When PR Firms Don’t Work For You
19 November 2020
“First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado…second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”
That’s Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but it sounds like my boss at a PR agency I worked for in New York.
Working at a PR Firm
If you didn’t get enough “hits,” or media placements, at a PR firm I worked for, security might escort you, clutching a cardboard box full of your workplace sundries, out of the building. Get enough hits that week and you were safe. Get a few high-profile ones and you may even get a spot-bonus.
At its best, it was exhilarating. You experienced a high when you secured a big placement for a client. It made you feel powerful, as if you were molding the media to your vision. At its worst, you felt like a glorified telemarketer, maligned by the journalists you prostrated yourself for.
That was the deal. Get the hits, or find a job at another PR firm. In a sense, there was comfort in that simplicity. There was no gray area to hide behind. There wasn’t a complicated set of metrics you could use to obfuscate your shortcomings. You either got the hits, or you didn’t. You knew where you stood, for better or worse.
Until the hits weren’t enough. Then, everything changed.
“Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers.”
Media Placements Don’t Equal Sales
I had a new tech client that was working on an experimental feature with a lot of “media potential.” My colleagues and I were chomping at the bit. We knew we could sell this futuristic technology to big-time outlets. And we did.
Major publications covered the story. It was a media bonanza. We were impressed with ourselves. The CEO of the PR firm was impressed with us too. There was just one problem: The client wasn’t impressed.
I had been waiting all of my young career for an opportunity like that. All I needed was the right story to show what I was capable of, but I never stopped to ask if I should pitch the story. I didn’t consider what the story could do for my client’s business. I just knew I could sell the story. So I did.
I didn’t understand my client’s reaction. Why weren’t they happy? Any of my other clients would have killed for an activity report like that. My unimpressed client, however, instinctively knew what other clients eventually came to realize:
Media placements don’t translate to sales.
A national media placement doesn’t equal sales.
Photograph licensed via Adobe Stock.
Flash Vs. Substance
The story that we pitched was based on a pilot program that took place in a small market. It wasn’t core to my client’s business. It was an exploratory product feature we mined purely for media outreach.
Sometimes you use flash to get to the substance, and maybe, I rationalized, the pilot program (flash) would lead to in-depth conversations about my client’s offering (substance). It didn’t. The media fixated on the sci-fi element. All flash.
Not only did my client not care about these high-profile media placements, they urged us to secure placements in what I considered obscure industry trades. My client knew potential buyers read those industry publications faithfully. Those are the placements they cared about.
No problem, I thought. We can do both. And we did. We secured placements in the vertical publications my client asked for, in addition to the mainstream placements we secured. The client still dropped us.
The PR Trap
What can you do when you exceed expectations and it’s still not enough? Nothing. We painted ourselves into a corner.
The placements didn’t translate into new business opportunities. How could we make a case for a retainer renewal when we delivered all we said we would (and more), and it still didn’t produce business results? We couldn’t.
Even though we fulfilled our contractual obligations, my client harbored expectations about what their media placements should achieve. There was a disconnect between what we agreed upon and what those expectations were. My client expected media relations to do more. We should have done a better job at setting those expectations.
PR can do more, if it’s part of a wider plan. Third-party validation is powerful. Having someone, especially an influential someone, say something positive about you is more compelling than you saying something positive about yourself.
For some companies, media relations on its own can lead to business opportunities. Consider tech companies on the hunt for the next round of funding. Big media coverage might help court VCs in that scenario. Usually, however, PR alone won’t drive new business or financing opportunities.
Business owners often fall into the PR trap, eager to see their company name in proverbial lights. They think that if they get that big feature story, the world will see what they see, and everything will come together.
PR firms are sometimes not too quick to disabuse their clients of that notion. The senior leadership team is not going out of their way to give you a reason not to renew, and all the junior PR executives are trying to do is get enough placements to justify their jobs.
PR can do a lot of things, but driving sales is rarely one of them. If you expect a Cadillac Eldorado and you end up with a set of steak knives, you might be pretty disappointed.