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Why You Should Think Twice Before Hiring a PR Firm

Recently I spoke with several B Corp owners to learn about the role mission plays in their marketing. Over and over again, they told me that despite having no marketing plan, no marketing staff and no outside marketing consultant, they were hiring PR firms. Founders and CEOs said “We just don’t have resources for marketing” and, in the same breath, “We’re working with a PR firm.”

This misguided effort is deeply troubling, especially for start-ups where resources are scarce and strategy is key to survival. I’ve seen so many colleagues and clients burned by bad experiences with PR firms. For our collective communication salvation, I offer this: a tale that spans 16+ years and illustrates exactly why remarkably often, a PR firm is NOT what you need.

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Part I: The Initial Encounter

It all started 16 years ago when I moved to Washington, D.C. – a city dense with PR firms working mostly on advocacy and lobbying. I was hired as an art director in a quickly growing creative agency where I worked until midnight several times a week. It didn’t take me long to figure out the source of our long hours and quick growth: it was PR firms.

Many prominent PR firms hired the agency I worked for. Most lacked an in-house creative division, but they all needed to fulfill contracts with long lists of deliverables that demanded creative staff. Over the next few years, I came to detest our PR clients for two simple reasons:

They said “YES” to everything.
I mean everything. Even when they had no idea how to do something, who would do it or how long it would take to do. PR execs would promise deliverables outside of their capabilities, then send the work to creative firms along with absurdly unrealistic deadlines.

They didn’t give us access to the clients.
The PR execs I worked with wouldn’t allow external creative teams to interface with the clients, so we never understood their vision and goals. Instead, we relied upon the execs to relay our questions and ideas to the clients, then relay their comments and concerns to us. The result? Too many rounds of revisions, lots of late nights and abundant frustration. The clients suffered most because the convoluted process made it so difficult for them to get satisfying results.

Part II: The Dismay Grows

After my second daughter was born, I did what many moms do under heavy hormonal influence — I opened my own business. I was tempted to work with PR firms since I had connections and it paid well, but I constantly reminded myself that one of the points of starting a business was to gain control of my schedule and client relationships. When PR contacts called with lucrative “quick projects” that would require me to spend the next 90 hours churning out their deliverables, I always said no.

I might have successfully disentangled myself from PR firms 12 years ago, but since then I’ve seen businesses, foundations, NGOs and local governments fall prey to their false promises. To this day I find myself counseling clients on how to work with PR firms like some [unlicensed] therapist! Here are the problems that that keep coming up:

PR firms over-promise. Every time.
At RoundPeg we make it a point to under-promise and over-deliver. PR firms seem to take the inverse approach and promise things they can’t guarantee, like media coverage on national shows or in major daily papers. They also start with grandiose plans but produce a press release and a million excuses. I literally can’t count the number of times clients have asked me to quickly create something their PR firm failed to deliver. They end up paying twice to get the job done.

PR firms won’t think long-term.
A deadline a month away is not on the radar in PR because news media moves at lighting speed and staff is focused on the “right now.” Good luck getting your PR firm to attend to a project three weeks out – they’ll likely get to it with 24 hours to go. And at 2:00 AM.

PR firms produce lousy creative.
Many of the creatives that PR firms hire as subcontractors are talented people who are good at their jobs. It’s the process itself that is flawed – when you can’t communicate directly with the creative team about what you want, you can’t expect to get it right.

PR firms are expensive.
The monthly retainer system is ingenious for PR firms but not so great for their clients. It’s incredible to me that cost-sensitive clients will spend most of their budget retaining a PR firm then bemoan the fact that they’re not seeing meaningful results.

The priority at our PR firm was mostly on billability and productivity and not on quality.” – Lauren, Former PR Professional

Part III – A Search for Meaning

I’ve been wondering why so many organizations leap into hiring a PR firm when the advent of social and owned media allows them to do publicity for themselves.

Perhaps it’s because they fear these new channels. Though it’s daunting to master new media to promote – and protect – a brand, I find that those within an organization can usually represent it best.

Maybe it’s because the organization’s leadership is overly optimistic? I’ve met people who think what they’re doing is so great it will get tons of coverage if they can just get the word out. To these idealists I say keep dreaming. My partner used to work as a communications director at a large NGO where she was told repeatedly that if she could just get coverage on Oprah, they’d be able to make real progress. Her response was “What have we done that’s Oprah-worthy?” That stumped them.

It could be that people jump to PR because it’s easier for them in the short term. Starting with the tactical saves them from having to answer the tough, big-picture questions that marketing planning is all about. They might even realize that they have marketing and PR needs to address but want to “kill two birds with one stone.” In these situations, the PR firm either meets one need and tries its best to meet the other or outsources half of the work.

Others misunderstand what PR firms do and enlist them at the wrong time, like when entering a new market. When you enter a new market, there’s a lot you should do. You should think about what you’re communicating, you should craft a story that shows the value of your offering, you should learn about your new audience and think about how best to engage them, and you should learn about your competition. These crucial steps are all functions of marketing.

Some think a PR firm can craft a complete communication strategy. A tactical plan is not a strategy. If your organization or business is looking to create brand alignment, execute community-level marketing or develop customer loyalty and retention, take that hefty PR retainer and give it to a marketing firm to build a strategy. PR outreach may be part of that strategy, and engaging a PR firm to help with tactical execution may come later, but the end is a bad place to start.

Others want to tell the whole world about their innovative approach or good cause. With B corps and other socially responsible businesses in particular, the story is even more complicated because many PR firms don’t “get” the model of business as a force for good and how mission acts as a driver for business. A marketing firm however, especially one familiar with the B Corp approach, can help you channel all the creativity and bravado of your business model into your communications. With the right marketing plan, you can even get press coverage. Maybe even from Oprah.

Part IV – I Concede Slightly To Allegations of Extremity

If I’m being perfectly honest, I have to admit that there are times when PR firms are helpful:

When you need an “in” with traditional media
When you want to place an op-ed piece
When you’re promoting an event

That’s it – most of the other needs you’re trying to serve with a PR firm are really the domain of a marketing agency.

I would love for you to prove me wrong. Someone –  anyone – tell me about a good experience you’ve had with a PR firm in the comments below.

As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..
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Comments
  • Amber Taylor
    Reply
     

    It sounds like you have been working with the wrong PR firms! (I am sure there is a PR person out there who has written this exact blog, in reverse. I’ve never understood the bitter relationship between PR and marketing professionals. We all have important, often complementary roles to play!)

    I have been in PR for my entire career, and I’ve luckily never worked for one of the really large firms that it sounds like you are describing. The largest firm I worked for was about 100 employees – and they were some of the smartest, most strategic people I’ve ever worked with. The other firm where I started my career, and then returned for 6 years as a VP, was very small and we did some amazing work for our clients. Those clients had often had bad experiences with big firms as well, but were thrilled with the results we delivered for them.

    I don’t ever remember accepting a job without some sort of communications plan as part of the package (ideally, built around a larger strategic plan). I have done my best to never deliver a press release just because that’s what the client requested. I work through my clients’ goals, messages, audiences, the “why are we doing this?” questions that help guide all of us to the right strategies and tactics to best meet the clients’ needs. That’s still how I approach my work today – 20 years after getting into the business. There are definitely clients who don’t want to go through that process, clients who just expect a PR firm will deliver the equivalent of Oprah (or, my favorite, Parade magazine) or clients who really need a marketing firm, but think a PR firm is what they need.

    Throughout my career, I’ve also always partnered with creative agencies to deliver beautiful, thoughtful products – whether that’s a full branding campaign, or something as simple as a PowerPoint or a flyer. I’ve never kept the creative folks from interacting directly with clients. That seems like a recipe for disaster.

    There are great, smart, strategic, fun PR people and firms out there, I promise! And, though I don’t think there are only three times when PR people are helpful, the three you mention are pretty important parts of any communications strategy for many clients. The landscape of traditional media has changed a lot over the last 20 years (as has the practice of PR), but traditional media is still vital to reaching lots of audiences. And, unfortunately, it’s never as simple as “placing an op-ed” or having an “in” with a reporter. Media relations – especially today with fewer reporters and producers, tighter deadlines and even greater competition for attention – is actually an art (or maybe even a science). Whatever it is, it is not simple.

    Lastly, PR is much more than just media relations, which is where it looks like you’ve defined the practice. As the name explains, PR practitioners help our clients with “public relations.” That covers a broad swath of the communications landscape including news media, online content and strategy, large and small in-person events, etc.

    By the way, #3 on your list is on the top of my list of peeves. It is so frustrating when a client has planned an event and calls me to “promote” it. PR people, just like marketing people, should never be brought in at the last minute! It does not lead to success for anyone. I think that’s something on which all communicators can agree.

    – Amber

    • Polina
      Reply
       

      Amber,

      First of all, thank you for such thoughtful comment. Surprisingly, we agree on more points than not. I’ve focused on describing my experience, and it seems as you say I have not worked with the right PR firm yet.

      A few of your comments point out that there is a misunderstanding among clients as to when to engage a PR firm and how to best work with them. Seems like this topic would make a great article that I’d love to read and share with our network.

  • Russ Stoddard
    Reply
     

    I love your clear and strong voice and perspective/opinion on PR firms. I agree with much of what you say. From my experience, it’s really about the PR practitioner – and not about the value of PR (which is huge), whether you are doing it internally or with an agency. Perhaps the big PR firms you’ve dealt with back there fall prey to the poison of the political excesses that seem to orbit D.C.? Not that way everywhere, thank goodness. At any rate, nice blog – gave me opportunity to do some introspective thinking and will for others, I’m sure.

    • Polina
      Reply
       

      Russ, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the bog post. You make a good point that DC/NY area is not like the rest of the country. I’d love to think that business is done differently in other parts, but after living and working in this area for so many years, I may be too cynical.

      Hope to continue the conversation in person in Oct in Portland.

  • George
    Reply
     

    I recently had a typical bad experience with a PR firm. They were pitching us on their services, which included a menu of standard media and public outreach. It also included “social media” outreach, so we asked them what their thoughts were on social media strategy. Their response typifies how old-school PR people think about social media and why a PR firms biggest strength is only its rolodex. They said, “our social media strategy would be to get you on FB and Twitter. Businesses these days have to be on social media and can’t just rely on press releases to get their points out there.” Great advice, from TEN YEARS ago. Also, not really much of a strategy…

    • Polina
      Reply
       

      George, You may want to take a look at this book Trust Me, PR Is Dead by Robert Phillips as he raises interesting points and has insider perspective on PR world.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

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