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May 10, 2005

Sounding the Alarm on PR

Sarah Lacy

The good people at alarm:clock wrote a scathing piece called “Live Longer- Fire Your PR Firm” last Thursday that had little new to say, but nonetheless it ignited quite a firestorm. More than a dozen comments were posted decrying alarm:clock for being so harsh on PR firms.

While the whole journalists poking fun at so-called “flacks” bit is played out, alarm:clock is right that this is an important issue for start-ups and venture capital firms, and like it or not it’s a hot button.

I regularly get calls from lost entrepreneurs, and yes, even general partners at VC firms asking me about the PR world. Does it make sense to hire in house? Does it make sense to go with an agency? And what agencies are best?

I don’t agree with the alarm:clock folks that all agencies are bad for start-ups (see the combo of Outcast Communications and Salesforce.com for a notable example), and I do know several agencies that are working hard to figure out what blogs are and how to include them in the media strategy. But I could count them on one hand.

Yes, there are good PR folks and bad PR folks, like any profession. But the vast, vast majority of bad PR folks I’ve run across were from agencies. And guess what startups? No matter what an agency says, a junior person will be handling your account. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant junior people. There are also hundreds who haven’t quite mastered the “check-the-reporter’s-name-before-you-call-them” trick. As such, I now answer to Stacy and Lucy, in addition to my actual name, Sarah. And you know what? Stacy and Lucy are much crankier when they call you back.

So, yes, in most cases it makes more sense to hire someone in house, or a third option, the entry didn’t mention: hire an independent contractor. There are many good, seasoned independent contractors in the Bay Area who got fed up with agency ways or just wanted more control of their destiny. Here you could have the best of both worlds: No burden of paying benefits or committing to a full-timer, but a lot more attention than you’d get at an agency and an assurance of who’d be working on your account. Independent contractors are also easier to research with journalists since you’re asking about a specific person not a whole agency where someone could have had a great experience and a terrible one all in the same week.

Here’s the most important thing I’d look for in anyone I was hiring, were I a startup CEO: Someone who can stand up to a bossy client. The worst PR firms, from a journalist’s point of view, are ones who keep pitching you a story they know is lame, that you’ve already told them you aren’t interested. Ever wonder why so many journalists are cranky? Fielding the same phone call over and over again. Imagine if I called you several times a week about a story you’d already said you didn’t want to be interviewed for.

Often times, the caller knows the journalist won’t bite, but they’re checking off a list of things to do the client has ordered them to do. Only problem? It’s at the expense of their relationship with the journalist. The calls I pay attention to are from PR folks who have proven they get what I do and what I’m interested in and don’t waste my time with something lame. Doesn’t always result in a story, but they will always get a call back.

How venture capitalists handle PR is a bit more nuanced. For most, it’s uncharted waters. During the boom, venture capital became a mainstream media topic. During the bust, many venture capitalists wanted to—and tried to—retreat back to anonymity, but it was too late. The smart ones found a good PR person to help them navigate through the choppy waters, fending off articles that wouldn’t benefit the firm, while keeping good relationships with journalists. The agency model makes even less sense for VC firms. It is such a specialized business, very, very few firms do it well. Spark, VCPR, and The Blue Shirt Group are among the few. On the contrary, some of the best PR people I have ever worked with are inside VC firms. They sit in on partner meetings and just plain know what’s going on.

One thing the alarm:clock guys harped on is the annoying agency tendency to write the same old tired press release. Amen. Here’s hoping the profession at large will soon catch on to the fact that words like “leading solutions provider” and “world class” have lost all meaning and are a sheer waste of space.

03:42 PM


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» Sounding the Alarm on PR from Media Guerrilla Linkblog
Link: Sounding the Alarm on PR. [Read More]

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» Venture Capital blog advises, "Fire your PR firm" (ouch!) from Helzerman's Odd Bits
VC blog, alarm:clock posts, "Live Longer - Fire Your PR Firm." ---and that is the most flack-friendly line in the whole piece. Their number one reason to sack your agency? "Theyre full of baloney." Interestingly one of their shining exampl... [Read More]

Tracked on May 10, 2005 08:46 PM

» Alarm:Clock says fire your PR firm from Musings from POP! PR
From the ruins of Red Herring came Alarm:Clock. And, damn, it didn't take them much time to climb onto the cluelesstrain. [Read More]

Tracked on May 11, 2005 11:57 AM

» More on firing your PR firm from Vy Blog
Sarah Lacy at BusinessWeek's Dealflow blog weighs in on the alarm:clock venting of last week. Yeah, I'm on the high horse, but it's my blog, so here goes: [Read More]

Tracked on May 11, 2005 02:58 PM

» The alarm:clock doesn't like PR firms from Marketing Begins At Home
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Comments

First I would like to thank Sarah for defending PR. I work for a non-profit in Silicon Valley and we work with prominent people in the business and tech industry. I must say that we value our PR folks at Edelman. Not only do they provide us with great insight on the media but with a good third-party perspective that we may not otherwise get. The media is a big part of what we do, and for that we value the opinions of our Edelman PR folks, and find them a valuable asset to our organization.

Posted by: Monica Sanjines at May 10, 2005 07:41 PM

Thanks, Sarah for posting a more "balanced" viewpoint to the never-ending debate between PR execs and journalists.

Thanks, too for offering an alternative that none of the others mentioned -- work with independent contractors.

As an independent PR contractor, it's nice to have a journalist sing the praises of contractors. We bring value to the table without the overhead and politics of an agency.

Posted by: Barbara Llarena at May 11, 2005 03:25 PM

I haven’t gotten anyone’s name that wrong since I was 23 at an agency working on 6 accounts, but, alas, you see the problem…

Thanks to Lucy, oh, I mean Lacy ; -) for recognizing this issue.

Posted by: Binay Curtis at May 11, 2005 06:52 PM

Sarah,

As you point out, there are good PR people and there are bad PR people.

I take issue, however, with the blanket assertion that it's good practice to take PR in-house or hire a contractor. Again, it depends on the quality of the individual practitioner.

In the 13+ years that I've been running Dovetail Public Relations, I can count on one finger the number of former clients who moved a PR program in-house and were able to maintain an equivalent level of PR program effectiveness, as measured by quality and quantity of proactively generated media coverage.

Like all PR people, contractors can be good or bad. If you can find a great contractor, and carve out dedicated and reserved time, you might have a winning situation. But all too often, contractors are often just agencies of one, and like other agencies, are prone to the same challenges.

The secret to finding a good agency, or a good contractor or in-house person, is accountability and performance. If they perform, if they give you extreme value for every dollar invested, then you have a golden situation. Before you hire anyone, speak with current and former clients. If they have a track record of working with the same clients over and over again, then that speaks volumes about their ability to get the job done.

Avoid agencies with fixed retainers, because fixed retainers only incent the agency to do as little as possible to keep you satisfied. If you want to better align your interests with the interests of the agency, look for agencies or contractors who bill based on the actual time spent on your account, and then measure that time against results. If they bill hours just to bill hours, fire them. If they work with you on a continuous basis to extract maximum value from every hour, then you have a winner.

Demand impeccable ethics and honesty at all times. If you have an agency or contractor who encourages you to lie to the media, dump them, because you can bet they're going to lie to you. Successful PR relationships are built on honesty and trust.

Before hiring an agency, demand to interview the actual team who will be working on your account. I tell prospective clients, "It's not enough if you love me, you need to love my team if you're going to hire us." Like many agency principals, my role in an account is planning, strategy and account supervision. But the long term success of an account often comes down to execution and results, and the bulk of that work is performed by account managers and account executives. Over the years I've seen far too many examples of agency, contractor and in-house PR pros who can only do strategy and planning but can't tranform it into ink. The grandest strategies and messaging platforms are worthless unless you can bring them to your target audience, the prospective customer. Strategy without execution is like a car without wheels.

Demand that the agency tell you the credentials and bill rates of everyone who will be billing to your account, and the number of approximate hours they'll bill to your account each month.

On a final note, I'd like to add a note about VCs. Back in the bubble days, it was standard practice for VCs to mandate that their portfolio companies budget a blanket $20,000-$30,000 minimum for a big name agency. Dumb. I've heard numerous horror stories of clients who got nothing but a big name. Agency abuses were rampant back then. Luckily, many of those agencies went out of business after the bubble burst. Most startups can do just fine with $5,000-$10,000, if the money's spent correctly.

Posted by: Mark Coker at May 12, 2005 11:33 AM

A stellar PR person isn't afraid to tell their client that they are being 'absolutely unreasonable.' (For example, a client fired me on the spot because I told him that I wouldn't write another 'worthless press release just because he said so.')

A great PR person is confident enough to work towards and guarantee quantifiable results directly related to their clients' business goals.

A terrible PR person always tells their client 'yes' when instead, they should be laughing hysterically at their ridiculous requests.


Posted by: carole sinclair at May 13, 2005 01:31 AM

As someone who once was one of those timid, half-scared juniors punting out stories about software upgrades or trying to get prime space for a trade event, instead of it being on the diary pages where it belongs, I would like to point out that long-term journalists can actually help alleviate this problem.

Next time some new name calls in with a deadwood non-story, ASK them if they are a junior on the account. If they are, tell them, quickly, firmly and politely it is a non-goer. Then tell them to explain this to their AD. This will take about 30 seconds but it can save you hundreds of junk email releases, voicemails and annoying phone conversations later on.

Why? Because most juniors I have come across will happily feedback that a story or idea is no good. It shows they are learning. It single handedly demonstrates that they have developed some form of relationship (no matter how tenuous) with the journalist).

But most of all it sets the junior up in the right frame of mind...and most of all to know a given journalists' requirements.

Posted by: Crawford at May 13, 2005 04:24 AM

hi sarah,

first off, thanks for a pretty balanced piece on the 'fire your PR agency' debate.

i think that most of the original and follow-up comments on this issue clearly show that there's just no room for sweeping generalisations. it's an interesting topic, and here are a few more thoughts for the pot;

your point about 'the vast majority of bad PR folks...were from agencies' - did you write this from a journalist's perspective? if so, few points on that:

1) in my experience, many organisations hire PR agencies specifically to get media relations results a) because it's damn difficult and b) because it's a time consuming and, often, thankless task. i've found that a lot of in-housers shy off from media relations because it's simply neither easy nor enjoyable.

also, i've found (and it's only one man's experience) that external PR staff (agency or contractor) are generally sharper, more tenacious and less able to 'hide' than in-housers. naturally, this is going to see them cop flak more often, especially when dealing with media sources.

2) to evaluate PR professionalism on the basis of some execs' telephone pitch technique is also a bit harsh. especially when, for eg, studies from australia suggest that media relations only accounts for around 30% of all PR agency output.

despite this, many journos still think that the entire PR world revolves around them; it's not so.

pitching stories is essentially a sales technique and just one part (albeit an important part) of the broader PR armoury, at which increasing numbers of entrants to PR field are well-versed in.

3)and finally on 'bad PR folks...'; i know of several instances where really bad 'PR' was actually perpetrated by journos who've jumped the fence for careers in PR. untrained in the bigger PR picture, they can be dangerously loose cannons.

some mammoth examples of media relations and ethical malpractice (the english football asociation's 'svengate' crisis, the scottish parliament's 'lobbygate' scandal and the daily mirror's 'city slickers' PR stoush) all prominently featured former hacks.

but i can't tar all ex-journos-turned-PRs with the same brush; my generalisations would in no way be conclusive, i'm sure.

i've worked in some really great and professional PR agency environments where i had huge respect for highly responsible and savvy, fellow PR pros.

thanks

Gerry


Posted by: Gerry McCusker at May 25, 2005 09:01 AM

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