One of the biggest sales scams which Public Relations firms have successfully pulled off, is the implication that the quality and intimacy of their employee’s relationships with the media has some sort of direct correlation to the success you as a client will see. Let’s call this the Best Friends Forevah (BFF) grift. Please note I am intentionally using the term “forevah’ because that is exactly how ridiculous this concept should sound.
There are several negative effects in store for those who believe in the BFF concept. The first of which is that businesses feel compelled to ask a PR Firm with whom it has relationships. They ask this because the last five firms they spoke with all claimed media connections so intimate that the press would do anything for the firm’s clients.
This perpetuates the myth that the press works off of a system of hugs and high fives. This leads companies to believe that “connections, from your PR representative, instead of the value of your product or content wins you media attention. This is both insulting to the general work and intent of media relations and even more insulting to the institution of journalism. As a result a company pressing on “who” a PR Rep knows is actually wasting time they could be using to ask the questions which are more likely to determine a campaign’s success. To clear things up:
Personal relationships between PR and Press have relatively little impact on the success of a PR campaign.
Now logic implies that If X journalist is key to an industry and PR firm Y is your company’s link to those journalists THEN strong personal relationships between X and Y should result in greater inclusions in those journalists’ story. After all who doesn’t like helping a friend out? This is one of those things which sounds like it should be true until delve into the realities of the industry.
Why does one journalist get a better reputation than another? Is it because of the publication they are in? A little bit. Anyone writing for SC Magazine is going to have more credibility writing about cyber security issues than someone writing an article on hacking a GPS collar system at Cat Fancy. But there are thousands of cyber security publications and most have writers who are well versed on the subject matter. At SC there are still two primary journalists industry savvy PR reps really want to go through first. These journalists did not get to that point because they “really like us.”
Good surgeons are known as such because their patients live. Good lawyers win cases. Good journalists write good stories. That is it. That is all that matters; how good the story is. Even bad journalists want to write good stories. The story is the only thing that matters. So a BFF PR pro calling up their buddy at SC Magazine about a client that needs some coverage, even if they really REALLY need it, should not be a turning point for inclusion. For decent journalists (of which most are) this is not a factor….at all….ever.
Stilll….it can’t hurt right?
Wrong! Allowing media outreach for a company to be based on the relationships between a PR rep and the press undermines PR’s purpose; to increase industry or consumer awareness of the company itself. If a company got press based on weak pitches and “strong bonds” then the company walks away with the reputation of having a weak sense of the industries they are involved with. The PR firm should be spending its efforts ensuring that the pitches it puts out are well thought and relevant, rather than leaning on friendships with journalists. If not, the company’s reputation is entirely dependent on a single PR rep; not on its work product. .
PR is a long term strategy and the focus should always be on bringing the benefits of that strategy to the client company. This means the PR Pro is not the star of the show, the company is. It is not about the PR Pro’s relationship with the press it is about the company’s reputation. All the PR Pro does is facilitate and nurture that reputation so that the company is viewed as a valuable asset for the press in creating quality stories.
It may seem my argument is to cover up some deep seeded failing in my own ability to establish such “hard to get” press relationships. Do I have great relationships with key press in the industries I have represented? Of course. Here is the big secret though. Everyone who has worked in media relations for at least 6 months does as well. The basic action of any PR Pro in media relations is working alongside the press. If you have a client who puts out 2-3 pitches and 1 press release every month, that adds up to a lot of potential contact with the media. Sometimes from first contact to interview set up to a story being published it can take up to 30 emails back and forth and a few phone calls. If a PR Pro did not establish some level of relationship by then, he or she is a robot and cannot compute human emotions. Bragging about having good relationships with the press when you are in PR is akin to bragging about not having a peanut allergy when you make peanut butter for a living, it should go with the job.
Furthermore because the impact of that relationship really has no effect on the success of a PR campaign, the value difference between someone who has never spoken to a particular journalist before and someone who has, is negligible. The big difference is not between those with good connections and those with no connections, it is between those with bad relationships and everyone else.
Whether the cause of the bad relationship with the press is a result of belligerent and rude behavior or consistent lackluster and inappropriate story angles, it is the client who absorbs the negative reputation from the person representing them. A bad relationship with the press can get your PR rep blacklisted. If the person speaking on your behalf is blacklisted then you are black listed. This is where you feel the real impact of relationships with the press. Unfortunately, no PR Firm is going to mention if the press hate them.
To avoid all of this, I have developed a very simple strategy for representing a client. First, always be patient and polite. Secondly, I only introduce myself as being with that client. Whether I reach out for the first time or fortieth the emphasis is that I am Josh WITH Company X. The goal is that when a journalist sees an email in their inbox from me it is my clients’ name which he or she thinks of first. This way even if I one day quit PR, and follow my long quiet dream of becoming a semi-professional dancer, when my client’s next firm or person mentions who they represent, the association to being a quality source will already exist and nothing is lost in that transition. I have had occasions where I work with the same journalist over time for multiple clients but he or she won’t remember who I am, personally, unless I mention those clients we worked together on in the past. This is the best way to put the client company first in media relations because it is only ever about the client.
So if personal relationships don’t really matter, how do you make any sort of conclusion on how a potential PR Rep would represent you? There are a few things a company can look out for or do during the PR Firm Search Process:
- NEVER let your sole decision on hiring a PR Firm be made by speaking to a sales rep who will not be working on your account for the day to day. If a person is trying to sell you on a firm but won’t actually be working for you, then he or she is free to make promises without worrying about how to keep them.
- Insist you speak to the person on the team who will be doing the majority of your press outreach. If that person rubs you the wrong way, chances are he or she does not fare better with the press. Also ask to see pitches he or she has written in the past to get an idea of how the rep puts a story together. How someone writes is a great window into how that someone thinks. If the samples you read don’t sound compelling or well thought out for the topic at hand, then it’s another red flag as to how you would be represented.
- Don’t quiz the rep on who he or she knows. You won’t get any insight on anything and you will waste time better focused elsewhere.
- Ask the rep what stories he or she thinks your company, product, or service should be involved in. This tests both how prepared the rep was in terms of your company/industry going into the meeting and works as an excellent pop quiz as to how the rep thinks on his or her feet. The goal here is not to stump the rep, the pitch idea won’t be flawless but it should be on the right path to being accurate and relevant.
When it comes to PR and Media Relations success, how a company is represented and regarded by the press are the only things that matter. If a PR Firm is able to retain a company’s core philosophy and present it in a manner that is interesting to the press, relevant to the intended readers, and factually accurate, then it will find success for their client. If a PR Firm comes in and talks only about how strong its relationships are with the press and how those relationships can lead to future success, do not believe a word of it. There is no correlation and when the honest answer is some simple, you need to wonder why you are being lied to in the first place.