Thoughts on public relations (Part 2)

This post is the second in a series of thoughts on my recent experiences as a journalist “embedded” within a tech-centric public relations agency. You can find Part One here.

In that first installment, I talked a lot about how reporters and PR pros often find themselves at odds because they don’t really understand each other. This time around, I’d like to turn to how companies interact with external PR agencies and the media, and why they don’t always get the results they want.

Now … I don’t really expect companies to take my advice. There’s very little a PR agency can do to change corporate culture. A reporter might have a better chance, provided the barrage of negative press is big enough. But companies, especially large ones, tend to be set in their ways. Still, it’s worth pondering some of the things that, in theory, should be easy to change, but that I’ve encountered again and again.

PR is an underappreciated priority

Reporters are supposed to hate PR flacks – or at least, that’s the assumption. Allow me to tell you, though, that that worst meeting I ever had during my time as a reporter was with a company that tried to entice me by telling me their execs didn’t mess around with PR. No, I was told, this company was completely candid. No bullshit. In practice, however, this lack of filter meant they lectured, they interrupted me, they answered my questions with answers to questions I didn’t ask, they kept talking when I wanted to change the subject, they trash-talked well established competitors, they tried to show me demos that didn’t work, and on … and on … and on. About halfway through this meeting, I shuddered and thought, “Sweet baby Jesus, you folks need a PR agency.”

If you ask, most execs will tell you that how their companies are perceived by the public is important. Yet in my experience, few companies really seem to understand what goes into mounting a successful PR campaign. Want good press? Hire an agency and you’re done. They don’t seem to appreciate that much of the legwork still needs to happen on their end.

This is anecdotal, but in my experience, meetings and conference calls with PR agencies have a way of getting canceled or rescheduled. Sometimes it would take months to make a meeting come together, even when it was to plan for some event that had a fixed date. And by “meeting,” I mean a conference call with three or four participants that would last about a half hour. The client just couldn’t make it. Typically, they’d cancel the day of the meeting. Sometimes they’d cancel less than an hour before the appointed time.

The hardest meetings to schedule were training sessions, where we’d teach execs how to engage with the media. These always took months to nail down. It was a head-scratcher for a couple of reasons. First, as I mentioned, many execs aren’t great at speaking to media without some coaching. That meant our agency could do its jobs and set up briefings with media, but some of those briefings didn’t go well. Second, as with the aforementioned conference calls, the actual training sessions were no great imposition on a client’s time. Typically, we’d travel to the client’s offices and meet for about two hours. Still, even when execs seemed willing or even eager to make this training happen, they’d bail out at the last minute.

In any other business, I’d find this behavior pretty darn disrespectful. But agencies are a service industry, so you just kind of smile and suck it up and hope the meeting won’t get canceled again next time. Still, take a moment to consider the implications. Each time an exec cancels a PR meeting and reschedules it for weeks later, what it says is the public perception of this company is not as important as any other thing I’ll be doing over the next few weeks. That doesn’t sound like a great guiding principle to me.

The most interesting thing about those media training sessions, by the way, were the questions we’d get during them. One I heard a variation of repeatedly was, “How do I know when I’m staying on-message, or how can I be sure that I’m not telling the press something I shouldn’t?” In other words, the execs didn’t even understand the role and function of their own, internal PR departments, let alone the external agency. They had no real concept of how the media game works. I call that a blind spot.

What goalposts?

The problem with all this is that it makes it hard to set expectations. It’s not uncommon for clients to demand that an agency “guarantee coverage” of an announcement, even going as far as to name specific publications or even specific journalists from whom they want favorable coverage. Such requests are absurd. Sure, most clients would love a feature article in the Wall Street Journal showcasing their company – but that kind of publicity, especially, must be earned.

Reporters decide what they want to write about, not the companies they write about and certainly not those companies’ PR agencies. Maybe a given journo just isn’t interested in the latest announcement. Maybe the reporter took a briefing but the company exec made a bad impression (it happens). Maybe the reporter already has a full dance card and doesn’t have time to take on another story. Insisting on guarantees is counterproductive. There are no guarantees.

On the “bad impressions” front, I remember one angry email from a client who wanted to know why his company was “completely off the radar” of a certain, specialist reporter, when the reporter was seemingly covering all his competitors. We had to remind this client that his company was not off the radar – in fact, we had facilitated a meeting between the client and the reporter just two weeks prior. Who knows why the reporter chose not to write a story? (We later learned through our analyst contacts that the client’s product had a lot of problems and many early customers were disappointed. Just sayin’!)

I don’t mean to let PR agencies off the hook. After all, it’s their job to meet these challenges. It’s what they’re paid to do. But PR clients shouldn’t expect success when their requests are unreasonable, and particularly when they’re reluctant to take advice (even though they’re paying for it). Clinging to “visionary messaging” does more harm than good when the message simply isn’t getting across.

So, what should journos take away from all this? One question PRs ask reporters – sometimes out of desperation – is, “What would it take to get you to cover my client?” I suggest journalists should think about doing a better job of answering it, frankly and honestly. Answers might include:

  • Your client is much younger than several entrenched, large competitors. I need proof that its offering can compete on the same level.
  • I need you to convince me that your client’s offering really is in an entirely new category from its closest competitors’ offerings, when the analysts tell me it’s not.
  • Most of your client’s competitors offer a feature or service that your client doesn’t. I can’t believe this feature or service is unimportant until customers stop telling me it’s critical.
  • You’ve given me vague talk about pilot projects, but you don’t say who’s doing them. Show me some customers, particularly ones that are on the road to production use.
  • The client has lost some execs lately and it hasn’t announced new funding in a while. Prove to me that it can get its operations under control.

Armed with this kind of advice, the flacks have a better shot at helping the client develop stories that seem both favorable and newsworthy. But the PRs can’t do it alone. The client needs to be an active, engaged participant, too.

One more thing…

With that, I’ve run long again, so I think I’ll end it here for now. But to that last point, tune in for Part 3 of this series, where I’ll have some more thoughts on a company’s role in the PR process. In that installment, I’ll discuss a topic that’s near and dear to tech PR’s collective heart, a concept known as “thought leadership.” Watch this space.