in Marketing & Media

PR Agentry Is Broken

In this new-media age, public relations is broken. Steve Rubel says his high-profile blogger status makes him an especially powerful lens to gauge the hurricane the PR industry is in:

As a relatively high-profile blogger, I get to see things that others in PR, even those who blog, don’t experience. One of those is my Gmail inbox. It’s my barometer for how the public relations is adapting in this era of change. The forecast? We’re smack dab in a cat five hurricane.

Every day I am deluged with hundreds of PR pitches. They come from everywhere: startups, big companies, competing PR firms and, occasionally, from people inside Edelman where I work. I read all the emails but delete 99.99% of them. I don’t even respond. I feel bad about it, but they’re so off base I can’t even begin to tell you how bad they are.

…So what then for PR? If this is a universal truth – and I am not sure that it is – does it make us obsolete? If we don’t adapt, yessir.

I replied to Steve:

In many respects, you’re actually a poor barometer, because you are such a popular blogger. I’m a much better barometer, because I’m a relative nobody. Still, I confirm the hurricane you describe.

My Gmail inbox is filled with irrelevancy from PR people. In fact, it’s tough to differentiate pure automated comment spam from the human prbot pitches.

There’s a pattern among the companies you claim get it right all the time: they’re selling you information and, usually, an angle or point of view. They’re more often storytellers and trend watchers. These information companies have just as much of a sales agenda as anyone else, but they have a far easier job with the types of products they’re hawking. Regardless, all PR people should note the inherent value in the assets those information, research and analysis companies provide in their PR interactions: often trusted information and a point of view. Bloggers and press usually love that.

Lesson for PR people? Emulate the classical information providers. Transform yourselves into information thought leaders and strategic solutions providers.

It seems far too many PR people are nothing more than used-car salespeople. Not brokering value and mutual benefit, but indiscriminately pushing waste off on others.

There’s nothing wrong with selling, but selective, strategic selling is best way to achieve mutual benefit for the companies you represent and the communities of press, bloggers and other stakeholders you must serve in parallel, arguably with greater priority.

One other important note: these are principles that all company employees and agents should embrace. We’re in an age where all employees contribute to the PR function of the organization.

I believe one of the biggest roots of these problem is the agency-client relationship and agency business model.

  • Agency-Client Relationship: Agencies, by definition, are agents and not owners of the subject matter, nor the direct voice. They’re one step removed and therefore, in most cases, take on a superficial understanding of the client business. This doesn’t bode well for the core assets noted above, which come from the richer information and often more sophisticated storytelling of research and content providers. It’s no coincidence that most of those companies manage their PR in house.
  • Business Model: The low-margin and pyramid economics of the typical agency will always ensure a relatively distracted, high-churn, short-term, low-skill and superficial layer of service to the client. This will never create an environment where long-term strategic selling, thought leadership and co-ownership with the client can develop.

As a result, agencies may be more appropriate in some client situations and not others. When it comes to proactive outreach — aka “pitching” which Steve describes — it is important for companies to think about what their message REALLY becomes, when their actions become nothing more than SPAM.