Things about PR that I question as a 30-year industry vet

by | Nov 4, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

For years, the public has had a low opinion of the public relations business—maybe even lower than they have of used car salesmen. But some PR practitioners, like myself, who entered the PR business after being a journalist, also have found fault with an aspect of PR—the way large agencies operate.

Maybe because I was still a journalist at heart when I entered the PR business, after several New York dailies and a wire service that I worked for ceased publishing, I questioned, and still do, many PR tenets.

Maybe because I was a journalist, I always wondered why PR people thought a 700-word story without client message points would help their client. Now that I have been in the PR business for more than 30 years, I still question that.

Maybe it was my journalistic background that led me to believe, as I still do, that account supervisors and above should pitch in and help better the work (as copy and newsroom editors do), instead of just criticizing the efforts of people they supervise. (Generalizations are unfair. But based on my long experience in our business, I’ve come to the conclusion that many account supervisors and above who were colleagues of mine didn’t have the skills to help better the work of those they managed. But many were proficient at badgering and threatening people who they managed if the desired results weren’t achieved.)

Maybe because I witnessed many account supervisors and higher-level execs managing or advising staffers who knew more about crafting media-friendly programs and conducting proper media relations approaches than their supervisors, that I thought agency office politics played a very important role in promotions.

Maybe because I was a journalist, I questioned the need of encyclopedia size press kits, when the great majority of it was tossed as soon as it was opened in the news room.

Maybe because I was a journalist and was conditioned to working with reporters who knew their beats that I was surprised when I saw that PR account teams were organized with staffers who didn’t know anything about their client’s business, and neither did their supervisors (but acted like know-it alls).

It was the above and other aspects of public relations that made me believe that what John Wanamaker, the marketing pioneer, said about advertising also applies to public relations efforts: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

It’s not that I don’t believe that PR serves a purpose. It does, but often the positive effect it has is greatly exaggerated by the agencies to clients and by agency execs to young staffers. What bothers me is that many PR people truly believe the hype that they have the answers to all problems, especially if the budget is big enough, only to find out that their so-called magic often doesn’t work.

Thus, my thoughts about some aspects of agency life:

Six things I believe (about media relations):

  • I believe that limiting a pitch to one or two lines is ridiculous. I always craft a pitch as if I am writing a feature story and was never told by an editor it’s too long. In fact, many editors like the longer pitch because it contains various angles that might interest them.
  • I believe that when pitching a TV producer, the story is more important than providing footage.
  • I believe that many PR people pitch a story without having the slightest idea about the needs, likes and dislikes of the person they are pitching (and neither do their supervisors, who order the pitches).
  • I believe that most PR people, regardless of their titles, (from what I’ve noticed during my years in the business) are deficient at coming up with news angles that might entice a journalist.
  • I believe that most PR people do not have the necessary skills to pitch stories or craft programs with elements that work for the media.
  • I believe that, from my experience, most PR people don’t understand that when pitching, a story must work for both the client and the media.

Six things I don’t believe (about agency PR culture):

  • I don’t believe that the best people on account teams are treated fairly when promotions or salary increases are decided because top management at large agencies are so removed from the day-to-day PR efforts that they often don’t know what’s going on or who’s doing what at the account level. (And that they don’t care as long as the account is profitable and the client is happy.)
  • I don’t believe in the “team” concept. I believe it is a management tool to keep individuals from claiming credit that they deserve.
  • I don’t believe that office politics doesn’t play an important role when promoting people.
  • I don’t believe most things H.R. people say to employees because they are beholden to management.
  • I don’t believe it when management says, “Good work will eventually be rewarded.”
  • Most important, I don’t believe promises management makes when trying to keep a valued employee from leaving, because as Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince,” The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

One of the accounts I managed for eight years during my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller, (where I was a senior VP/senior counselor and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs, traveled the world with government leaders as a media consultant and helped manage media, social and political concerns at the Seoul Olympics,) was Gillette’s Safety Razor Davison.

One day my long-time client contact said, “Whenever we discuss program plans I don’t know if I’m speaking to a reporter or a public relations person.” “Is that bad?” I replied. “No, I’m just not used to getting straight answers from people at my agencies,” he said.

One thing that I knew from my journalist days that comes as a shock to many agency people right out of communication schools is that journalists aren’t impressed by titles of agency personnel, the size of your client, the program you are working on or the name of your agency. They are after relevant stories. So before connecting with a journalist, try to think like one and if you can’t, ask for a position that doesn’t require media contact.

From my experience, if you’re well-liked and you can’t develop story lines that work for both the client and the media, but know how to play the agency political games don’t despair. You still might get fast-tracked for promotions, like many of your supervisors who have other talents, like bean counting, acting as agency informers, and knifing co-workers in the back when directed to do so by higher-ups or schmoozing at the bar after work. Being the child of a big budget client or the drinking buddy of an agency executive also helps.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.