Gini Dietrich

PR Firms Add No Value? Truth or Fiction?

By: Gini Dietrich | August 25, 2009 | 
33

cranberry-harvestYesterday I read an article titled, “90 percent of PR firms add no value.” My friend Jeff Mello sent it to me wanting my opinion on it and (I think) wanting me to get fired up.

The truth of the matter is, I agree (sorry Jeff!).

The article, which can be found at The Business Insider, states:

“I’ve worked as a senior corporate communications exec for three Fortune 500 companies and I’m confident in saying that 90 percent of PR firms add no value.”

I tell this story a lot, so if you’ve heard it, bear with me.

When I worked at Fleishman-Hillard in Kansas City, I was on the Ocean Spray account. I loved working on that business. It was a large account and we were doing communication for cranberry juice, which was an easy sell because of the health benefits. We created a campaign calling “The Art of the Ocean Spray Harvest” and commissioned three photographers to depict the cranberry harvest in British Columbia, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts (if you ever visit my office, you’ll see three of the commissioned photos framed on my walls).

It was a great campaign. Not only did we create a traveling art gallery, but we were able to sell photos (framed and unframed), postcards, stationery, and other trinkets with the cranberry harvest depicted and donated the proceeds to America’s Second Harvest. We gave away tons of samples of juice that year. We worked with city officials. We worked with art galleries in many major cities. And we worked hand-in-hand with the charity.

At the end of the program, we very proudly presented our results to the client. Three six inch binders full of stories that had run, gallons and gallons of juice given away, thousands of dollars donated to the charity…and then it happened.

The client looked at everything very patiently and then shrugged her shoulders and said, “This is great. But our sales are down and this very expensive PR program did nothing for us. We can’t afford to keep you guys on next year.”

WHAT?! All that work. Fourteen weeks of travel. THREE six inch binders full of stories. And we’re being fired?

That was the beginning of the end of my time at FH and the beginning of the time that I began to think there has to be a better way. Now when I hear, “We can’t guarantee results” or “We can’t make the media write your story” it makes my skin crawl.

The truth of the matter is, especially in today’s digital age, the right communication CAN affect the growth of your business. So if you hire us and we tell you news releases don’t work, it’s because we’re not publicists and your company or your CEO getting an ego stroke because we got you three six-inch binders full of stories isn’t going to affect business growth. It’s also because we’re not going to distribute a bunch of news releases, let the wires pick them up, and then tell you we did our jobs. It doesn’t work. Period.

I always say I love it when other PR people make us look good. I also love it when people change careers and go into PR because “it seems so easy.” I say have at it because you’re going in that 90 percent that add no value, leaving room for the 10 percent of us who run businesses AND do communication so we know how, and how not, to affect sales.

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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33 Comments on "PR Firms Add No Value? Truth or Fiction?"

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Teresa Basich
6 years 10 months ago
THIS ties in fantastically with @PRTini’s post today on local search adding value to PR (I’ll post the link at the end of my comment for you to check out). Basically, she poses the question: Are local search and services like Foursquare and Brightkite the next big thing for PR? She thinks so, that local search and communications are going to trump national publication/recognition because the local spotlights will be what turn recognition into actual sales and bottom line results, especially for firms with geographically focused clients. I SO agree. People use these new media channels to tap into the… Read more »
Teresa Basich
6 years 10 months ago

OY! Of course, I got so excited to contribute I forgot to leave the link to @PRTini’s post.

http://prtini.com/pr-gets-local/

Better now!

Abbie S. Fink
6 years 10 months ago
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Yes, the binders are impressive but they don’t tell the whole story. All the clips in the world mean nothing if they do not address the key initiatives that the client has hired us to bring forth. I have a few similar instances in my career as well, when I marched in, all proud, only to be told, “that’s nice, but not really what we were hoping for.” Public relations practitioners should be constantly asking questions: is this campaign still on target, what has happened in the market to alter our strategy, what does… Read more »
Christopher
6 years 10 months ago

One of my clients works with 2 firms. One is in the 90% the other in the 10%. Unfortunately, the 90% firm is a friend of someone so they continue to put out the fluff PR (releases, local paper, etc.) while the 10% company is always looking to try something different.

This client is not a sexy business to market but the 10% firm makes every effort to make a splash and show measurable results.

Thus the 10% firm now gets 90% of the PR budget.

Aaron Templer
6 years 10 months ago

I recently lost a bid to a PR firm. The firm saw $40k of billable hours, I saw a bad idea that the best PR plan in the world couldn’t make successful. Mine was value that the client didn’t want to hear. Theirs was value ($$) they wanted to add to their own firm. The client’s idea man and point-person was fired. And client’s in the midst of wrangling out of the contract. Maybe one can move from 90% to 10% by not just thinking first about the client’s needs and the firm’s second. But actually acting that way.

Aaron Pearson
6 years 10 months ago
Well, it’s hard to disagree with the assertion that a binder of clips does not constitute business results. The issue here is that most campaigns don’t know if they’re successful or not because they don’t include a measurement component to link PR activity to “PR results” to business results. It doesn’t mean it’s wasted – it means they don’t know. But of course that’s barely better. The premise that effective PR firms (this 90/10 thing seems like simply a provocative figure without science behind it, but whatever) choose their tactics strategically vs. just try to maximize their clips or “impressions”… Read more »
Gini Dietrich
6 years 10 months ago
Great comment, Aaron! We recently were in a new business pitch that was going swimmingly well until the prospective client asked how many news releases we were going to distribute. When we said we might have news releases to use as tools for a piece of the program we were recommending, we weren’t going to just send news releases. I think my exact comment was, “They don’t work.” The client told us that our two competitors said they’d distribute news releases weekly. I almost laughed out loud and my team looked at me like, “Are you kidding me?” We didn’t… Read more »
NicholasPR
6 years 10 months ago

I’m not sure I’m correct, but were you not running an advertising campaign or marketing promotions campaign? Maybe both! That is what it seamed to me with the cranberry account.

Using PR to increases sales (especially as the only marketing tactic) is almost always a bad idea. PR is not usually used to increase sales. Its output is more in-line with longterm reputation building and branding.

William
William
6 years 10 months ago

Let’s review the definition of public relations – the practice of managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics. Public relations largely involves exposure in credible third-party outlets and offers a third-party legitimacy that advertising does not have.

Gini – In this respect your Ocean Spray campaign was clearly a success. It is unfortunate that your client’s expectations were so tied to sales…

Due to the nature of the industry, we all need to be clear about what role your activities will play as a part of the client’s marketing/communications mix.

Mary Barber
Mary Barber
6 years 10 months ago

Another wonderful post Gini that I see as right on target. As long as public relations practitioners believe that clips equal success we’ll have these problems. More importantly, if “we” continue to execute programs without first creating a plan with measurable objectives and target points that help ensure it’s still meeting objectives we’ll face these issues. No matter how small the project, my clients know we don’t start executing a plan until we’ve both agreed where we’re going and how we’ll know success. Great reminder though of some tough lessons in my past as well.

Jack Holt
6 years 10 months ago

From a small tech CEO: spot on. Fits with my piece from yesterday: http://bit.ly/JyjQH “PR or Advertising: What will pay off for your startup?”

LaurieTaylorPR
LaurieTaylorPR
6 years 10 months ago
I think you’re right on when you say it depends how PR is defined by the serving agency. At Beacon, we believe EVERYTHING is public relations. The way the phone is answered. The way the team interacts. The timeliness of services provided. We can’t responsibly advise any client in a way that gets results if we think PR begins and ends with news releases and events. The operational strategy makes all the difference and we must help our clients understand the big picture so we can nurture progress in a healthy direction and ultimately pay for ourselves (at least)! Partner… Read more »
Molli Megasko
6 years 10 months ago

I agree with Abbie. I think now more than ever we need to be flexible. A 12-month plan might have worked a few years ago, but anything beyond six months out is silly to promise. With the way media is evolving and the way consumers are getting their information, we need to keep evaluating what we are doing to make sure it is effecting our clients’ bottom line. Even if it means stopping what you’re doing to go on another track, like Gini says, honesty with clients will get you in that 10 percent.

amymengel
6 years 10 months ago

Just curious – with the gift of hindsight, what (if anything) would your team have done differently on the Ocean Spray campaign?

Dave Van de Walle
6 years 10 months ago

90/10?

These days, might be closer to 95/5.

I love telling the story about how, in my Corporate PR days, I managed the agency relationship for something like 8 PR firms. The best? The ones that asked “what are you trying to SELL” first, then we figured out PR strategy from there.

Binders of clips, goofy impression numbers, etc. — didn’t care. Did we sell more stuff?

Great post as always. Stay in that 10%. Or 5%.

Peter Faur
6 years 10 months ago
Great story, Gini, and thanks for the post! As several people pointed out in one way or another, so much of how the success of an initiative is perceived depends on defining the objectives and measurement up front. The communication process can be seen as moving on a continuum from gaining attention to creating interest to inspiring desire and, finally, driving an action. Your initiative for Ocean Spray was probably wildly successful in gaining attention and creating interest, maybe even inspiring desire. If the intent was to drive sales, maybe simple couponing and twofer deals were more appropriate. The point… Read more »
Teri Gidwitz
Teri Gidwitz
6 years 10 months ago

Not coming from a PR background, I’d be very interested in understanding the difference in the work from the 90% agencies versus the 10% agencies…. what kind of things do they do differently? Is it about having a better understanding of the client’s business goals, and devising strategies around those, vs relying on the “textbook” approach to PR, i.e. quoting Christopher above – PR releases, local paper? I’d love to get an understanding of this.

Randy Hall
6 years 10 months ago

Gini,

What I love about this post is that you are willing to take a look at the industry and think about different ways to add value, real value, to the client. In any consulting business it is so easy to fall into the rut of doing things they way everyone else is doing them because you are getting paid for it but not because its making a difference.

Thanks for being different,

Randy

martin tobias
6 years 10 months ago
Truth. 90% of PR is worthless zero value added. You could do it in house with someone who has a phone and email. The #1 thing a PR person does is hound the producer or editor until they do a story. You can do that yourself. I have learned this the hard way. At one company I had (loudeye technologies) a PR firm on retainer for $25K a month. We got alot of press. But it was because we were a good story at the time, not because of any “special relationships” or BS the PR firm gave us. After… Read more »
Thomas Scott
6 years 10 months ago
Wow – intriguing post. As a business person with a strong journalism background, I have big issues with PR and Ad firms. I’ve hired PR firms and ‘marketing’ people with truly sorry results, no accountability and a real disconnect with what the business’ real goals are. Publicity is great – getting a specific story out that makes sales happen is better. I see a crucial element missing in most PR firms (and missing in 100% of the PR firms that service the franchise industry.) That is, the ability to craft a legitimate story and pitch it in a non-threatening way… Read more »
SAB_Riga (SAB)
6 years 10 months ago

PR tiešām nav pārdošanas daļa. Labs ieraksts un laba diskusija. PR Firms Add No Value? Truth or Fiction? http://bit.ly/1KDBuI

Davina K. Brewer
6 years 10 months ago
I strongly believe that any PR campaign is about achieving communications AND business goals, including sales. Where does PR end and Sales begin? Maybe in that space is the 10% of “real” value. This blog http://brandandmarket.com/branding-vs-marketing-pr-vs-marketing-sales-vs-marketing/ had a great point about “clients want sales without having to do the marketing investment” and I think that is often the case. Clients pay for the PR campaign, you tell them what results it will earn. But there is no plan to take those results any further, integrate the PR campaign with CRM, sales; it just ends with the thud book. Is there… Read more »
Coleman Hutchins
6 years 10 months ago

Gini,

Hey there! I like many of your points, but if any agency is still thinking first about clips then there is a much bigger problem afoot. I know we don’t run up against this kind of thinking with our competitors anymore. In all my personal experiences at FH clips were just one part of often bigger campaigns with specific strategic goals in mind.

That said, at some point in the last 10-15 years I became aware of the nutritional benefits of cranberry juice. I’m sure everyone reading your post could say the same thing. Where did that come from?

Coleman

Heather Whaling
6 years 10 months ago
Intriguing post! I would be interested to know what goals had been set for the Ocean Spray campaign before the work began. Were the goals tied to sales, influencing opinions about the company, etc? I wrote a post this week about hyperlocal PR (which Teresa referenced above) — and how that may be a new opportunity for PR folks to provide value to their clients. I’ve long been an advocate for moving away from a “clips, clips, clips” mentality (it drives me crazy!!). Instead PR people need to first understand the company’s objectives and then determine a strategy to meet… Read more »
jeff hammond
6 years 10 months ago

Nice post! One of the trends I’m sure will trickle thru advertising to PR is the notion of value-based billing…where compensation is tied directly to a mutually agreed upon definition of value (rather than hours). P+G (along with Coca Cola and others) have started pushing these arrangements with the likes of their ad agencies…several of your astute commenters have pointed out the necessity for communications functions to tie more directly to business objectives…value-based discussions between clients and agencies will ensue. A post on value-based billing and why it’s a good thing for agencies here: http://whispershout.blogspot.com/2009/08/value-based-billing-agencies-at-table.html

Jon Wortmann
6 years 10 months ago

So I want the punchline. What do the 10% do!

Love your writing!

Gini Dietrich
6 years 10 months ago
Sorry, everyone, for the slow response. I had my Vistage meeting earlier this week and that put me behind a bit. A few comments: * Amy, with hindsight and 10 more years of experience, we would have done precisely what Dave suggests…ask what the goals were and how we can measure our campaign directly to sales and/or the bottom line. We had in our heads that giving away juice was the goal. It wasn’t. The goal was trial. Giveaway juice we did. Encourage trial we did not. * Martin, we tell clients all the time that they have to participate… Read more »
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[…] More thoughts from Gini Dietrich of Arment Dietrich in Chicago, who shares my sentiments: PR Firms Add No Value? […]

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[…] do not work on a pay-for-play commission.Not only is it unethical, it’s unrealistic.A successful publicity campaign can generate great clip numbers, but if there’s no strategy to tie the PR back to marketing back to sales and the bottom line it […]

vinil
6 years 3 months ago

Well Gini, You talk about 3 six inch binders full of stories. My PR firm got me two lines of mention in some newspaper and they ripped me off with their pricing. Their spin was, we put in the effort, so we get paid for the effort even if we did not get you the results. wow… that was the first time I hired a PR firm and it’s probably going to be my last time.. In fact, I think I can get way better results by doing things on my own. Majority of them are useless!

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[…] artwork we’d commissioned to showcase the beauty of the cranberry harvest was strategically placed around the conference room. The stationery, with the same art, signified […]

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[…] artwork we’d commissioned to showcase the beauty of the cranberry harvest was strategically placed around the conference room. The stationery, with the same art, signified […]

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