the truth, however painful it may be, for your long-term benefit. A false “friend” is one who would sugar-coat everything just to soothe you without offering anything of value. A good PR practitioner, likewise, would tell you the truth, and would expect you to do the same for your stakeholders. The best PR agencies would tell you what kind of potential your brand and products have in the real world, what pitfalls you are likely to encounter, and possibly, what solutions to circumvent such pitfalls.

In an increasingly competitive and transient economy, it makes perfect sense and it takes genuine leadership to work with experienced experts from various areas, to complement your business and to help propel you forward with wise spending.