Among the many tasks that most entrepreneurs aren’t prepared to tackle: Sifting through PR firm pitches. There are countless options to choose from, and almost all will try to convince you that their services will turn your company from also-ran to world beater. SAI contributor Steven Blinn of Blinn PR has some advice in the column below: Don’t listen to any of it.
When a bestselling book about your profession is entitled “Toxic Sludge is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and The Public Relations Industry” it’s obvious that your business has a rather dodgy reputation.
But most of the suspicion that’s directed at us concerns the way we shape the truth to serve our clients. What’s not talked about as much: The lies that PR agencies tell clients and/or prospects. Yes, doing any sort of business requires the spewing of some polite falsehoods to lubricate the wheels of commerce. But there are fabrications that are particular to the PR business. You see them lurking, again and again, in the latest cut and paste press release announcing a new client win. You read them on agency blogs or hear about them from disillusioned clients.
And now, here they are, neatly organised into a list that will help you and your company spot the most common PR ploys.
1: “This is such a terrific product/service!
Part of public relations is managing clients’ expectations. Not all products and services are newsworthy; some will appeal only to a niche market. Others are entering a market that’s already over-saturated. But many agencies are scared of telling their clients the truth, fearing they’ll lose the business. Instead of functioning as a strategic advisor, they act like an over-eager suitor on a first date.
2: “Your account is in the best possible hands…”
PR firms often bring their best, brightest and most articulate stars to the pitch and imply that this is the talent working on an account that bills $3-5K per month (at most). How many times have you heard that senior staff will be pitching the media on your behalf? Meanwhile, back in the real world, a junior account exec, or one with limited experience, is handling your account and has no idea about your company or technology.
3: “Our agency has deep experience with technology companies like yours.”
Never mind the fact that likely 90%+ of that collective experience no longer works at the agency, having long ago moved on to competing agencies or retired/passed away.
4: “We’re doing all that we are supposed to do.
“Often an agency will tell a client, well after the agreement is signed and months into the assignment, that something can’t be done because it’s beyond the scope of work. For example, the agency won’t pitch speaking opportunities because it’s “beyond the scope of work.” Nonsense — getting media attention for a client through any possible, valuable venue is the job, period.
5: “We know Web 2.0”
More and more PR firms are offering clients help with podcasts, promoting and writing blogs and writing social media releases carefully optimised to ride high in search engine results. That’s great, assuming the agency has real expertise. There are plenty of blogs that were guaranteed to “ramp up your SEO” that remain languishing, unread in the backwaters of the Internet. And you can podcast until you’re blue in the face without seeing any improvement in your site’s page rank. Run away fast from any agency that suggests Twitter or a social network can magically solve all of your PR problems.
6: We have great relationships with (insert high profile reporters’ names here)”
I’m dumbfounded when prospects want me to drop names of reporters I know—as my list of business connections really means nothing for the client. Reporters know a lot of PR people, and vice-versa. But whether a reporter likes a PR rep or not, they aren’t going to write a story that isn’t interesting to their readers. In any case, it’s far better to find the right reporters to tell an interesting story to the right readers than to keep pitching a small group of elite reporters.
7: “We have affiliate offices all over the world.”
Not a lie, exactly — assuming they aren’t counting their freelancers’ apartments as satellite offices. The falsehood is the implication that this matters to the prospect. In reality, lots of dots on the map that’s proudly displayed on an “About Us” page doesn’t mean squat unless there is a need or purpose. How will a branch office in Barcelona or Budapest serve your business?
8: “We offer highly-targeted strategic public relations.”
When in fact they just routinely blast out press releases via e-mail, with the hope that something will stick, and reporters know to automatically delete the latest gibberish from ABC agency because they never send anything useful or interesting. Here’s a tip. Ask exactly who the agency is pitching. A small, well-selected list of reporters is far better than sending a release or pitch to a huge mailing list comprised of every reporter that anyone in the agency knows, has heard of, or thinks may probably exist.
9: “We do a great job taking advantage of the news cycle.”
Certainly getting your client’s comments out on the topic du jour is a good thing, but it’s far more important to think outside the box and make the news. Coming up with creative pitches is more difficult than riding the news wave, so many agencies convince clients that a quote embedded in a few stories about the crisis of the moment is great PR. In reality, it’s a small part of what an agency should be doing.
10: “It’s not our fault. Your product/service just isn’t all that compelling.”
The biggest falsehood agencies foist upon clients is that poor PR performance is largely the client’s fault. The truth is that there are many minimally talented people in the PR business who send poorly written press releases via unsolicited email blasts and annoy journalists with a steady stream of boring, predictable crap. If the agency didn’t tell you your product was a tough sell at the beginning of your relationship, they shouldn’t tell you that after their campaign fails.
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