I’m lucky enough to work mostly with smaller, fast-growth companies, where we're involved at board level, and what we do can have a real impact on shaping the business. But we still come across the odd badly thought-through PR brief from a bigger company, written by someone who is so far away from the business that often they can’t even answer basic business questions, like what the company’s turnover is, or what their business objectives are.
You know the kind of brief I mean. Where the ‘objectives’ are to write press releases and get coverage (anywhere); and ROI is ‘measured’ in terms of column inches and AVEs. And you’re required (along with the other 8 people on the short list) to do a media audit among national editors to find out what perception are of the company. (Actually, that last bit’s usually pretty easy. If the company hasn’t had any coverage, journalists either don’t know who you are, or think you’re crap.)
I sat in a pitch recently for a large company that deep down I knew we shouldn’t be pitching for, but greed got the better of us. The minute we walked into the room, we knew we were a bad fit.
We were pitching to a large team, but overall responsibility for the pitch had been given to a junior PR manager who hadn’t been part of the initial briefing process. She wanted to know:
- how much guaranteed coverage we were going to get from corporate press releases that she was going to write (also pretty easy: none. Guaranteed).
- how many national journalists did we know well enough on a personal level to guarantee they would cover her (as yet undefined) press release containing corporate messages? We confidently estimated that no journalist would do this.
I wish we’d known at the briefing stage that these were the criteria we’d be judged against. We’d have saved the tube fare. Unsurprisingly we were ditched in favour of a large-ish agency who had, amazingly, given these guarantees.
The result is predicable. The agency A team who pitched will start to be unavailable once it comes to that nasty business of actually having to deliver on promises. Responsibility will get shunted down the team until it reaches a sufficiently lowly person whose job depends on phoning his or her way through a media list (hoping that someone still does colour seps).
The relationship between agency and client will start to decline at this point. The agency’s least experienced PR person will work with an inexperienced client contact to deliver rubbish to an increasingly frustrated group of journalists. That’s not helping the client’s reputation, or the agency’s.
But it's not just the agency in question that will suffer. PR at its best is about creating and managing reputations. And yet the reputation of our own industry is in the pan. There is some great work being done by PR teams, but the whole industry is damaged when an agency lies in order to win business.