Gini Dietrich

What Is Wrong with PR?

By: Gini Dietrich | February 28, 2011 | 
133

It was a rough week in public relations last week. The New York Times let a business owner rant on their blog, TechCrunch took a stab at a PR professional, and Jeremy Pepper, Mack Collier, Shannon Paul, and I debated a PR vs. publicity Quora question on Beth Harte’s Facebook wall.

When we started Spin Sucks, it was with the idea that we would be able to publicly promote all of the good work the PR industry does and help to change perception that we’re all snakeoil salesmen. But, as of late, it seems everyone is highlighting the really bad professionals in our field (aren’t there bad professionals in every field?) from stray hashtag tweets and advertising gone wrong to fake personas and astroturfing. All is amiss and we only have ourselves to blame.

We have a new client. No, we had a new client. I spent a really long time with them (to the tune of nearly four months) educating them, building trust and confidence, helping them build their financial model for a new business they’re launching, and teaching them that PR (online and off) is a marathon, not a sprint. For free. They finally signed on the dotted line last month and we got started.

The relationship lasted only five weeks.

Five weeks.

Sure, we can point a bunch of fingers and say they were all in the wrong, but after I read the New York Times blog and after what their CEO said to me (“you trumped your online expertise”), I have to stop and think about what we didn’t do right.

If you’ve not read The Problem with Public Relations,” it’s a good piece to read (especially the comments), but this is the most stabbing point:

So many questions, so few answers. I have been dealing with P.R. people for a very long time. It would be crazy to categorize all public relations people as crazy, so let’s just say that P.R. people drive me crazy. All of them. As a client, as an interviewer of clients, as an avoider of clients they are selling too hard, and now as a client again. What I have finally come to understand is that P.R. people are paid to twist reality into pretzels and convince you that they are fine croissants. At some point, they actually believe their own concoctions.

What a nice generalization, isn’t it? All PR (since when does PR have periods between each letter?) people drive him crazy. All PR people are paid to twist reality into pretzels and convince you they are fine croissants. All of us.

But the point, after my blood stopped boiling, that I took away from this is that the author really believes all PR professionals do this. Our former client really believes I sold him a bunch of shit in order to get the business. Never mind in the very first meeting, he said to us, ” Don’t screw this up” as if screwing it up were the very first thing on our minds. Never mind that what I really want to do is trump our expertise to win some business and then not deliver results. And never mind that, as PR pros we all believe our own concoctions.

And it’s our own fault.

In both of these cases, the ranting blogger and our former client had a perception in their minds they thought we should deliver. There isn’t anything I can do about the perception of the blogger, but (knowing hindsight is 20/20), I should have been more careful to really understand the expectations and perception of our client. The things he wanted us to do weren’t included in our proposal, but I never dug deep enough to fully understand that, even though it wasn’t included, it was what he wanted us to deliver.

So we were working a proposal he didn’t even want. And that’s our own fault.

As PR professionals, we are part consultant, part coach, part implementer, and part shrink. If we forget one of those four things, we won’t be able to build the confidence and trust we need from our clients in order to help them build confidence and trust with their audiences. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and any of us who say we want to “create a preopening buzz so loud that it would announce our arrival from sea to shining inlet, instantly creating a name and a brand” are downright being untruthful. If we say those things to win the business and then can’t deliver, it’s not only hampering our ability to deliver, it’s killing the perception of the industry, as a whole.

I fully realize how difficult it is to determine goals and projected results before you begin working with a company, but I also know how easy it is to underpromise and overdeliver. It’s easy to educate and discuss the milestones it takes to be able to run the marathon. It’s easy to discuss the difference between PR and publicity and fully understand what it is the buyer wants from you.

If the client or business leader doesn’t want to hear it, it’s likely not the right fit for you. Let them go find a professional who will overpromise and underdeliver. After all, they’re out there.

They just don’t read this blog.

I snagged this image from Brian Solis’s blog, but I’m not sure where he got it. So thanks Brian…and whomever drew it!

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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133 Comments on "What Is Wrong with PR?"

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Nikki_Stephan
5 years 6 months ago

You speak to many PR pros’ pains, Gini!

I’m encountering more people lately who have a tough time understanding the “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” aspect of PR. Often times, we have to first put on our counselor/advisor hats and help the client make several adjustments in the business before we can even begin to think about generating publicity. And it’s challenging to convince someone who is ready to move forward ASAP that they need to slow down and put all the puzzle pieces into place before we can even think about doing media/blogger/public outreach.

johnfalchetto
5 years 6 months ago
Gini sorry to hear but at the same time I believe some clients are just never meant to happen. I think this client did you a huge favor by realizing you were not a fit for each other. Whatever ‘expectations’ of his you didn’t meet, or didn’t propose, we can’t win them all. You hit the nail on the head with the part shring/coach/consultant, in the end you don’t know what is actually going on in this person’s head. Regarding the bad PR for PR peeps, well it’s ironic that brand reputation specialists are unable to change perceptions on this.… Read more »
TorontoLouise
TorontoLouise
5 years 6 months ago
Great post Ginny. Love the candour and soul searching. There are many reasons why client/agency relationships sour (or part ways amicably for that matter) and as John points out below, some of them are just not meant to happen. I have found however, that one of the things that sets our profession apart from, say, law, accounting or even advertising is that many of the people who engage us do so without knowing what they want. When clients meet with a lawyer or an accountant, they are very clear on the desired outcome (e.g. keep me from going to jail,… Read more »
craigritchie
craigritchie
5 years 6 months ago
LesLent
5 years 6 months ago

Sorry to hear you lost the sale. Interesting post. (Postmotum?) The picture is from Hugh MacLeod. Gapingvoid.com He just released a great book, Evil Plans, Having Fun on the Road to World Domination. Sound familiar? I read it over the weekend. Pretty good stuff.

ShellyKramer
ShellyKramer
5 years 6 months ago
Brilliant. And so true. I get the same crap about “marketing people” and how we’re all snake oil salesmen. Really? But you’re right. At the end of the day we usually have ourselves to blame. For wanting the business without really setting the right expectations. Or thinking we HAD set the right expectations, and spelled them out, only to later realize you’d miscalculated. It’s failing. In its own way. But you know what, Gini-Gin-Gin … every time we fail we get smarter. Lesson learned. Won’t happen again. Oh, and you actually said “shit” in a blog post. I was shocked!… Read more »
JeromePineau
JeromePineau
5 years 6 months ago

Wow, what an heartfelt, honest self-assessment post – If I might chime in, re: “Never mind in the very first meeting, he said to us, ” Don’t screw this up”” – that in itself was a red flag that this particular client may not have been on you wanted to take on anyway – From the sound of it, this is a lost sale you might end up thanking your stars for 🙂 I find it’s sometimes OK not to hire (or even fire) some clients…

DonovanGroupInc
DonovanGroupInc
5 years 6 months ago
In deed a tough week on the public relations industry – managing client expectations seems to be more and more an elusive goal especially when the perception out there is killing all of us in the communications field. It’s sometimes a difficult task to get a client to see the difference between public relations and publicity – how many times have clients and pr practitioners sat across from each other and heard what they wanted or thought they heard only to have expectations come up short from both ends. What’s the answer? I think continuing the discussion in forums such… Read more »
Kenwork57
Kenwork57
5 years 6 months ago
Great, thought-provoking post, as usual Gini. The question it raises for me–and this is not a critique–is were you surprised by the ending? In my experience, many agency owners know in the gut that the new client’s expectations are unrealistic, but ignore that feeling and hope that they can create the client’s desired magical outcomes or that they’ll eventually persuade the client to see the light. Neither is likely. And it’s the agency that loses, due to how long it takes for a new account to be truly profitable, when you factor in most agencies’ high investment in pitching the… Read more »
MimiMeredith
MimiMeredith
5 years 6 months ago
We, as a society, don’t do delayed gratification anymore. So a marathon to good results and a stable brand just isn’t as appealing as thinking that a little razzle dazzle can make a brand go viral. (“How can we make this go viral?” is one of my favorite new business B.S. phrases. It may have even replaced, “How can we maximize this?” in my Mimi’s Book of Irritatants.) PR has always been misunderstood, underappreciated and saddled with expectations for miraculous results. And understanding what clients really want is hard, hard work because a great deal of the time, they really… Read more »
LesLent
5 years 6 months ago

That might have been funnier if I had spelled “Postmortem” correctly the first time!

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JordanDrake
JordanDrake
5 years 6 months ago

Well thought out – well written – thought provoking:-)

johnfalchetto
5 years 6 months ago
Gini sorry to hear but at the same time I believe some clients are just never meant to happen. I think this client did you a huge favor by realizing you were not a fit for each other. Whatever ‘expectations’ of his you didn’t meet, or didn’t propose, we can’t win them all. You hit the nail on the head with the part shring/coach/consultant, in the end you don’t know what is actually going on in this person’s head. Regarding the bad PR for PR peeps, well it’s ironic that brand reputation specialists are unable to change perceptions on this.… Read more »
ScottHepburn
ScottHepburn
5 years 6 months ago
Thanks for sharing, Gini. It’s experiences like this that remind me why I don’t use a label to define what I do for a living. It’s too inexact. There’s always a disconnect between what we think we do for a living and what the client wants us to do. And if that gap is too wide or lingers for too long, trouble happens. Sure, in some cases we take time at the beginning to have clear understanding on all sides, but just as often that’s not the case. Dating is so hard… My biggest struggle is to find the sweet… Read more »
GayleJoseph
GayleJoseph
5 years 6 months ago

Great post, Gini. I agree with John. Some clients are never meant to happen and are clearly not the right fit. I also echo (and have preached this for a long time) that it is best to underpromise and overdeliver. We may never stop fighting the fight – defending our character and our own reputations while we help our clients build theirs – but in the end, if we do the right thing and remain honest, ethical and professional, we’ll be just fine. Thanks for sharing.

wabbitoid
5 years 6 months ago
Wow, where to start … as a strategy minded “Big Picture” kind of person, I see two very key points. The first is that there is a sense of desperation in many clients They want immediate results, not the kind of solid benefits that come from long-term relationship building. That’s probably true for all the PR firms that are out there swinging for a home run but wind up whiffing it badly as much as the clients that are expecting too much too fast. The second is that you are right on when you say that sometimes you have to… Read more »
ladylaff
ladylaff
5 years 6 months ago
Dear Gina, I love your blog. Thanks for daring to tell it like it is. Apologies in advance for a mega-comment, but this stuff is really is on my mind lately. I work in the technology sector, which gets a particularly bad rap and recently drafted a white paper around a topic I rather nerdishly coined “systemic failure in influencer communications”. I think systemic failure exists when all stakeholders in a particular industry or practice are unsatisfied with the experience, the outcomes and the economics. In my case, the stakeholders are PR industry professionals, company leaders and the influencers, most… Read more »
BethHarte
BethHarte
5 years 6 months ago
Gini, this post was made even better by sharing your personal client story. In reading about said client, I almost need to wonder if he got all he needed from you in those four months of “courting” (I only bring it up because it’s happened to me more than once, but not a third time!). Those types of people string us along for free IP and often the proposal doesn’t match their needs because their needs have already been met. If people need education to get PR, they must pay for it. I don’t have much more to add on… Read more »
BethHarte
BethHarte
5 years 6 months ago

@ladylaff It’s GINI… 🙂

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
5 years 6 months ago

I think PR and Advertising have very public aspects that jade people’s view and gives them broad generalization expectations. For PR they think of boring press releases which most people view as biased in some way (which I have to assume they are including the few I have written), and Spin Control when something goes wrong. Like BP Spill or Tiger Woods when they see spokespeople (think of half the Presidental Press Conferences just have the Press Secretary).

I also think having accurate expectaions and reasonably achievable goals are important. They are very hard to get them right.

BethHarte
BethHarte
5 years 6 months ago

I will add this…

PR is not publicity, just like promotion (advertising, email, social media, sales) is not marketing.

BrianSolis
BrianSolis
5 years 6 months ago

Hello! The image is an original created by Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid to commemorate the release of Putting the Public Back in Public Relations http://bit.ly/prbook

KellyeCrane
KellyeCrane
5 years 6 months ago

Bottom line: when a potential client says “Don’t screw this up” – run far, far away. They are coming from a negative place from the get-go, and they’ll never be satisfied (and will take part of your reputation with them when they go). Thanks for sharing your personal experience, Gini!

shakirah_dawud
shakirah_dawud
5 years 6 months ago
I used the same term, “snake oil,” to describe the way so many see those of us who freelance in a post last week. I provided several humorous reasons for this, but I appreciate your delving into it in a serious tone. I think it’s a common assumption about marketing people in general, but PR–being PR–appears to get the most flak. Possibly because people trust that there are regulations on things like advertising copy, and see PR as reactionary rather than relationship-building. And yes, just as my own point was, it’s up to us to make them see us differently.… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@BrianSolis Thanks Brian!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@Nikki_Stephan You’re exactly right! And, like the guy who ranted in the NY Times, business owners don’t always like to hear a PR pro tell them what they’re doing wrong. We once had a client that was charging more for shipping than for the product. When I pointed this out to him and said we’d have a hard time building trust among his target audiences, he fired us. I guess they expect us just to be yes men and not push back?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@johnfalchetto You’re very right. I knew this wasnt the right fit late last year, but you get excited about a business idea and believe in the team and go against your gut. Wish I’d listened to my instinct instead. I did enjoy Canada (minus customs), though I didn’t get to see much of it. But I enjoyed the people immensely!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@TorontoLouise Were your ears burning this weekend? You came up in conversation at least four times! Such a good point about companies wanting PR without really knowing what it is they want. I think that’s our own fault because we don’t do a good job of creating something tangible out of the intangible. Publicity is easy to understand. You get me in the Globe and Mail and I’ll become famous. I don’t think most people really understand it’s so much more than that.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@craigritchie Thanks Craig!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@LesLent Except I read it as postmortem. LOL!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@ShellyKramer I’m kind of grouchy so you get curse words in a blog post!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@JeromePineau Yes, you’re right. And we laughed about that comment here because it was so ridiculous. It’s definitely OK not to work with people who aren’t the right fit.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@DonovanGroupInc We talked a bit about this during the live inside_pr recording on Saturday when measurement came up. Even the webinar we did last week on financials in the PR business discussed this. Yes, we can have affect on business growth. Yes we can measure our results. But it takes more than a couple of weeks to affect change. After all, we’re building trust and credibility. You can’t do those things overnight. Ever.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@Kenwork57 Oh no, not surprised by the ending at all. In fact, I wouldn’t have blogged the result if not for the NY Times article. When I first read it, I was really pissed. Then I really thought about it and realized it’s not about PR people being crazy. It’s about setting expectations. And this client result just happened to illustrate that well.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@MimiMeredith I’ll let you take me out for a glass of wine in Vegas to discuss this more! You’re so right about the delayed gratification. We see so many “overnight” successes and don’t look at how long it’s taken to get there. A good example? We’ve had Spin Sucks for five years. It took until middle of last year before it began to get any real traction, but people keep asking me how we did it so quickly. Um. We didn’t.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@JordanDrake Thank you!

DorothyCrenshaw
DorothyCrenshaw
5 years 6 months ago
Sigh… thank you for this excellent post. Whenever I look back on failed/short client relationships (and we all have them), it does seem to come down to expectations – on both sides. After a disastrous parting with a company after a too-long courtship (the client fired us after one day!) several years ago, I decided I’d rather risk underselling and losing an opportunity than suffering the emotional strain and potential reputation damage of a short union. The benefit is that clients tend to remember who was honest and it’s not uncommon for them to come back after a poor experience… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@ScottHepburn The funny thing is that we had NO publicity in the proposal. Never even discussed it during the four months of courting. So it never even occurred to me that they’d want some feature stories as soon as they signed on the dotted line. So, even without the labels, you still have clients who know what they want and why they’ve hired you. It’s your job to figure out if they’re telling you everything.

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Nikki_Stephan
5 years 6 months ago

@ginidietrich Right, and what they need to understand is if they hire a good PR firm, it’s our job to push back…not just to nod our heads in agreement with everything they say if we know it’s not right. If they’re not going to listen and take our counsel to heart, then the relationship will never work and their expectations won’t be met.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@GayleJoseph This is why I like you so much, Gayle. Honest, ethical, and professional.

BethHarte
BethHarte
5 years 6 months ago

@ginidietrich Gini, perhaps it was a case of them assuming that PR = INK even if they didn’t mention or vocalize it. I think that is the BIGGEST challenge our industry faces is that people think PR is publicity. When we start discussing research and strategy, their mindset switches to marketing (again, promotion). I think a lot of business people want to by-pass building their own relationships with customers for the quick buck they think publicity and promotion will get them…allegedly. (Hmmm, so much for having nothing to say, this is my 3rd comment). @ScottHepburn Thoughts?

GayleJoseph
GayleJoseph
5 years 6 months ago

Thanks! Feeling is mutual.

coffeewithjulie
coffeewithjulie
5 years 6 months ago
Hi Gina,To answer your question: Aren’t there bad professionals in every field? Yes, of course there is. But these kinds of generalizations about PR peeps don’t actually bother me that much because you really can’t take it personally. There are stereotypes about ALL professionals: greedy lawyers who charge per minute, disrespectful doctors who keep their patients waiting for hours, car salespeople who manipulate prices, diva actresses, etc, etc. Alot of it is simply ignorance — not actually understanding all the elements of the person’s job. As for the New York Post blog, it seems to me that he has very… Read more »
KeithTrivitt
KeithTrivitt
5 years 6 months ago
Gini, you have hit the nail perfectly with this post. Your client story brought back many old memories for me of my agency days where some clients – though certainly not a majority – would string the agency along for weeks with endless discussions about potential srategies, yet never fully committing to a contract, only to pull out at the last minute and tell us they had everything they need. The unfortunate aspect of the New York Times blog post you cite is that it had the ability to be really good. It could have given the blog’s readers (mostly… Read more »
coffeewithjulie
coffeewithjulie
5 years 6 months ago

I mean “Gini” ! 🙂

KarenARocks
KarenARocks
5 years 6 months ago

Gini,
What a great topic and how timely. I think sometimes PR folks (myself included) get enveloped in the industry so much that we somehow forget that others (like CEOs) don’t have the same perspective and knowledge behind them to accurately determine their needs. Or what THEY think their needs are. In the case of your former client, I have found sometimes you need to outline what you are NOT going to provide in addition to the services you can provide. And clarify expectations at every possible juncture, thus avoiding a disillustioned douchy client.

ScottHepburn
ScottHepburn
5 years 6 months ago
@BethHarte @ginidietrich I agree that the “PR vs. Publicity” confusion is a big part of this mess. And I understand the clients’ perspective here: “Publicity” sounds like something that yields results (sales), where as “public relations” sounds like an activity (aka, cost) that may or may not generate income. Beth, your point about building their own relationships is an important one. This is why I dislike the idea of consultants/agencies managing client Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. Even if an outside vendor does social media “the right way” — listening, engaging, building community, sharing relevant content, etc. — the relationships… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 6 months ago

@wabbitoid I was just having this very conversation with someone else. There are lots and lots of people who will take a client’s money and do what they ask. Which is why this perception exists, to begin with. Sigh…

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