PR’s Problem Is A Familiar One

By: Guest | April 7, 2011 | 

Neicole CreipeauNeicole Crepeau is a partner in Coherent Interactive, which specializes in web, mobile, and social media design and implementation for small and midsized businesses.

I’m not a PR person. That’s not my background or my training. I don’t have to be a PR person to know that the debate over PR and its definition is the same debate that other disciplines have had, with much the same resolution.

I read the New York Times article that spawned the debate, after seeing posts from my pals Jayme Soulati and Jenn Whinnem. I’ve read many of the subsequent posts, including Gini Dietrich’s very honest assessment of her firm’s own missteps and Heidi Cohen’s collection of 31 definitions of PR.

I understand the emotions of those in the industry, who may feel unfairly attacked or misunderstood. Yet, if those under attack looked around, they’d find other people in other industries suffering the same types of misunderstandings.

PR Is More Than A Title

Take a title from my industry: “Web Designer.” Ask ten people from ten companies to define Web Designer, and you’ll get ten different answers. They’ll all have something to do with creating websites, but that’s about where the similarity ends. It’s not just Web Designers, either. Try searching for a definition of Information Architect, Program Manager, or Product Manager. You’ll find different definitions across the industry, and even within the same company.

This difference in definition becomes a problem when a client seeks to hire a “Web Designer” just as it was a problem for the NY Times author when he went to hire a PR agency. Both the client and the business have ideas of what a Web Designer is, does, and what he/she will deliver. They may have quite different ideas, though.

Jon Buscall has recently blogged, twice, about how web designers are a problem. He’s warned people to watch out for designers running the show, and ruining it. It’s not that web designers are bad, though, it’s that his clients either hired a bad web designer or hired the wrong type of web designer.

The Solution?

Don’t hire a title; hire someone to deliver a specific service. Discuss the specific services that will be provided from the start, so everyone is in agreement.

When we hire web designers ourselves (or project managers, front-end developers, program managers, etc.) we clearly define what we expect from the role, including what the designer delivers. When a client comes to us asking us to design or build their website, one of the first conversations we have is about our process and what we deliver. We explain, for example, that we don’t do branding work or marketing campaigns or advertising campaigns. Our proposals spell out our deliverables, our assumptions, the project constraints, and how we will communicate during the project and make adjustments.

Clients should expect the same from PR firms.

Hiring PR Is Entering Into A Partnership

It takes at least two to communicate–and at least two to miscommunicate. I’ve only read one side of the story of the Southfork Kitchen business relationship failure. It paints the PR agency in a pretty bad light. I’m willing to bet there were some missteps on the side of the client, as well.

In a client-business relationship, the business bears the greater responsibility for setting expectations, communicating clearly about what is possible, and defining what will be delivered. It bears the greater responsibility for asking the right questions, clarifying, setting limits, and keeping the discussion going.

It doesn’t bear the only responsibility, though.

We have a tendency to think, “I hired them, so it’s up to them to deliver and make me, the client, happy.”  But PR, social media consulting, website development–one thing all of these services have in common is that they require a lot of input from the client. You don’t just hire a website company, throw your requirements over the wall, and say “tell us when you’re done.” You can do that, sure. You’ll get a website whose quality is commensurate with what you’ve put into it, very low.

When you hire a PR firm (or a website developer or a social media consultant), you are hiring them for their expertise. That doesn’t mean they don’t need your expertise–the expertise about your business, your customers, your available resources, etc. Plus the ongoing feedback and exchange of ideas and information.

Hiring for these kinds of services means that you are entering into a partnership. Partnerships typically have a honeymoon period, and then their ups and downs. In a partnership, you get to know one another, including one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The little-spoken truth is that businesses, like people, are better in some areas than in others. In a partnership, you compensate and complement one another, to get the job done.

In a good partnership, overall the relationship is rewarding and you are happy with what you get out of it.  In a business partnership, the client pays money for the business’ expertise and services–but it also provides other necessary information, communication, and resources to complete the job.

In the end, the partnership is successful if the clients’ goals are met and if both sides find that the amount spent in dollars, time, and effort was reasonable and within expectations. In the case of the New York Times author, the partnerships weren’t successful. He blames only one party, though. From that, we can draw our own conclusions about the nature of the partnership.

Neicole Crepeau is a partner in Coherent Interactive, which specializes in web, mobile, and social media design and implementation for small and midsized businesses. Using social interaction design techniques, Neicole builds websites that encourage greater social interaction, sharing, and word-of-mouth. She also works with businesses to develop social media strategies to meet the specific goals of the business, with a focus on developing social offers to increase engagement. Neicole blogs at Coherent Social Media.

  • thompsonline

    A relationship with your PR people shouldn’t be different than your relationship with your employees, customers or other vendors. Both parties need to listen, understand and reflect and be sure that clear and attainable expectations are set.

  • FashionistaChik

    You are absolutely right. Often the client would like to exert the least amount of effort and input as possible. They will put the project or function totally in the hands of said professional. There is a fine line between macro and micro management. I on the other hand need to have a thorough understanding of all aspect of my business. At times to my detriment, because of course time is money.

  • Neicolec

    Thanks to both of you. Odd that clients seem to think a vendor relationship is less of a relationship. Certainly, they are hiring for expertise and should be able to expect not to have to manage the vendor like an employee. That doesn’t mean no involvement, though.

  • pmswish

    Great post Nicole, I couldn’t agree more. Your solution to hire the service you’re looking for is much the same as saying “define the expected outcome” so that everyone is in agreement. How does one know what success is unless they’ve agreed to it up front. It’s amazing how difficult this can be; especially when there is a committee or group of decision makers involved. Five people (from the same organization, mind you) means five different definitions. I work in professional services, I think our most successful jobs are ones in which we truly deliver what the client wants. This sounds obvious, but sometimes extracting that from the client is quite the challenge. And when the tables are turned, conveying that information to a vendor can be equally daunting.

  • Neicolec

    I agree, pmswish. It’s about defining the expected outcome. And you’re right! It’s not always easy to get everyone in the client org on the same page. Often, the process of brining in a (good) vendor and answering that vendor’s questions uncovers bigger issues in the organization that have to be addressed, such as not being in agreement on basic goals.

  • Soulati

    Wonderful, wonderful and thanks for the acknowledgment, Neicole! Yes, you’re right…we in PR are being extra sensitive about the industry bashing from those within and without our profession. Hard not to be. You raise some key points everyone in business needs to remember — it’s a two-way street and finding that balance is nirvana.

  • sydcon_mktg

    You are so right! As companies we have to be just as specific about defining who we are and what we do, as well as what we will deliver as we expect our clients to be. We want them to be specific in their needs, offer them the same in return.

    I am in the same field as you…funny how spot on ironic it is that one person’s definition of a web designer is totally different than another…and in reality both are probably wrong! LOL!

  • Neicolec

    @sydcon_mktg Yes, the web designer title is a great example. I’ve found the same to be true with program manager and product manager. We’ve settled on being explicit about the skills and expectations when hiring.

  • Neicolec

    @Soulati Thanks, Soulati. We’re all a bit defensive about our jobs and titles. I totally understand that.

  • jennwhinnem

    First off, Neicole – thanks for the shoutout!

    You do a great job in this post of providing a broader perspective: it’s not just PR with this problem, it’s everybody. And, you give a solution too – be very clear about what’s expected, what you’ll get, etc.

    But I particularly loved the part about “You don’t just hire a website company, throw your requirements over the wall, and say “tell us when you’re done.” You can do that, sure. You’ll get a website whose quality is commensurate with what you’ve put into it, very low.” and then, from the website company’s perspective, “That doesn’t mean they don’t need your expertise–the expertise about your business, your customers, your available resources, etc.”

    Yes! If you don’t treat it like a partnership, you, the client, are not likely to get a lot out of it. Period. I wonder what makes people not treat it this way? Why would a client think they don’t have to be involved?

  • Neicolec

    @jennwhinnem Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jenn. I don’t know why we tend to think that hiring a vendor means just handing stuff off without involvement. We just try to make a point of educating our potential clients. A partnership is so much more rewarding, anyway, isn’t it?

  • HowieSPM

    Very nice post. @Shonali was kind enough to talk with a client of mine and myself because with a limited budget we are at the end of our 3rd PR person since the late summer. I actually interviewed 6 candidates and used @ginidietrich ‘s blog post on what to look for when interviewing. Everyone had a vision and a plan. Some more clear than others. I realized now in hindsight the chosen one currently isn’t even pursuing his initial plan. But he had some history that was successful and talked a good game.

    I think what @jonbuscall ‘s point is that we all have to deal with people who fill roles that are mysterious to us so we trust them. We feel we can’t understand the process so we don’t manage it and in the end…what we aren’t where I was expecting?

    My industry Advertising is no different. Many Creative Agencies might do award winning work that gets lots of buzz but no sales. Their answer? Give us more money we will ramp it up. I just blogged about Saks paying for a sponsored tweet I saw all day last Friday for a woman’s top. Whomever placed that ad will report to Saks how many views from me and I clicked. BIG SUCCESS STORY. Saks has no idea I am not the target and they paid for wastage.

    But the question do we structure the PR side so our goals are met and we manage the process. @Shonali gave me so much insight as to how to do this. But I am a smart cookie. I have been project manager on engineering projects in the past involving multiple vendors (rocket programs, hydrogen car programs, medical device programs) and that was easier than managing the PR expectations!

  • HowieSPM

    I want to ad this isn’t PR’s problem. It holds for every single position or role that is technically black box voodoo to most people. IT is like this. Imagine being a big company and Cisco wants to fly you to Hawaii for a demo on a new massive router. You go they wine and dine you. You return and tell your firm you need one. Who really is capable of challenging you? And do you pay an outside consultant to challenge and employee you trust for the most part? You cut the Purchase Order right?

  • Neicolec

    @HowieSPM I agree. Lots of roles that have this issue.

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  • Rileyhar

    It seems that a very precise set of written specifications and a little shopping and a little accountability would minimize problems of communication.


  • @HowieSPM It was absolutely my pleasure and you know I’m always there for you to bounce ideas off. In fact, I could probably give you some more ideas on your last question. 🙂

  • @Neicolec @HowieSPM What I see frequently is that a) “PR” is brought in very late in the game and expected to generate oodles of publicity with not much lead time; and b) businesses and clients tend to silo the different arms of communication – e.g. web, social, PR, etc., without realizing that if they don’t integrate, they’re setting themselves up for failure.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been brought in for “PR,” but kept out of the loop on developing messaging, which I think is critical to overall communications. I make no claims to being a web designer, or SEO specialist, and so on. What I DO know I can do better than a lot of people is tie the messaging together for every single “spoke” of the communications wheel in a strategic way, and it helps no one if that process is not started earlier. If there’s someone else managing that process – great! But if there isn’t, there needs to be, and IMHO PR pros are usually best at doing it, because they understand the needs of different audiences, and are usually skilled at working as part of, and managing, cross-functional teams.

    The last thing I’ll say is that what PR can’t fix is “suck.” There was a great post over on the Traackr blog about it a while back; I don’t remember the exact URL, but courtv can point you to it – and full disclosure, I currently have free access to Traackr to test it and see if it will work for a client. All too often, the product, service, campaign, whatever, is full of holes. The client/business doesn’t want to acknowledge that, so “PR” is expected to fix the problem. It can’t.

  • CourtV

    Thanks for the reference, Shonali. Here’s the post – Influencers Can’t Cure Suck On a side note, this a perfect post to share on a blog titled, “Spin Sucks” 😉 @Shonali @Neicolec @HowieSPM

  • C_Pappas

    Partnerships either between a new employee and the company or between the company and the PR firm are dependent upon the relationship that exists and is cultivated between the two – agree! The part that is scary in either of these situations is the hiring part. PR firms, new hires, babysitters, etc. – they all have an agenda: get hired! But what i feel gets lost in initial interviews is the reality of the relationship. We often act extra nice, or wear ‘not quite ourselves’ outfits, wip out the compliments and modify our experiences and future initiatives based on the conversation and what we feel our target ideally wants. How can we encourage more originality so expectations are lived up to on both sides? I know we need to do something beyond the ‘your hired’ conversation, but what can we do to make sure we are saying this to the right person or agency? Bad decisions are often made because of bad data.

  • Neicolec

    @C_Pappas That’s a really good point. It can be hard to have a full conversation when you are also in the process of making the sale. I think it’s a fine balancing act. On the one hand, you want to be positive and assure the potential client of your skills and ability to deliver, at the same time, you have to set realistic expectations, including about the commitment you expect from the client. Some of the best advice I’ve heard is to be willing to walk away when you think you’ve got a “bad” client. I guess one recommendation is to know your boundaries, where the client expectations are off-kilter or where they are asking for something that you really can’t deliver, and be willing to set those firmly, even if it means losing the sale. But, it’s really challenging, I agree.

  • Neicolec

    @Shonali @HowieSPM courtv I can identify with the “late” factor. Clients often don’t anticipate how much time it takes to create a website and start later than then should, expecting it to be completed by a marketing-driven date. And the integration of communications is still in process for many companies, especially smaller and mid-size ones. As consultants, we often see the organizational issues more clearly than people in the org do, and we are more handicapped by them, I think, as we have no leverage or ability to work around them. Ultimately, the organization suffers for that.

  • ginidietrich

    Hi Neicole! First, thanks for the really well written guest post!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what you say here around clients wanting to hire the experts and think their work is done. I’m actually going to add that to my new business talk: You’re going to hire us and we require XX hours of work from you per week. I know I’m guilty of it, too. I hired a CPA to handle all of our financials and don’t make it a priority to help him when he needs help. I know how frustrating that is on our end so I’m taking heed from the hiring position, as well.

  • Neicolec

    Thank you for the opportunity to guest post, Gini! I really enjoyed it, and your lively community. Good idea to include it in the business talk, and maybe materials, too. After I wrote this post, I actually added the partnership info to our flyer on the website development process. I’ll have to make a point of also bringing it up in early talks with clients. Thanks!