A potential client the other day commented about his company’s PR firm, with which he was not happy. “They did what PR firms typically do. They sold high and delivered low.”
During the dog-and-pony-show sales presentation, the firm trotted out its top executives with impressive backgrounds and many years of experience.
After the firm obtained the contract, junior staff and possibly even interns handled the actual work.
This is the traditional PR business model. It’s also typical for a wide range of consulting firms, such as accounting or engineering. The top executives with the notable resumes do the selling, while the less experienced staffers deliver the services.
The difference between the hourly rate billed to the client and what the firms actually pay the low-level employees is the source of much of the consulting business’s profits.
This model may work for PR agencies, but it’s not always to the benefit of those hiring the shops. It is especially problematic in one of the key functions of PR: media relations.
I don’t care about all of the hullabaloo over content and social media. The essence of PR is still about obtaining what is now called earned media exposure on behalf of a firm’s client.
PR's True Function: Visibility
That’s because the function of PR is visibility, not sales. And the difference between earned media and owned media (YouTube, social media accounts, website) is the extra measure of credibility that the former bestows. Being quoted in The New York Times is worth a lot more than a YouTube video alone, even if the video contains extraordinary information or insights.
Obtaining earned media exposure takes a lot of effort unless you or your product can piggyback on this hour’s news cycle. Even that can be dicey, however, because you do not want to appear as though you are trying to capitalize on tragedy.
It takes understanding what story or stories your company can tell that journalists might find interesting enough to cover. Then it takes finding journalists who are writing about that topic and their contact information. This can take many hours over an extended timeframe.
Once you have a highly targeted list of writers/editors, you craft a sharp, to-the-point, and short email that you send to them. One note: I have worked on a freelance basis for multiple PR agencies, and have learned that many editors and reporters set their spam filters to block out any email address containing the letters “PR.”
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Make Friends, Not Enemies
Keep it short and on point because they have received thousands of coverage queries that are totally irrelevant to what they do. It is a major annoyance and I know what I am talking about because I have received thousands of such pitches myself. I still do.
What you want to avoid most is spamming reporters or editors with emails about your company that have nothing whatsoever to do with their beats or coverage interests. This is the best way possible to make enemies instead of friends.
And the preceding is precisely what too often happens when inexperienced staffers make a stab at media relations. They blow it big time because they don’t know their clients well enough to figure out how the client can best contribute, and they haven’t taken the time and effort to uncover the best possible media and writers for their clients. They just don’t have enough overall business experience to get it or to know how to uncover it.
Not all PR shops pass off media relations to low-level subordinates. When I freelanced for Reuters America, I had the pleasure of working with an executive VP at an agency who handled media relations herself, and not only offered a terrific story idea, but multiple sources to help me write it. She also had the patience to keep in touch with my editor, who eventually assigned the story to me, and it worked out well for all concerned.
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PR Is an Investment
That is PR at its best. Helping reporters and editors do their jobs better. But it takes experience, effort, time, and patience to arrive at such an outcome. You as a client must be willing to make that investment, and require that your agency is willing to make it, too.
If you are thinking about hiring an agency, above all, insist on meeting the staff members who will handle media relations for your business. Make it a part of the contract that only employees with a certain amount of years of experience, industry knowledge, and media savvy be allowed to handle media relations on your company’s behalf. Ask for samples of their media relations work.
Frankly, the best media relations PR people tend to be former journalists, although many ex-reporters/editors cannot abide being the one doing the asking instead of the side that says yes/no. Others are OK with it and have the advantage of knowing much better what will work and what won’t.
Credible visibility is invaluable to helping build a brand or a company’s reputation. Your PR agency can do a lot to help you reach that goal provided you know how to make the PR business model work in your favor.