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For what tickles my fancy in media, communications and life in general.

PR Agencies Are No Good At Marketing

with 6 comments

Part of my client base at Marketing magazine includes Toronto’s PR Agencies. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met with the heads of many of these agencies and with senior professionals at others. As a result, I’ve gained insight into their business and, in particular, how they go about marketing themselves and their services.

And what I’ve found is that PR agencies suck at marketing.

I put a lot of the blame for this on the inability (or disinterest) of the PR community to educate their publics about what PR really involves and how it can enhance a business’ operations. There are many out there who still view PR as the domain of unscrupulous spin doctors or as nothing beyond media relations and I have yet to find a contact who doesn’t agree with this statement (to some degree at least). I’ll admit that this was my opinion before I started my PR diploma.

Ed Lee wrote in a recent post that:

As an agency guy, I’ve heard many of my seniors, both in the UK and here in Canada, bemoan how their latest client “doesn’t understand PR”. I’m sure that there are also many clients out there who believe their organisation doesn’t understand (or prioritise in the budget) PR.

In my view, there are several reasons that public relations finds itself in this position:

1. Earned Media Mentality

PR is the business of generating earned media and an authentic dialogue with a client’s stakeholders. The communication must be transparent and genuine. It must be grounded in truth. As a result, there is a feeling in the industry that anything that smacks of self-promotion is disingenuous. New business is generated by referrals, networking, or RFP pitches. This speaks to a “work speaks for itself” mentality. But if this is all that is needed, what about Ed’s comments. One of my contacts* is a senior PR pro at a multi-national agency. She told me that when they bring on a new client they hold a PR 101 to educate them about what PR is and what it can do for them. Shouldn’t this have happened during the pitch process? Why are companies hiring PR agencies if they don’t even know what they can do? Why hasn’t PR earned the coveted ‘seat at the table’?

2. The Inner Journalist:

There are a lot of people in PR who have either worked or have been trained as journalists. PR people spend a lot of time trying to get journalists to cover their clients. As a result, PR people have been trained to think like journalists. Self-promotion runs against the gain. But PR is also the business of selling – selling services to clients; selling clients to media; selling client’s activities/actions/products to consumers; etc…Sales is about understanding client needs and providing solutions that meet those needs. A switch from an editorial to sales perspective could go a long way.

3. The Wagons are Circled:

There is a lot of chatter within the PR community about the state of the industry, but very little of this escapes to the wider marketing or business community. Look how active PR people are in the blogosphere; how well-represented they are at conferences like Mesh. But these are ahead-of-the-curve kind of activities. Do any non-PR people attend industry awards shows? Are there ever PR-related specials in newspapers like the Globe & Mail has done with advertising? There is a lot of talking among themselves, not a lot of talking about themselves.

But I do see promising signs. The PR community is well-represented in the blogosphere. Several Canadian agencies have banded together to form the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms (CCPRF). Marketing mag recently acknowledged, for the first time, a PR agency of the Year.

PR agencies need to take a closer look at their own brands. Few outside the community (and maybe even many within) could tell me what differentiates one agency from another. This is a brand crisis. Businesses don’t know what PR agencies can do. They don’t know what distinguishes one agency from other. They don’t know why they should allocate more budget towards PR.

PR agencies need to start making serious investments in marketing. They ask clients to pay for services that raise awareness, generate understanding and create the need for action. Maybe some money needs to be spent doing the same things for themselves.

Start selling.

* I have to respect client confidentiality which is why I have not disclosed this person’s name or firm. This may be bad blogging practice, but so be it.

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Written by Jonathan Dunn

January 7, 2007 at 12:14 pm

6 Responses

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  1. physician heal thyself!

    the truth is that the agency world lends itself to working for others extremely well, but it’s all too hard to find time to turn your expertise on yourself.

    the recent istudio holiday card was a case in point as we shifted client work around like crazy and worked into the night to get everything ready for a deadline.

    Ed

    Ed Lee

    January 7, 2007 at 9:21 pm

  2. A fair point, Ed. The main focus should always be on serving existing clients.

    That said, it’s hard to accept lamenting the lack of understanding about what PR is, can do, etc, when there doesn’t seem to be enough of a concerted effort to change this state of affairs.

    Jonathan Dunn

    January 8, 2007 at 1:00 pm

  3. Well put, Jonathan. Definitely food for thought. The industry does a pretty crappy job of promoting itself, while individual firms ebb and flow.

    I’m left wondering whether firms need to do more with their own brands, or if the industry needs to do more to float all the boats?

    David Jones

    January 8, 2007 at 2:12 pm

  4. Thx David. Your question is an excellent one (and a good topic for a subsequent post), though I don’t think it’s an either/or question. Both need to happen – maybe the CCPRF is a good start re the latter.

    But it will be hard for the industry to make noise if the individual firms aren’t supportive in thought & action. A brand can’t be sustained if there’s no substance to back it up.

    Jonathan Dunn

    January 8, 2007 at 3:15 pm

  5. Jon (if I can call you that?!), i think you’re point, on the lack of understanding about what PR is, is a completely different point to the lack of marketing that PR agencies can do – and just as interesting as mr. jones’.

    off the top, i’d say a numerically smaller, but nonetheless stratigally important, budget coupled with a lack of access to the c-suite are the two major culprit’s for this.

    Ed

    Ed Lee

    January 8, 2007 at 4:20 pm

  6. Ed,

    I think you’ve hit on something here…I use the term marketing, but perhaps promotion is more on the mark.

    The reasons I chose marketing is b/c there needs to be a change in mindset about how PR promotes itself and what it does. Associating ‘marketing’ with PR tends to make PR folk squirm.

    I agree with your two culprits, but ask the question why is that the case (which was the root of my three points)?

    ps. NP calling me Jon – but not John 😉

    Jonathan Dunn

    January 8, 2007 at 4:39 pm


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