“My last PR firm didn’t deliver.”
It’s something we hear a lot from potential clients and it’s a common theme my colleagues at other agencies tell me too.
While many times that disappointment isn’t the fault of the agency or consultant—some people simply want craft beer taste on a macro beer budget—I’ve found that there’s another reason why brands are unhappy with their PR support.
They simply bought into the wrong program and didn’t ask two simple, yet critical, questions.
Here they are.
Question 1: Is this something the media will actually cover?
What you want the media to cover isn’t necessarily what the media is interested in. Sounds simple, but it’s a critical question often ignored during the development phase in favor of ideas that have more flash and promise extra buzz.
But PR doesn’t happen in a controlled environment. It’s a competition with a myriad of factors working against you.
Look at the media you want to target as a puzzle, with some flexibility to it.
You can sometimes massage the pieces in, but forcing them usually won’t work. You can’t hammer a square peg into a round hole in this instance. The pieces need to fit.
Keep in mind that the media puzzle has duplicate pieces, owned by your competitors. Their pieces will also fit and some may actually look better in the puzzle than yours!
With that in mind, take a media-first approach when reviewing PR ideas you’ve been presented and ask for examples of how similar strategies and executions delivered. Are they things the media will cover? How will they fit into the puzzle? Better yet, review on your own for that extra shot of clarity and a better understanding of the modern media landscape. Sounds like extra work, because it is. But what’s the alternative?
PR isn’t advertising in the sense that just because we execute something, we’ll see tangible results. With an ad buy, at the least, you’ll see the ad. It may not do what you want it to in a way you can measure, but you’re guaranteed it’ll be out in the wild. When it comes to PR and media relations, we can’t offer that guarantee. Just because you sign onto a program doesn’t mean you’ll see results, so take a critical eye as you review what’s being proposed to you.
The next question is a little more probing but runs almost parallel to the first one.
Question 2: How many media calls did you make this week?
This is more for those looking to hire an agency, but also a good thing to consider when internal teams are developing ideas for media outreach.
On the agency side, those you’re often meeting with and selling you on campaign ideas aren’t the same people actually making the media calls (or on Instagram DM’ing journalists, sharing their Pinterest posts, etc.). Your agency team is probably not going to be staffed purely by the firm’s senior leadership and the majority of the media outreach may be executed by those not in the room.
Often PR programs are developed and pitched by people who won’t be in charge of actually executing them. Throughout my career, and a lot of former colleagues can vouch for this too, the program being sold to a client is often not done so by someone who regularly interacts with the media. That can be an issue.
To have the best understanding of the current PR and media relations landscape you need to not only be watching the media, but also interacting with our friends on the other side of the desk. You need to be in the trenches.
Think of how advertising has evolved. Or professional sports. Impressions still matter. Scoring baskets still matters. But so much has changed in terms of how the game is being played. The hoop is still there, but the defense is adapting. You can’t run the same plays and hope they’ll work.
I actually used to have a tight little crew of colleagues at a firm where we proposed an idea we called Pitch It Yourself. It came about because too often we were handed programs to execute that were long shots when it came to success. With Pitch It Yourself, anyone involved in a brainstorm, whose ideas made it into a program, had to be involved somehow in the actual media outreach. They wouldn’t need to own a significant part, but they would have to handle some of the outreach to get a feel for how the current media landscape was at the time.
The idea didn’t go over that well. Why? I don’t know. But I do know that sexier pitches and more elaborate initiatives tend to receive a better reception than simpler methods focused on what the media being targeted will actually cover.
But if you can only choose sexy or substance, which do you want to go with? I’d love to own a monster truck or a Lamborghini. They’re definitely attention grabbers and seem like they’d be really fun to drive. But even if I had the budget and space, I’m not sure either would work well for my morning commute or 6+ hour drives to go snowboarding in the winter. If my morning commute changes to involve streets littered with abandoned vehicles, well, I may consider that monster truck after all.