A couple of weeks ago, a client forwarded me an email he had received.
It read, “I’m so-and-so from XYZ, a PR agency that’s solely based on results, not retainers. We have an opportunity for a full feature in Business Insider, in about two weeks. You only pay if we place the piece (and you’ll be able to approve it beforehand). Let me know if you’d like to chat more.”
When I asked him what he thought about it, he said, “What an approach.”
I laughed and said, “I can feel myself stepping onto my soapbox right now.”
Here’s the thing: the person who sent the email to the CEO of this client’s business knows the pain that many executives feel.
I’ve heard everything from “PR firms are profitable non-profits; you give them your money and they thank you and walk away” to “You can’t hire a PR firm for less than $10,000 a month or fewer than six months and yet you never get any results.”
Yes, I agree that is the case in some instances.
Just like there are bad eggs in every industry, the communications industry is not immune.
And there is some onus on the client when there is a lack of results.
The pain most executives feel is that they have an expectation that they’ll hire a PR firm and all of their problems will be solved.
Let’s Level Set On a Few Things
When I shared this email with the Spin Sucks Community, there were lots of funny responses, along with some data-driven responses (you can probably guess the latter came from none other than Christopher S. Penn).
There are a few things we should level on:
- First, Business Insider is pay-for-play. So, sure. They probably do have an opportunity for a full feature—one that the poor, unsuspecting client will pay for (with, I imagine, an upcharge from the PR firm) when they “place” the story. The big giveaway is being able to approve the piece ahead of time. I don’t know about you, but I have never, in my entire career, had a journalist do a feature piece on a client and let us approve it beforehand. Ever.
- Second, according to Chris, the average page traffic that a sponsored story on Business Insider gets is 48 visits. Unsponsored stories get an average of 1,042 visits. Sponsored stories get one tweet, whereas unsponsored stories get about 73
- Third, this agency has no idea what the company’s goals are, what their message is, what their strategy includes, who their audience is, and perhaps that Business Insider is not a great place for them to tell their story. They also could not get all of that information and create a full feature in two weeks.
- Fourth, I will give them that when we are in the new business cycle with a prospect and have had several conversations about their business and their goals if something comes up with a journalist relationship we have that seems like a good opportunity, I will for sure pass it along to see if they want to follow-up. We don’t charge for it. I consider it part of the business development process. If it works out, great. If not, no harm is done.
This Tactic Is Used By Many a PR Firm
A community member who is an internal communications expert said he gets seven to nine emails EVERY DAY with similar offers.
I really had no idea this was done three weeks ago.
But he did say:
I ignore them all. Communications cannot and should not be driven by the short-term success of placing a single piece, regardless of it being organic or paid. I’m not playing this game. I choose agencies that fight for the right narratives to get published and pay them for putting their best work forward. Sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t, but we’re all driven by the right things.
Communications cannot and should not be driven by the short-term success of placing a single piece, regardless of it being organic or paid.
This is not a valid tactic, even if the audience is perfect for the client’s business.
It cheapens the value of a communications expert and it deprioritizes the need to tell a story that is meaningful to help the organization grow.
You can’t achieve strategy, messaging, and storytelling by sending a potential prospect an email and asking them if you can place a story for them.
When I said that in the Community, Chris responded with”
GOOD communicators like you care about strategy, messaging, and storytelling. Good clients care about those things, too. That’s probably not the target market for an agency like this. Their target market is the VP of marketing or the CMO who just says, “I need X hits in this spreadsheet by the end of the month or else.
Touche, my friend. Touche.
Sometimes It’s OK to Give In
Julia Carcamo is, in my mind, the only casino marketer you need to know.
She’s worked with the big, well-known Vegas casino executives.
I mean, directly with them.
She knows what she’s doing.
During this somewhat heated conversation about PR pros offering to “place” a story that you can approve beforehand, she said something I hadn’t considered.
I had a CEO who was friends with Anna Wintour and insisted on a spread in Vogue. As you can imagine, this was not our market for booking hotel rooms. We ended up selling out of the dress in the ad (and buying up the entire designer’s inventory for more orders) but we didn’t book one room. In the end, it satisfied something that I didn’t consider in my strategy, which was someone sneaking in behind my back and getting that spread for the CEO.
Likewise, we have a client who is hell-bent on getting a personal profile in Fast Company.
Every time she mentions it, I roll my eyes (silently) because it’s not a market for them and it won’t do anything but pump her ego.
But after Julia said that, I thought:
You know what? She’s right. It won’t do any harm and we can get that profile for our client.
That’s now in the works—after I explained to my team and to the comms team at the client, why we are doing it.
It’s not to generate qualified B2B leads, but to make sure we all keep our jobs. Everyone was happy to do it when explained that way.
Do I love that approach?
No. Of course not because, as the head of the agency, I’m the one who is ultimately responsible for results.
But I also know that when our client’s friends see that she was featured in Fast Company, she’s going to think we walk on water while we turn our attention to the things that will also help her grow her business.
It’s also not a habit I want us to get into, but I heard Julia loud and clear.
We Still Have A LOT of Work to Do
I make this joke a lot, but I am convinced that the incubators that help entrepreneurs start their tech firms have a secret school where they teach them that if they just get a profile in The New York Times or Wired or TechCrunch or Buzzfeed or Fast Company, they can sit on a beach and count their money.
It’s astonishing how many executives want that—and how they really do believe it’ll solve all of their problems.
So, as much as I hate to admit that the email our client got from the PR firm is an interesting approach, they certainly know the pain of most executives.
(Gratefully, this client thinks we can do no wrong so he forwarded it on, but we’ve definitely had clients who would have responded and cut us out of the process.)
The challenge is bigger than this, though.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve heard everything from PR firms are non-profits and liars to we’re spin doctors and unethical leeches.
I’ve long said the PR industry has a PR problem and, while we are doing our very best to change it—Spin Sucks and all—it’s going to take a groundswell of all of us beating from the same drum.
The Community member who said he gets seven to nine of these emails every day?
It’s very depressing, but I look at it differently: how do we “fix” the bad reputation PR suffers from? I believe once the good professionals enjoy the reputation they deserve, these cheap companies will have fewer reasons to exist. But I’ve also seen a lot of agencies that are happy to take the retainer and make excuses, so can’t fully blame the C-level who is looking at ideas or structures that are more results-driven. I don’t agree with them, but I can understand where they are coming from.
And that, my friends, is a perfect summation of this challenge at a high level.
We have a lot of work to do, but it provides an excellent opportunity to set appropriate expectations and continue to coach, mentor, and teach our colleagues that, just because everyone can talk does not mean they can communicate.