Working With a PR Firm - The Do's and Don'ts

GroundFloor Media - Working with a PR Firm

Before working with a PR firm, it can help to get a taste of that firm’s philosophy. At GroundFloor Media (GFM), we believe out-thinking is more valuable than outspending. We believe that unique creativity should synchronize with strategic practice. And we understand that cultivating constructive relationships with online and offline influencers is vitally important – if not critical. Behind it all? A staff of seasoned PR overachievers who direct our accounts and deliver experienced counsel with style and grace. It’s how we can keep our promise of providing you a robust return on investment. And it’s why, over and over, our clients tell us that it’s the relationships we build that lift GFM head and shoulders above the rest.

That said, we also believe PR should be a team effort. We climb into the foxhole with you and integrate our strategies with yours for a united front. Although the article below is a bit outdated, many of its tenets still hold true today. It might make sense to read a few of the tips from Alan Caruba that outline common pitfalls folks have been known to encounter when dealing with an agency for the first time. Read on to learn how to get the most out of your experience.

Lack of Communication. In a time when the news cycle is 24 hours a day, a PR firm has to be able to react swiftly to breaking news that can enhance or harm your interests. That means that a quick call from your PR adviser needs your attention so that he or she may act on your behalf to issue a news release or contact a member of the media to call attention to your role.

Failure to DO Anything Newsworthy. It’s called news because it has sufficient merit to be passed along to readers, listeners and/or viewers. If your company is not doing anything, then you simply will not generate any news. Many times, a company will actually be doing something of interest but not recognize it as a platform for a PR effort, i.e., putting up a website and then not telling the PR firm about it. Holding an annual training session with a major industry figure and then not permitting the PR firm to invite the media to attend and learn about new trends, issues, etc.

Failure to Institute a Crisis Communication Program. Many companies are under siege from special interest groups opposed to their products or services. Failure to authorize your PR firm to create a plan that identifies the procedures to take immediately can turn any unexpected or adverse publicity into an even bigger disaster.

Failure to Respond to Media Inquiries. In the intense competition to secure media coverage, the failure to take a reporter’s call immediately only means that he or she will go elsewhere to secure the information needed. Reporters routinely work on several stories each day and cannot afford to wait around an hour or longer to get a response. If the story directly affects your company, you need to demonstrate you are willing to answer questions or risk being regarded as guilty until proven innocent. In cases where your company has been positioned by your PR firm as an expert source of commentary and information, failure to respond quickly leads to the conclusion you’re not really a good source. Your competition will benefit if they respond when you do not.

Too Much PR for the CEO or President. Many CEOs believe that the real role of the PR firm is to make sure they get lots of media coverage while their company’s products and services go begging for it. While it is common practice to quote the CEO in most releases since he or she is the obvious spokesperson, spreading the recognition around is a good idea, particularly if the company employs experts who may, in fact, provide a better interview. In addition, if and when a CEO leaves the company, all the effort that has been invested in creating his or her personal image is lost and must begin again with the new CEO.

Avoiding the Press. Many companies today have decided they’re better off avoiding the press. And it is true that a good deal of business news coverage tends to be negative. However, there is also a trend toward giving a company the benefit of the doubt. (See Crisis Communication and Failure to Respond to Media Inquiries above.) Here again, thoroughly briefing your PR firm on what the company is doing, what new products and services will be introduced and when, what the key public issues affecting your company may be, et cetera, will allow the PR firm to run interference for you if, indeed, you do not want direct contact. This means developing a real sense of trust in the judgment of your PR firm to protect your interests and, perhaps, at the same time, be more aggressive in defending you.

Not Thinking Long Term. Many clients who have never engaged in PR previously, even though the company may be successful and may have been around a long time, do not realize that it takes a long time to develop credibility among news professionals before they begin to routinely look to you for commentary or give coverage to your news releases and events. It can take up to a full year before this occurs, meaning that all the efforts of your PR firm may yield relatively little response initially. It will happen, however, if you are prepared to make the initial investment to become a player to whom news people turn for comment or information. (One great way to do this is to take an advertisement in the Yearbook of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons, an annual reference that news professionals use every day for a quick source, http://www.expertclick.com). Mostly certainly, a PR plan is the first step toward establishing specific goals and objectives.

Understanding That Dissemination of News Has Its Costs. Just sending out a news release once a month may work for a trade association or company that wants to insure its visibility in a relatively small market area like a state or vertical market, but to get news out quickly these days, one has to understand the costs involved with using services like PR Newswire or Business Wire, North American Precis and other comparable companies. They are on a par with The Associated Press and other mainline news services, and their information is received in the same fashion. A company can tailor its distribution of news to cities, states or the nation. A large company will also want to generate video news releases, and that comes with a hefty price tag.

Ignoring the Wide Spectrum of PR Outlets. While most clients would like to see themselves mentioned in The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and other major news outlets, the fact is, there is a vast spectrum of news outlets that cannot and should not be ignored. These include major trade publications; newsletters; and local, regional and national radio and television programs. A good PR firm will want to reach out to these outlets for the opportunities they represent to tell your story. A company profile in a major trade publication can be reprinted and used by sales personnel, distributed to customers, et cetera. A mention in a specialized newsletter can generate inquiries about your company’s products and services.

Advertising Is Not PR. That fact is, advertising should be integrated with your PR program, but advertising is not PR. It is time or space bought to tell your story, but PR is the process of securing news coverage. In some cases, if a particular issue or event is having or will have a major effect on your company, your PR firm should be engaged to create the advertisement’s text. Then let your ad agency do the placement. The need for ad people and PR people to work together is essential, and both should be encouraged to trust one another. There is a tendency of one to regard the other as a threat. Some large advertising agencies include PR as part of their integrated services. Many smaller, more specialized PR firms do not engage in advertising unless it is specific to a problem that needs immediate attention.

The Cost of Monitoring the News. There is very little point in hiring a PR firm and then not monitoring the success of the PR program by engaging a clipping service to determine how much media coverage is being generated in print. Monitoring radio and television adds to the cost. On average, the reading fee for most clipping services is about $300, and that does not include the cost of one clip or 100 clips. It’s an investment that is, however, essential.

Your PR Counselor or Firm Is Part of Your Company. Dealing with your PR professionals at arm’s length, not inviting and expecting them to become an integral part of your company is a sure way to keep them largely in the dark and unable to provide the very advice for which you are paying. You wouldn’t do this with any other key supplier, but it is too frequently the case with PR professionals. Why? They often have the unpleasant task of saying, “No, that’s not a good idea.”

Failure to Join and Support Trade and Other Business Groups. Every business and professional activity these days is represented by various groups of those companies and individuals involved. Failure to join and actively support their activities, particularly in the area of legislative and regulatory relations, is to fail to understand that you will rise and fall together. If a particular business activity acquires a black eye, then all suffer. The PR function of trade associations can range from very active and very good to invisible and dismal. It is an essential aspect of doing business today.

Failure to Actively Communicate with Customers. Many companies that are highly dependent on the goodwill of their customers fail to even provide them with a quarterly or semiannual newsletter telling them about the quality of the work they’re performing or the quality of the products they’re selling them. Customers always welcome news of new products. Tips on how to run their own operations in relation to the products and/or services you are providing are also welcome. A customer newsletter is a PR function.

Failure to Actively Communicate with Employees. There’s something of an American tradition to have an adversarial relationship with employees, despite the benefits you may extend. Often they feel as if they are the last to know what’s going on in the company. True, some things have to be withheld in their early stages of development to avoid industrial spying by your competition or for other valid reasons. But your employees are also your front line for communicating the positive aspects of your company’s products, services and other programs.

This is often seen as a human-relations function, but this department in many companies plays a rather defensive role and may not be well suited to maintaining company morale.

For the reasons outlined above, the best efforts of your PR counselor or firm may suffer because the proper amount of cooperation and support simply does not exist. And, of course, it’s easy to blame the PR professional for not getting the results you want.

Copyright, Alan Caruba, 1999
Permission to reprint is granted.
Use of this commentary implies the provision of the published work