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PR Myths and Urban Legends

Perhaps because public relations is an unregulated and unlicensed profession, it is the subject of many "myths" and anecdotal "facts" about what is necessary for successful public relations. For any professional who has a grounding in the body of knowledge that makes up the practice of public relations these myths are amusing at times. But in the end - they can cause serious problems to the unsuspecting clients who take them at face value and attempt to build a program on PR "myths and urban legends". Here's a rundown of some of the top PR "myths".

"Anyone can do PR", and "Ex-journalists make the best PR people"

I've lumped these two together because they basically relate to the same theme. It sort of follows the logic that a former purchasing agent would also make the best sales person. After all, they have spent a lot of time on one side of the table (buying), so they know what it takes to succeed on the other side (selling), right? If you believe that - I have a bridge in New York that I want to sell to you.

The practice of public relations basically relies on two essential skill sets - selling and communications. Another way to express this is persuasive communications. So if you think "anyone" can do public relations - then conduct a skill inventory of that person in these two areas - that will tell you how successful they will be. And remember that although journalists may be very talented at the technical skill of communications (writing or broadcast) they are notoriously deficient in sales skills, or a persuasive manner of doing business. This is one of the reasons that so many of them went back to journalism after short stints in public relations either in high-tech start-ups or agencies during the dot com era.

"You need ‘contacts' to be successful in PR"

This has got to be the longest-running inside joke ever. It's usually foisted on naive clients by agency staffers - who would somehow have you to believe that their magic Rolodex is the key to public relations success. Do I have any takers for my bridge yet? PR people never try to tell other PR people they have "contacts"- because they would be laughed out of the room. Several years ago, Soft*letter did an excellent report called The Decline and Fall of High Tech PR where they debunked this myth - based on comments from the media editors themselves.

To be sure, professional relationships are no more or less important in public relations than they are in any other profession. But relationships (especially in public relations) are dynamic, not static. With the tremendous turmoil of the publishing industry, yesterday's contacts are today's unemployed journalists - and that time frame is not exaggerated.

What is far more important for the success of a public relations effort (in terms of media relations - which is where the point of contact comes into play) is the ability to diagnose the media coverage to determine which publications, and just who in those publications, is covering the client's technology, industry, topic, etc. - and then how to best approach these publications. If this sounds like traditional detective work - it is. And a Rolodex would be nothing more than a starting point - and a fairly dated one at that. There are far more current professional resources and directories that are available to any public relations professional. The danger of someone who either won't - or can't - do the basic detective work and who relies on their Rolodex is that they will shoehorn the client into publications where they don't belong - and miss the critical ones where they do - simply because they don't have any "contacts" there.

"Your program must be ‘newsworthy'"

Just another inside joke. Very little of what appears in the business and trade media that can be supported by a public relations program is what most people would consider "newsworthy" - whatever that means. This is also how the mass media ex-journalists get their foot in the door, claiming to have a unique sense of what is "newsworthy" - when in fact most of them are simply sent out to cover a story by an assignment desk editor.

The goal of most public relations efforts is to increase the "public" understanding of a particular company, organization, cause or (in the case of politics and entertainment) individual. And the definition of that "public" all depends on who you are attempting to reach, and why. This is where the wheels fall off the supposed "newsworthy" aspect. What is newsworthy to one group is, in all likelihood, not newsworthy to another. One size does not fit all. Even the networks can't figure that one out - which is why their audience share for the evening "news" keeps dropping. The key is to determine what constitutes "news" (in other words, what is considered interesting) to the intended, specific audience - and having been a mass-media journalist is of little help there. The highest probability of success here is the "feature story" aspect - or reporting in depth - which takes an understanding of the industry, trends, the company and the competition. Sure sounds a lot more like marketing than journalism, doesn't it?

"You need a 'full-service' agency"

Well, perhaps if you are Microsoft, General Motors or one of the Fortune 500 - but, absent that, perhaps not. With more than 10 million businesses in this country, there are a lot that don't really need 'full service' public relations. What many clients don't realize that other than the top several dozen agencies, none are really 'full service' - that is, having all the skills under one roof. Instead, many agencies are more like general contractors - they will find a subcontractor for you. But that's a two-edged sword - the subcontractor they use may, or may not, be the one you would have selected. This is because they probably would use the criteria of a prior 'relationship' rather than industry expertise - or select one in a fashion so arbitrary that you could do it yourself. As an example, a colleague of mine with expertise in presentation skills was contacted by an agency to work with one of their clients- and the agency found him through the yellow pages!

This brings about another aspect of the subcontractor role that clients don't realize - the agencies go to great lengths to keep the subcontractors isolated form the clients. I once had a meeting with an agency president who was interested in my diagnostic approach to developing case studies for technology companies. When I described the amount of interaction involved, her remark was: "I wouldn't feel comfortable with someone getting that close to my clients." Clearly, getting the best for the client was secondary to maintaining control (and an illusion of 'full service', perhaps.) She no longer has an agency, by the way.

There is a quick test you can perform to see if an agency is really 'full service' or simply claiming that status. Ask about their capabilities in the areas of market research (absolutely critical for public relations, by the way) and the preparation of client case studies or application profiles. These are two areas where all but the largest agencies have to use outside vendors.

You may, in fact, want a general contractor for your public relations program. That's fine when it is understood by all parties - but why play games with a vendor who claims to be something they are not?

"Your PR program must have ROI" and "We only pay for placement"

If it were that easy, the accounting schools would be turning out battalions of public relations experts. The current craze for an "ROI" on just about everything is simply an excuse for not making a management decision when the outcome is qualitative in nature, and not quantitative. In other words, not completely measurable with numbers. For example, what is the "ROI" on hiring the wrong job candidate? In order to measure that, you would have to hire both the "right" and the "wrong" candidate, measure their returns and costs (against each other) and then determine the "ROI"- because it is impossible to measure only one - you simply have no comparison metric.

Since public relations works in conjunction with other aspects of your sales and marketing effort, it is best viewed as an investment - in other words, it is a subjective judgement at the particular time and space that you are in that the benefits of the program that you are going to commission will outweigh the costs. In reality these decisions are made every day - for example - what's the "ROI" on your insurance policies? You hope you never have to find out - especially if it's life insurance. But you buy them anyway.

"Pay-for-placement" is an interesting concept that comes up about every 10 years, usually in a down economy. Every example I've ever seen has not been any bargain - the client would wind up paying more than for a conventional program with the same results. And it's a moot point for PRSA-accredited practitioners - who by the organization's code of ethics are prohibited from guaranteeing results that are beyond their control. Any technique that is ethically prohibited should give you some pause for concern.

That point aside, pay-for-placement (which is the same as commission-only sales) is simply a transaction-based effort. As you may begin to realize by now, there is a lot more to effective public relations than simply the media relations part. Just look at the two businesses where commission-only sales is the norm - residential real estate brokerage and car sales. What's your opinion of how those relationships are run? Enough said?

"Advertising agencies can also do PR"

Many have tried, but very few have succeed in this quest. This is especially true among any but the very largest agencies - where the two (advertising and public relations) divisions are separate entities. Even then it often doesn't work - as the large advertising agency Hill, Holliday of Boston found out many years ago - they abandoned their public relations practice because they found that it was far too different from the advertising world they were used to dealing with. This is because the two disciplines are very different. Advertising is paid advocacy - you buy the space and have total control over the message. Public relations is persuasive - often you work through intermediaries (the media) who also interview your competition. Hence your message has to stand up in the marketplace. Claims that can be made in purchased advertisements would never hold up when advocated to the media in a competitive environment. Also, the advertising agencies are the customers of the media (they buy space in the publications) whereas in public relations, you're viewed by the media as a salesman or advocate - which requires a very different mindset (from the advertising world) for success.

"Attention-getting gimmicks are part of PR"

One of the oldest and most laughable PR myths. It's perhaps true if you work for the circus (or in the entertainment industry), but in a professional context - they have little or no value. The now-discredited approach of "the CEO as a rock star" is a permutation of this thinking. In the worst case - gimmicks distract from the core message and degrade the whole marketing effort. But this doesn't detract some from advocating or using them - again and again. Gimmicks in public relations are like gimmicks in any other business relationship - they hint at dishonestly and subterfuge. They are usually indicative that the person or organization using them lacks the professional depth to develop a program that is credible on its own merit. That requires professional skill and experience - not circus tricks.

© 2003, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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