Why Your PR Firm Is Stuck in the 19th Century

This is a guest post from Michael Dolan.

The entire public relations industry is in the last spasms of a loud and painful demise. PR is useless in the 21st Century because everyone is their own personal brand and their own personal media. The gatekeepers took a permanent vacation the minute the media world hit the web and John Q. Public became John Q. Citizen Journalist. Why bother hiring someone to chat up a reporter for you when you can email them yourself? Even better, why bother with the reporter at all? Just write up what you have to say and blog, Tweet, Facebook and Flickr until you get the word out.

What is disturbing is the way that the PR industry is doing everything it can to hold on to their piece of the pie. Instead of adapting and offering clients something they can use, and put value in, they are throwing up a smokescreen. The PR industry is building up a wall of half-truths, scams and frauds to make Dark Ages Isure the billable hours keep rolling in.

There are two big areas where PR firms just won’t let go, and are screwing their clients in the process: media relations, press releases and connecting with the media.

Until recently, reporters and PR people were the best of friends. It was a give and take relationship. PR people gave reporters a story that placed their clients in the most favorable light possible, along with a little bit of lagniappe. Some tickets to the game, a nice dinner, an expensive bottle and a good time were frequently provided to grease the wheels of journalism. The reporters wrote about the publicists’ clients in a way that made them look fantastic. A great PR person would have relationships at all the big publications going back years, and having a Rolodex, meant just that: having a bunch of hard to get contact information for how to get in touch with writers.

This world ended with the onset of the social media world. Want to get a hold of a reporter? There is a hot link to their email at the end of every article. In many cases there is even a working phone number with an extension. As for long term relationships,   these are mostly a thing of the past. First, what journalist do you know has kept a steady gig at one publication, on one beat for any length of time in this current media climate? It’s a rarity. Most journos are desperately doing their best to keep enough writing gig balls in the air to keep the lights on. The idea that a reporter will stick around in one place long enough to help a PR person again and again is becoming quainter by the second. Why not type that up on carbon paper while you’re at it?

The expansion of the web into every corner of the world has also made readers much more informed. It’s nearly impossible for a flack and a journo to collude and pass off something slightly dishonest or spin worthy. The truth to just about everything is a quick Google search away. Journalism has never had to be more honest and truthful, and people know when they commit something to be published, it will be checked out from every angle. If a reporter fudges something to make a company look good, and help out a PR buddy, they will be called out for it.

However, it is just as simple for a business owner to send something nice to a journalist, as it is for a PR person. Still, most reputable publications now have gift policies, or at the very least the writer needs to declare if they were setup on a media tour, or a given something free to review. Then again, if you try to buy off a journalists these days, you might just as easily end up on the wrong end of a vicious tweet or blog post calling shenanigans on your shady dealings.  What it all comes down to is the inter-connected media world we live in has made relationships between journalist and PR people practically worthless.  Even at it’s’ best, nothing you should be paying $450 an hour for.

Take a good look around the web at your favorite publications. Can you find an article that was written because of a press release? It’s doubtful. You might dig up something here or there, where a writer was feeling lazy, but it’s uncommon. With all the information in the world at their fingertips, journalists can research and find whatever they like. The chance the most wonderful thing they stumble on out there in the great World Wide Web is your press release can be quantified in decimal points. It’s like hitting that half-court shot when they pull your ticket at a Nets game. It could happen, but don’t spend that prize money just yet.

Those being the case, why do PR firms still recommend, create and bill for press releases? Good question. I still hear people talking about putting releases out “On the Wire”! Really people? Did Thomas Edison rise from his grave to assist you in sending out your news release? Press releases are a relic from a time when information was a hard to come by commodity. That is not the case in 2011. In fact, we have the opposite problem. Too much information and not enough filtering. It’s absolutely egregious that supposedly reputable PR firms charge an arm and a leg to recommend that their clients send out news releases, and a further two limbs to create and distribute them. It’s an out and out fraud.

PR firms know that a press release isn’t going to get any traction, or get any pickup. They know that they’ll have an intern or the most junior staff member write it up. They know they’ll charge you a ton to “distribute “it through a service that is a glorified email list serv. Yet they still do it. From where I’m sitting, that is a first class scam. It’s a way to tack on additional billing for doing work that they know will be ineffective from the get go.

It’s never easy hearing that you’re lively hood is on the way out. I imagine fletchers, blacksmiths, telegraph operators and typewriter repairman have all felt the way some PR firms feel right now. The work you’ve been doing for years has been crushed under a wave of technology. Is there a place for PR firms in the 21st Century? Certainly, but they need to be looking at Public Relations from a 21st Century point of view. It’s time that firms took a long, hard look at what they do for clients, and why they do it.

About Michael Dolan:

I’m a Geeky PR strategist and online troublemaker for hire. Writer. I love designing social media and alternate reality games. Up for creating an online ruckus? Me too. Bike Racer. Cyclocrosser, BMX’er and reluctant roadie. Photographer. Atheist. Book Nerd. Resident of Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn patiently awaiting The Singularity.

My writing, photography, media work and creative projects have shown up in the NY Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian, Wired, Crain’s, NY Post, Mashable, Gothamist, Time Out NY, PR Breakfast Club, Oprah, Travel and Leisure, Fox News, New York Magazine, NPR, Kinky Jews and many other fine media outlets worldwide. I like to document the oddities and bizarre moments of modern life life on Flickr, Twitterand Foursquare.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire…@EvilPRGuy.

Image – *tomasrotger.com 


37 comments
alextanPR
alextanPR

@jeffespo the notion that PR folks and journos no longer have relationships is pretty silly. this coming from a digital guy.

Erika_Strong
Erika_Strong

@LauraChristo as a current #pr student I can tell you were not trained that way. The article also had some serious grammar issues.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@LauraChristo When I wrote that piece, I wasn't going for "Anti #PR", so much as anti the way most agencies execute PR these days.

CandaceLocklear
CandaceLocklear

Who makes $450 an hour? I'd love to talk to that person.

RexR
RexR

PR got its start in the early 20th century. Hard to believe it's a field that's less than a hundred years old. If you find a firm stuck in the 19th century, then they're really doing it wrong!

I think saying "PR is dying" is an oversimplification. It's more apt to say that the way people communicate is rapidly and majorly changing, and PR with it. Whether everyone ends up calling the thing on the other side of all this transformation "PR" or not is just semantics. There's still going to be a need to craft and tailor a message to various publics. There's an increasing need to even identify those publics, since a dozen new online communities pop up every day.

Writing a press release fit that need really well 40 years ago. Today, you're right, it's not as useful. But I also can't think of a decent PR firm that does just press releases and media relations. Not that I'm even actually thinking of any-- focusing on those two things alone would knock them out of the "decent" category by itself.

An aside, and a small rant:

It's funny to me that PR has a PR problem. I constantly see this idea that PR people are "evil," whether it's said tongue-in-cheek or pitchfork-in-hand. I have to ask: Who does that help? As a PR practitioner, why are you furthering this idea? Aren't we just driving the ethically-minded young folks from the profession? Aren't we just creating that very reality of evil PR?

PR should serve as the consciousness of an organization. It has an incredible capacity to promote doing good things within a business that could otherwise be just about profits. What's evil about that?

LauraChristo
LauraChristo

@evilprguy thanks for clarifying - i actually agreed with several of your points. traditional PR is definitely a thing of the past.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@CandaceLocklear Truthfully, I know a lot of folks in the PR game that bill that high, and more. I don't think it's uncommon. Granted, I live in NYC, and money can be out of scale here.

jeffespo
jeffespo moderator

@CandaceLocklear some larger agencies I know charge 5K/mo for some of their smaller clients with 8-10 hours spent on the account.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@RexR Good points. My main point is that many, many firms I run across are just going through the motions. They aren't adapting. Does that apply to everyone? No. I just don't see innovative PR work coming out of agencies because they are too afraid to rock the boat. This is especially true when speaking of big firms, with big corporate clients. Too many people, too afraid to change, so they do the same things they did decades ago.

The evil thing...I'm just owning the stereotype. I like to think I'm not all that evil. To be honest, I'm OK with furthering the idea that it's evil, because I know it's an untrue stereotype, and I'm not really willing to fight a huge battle with people too ignorant to do a little research into the subject. Blame TV.

jeffespo
jeffespo moderator

@RexR Thanks for popping by. You make a number of valid points, especially in the rant. One thing that @evilprguy points out in the piece is that it is with an agency and not an internal team. While some points are strong and may have the pitchfork mentality as you note, many agencies do poop in terms of training folks on what they are advising clients on.

For example, I have received private messages and IMs asking what the difference in wire services is (and yes, I still see value in releases, but more on marketing end than news distribution) or if claiming a venue on Facebook makes it part of a fan page. These are things that these folks are advising clients on. The folks also noted that their bosses didn't know the answers, so to me it is a sign of not keeping up with the times. I see PR in an evolutionary phase and many agencies will be left out in the cold when they stay stuck in the past.

rebeccasullivan
rebeccasullivan

@jeffespo PR people need to evolve but not every social media "expert" knows how to effectively craft messages

thurley
thurley

Jeff, interesting post by Michael. I agree with some of his points, but disagree with others as he paints PR firms with a very broad brush. One of my immediate reactions to this comment string is if there are clients out there paying 5K per month for 8 hours of professional time, I am not sure if that is a greater indictment on the client or the PR firm. By that math, I have a hard time seeing how the firm can get any measurable results and keep the client happy. And I'd love to talk to these clients!

RexR
RexR

@EvilPRGuy I guess I'm posting from inside an information bubble-- I read blogs from people that know their stuff, and the few PR pros I do run across tend to be on top of changing tech because I'm in San Francisco. Since I'm out of the biz (now in web development) it's easier to just never see or meet the folks who don't know what's going on. So I'll take a page from Mythbusters and classify this one as "plausible."

As for the evil thing, I really feel like PR people are unfairly grouped in with the other hated professions, like lawyers, dentists and used car salesmen. I guess it's the nature of the profession; a PR pro will step up to take blame more easily than he or she will step up to take credit (I know Jeff will agree with me here). You're right that it's not going to go away any time soon.

webanna
webanna

@alextanPR Your posts make it clear you understand there are differences in relationships: PR & bloggers; PR & journos; journos & bloggers.

alextanPR
alextanPR

@evilprguy @jeffespo this is a complex influencer landscape. that's why there is no one fit answer and that's why generalizations don't work

alextanPR
alextanPR

@evilprguy @jeffespo rarely do journos even with relationship just write. but they are more willing to help shape the "right" story for them

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@alextanPR @jeffespo Any relationship where you can make a call and score valuable pickup for a client has to have some boon for the writer.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@alextanPR @jeffespo It isn't necessarily money, or a gift. Could be a scoop or inside info, but has to be something in it for the journo.

alextanPR
alextanPR

@evilprguy @jeffespo knowing and staying close to journos is important even if they move. same applies to any professional relationship.

alextanPR
alextanPR

@evilprguy @jeffespo i think you're mischaracterizing the normal relationship. payola isn't or at least shouldn't be the norm.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@alextanPR @jeffespo Plus so much of the media is "non-traditional" now (ie bloggers, tweeters) they ignore or disclose pr upfront.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@alextanPR @jeffespo Been in PR long enough to remember when deals for pickup where the norm, but everything is open on the web these days.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@alextanPR @jeffespo Plus journals switch beats and pubs so often it's tough to "know someone" who can provide a specific placement.

EvilPRGuy
EvilPRGuy

@alextanPR @jeffespo It's not about foregoing relationships, but the transparency of the digital web makes handshake pickup a relic.

vedo
vedo

@alextanPR Agreed. Relationships necessary. Many sweeping generalities in that post, although I see some points he was making. cc @jeffespo

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