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Thursday, September 28, 2006

How to Hire and Get the Most From Outside PR Counsel

Excerpts From
By Jack O’Dwyer, New York

New York – “The PR Firm’s job is to convince the media of something,” reports Jack O’Dwyer, Publisher of the leading eponymous Public Relations Weekly Newsletter.

“Unless you have a huge budget, the impact of ads, direct mail, graphics, etc., is going to be small potatoes compared to what is said of you in the media.”

As a client, you can seek to build relationships with reporters and can order your PR firm to do so. Only one PR pro in a hundred attempts to strike up an ongoing relationship with editors, the opposite of previous practices. One corporate PR executive says that “they experience a call from the press as drive-by shooting. PR pros are spending no time in the ‘hood’ (neighborhood) building ties.

One executive states that CEOs are willing to pay “almost anything” for a good media relations person. He advises CEOs not to hire anyone who “expresses an aversion to the media.”

PR is influencing how you appear in the media, not how you are treated by the media. PR people who mostly know methodology rather than subject matter cannot be effective in such a venue.

Prospective PR clients must realize that unlike the past, large numbers of people working in PR now have had no experience in the media and are uncomfortable in dealing with reporters. Media relations experience of people on your account should be checked.

PR cannot exist on its own – it has to be part of a mix of communications methods that delivers a “consistent” message to “target” audiences.

Most clients oppose integration of AD/PR on the agency side; clients want competition among their various agencies – not coordination. They find that agencies are not apt to be equally talented in advertising and PR.

PR closes the sale. While advertising creates excitement and interest in products and services, almost no one buys anything anymore just on the basis of ads. The consumer wants more info and seeks it via general and specialized publications, friends and the Internet.
PR can have an immense effect in a short period of time and at a comparatively low cost. But the CEO of a company must be personally involved in the PR effort, including press relations. Advertising and sales can be well-handled by various company units, but not PR. What you want from your PR firm are the two “I’s” - Intelligence and Ink.

The worst form of PR that can be practiced for you is the junior PR firm account executive who calls up reporters and asks, “Did you get the release on (your) company?” The best type of PR is when the reporter calls you with a story idea and asks you for advice. You want a PR firm that knows all of the major analysts and writers in your field and can broaden your range of press contacts.

A lawyer who worked for a large PR firm once commented it was his impression that most PR was practiced “on” clients and not “for” clients. You don’t want that happening to you.

You want a maximum of up-to-the minute business intelligence and stories or just mentions of your company name or its products in the media and a minimum amount of intellectualizing over what PR is or isn’t.

You especially don’t want grandiose future plans and strategies described in glowing terms. Beware of such buzz words as “strategy,” “management,” “integrated” and “marketing” or any combination of them. PR people are well aware such talk just gets to be “bafflegab” after a while. And people who tell you PR isn’t press relations are like restaurant owners telling you there’s more to their restaurants than food.

The best use of a PR firm is when they supply useful information to influential reporters and analysts who have large audiences. You get third-party endorsement and wide readership or viewership at comparatively low cost. The ad campaign will create the desire and PR will move in with the information.

One PR agency president compared advertising to “air cover” (bombs) to “soften up” a target while PR is “the Marines” who go in and occupy the territory.

Many PR firms say that if they don’t place stories, they are apt to lose an account, no matter how much advice and strategy has been given to the client.

The PR firm is one part of a four-member team that is needed for good PR. . . .the CEO; a close aide that is always on tap to handle press calls; your outside PR counsel and the press/security analysts themselves.

PR firms work best when there is a staffer at the company who knows PR and can act as both a buffer and liaison with company executives. The staffer
can be helpful to the press and analysts by always being available (nights and weekends). A big problem in the PR counseling industry these days is that it often takes days for a reporter to reach an A/E or executive. Faced with this unavailability, reporters stop calling the PR firm.

Media relations is the hardest thing to do for a PR firm and it may not be the most profitable. It’s up to clients to keep the noses of their PR firms to this grindstone. Yet, the PR industry practice for many years has been to depreciate press relations.

If a PR firm pitches your account and makes all sorts of promises, even for marketing PR, without pointing out the need for CEO availability, new corporate policies, marketing data, access to line executives, willingness to take lumps in print as well as kudos, etc., then you should be highly suspicious.

One definition of PR is that it is “doing good and getting credit for it.” Another is that PR is “winning goodwill.” Our definition of PR is that it helps the client in appearing in the public forum, it’s the business of explaining.

The new business pitch for one New York firm for many years consisted merely of giving the prospective clients a complete list of its accounts, contacts and phone numbers and urging the clients to call all of them. The agency usually got the business – even when other firms made full presentations.

You can’t expect too many press placements or other results in the first three months. During that time, you educate them on your business and the business of your competitors. “Above all, make the PR firm part of your company. Too often, it’s an adversarial relationship. A company hires a firm and says, ‘Okay, let’s see the SOBs do it.’ Don’t dare them to do things. Trust them.”

The most common mistake clients make is hiring an agency in a hurry to fight fires that have been burning for years. The clients want the fires put out fast – preferably overnight.

One corporate PR executive reports that people who hire agencies often don’t know anything about PR and the people pitching the account often don’t work on it. Almost invariably, the PR committee sees too many agencies in too little time and winds up choosing the winner in a blur of fatigue.

Clients don’t know how much a solid PR program costs. They expect too much, too soon, for too little. Clients foolishly equate size with excellence – the bigger the agency the better. What counts is the ability of the person or team on your account.

Companies continue to confuse advertising with PR and they evaluate PR firms by ad agency criteria. Clients are generally unaware that a PR budget can often be as effective as an ad budget four or five times as large.

Some of the smaller PR firms keep all of their employees up-to-date on all of their accounts as much as possible. A client who calls can always expect some kind of help or at least knowledgeable interest in his or her problem.

A New York PR counselor with more than 25 years experience said that for $20,000 a month, the PR firm should be able to come up with four or five major placements a year – besides counseling and the day-in and day-out product, personnel and other routine announcements.

These are the ‘home-runs’ of the business; solid features in the NEW YORK TIMES, NEWSWEEK, TIME, etc. This is the most efficient way to reach big audiences. Stories in the trade press don’t count that much. They’re too easy to get into.

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