Business Performance Management General PR

Why PR companies act like 3rd rate direct marketing agencies

Danny Bradbury has been having a problem getting PR companies to use his designated press release e-mail address. In many instances – and in spite of repeated polite requests – some PR firms continue to send press releases to the wrong e-mail address. As Danny says: “Some of these companies are well-intentioned, I’m sure. Judging from the silence, and the continued spray-and-pray press releases blasting to my old address, others simply don’t seem to give a damn.”

He also has had something of an epiphany: “What was interesting for me was the confirmation of something I already suspected — that many companies don’t have central press release distribution lists. They either seem to manage them on a client-by-client basis, or each executive has their own distribution list. This leads to a situation in which getting e-mail addresses changed with PR companies is like turning a supertanker around. It happens very slowly.”

I’d argue there are more fundamental underlying issues of which this problem is actually a symptom rather than the cause. Consider the following:

Q: Who starts PR companies?

A: People who previously worked for other PR companies.

Q: How are PR companies structured?

A: Most often, in pretty much the same way the founders’ previous agencies were structured.

In short, in spite of tinkering at the edges, the basic structure of PR agencies has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. Here’s the typical PR agency growth pattern. A couple of people working at an existing agency go off to start their own business. Their motivation is usually a mix of feeling undervalued by their current employers and a belief that they could “do things better.” They proceed to start the new business, win some clients and then hire a few people. In spite of their original desire to do things differently, they end up using the one model they are used to – ie the one they got away from in the first place.

In practical terms, this means you end up with different account teams who are incentivised on the basis of the fees their group brings. The company may espouse a philosophy of openness and sharing – but in reality, unless senior management invests in ensuring the right values are understood and adhered to – it tends to encourage information hoarding. So account exec A finds out that journalist X has changed e-mail addresses or wants to be contacted in a certain way. Although he/she should update a centralised database, they keep it to themselves because they think it gives them some kind of advantage over other account groups.

This is clearly dysfunctional behaviour. So why does it continue to happen? There are a number of reasons:

– senior management are happy so long as they hit their revenue targets. So they ignore this dysfunctional behaviour. They will only bother about it when it appears to have a seriously detrimental impact on revenues.

– one of the curious paradoxes of PR companies working in the technology sector is that while they pump out information on behalf of their clients regarding best IT practice, etc, the number of agencies with a robust and properly documented data management strategy is rare.

– the odd journalist like Danny or Chris Anderson might complain about the situation, but until there is a radical revolt by hacks on a wide scale, there is no real motivation to do much about it.

In the end, many PR companies seem to treat press releases and media relations as a form of direct marketing – and do it in such a way that even a 3rd rate direct marketing agency would be embarrassed by. Bog standard things like opt-in, unsubscribe, data protection standards, etc seem to be resolutely ignored by many.

How long can this behaviour last?

As Danny says: “Add to this that most releases seem to be irrelevant to an awful lot of people, and it seems to me that press release distribution, which I suspect is a fundamental revenue generating proposition for many PR agencies, is becoming an increasingly pointless and irritating way of communicating with many journalists. I just wonder how long it will take the PR agencies’ clients to realise it.”

The only thing I’d disagree with here is that press release distribution itself is profitable – it isn’t the distribution that PR companies make money on, but the actual writing of the releases. In order to justify the fees they charge, the easiest thing in the book for an agency to recommend (or to agree with a client to do) is write a press release.

It has to be a key explanation for the volume of irrelevant releases that get sent to journalists.

And it is worth repeating from an earlier post: “leading business journalist Peter Bartram noted that in 2006, a sample of 89 UK tech and business journalists received on average more than 19,100 press releases a week. Put another way, 993,200 per year. According to Bartram, “the vast bulk of these releases, say the journalists concerned, are either irrelevant to their interests or contain no discernible story.”

You can get a feel for the kind of press release hitting journalist in-boxes by looking at Daryl Willcox’s Sourcewire or Response Source. For example, would you put out a press release to “pay tribute” to someone holding down the same job for 5 years? You might if you were the Prime Minister – but a call centre manager?

As Danny says, how long before PR agency clients start to realise what is going on – there is a world of opportunity for those PR firms who are genuinely taking a different approach.

8 replies on “Why PR companies act like 3rd rate direct marketing agencies”

Very good analysis and well argued. After a few years freelancing it is an interesting challenge to be running a growing consulancy. The reason that I freelanced is that I didn’t want to comprimise myself by working for an agency that had different values, ethics and practices to my own. The challenge now is how to instill those values in a team and even more importantly be able to scale them.

Hi Andrew

You know me. We used to work at A+ and you’re a Facebook friend. I agree with your blog and it’s one of the main reasons I now work for myself. For the past few years I’ve been doing music pr. All my press releases are sent out on a list which journalists can unsubscribe from, (or subscribe to if they like). Most are linked to RSS feeds and although I do some old fashioned ‘bread and butter’ PR things I probably spent equal time, pitching individual blogs, creating links and blogs. Not to mention managing social networking accounts. I very rarely annoy journalists because I only contact them when I have a real story. The smaller stories are confined to blogs, and other online forms. I don’t just speak to journalists but also the buyer directly.

I thought this was how most PR people would conduct things these days. How wrong I was during a small stint freelancing at various tech agencies I was bewildered to discover that very little has changed. Not only do they still use Internet Explorer (as their browser of choice) they still use Mediadisc to spam journalists, they still indulge pointless ring rounds to journalists who aren’t interested and some even send attachments. I mentioned the word ‘blog’ and was shot down instantly with a black look.

I was actually shocked and felt like I’d gone back in time.

I like the bad direct marketing analogy. That’s exactly what some companies do!

Bit extreme and a bit of a broad brush. Can’t believe that in 2008 most agencies don’t have a data management policy or a centralised media management system and tools. Agencies will adapt or die.

Your second point: agencies have always sent out piss poor releases. It’s easier than ever to disseminate material for agencies are doing it more believing that churning out material will lead to results.

Rainier PR’s different of course.

@Stuart – I fully appreciate that it is one thing to espouse values. And another to maintain them in the face of every day commercial life. It is tough – but then anything worth having or doing usually involves some blood sweat and tears. Nevertheless, good luck with your value instilling and scaling 🙂

@Annabel – good to hear from you! Your experience seems to chime with other people I’ve talked to. Having said that, I realise it is easy to forget that those of us who see the benefit of blogs, RSS and the rest of the PR 2.0 toolbox are still in the minority. But even so, it is disappointing to hear that widely discredited practices are still highly prevalent.

@Wadds – “a bit of a broad brush” – what, more B&Q than Da Vinci? 😉 Even if it is true that most agencies have a data management policy or a centralised media management system and tools (which I’m not convinced they all do), that doesn’t mean the policies are adhered to or that centralised systems are being used properly. If they were, than journalists like Danny (and he is not alone) wouldn’t have the experiences they do.

Of course, it goes without saying that Rainier is different in every respect 😉

Creating and maintaining a valid database takes time, money, and discipline. First of all, you need a staff person who really takes ownership of the project. Then you need full cooperation of everyone who comes across new information. It is also important to have some decent technology that is user friendly and doesn’t require an IT guy to access it. Then you should have people who understand – and respect – the CAN SPAM act. I’ve worked where we lacked one or more of the above…and it shows.

@intuitivelyobvious – you are absolutely right – I know, because many years ago I was that director level person who was handed responsibility for managing the internal media database at a very large PR firm. I hired someone full time to help me run it. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t a roaring success. Some of the reasons I’ve already alluded too (culture, info hoarding) – also, we certainly didn’t use the most appropriate technology platform (we used Lotus Notes – not my choice, but I had to live with it). It did bring home to just how difficult even moderately ambitious IT projects can be to pull off. I knew what I wanted the app to do – but communicating that to the guys doing the Notes development was another thing – plus even after you’ve asked users what they want, their view changes when you actually deliver the app.

Anyone who runs a successful, centralised media database in a mid to large size agency gets my vote.

Good post and raises some interesting points, many of which I spoke about to PR and media students at a college in Toronto recently.

I think that PR definitely has an “image problem”, and that this is exarcebated by the types of companies and individuals mentioned in this piece.

However, there are a lot of excellent agencies out there, as well as PR individuals – many of whom it looks like read your blog.

I would say that the face of PR is changing – there are many more boutique agencies around today, which tend to offer a far more rounded and pleasurable experience for clients. Business relationships are better because the smaller agency can’t afford to lose clients, and media relationships should be better since, again, smaller agencies can’t afford to lose clients, and the surefire way to do this is by pissing off media folk, who will then simply ignore your news. Of course, professional courtesy and a genuine love for the job will help!

It amazes me that there are still companies out there that don’t use some form of CMS or CRM software – I wonder if they are still running gas lamps for their light and heat source? 😉

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