Saturday, August 22, 2009

10 Things PR Agencies Do That Limit Effectiveness

What a week for the PR industry. The justified outrage over the Brody PR debacle seems to be diminishing (Seriously, I was going to link to a story about it, but just search "Brody PR" and look at some of the headlines/blog posts that come up). I am finally addressing something that makes my blood boil (and yes, it makes my blood boil even more than a PR agency spamming more than one hundred technology and social media leaders) - it's the allegation that PR firms don't add value.

An article in the The Business Insider states that an anonymous former PR executive alleges that 90% of PR firms add no value. He/She then lists several characteristics businesses should look for in a PR firm to guarantee a higher ROI. Now, I have to admit, I agree 100% with every attribute listed. What I take issue with is that a majority of PR firms are unable or do not add value on a consistent basis. 

I think most PR firms add value to their client's business. I absolutely LOVE my industry and while agency relationships with a client are a two-way street, some PR firms are more effective and much better at establishing and maintaining long-term relationships with clients. But why? Why are some agencies better at this than others?

In my own professional experience, some PR firms aren't as effective as they could be because:
  1. They fail to do the research to really understand a client's industry/market space. Research can be expensive. If done correctly, however, it adds much needed information to craft an effective communications strategy across all aspects of a company's marketing, sales, internal and external communications.
  2. They fail to GET OUT OF THEIR OFFICES to go meet with the press/bloggers/etc. and learn about their interests (no pitching allowed). Research on the Internet will only get you so far. If a PR agency is getting out and meeting those who cover a client's industry (whether it be at industry events or buying them a cup of coffee to get to know them better), it helps in not only understanding the needs of a particular journalist/blogger, but also can help in gathering intelligence about the marketplace.
  3. They fail to introduce themselves as a resource (NOT just a source) for media who are increasingly pressed for time. Hiding who clients are doesn't work (unless an agency has a good reason for doing that). I've found sending a BRIEF note of introduction to key media when a new client comes on (complete with contact information), goes a long way in building strong relationships for clients with the press.
  4. They fail to effectively communicate to the client a realistic timeline for a media/awareness build, which eventually leads to frustration/disappointment. Anyone in the b-to-b  and b-to-g space will tell you that awareness and long-term engagement takes time. Communicating that upfront avoids frustration and disappointment. That is why having a sound communication strategy and plan from the get-go is so important.
  5. They fail to push back on the client when necessary in order to achieve maximum ROI. Most of the criticism of PR firms seems to come from the lack of creativity and further ideas to drive awareness of a company's offerings. However, this is a two-way street: if a firm is consistently coming up with good ideas to drive awareness only to have them shot down (the "stick to the press release" mentality), a company can expect a diminished PR ROI.
  6. They fail to effectively communicate their value. Media clips are nice, but PR is so much more than the latest press hit. If that's how a company is measuring effectiveness, they've just gotten publicity and NOT strategic communications counsel. Asking for an agency's advice or point-of-view on a business issue is one way to evaluate if a firm truly "gets" a company's business. It's not just WHO a PR firm knows, but WHAT they know about an industry. As I've said time and time again: Don't hire an agency to get you press, hire an agency to get you intelligence. Again, if an agency fails to demonstrate from the beginning how they measure and communicate to clients their effectiveness, a company should not hire that agency.
  7. They fail to be anything more than the order takers, when what a company wants/needs a strategic partner who can use business intelligence to keep their company one-step ahead. An agency should consistently demonstrate applied knowledge on a frequent basis to show that they are proactively striving and driving a client's PR strategy.
  8. They are failing to talk to the right people in a company. If a PR firm is not asking (and a company is not volunteering) senior leaders, SMEs, department heads, project managers, engineers, etc., it's not making full use of its arsenal of available PR resources and potentially atrophying its own ROI.
  9. They tell a company what they want to hear, not what a company needs to hear.  Part of a PR firm's job is to serve as the much needed outside, objective third-party that is able to give insight and prevent "group-think" from occurring internally. 
  10. IN SOME CASES, The people at the agency who sell the business, DO NOT effectively communicate a client's goals and objectives to the people who will be doing the work. This often leads to huge miscommunication and outright disappointment by a client who was expecting immediate results, when reality dictates that planning and (again) research be done to create and implement an effective long-term communications strategy.
I could list more, but these are the 10 things I've seen in my career that hurt a PR agency's effectiveness. Again, I need to stress that an excellent working relationship between a client and its PR agency is a TWO-WAY STREET. While agencies need to be more proactive, clients need to understand and establish how exactly they want to use and why they even want to work with an agency in the first place. Establishing goals, roles, and responsibilities for all parties at the beginning of a relationship will not only lead to a lasting partnership between parties, but goes a long way in PR agencies demonstrating value and enhancing its own reputation over time.

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