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.

Thoughts?

  • http://www.agirlsgottaspa.com/blog Shannon

    I’m not necessarily a “high profile” blogger, but it is widely known in my niche (beauty) that I have my own blog, write a beauty blog for b5media and then also work for a PR firm (blogger there too). But I do agree with Steve that my inbox fills rather quickly with so many offtopic pitches that is blows my mind. Not to mention “Dear Blogger, You have a great blog! We love reading it!” when, if they did, they would 1-surely know my name, as it’s all over my blogs so they should address me as such and 2–if they read my blog, they would know their pitch is a fly ball out in left field.

    I used to just delete their emails, sometimes even asking to be taken off their press list, but now I actually take the time to write back and let them know they got it wrong and why. Time consuming, yes, but really I feel it is the only way they’ll learn. Even if only 1 person who pitches me comes to a better understanding, then the world is a better place. ;) For the most part they apologize and some have even begun to pitch me better. Although one snidely told me to take myself off CISION if I didn’t want to be pitched. She didn’t understand–it wasn’t about being pitched…it was about being wrongly pitched. She took no responsibility and wanted to place the blame on me. Wrong.

    So my longwinded answer is that I agree with you and Steve. If you are just covering your eyes and throwing it out there, it is spam.

  • http://thefuturebuzz.com AdamSinger

    Maybe I’m not so special…my inbox is filled with nothing other than people asking for advice on how to market their blog (which i gladly help them with).

    I’d like some PR people emails, perhaps they know better as I’d have a field day with the bad ones ;)

  • http://edelmandigital.com Rick Murray

    Hey Max,

    This is a great debate, and the one point on which you both agree — that PR agencies need to change, and fast — is the ultimate inconvenient truth. (So too must those in advertising, consumer affairs, internal comms, etc., but that’s a topic for another day.) You and I both know that it won’t happen overnight (oh, were it that easy), but I promise you this: while there may be some steadfastly holding on to practicing PR “the old-fashioned way” in three years time, they won’t be working at Edelman.

    RWM

  • http://blog.ecairn.com laurent

    Max

    Would you pay more attention to a pitch if when a PR person/Marketer was contacting you and you know they’ve been reading your blogs and/or commenting on it? With the email, you could get a little id-card with the posts the number of posts from your blog they read/commented on. It would show that they’ve made an effort to get to know you and what you blog about, thus it’s very likely their pitch would be relevant to you.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Laurent, that’s a great idea. In fact, I pay attention to every pitch. But I
    read beyond the first sentence IF there’s thought, perspective and attempt
    to enhance the value of my blog stream — or engage in simple, meaningful
    interaction. I actually publish my contact information on my blog and
    invite any and all readers to meet in person for coffee, to discuss
    whatever. Few pitches ever come that way — usually just a lame
    copy-and-paste email. There a few frequent commenters on my blog, or people
    I interact with in Twitter, and they do automatically get greater
    consideration.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    I’ll look forward to your leadership and how that comes about. I don’t envy you. There will be a lot of fun, but there will be a lot of pain! But I’m particularly interested in one key element of Edelman’s evolution: How will it manage mutually benefiting clients versus the communities of other stakeholders whom it must serve in parallel, to just as high a standard? That seems to be a major hurdle for every PR agency.

  • http://www.donedotcom.blogspot.com/ Csquared

    The PR agency model is flawed however, I’ve been meaning to write a diatribe on bad CLIENTS. It’s often the clients who don’t understand or respect the agency model. It’s interesting that three blockbuster movies this summer actually have PR as parts of the plot (Hancock puts a spotlight on the lowly PR executive; Ironman captures the hungry reporter wanting an exclusive as well as the press conference as a tried and true PR tactic; Dark Knight has a press conference in the movie, too). An agency person can in fact become a great storyteller for a company with proper collaboration, yet their often treated as the frenemy. Also, it’s amazing how little many clients understand about PR and the process as well as understand what NEWS actually is. Clients can be abusive and ignorant and nickel and dime agencies to the detriment of their business.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Max. but you’re wrong. You’re not a relative nobody. Seriously. You’ve got a bit of a name.

    Now, a question…are most of the people that pitch you in tech PR?

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Hi Jonathan,
    I may not be a nobody, but I’m not a somebody. I’m just who I am. Yes,
    almost all pitches to me (either to AttentionMax or my MediaPost
    columnist identity) come from tech PR people, or marketing/media PR
    people.

    Does that matter?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it matters. That’s because you’re in an industry that’s going to get hit hard on this. Have to put this in context.

    That’s because it shows me that PR firms haven’t developed (or bothered to develop) best practices yet. Let’s face it. Tech PR would likely be the first in the water when it comes to blogger relations. And they’re blowing it. It will give the whole concept of blogger relations a bad name.

    Anyone who has become a relative somebody (can I call you that?) in tech and or marketing/media is going to get bombarded by untrained junior PR types who are carrying out massive outreach programs because their bosses are making them do it this way. No time to build relationships or to see what Max or Steve blogs about. It’s spaghetti against the wall – and you are a wall.

    The only caveat to this is that those of us who are in the space overall seem to think our experiences are typical. It’s not – yet. Tech/Media/Marketing are niches when it comes to the blogosphere. I just hope that other niches (OK, mommy bloggers are getting bombarded as well) end up having to deal with what you deal with.

  • http://adwordsconsultant.blogspot.com/ briancarter

    I'm just wondering if it's the model that broke. I'm not a PR person – I'm a blogger, an SEO, a PPC, social media geek, whatever.

    As I understand it, PR used to send press releases to the media, and they'd follow up on the story… media welcomed press releases, to some degree, right? There wasn't a huge GOOGLE to search for stuff then.

    Now, not only do journalists and bloggers have too much info at their fingertips, they definitely value authenticity… and seems to me you're all talking about press releases that are inauthentic-

    I'm not a PR person so I don't have this problem to solve, but seems to me that building relationships with bloggers one at a time is way easier and more effective than pitching them en masse…

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Brian,
    Your perceptions of the PR industry are not incorrect, though a little
    stereotypical. But your point is correct: ” building relationships with
    bloggers one at a time is way easier and more effective than pitching them
    en masse…” In fact, that's a good rule whenever you're trying to
    persuade anyone to do anything.

  • http://www.mediahound.biz Edw3rd

    Most aren't real pitches, they're young folks “filtering” a Bacons-like database and SPAMMING everyone that remains. No relevance, no personal understanding. It's deplorable. But, that is what the big agencies know and teach.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Edward: I'm not sure it's what the big agencies teach, but it's definitely
    what most of the big agencies tolerate. This is especially true because very
    few of the senior execs at big agencies actually do any of the
    nuts-and-bolts pitching — the junior account people do. The senior execs
    are mostly worried about dually managing the expectations of the clients
    while managing the output and profitability of the junior people. That's
    what enables the top guys to keep the big salaries, and what leads to the
    problem I describe. It's somewhat of a pyramid model, to be sure.

  • http://www.mediahound.biz Edw3rd

    Most aren't real pitches, they're young folks “filtering” a Bacons-like database and SPAMMING everyone that remains. No relevance, no personal understanding. It's deplorable. But, that is what the big agencies know and teach.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com maxkalehoff

    Edward: I'm not sure it's what the big agencies teach, but it's definitely
    what most of the big agencies tolerate. This is especially true because very
    few of the senior execs at big agencies actually do any of the
    nuts-and-bolts pitching — the junior account people do. The senior execs
    are mostly worried about dually managing the expectations of the clients
    while managing the output and profitability of the junior people. That's
    what enables the top guys to keep the big salaries, and what leads to the
    problem I describe. It's somewhat of a pyramid model, to be sure.