Gini Dietrich

PR Firms Add No Value? Truth or Fiction?

By: Gini Dietrich | August 25, 2009 | 

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. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • 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 communities they live in more than they were ever able to before, and firms need to realize that effective communication is based in tapping into that same local market to gain actual business results, not just garnering exposure for a client.

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

    Better now!

  • 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 the client (or company) think about where we’re headed.

    With the right answers and a healthy dose of flexibility, you can be in the 10% that not only adds value but is a must-have component of any business strategy.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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” by any means is nevertheless accurate.

  • 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 win the business. But that’s okay with me. We were honest. We know what works and what doesn’t work. If it means losing business, instead of getting a quick buck, we support that ideal.

  • 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

    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

    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.

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

  • LaurieTaylorPR

    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 with your clients, make their business your passion and then infuse all of your PR knowledge into those core areas to make a difference. Relationships and results. That’s what we think it’s all about!

  • 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.

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

  • 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%.

  • 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 is, we have to spend a lot of time up front making sure client and practitioner are on the same page. Sounds easy, but I think it’s the toughest part of what we do.

  • Teri Gidwitz

    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.

  • 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,


  • 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 20 years running tech firms I still have not found a good way to measure PR ROI. I have even tried the “pay for performance” PR firms. Sounds good, but problem is they get you whatever they can to pay the bills which usually are not the outlets you need/desire.

    My current approach? For national coverage you need a dog on a bone to follow up. If you must have national coverage you must have that dog on a bone. Sometimes that could be an individual at PR firm, or in house. With my current company I have an outside dog on the bone. For all local stuff or web based, do it yourself. The reporter/web site would MUCH rather hear from the CEO than a PR flack.

    Summary. You are your best PR.

  • 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 to real journalists so that they instantly see it as ‘news’ and write about it. If you can’t do this, no amount of PR will really drive sales. Tell a real story and keep up the frequency and reporters will bite. With ENR type services and social media, a good PR company can get reach like never before. Gone is the need to have people ‘follow up’ or constantly call journalists. Today, the communication model is conversations and if you can spin a real story, people will want to talk about it.
    Why PR firms resist this so much is a mystery today.When I was a journalist at a major metro daily and working for wire services, I got tons of PR releases. 995 ended up in the garbage. I needed story ideas to fill the news hole and releases were just plain junk. A really well written journalism style release was and remains today, a rare occurrence.
    PR firms should start hiring all the amazing out of work writers big newspapers are cutting loose. These people know how to speak the language journalists respect (they don’t respect PR firms for sure) and that is what drives sales.
    I’d like to think this company is different – different is what the industry needs!

  • 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 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 any ad, release or campaign that can guarantee a purchaser will go all the way from zero to opening their wallets? (If you’ve discovered that secret formula, raise your rates.)

    Example: There are some computer buyers who will spend no more than $500 or $800 for a PC, willing to upgrade every few years as the less expensive machine becomes obsolete; I’d rather keep my $1,500-$2,000 Mac for five+ years. Microsoft can lead me to water with all the clever campaigns it wants, but they can’t make me buy a PC.

    YES campaigns raise awareness, shape opinions, spur actions but NOTHING drives sales like having the product that consumers think they want/need at the price they are willing to pay.

    Once again, I write a book, sorry.

  • 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?


  • 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 it. Sometimes that will involve media relations. But, we can’t forget that the PR toolbox isn’t just media.

    Heather (@prtini)

  • 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:

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

    Love your writing!

  • 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 in their own PR. You’re right – if a reporter can talk directly to the CEO, without the middle man, that’s what they’d rather do. And no one tells your story better than you do. It’s our job to make sure the communication program is on strategy and that we’re affecting business growth.

    * Coleman, you and I had an offline conversation about this and we’re on the same page. But let me be clear about something. We did what we thought the client wanted. It had nothing to do with FH. I loved working there. It was the best job and I felt really smart working there. I still have friends (like you) still there and I know they’re really focused on being in the 10%.

    * Teri and Jon, the 10% of PR firms look at communication as a way to affect business growth. They don’t recommend strategies that don’t reach business goals. They don’t do as they’re told, just because the client thinks seeing his/her name in ink is going to create all sorts of sales. The problem with our industry is that it’s not tangible and you hear the “I was on Oprah and became an overnight sensation” stories. The fact of the matter is, that’s not how it works. Sure there are instances where that might create a HUGE spike in sales for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, but it doesn’t last. The 10% look for ways to consistently affect business goals.

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  • 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!

  • Gini Dietrich

    Vinil – As a communication professional, it really disturbs me there are firms and people who claim to be pros who do this. It used to be that it was industry standard to do that. Not anymore. If your PR firm or professional can’t show you real results, do not hire them! There is so much more to what we do than just media relations…and we can affect sales. Next time, make them show you what’s in it for you.

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