Look out — a rant about PR agencies and journalists

In addition to the “This is a rant” warning, I will also say I would advise anyone dismissing this as just a rant to make sure you read the whole thing first.  I might surprise you.

InspirationsData points:

  • “How difficult can it be to read the blogs of the reporters you are trying to pitch?”  David Meerman Scott, The New Rules of Marketing & PR.  DMS figures that as a contributing editor at EContent he’s ignored something like 25,000 press releases sent to his attention.
  • Peter Shankman’s HARO endorsement/sponsorship on Monday.  “You know how I tell you NOT to pitch off topic, then you ask me, “well, then how do we find out what reporters are covering what?” Well, Vocus is your answer.”  (Peter, I am sure you are NOT suggesting we forgo actually reading the media we are pitching and pitch based on a database of names but we use it as a starting point, right?)
  • #journchat – pick a week, any week.  Any of the participating journalists asking if PR people truly understand their beat, saying  “Read my stories.”
  • A friend doing contract work for a small ‘traditional’ PR agency is handed a list of 75 reporters and bloggers, and ordered to pitch them.  Today.  Her impression of the situation is that the agency’s management wants her to “run up the hours pitching regardless of whether it’s the right reporter.  It seems to be a ‘get the revenue in now’ situation regardless of the consequences to long term relationships with reporters.”
  • More than one journalist has blogged about bad PR people and bad pitches.  Several take quite a bit of glee in “outing” really bad pitches.  There’s the Newspaper Deathwatch and I follow The Media is Dying on Twitter.

Let’s take a look at the average PR agency set-up.  (Although I am not an agency person now, I speak from a certain level of experience having spent approx. half my 20+ year career working in an agency and most of the other half working with an agency.)  PR people at agencies usually have more than one client.  I’ve had as few as 3 and as many as 7 clients, simultaneously.

Since no one will allow you to work on competing accounts, you must learn as few as 3 and as many as 7 different industries.  If you are lucky, your accounts might be in the same general arena – maybe tourism or consumer goods or technology.  But I’ll bet the target market and the top target publications for your accounts are different.  Call it a minimum of 10 industry-specific publications; another 5-10 local media; 5-10 national media, and add in the industry influencers or analysts, 3-5.  Minimum.  If reporters at your target publications are blogging, you can probably increase the online inputs by up to 50 percent.  Then, look at the independent bloggers (those not affiliated with a company, publication or analyst firm.) They might be actual customers or just interested parties.  How many of them are there?  10, 20, 30, if you just count the top ones?  (I found more than a million public relations related blogs but I am sure only a small fraction would be important targets if I was offering a PR targeted product.)   Give each client a couple of primary competitors, many more if it is a crowded market.  Call it 50 different inputs per client.  Grand total:  150 for your average lucky agency person.  Try following even a small portion of these on a semi-regular basis.   Don’t forget, some of those blogs update daily.  (Good luck if one of your inputs is a prolific Twitterer.)

Meanwhile, agency/client relationships are usually time-limited – averaging under 2 years.  So figure you have to spend some time getting new accounts to replace the old ones.  Always better to keep clients than have to replace those accounts but it happens.  Gotta writte those press releases, meet with clients and account teams.  Write reports and track your time.  There’s eating and coffee time too (the life blood for any flack.)

[My friend J. also points out that there is “so much volatility in the media marketplace, publications are shifting reporter’s responsibilities, turning over staff, introducing redesigns and shifting focus so quickly, it’s hard for regular readers to keep up, much less PR folks.”]

Is this a big list of excuses?  Yup.  It’s also a reality for people who work at agencies.  Agency people don’t want to pitch poorly but sometimes they do.  They miss the blog post that says “Never send me X” or “I am tired of writing about Y and I only want to hear about Z from now on.”  They miss the notation in Vocus that says “I am in a meeting every Monday morning and you should never call me then.”  They have an employer or a client yelling for results and pressuring them to produce something, anything.

What all thinking PR people know:

  • To pitch off-beat and off-topic is stupid, a waste of everyone’s time, and not effective or efficient.
  • You need to have a good understanding of the reporter’s beat, previous stories and the publication’s focus in order to be effective.  You have to keep track of what the competition is up to – you can’t pitch “only”, “first” or “unique” if someone else is doing it.
  • That if you don’t do a good job (give clients good advice, visibility and somehow impact the bottom line) you won’t be employed for long.
  • That everyone talks about how important it is to have a relationship with your reporters but few reporters have time to have lunch or coffee with the slew of PR people who are chasing them on a regular basis.  They don’t pick up their phones or answer their emails.
  • And, woe betide he whose client’s industry was profiled anywhere and the client wasn’t included in the round-up.

Most reporters have already stopped reading.  They figure, “Hey, if PR people want their clients included in my stories, they will make the time to read my articles, my blog and my Vocus profile.  They will notice when I issue a HARO or Profnet and respond immediately.  They will read every word I write.  And they will understand my point of view, my publication’s readership and they will know that tomorrow is my kid’s birthday.  They will magically get the information I require at this very moment into my hands.  They will understand that even though I write for a small industry-specific newsletter today, tomorrow I could be writing for the Wall Street Journal. And they will rue the day they didn’t read my blog.”

But doesn’t it go both ways?  Do journalists ever get asked if they read the PR person’s blog?  Do they know every player in a given industry?  Do they know what every company is going to announce next month or next year? Or, have they reviewed all the company’s technical material?  (Probably not a good question, I would imagine a lot of PR people are simply throwing white papers and PDFs over the wall, aren’t they?)  Shouldn’t a journalist want to provide his readers with the best, most complete, most accurate information on a topic?  And shouldn’t PR people want the same?  (Yes, yes, clients shown in positive light.  Yes, yes, control client’s message.  Blah, blah, blah.  Let’s just start with the basics.)

Why can’t we just all get along and work together?  It’s tough out there right now.  Too many jobs on both sides have been lost or will be.  Let’s not throw each other under the bus wheels.  Let’s not take the head off the next person who pitches poorly, or conversely the reporter who freaks out when we pitch poorly.  Let’s have a little compassion.  Let’s look at new ways to work together for the common good – accurate and fair reporting.

Tomorrow – A Modest Proposal

4 thoughts on “Look out — a rant about PR agencies and journalists

  1. A plea for mutual understanding & respect. Good luck to all of you. What you do for a living sounds to be pretty hectic, competitive, and maybe exciting in a good way.

  2. A well-written, thoroughly considered, and ultimately fruitless quest! 😉

    Having waged this same fight and made the same arguments, I applaud the sentiments but am pretty sure that this dynamic won’t change anytime soon.

    FWIW, I riffed on some of the agency-related scale issues a while back: http://is.gd/gXEz

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