Public relations: the problem and the time-bomb

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At the moment half the posts on seem to be either fee related or whether PR should be done on a payment by results basis. The general sentiment seems to be that PR people responding view the profession as strategic and the entrepreneurs view it as a ‘low cost’ tactic to drive sales or a call-to-action through awareness. The link can be quite tenuous and the results thin which doesn’t help matters either.

So who is right? Well they both are. Public relations is a broad church, at least some of the PR people act as reputation counsel or brand guardians to clients. However many people also just focus on media relations cranking out news-related coverage as best they can.

The challenge is that PR people cannot work miracles, they can not make a silk purse out of a sows ear and a race to the bottom to grind out press releases and pitch them in is only successful when there is a whole lot of interesting news going on. If you have a me-too product with no news and no real interest beyond the founder’s ego then you are wasting your time.

If you are trying to build a brand and longer term awareness then the payment-by-results press release grinder doesn’t work either.

Even if you have a good story, you may find that you have a limited amount of mileage from the coverage generated. I have a friend who works at a start-up who finds that only coverage in a few magazine columns delivers any kind of reasonable uplift for him.

This isn’t entirely surprising, research by Nielsen reported in Advertising Age (subscription required) found that offline media brands had a weaker than expected brand linkage with their associated online properties. So it doesn’t take a massive leap of faith to summise that the cross-media call to action for online marketers in offline publications may not be great either.

At this level it makes sense for many clients to put this money into a PPC campaign rather than PR, in fact, many entrepreneurs going down the payment-by-results route have struggled with their SEM campaigns as well; because since keywords are now for the most part optimally priced from an economic perspective they are no longer as good a value as they once were. Also clickthrough rates in general have declined over the past few years.

So the smart thing would be for PR people to leave many of the ‘bottom-feeding’ clients well alone because it just isn’t worthwhile playing in that space. For many of these campaigns it can be demotivating work for staff and not the kind great work that you want to discuss with other prospective clients or win awards with.

If only life where that simple. PR traditionally has had a demographic problem; people leave the industry, particularly agency life start a family, or a second career and then do PR work from home as a freelancer or a micro-agency. This completely undermines the cost-base of the industry. People who don’t need to do PR to pay their mortgage can undercut agencies with office overheads.

Then are the people from related sectors like journalism that try their hand at the business with varying degrees of success.

During a recession, their ranks are joined by a wealth of redundant agency staffers. Once the next election is over their ranks are about to be swelled even further by a legion of PR people currently working within government departments and services from NHS trusts, to county councils and housing associations. David Cameron’s conservatives have targeted PR teams as one of the first areas to cut costs, I mean would anyone notice if all the PR people sudden disappeared in the morning? (There is a delicious irony in this of course, David Cameron having worked in PR for Carlton Communications for seven years prior to being an MP).

If Labour get into power again, they too will need to get to work on balancing the books and PR people make a low risk target. Very few of them are union members, and in an age of sleeze and spin are unlikely to be missed.

What the PR agencies need is a blue water strategy, a way to put a clear distance between themselves and the press release-writing hordes. What the payment-by-results clients need is to wait for government cutbacks. With an over-supply at the bottom end of the market, they may even be able to get a free try-before-you-buy.