An inconvenient PR truth: experience and training are what counts

Last week saw the launch of the an Inconvenient PR Truth campaign. I’ve got mixed views about it.There’s been quite a lively debate on PR Week comments and the public relations blogs. While I applaud the initiative, I’m not totally convinced about either the approach or if it will work.

It also fails to mention the elephant in the room – the media database companies. When I started in public relations in 1989 I was taught to create proper media lists. That meant you sat down with a proper ring bound directory printed on paper (I can still remember the PR Planner section numbers such as 5B for enterprise computing, 72 for local weekly papers). When you started work on a new client you’d go through each relevant section and the individual media within it to decide which ones might be relevant.

Then you’d nip down to the newsagents to buy some copies and you’d sit on the phone and call up the ad sales teams to get sample copies and media packs sent to you. While at the newsagents you’d also have a browse to make sure you hadn’t missed anything.

Within a few days you’d have a big stack of lovely magazines and newspapers that you’d sit down and read. You’d take a look at the ABC figures to really understand what the readership was. You’d note what sections each one had and start thinking about what information your client had that might possibly fit into that section. You’d note the by-lines on every story and article and begin to understand what different journalists were interested in.

Then and only then would you begin your outreach. In those days it meant fax, post or bike. And you wouldn’t just mindlessly blast out the same news release to every contact. You might have five or even 50 different variants, each with an individually tailored headline and first paragraph just for that media or small group of titles.

Today the reality is that it is incredibly difficult to create that decent list in the first place. Every single media database I’ve tried (which I’ll admit isn’t them all, but almost) churns out lots of irrelevant targets and misses others no matter what you put in.

The databases give the illusion of research, but in reality are a lazy way out and are only ever a starting point that take you perhaps 10-15% to where you need to go. That’s just one of the problems.

Another is the ‘sweat shop’ mentality of some (but by no means all) PR agencies that perpetuate the junk mail approach to media and blogger relations. They’ll pressurise junior account executives into pumping out the releases and then hitting the phones with the dreaded follow-up phone call. Quite frequently these poor people have no real in-depth knowledge of the client so can’t provide any added value to the journalists they are phoning.

And this worst practice gets perpetuated as the account executives get promoted and work their way up the ranks, in turning teaching bad practice to those they manage. This presents a challenge to the good public relations consultancies, as they have to retrain people who join from elsewhere.

The third problem is PR agencies. Get a backbone people. Clients are paying you for your expertise. Just because they tell you to do something doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s your job to provide counsel and explain why your way is better. Stop focussing on outputs and start focussing on real business and organisational objectives, not fluffy publicity outcomes.

Finally, I’m not convinced by some ‘rights’ in the manifesto. The one that I most strongly agree with is ‘permission required’. I think that’s flawed thinking. If you’ve done your research properly and are convinced that what you are about to send is relevant to the recipient and it’s been prepared in the appropriate format (eg. not an idiotic file attachment) then it’s not really practical or necessary to seek permission. If you don’t have express or implied permission and the information is relevant then all you are doing is inconveniencing the person even more by annoying them by asking for permission!

Some of the other ‘rights’ are too ambiguous. For example, telephone chasing, really depends on who you call, when you call what you say and why you’re calling. It’s not always wrong, it’s just the way it’s usually done that is wrong.

About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.