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Mike Butcher, Techcrunch UK: “Only a handful of PR firms are any good”

Why is it there is always a great blog post that you only catch up on a while after it is has been published?

For some reason I missed Mike Butcher’s “top 15 ways to get on with TechCrunch UK, and maybe other media” post when it first came out in August. No matter. It has some good, non time sensitive advice – all worth sharing.

However, I do have a difference of opinion with Mike on some of the following:

“Here’s the thing about PR firms. Only a small number are really any good. What happens is that there are individuals inside big PR firms who know their trade, understand how to interface with the media, read blogs, etc etc. If they’re good, they usually end up leaving and setting up their own boutique firm. In which case I still hear from them. The best PRs behave like the best contacts – they keep in contact, float ideas, check if something is of interest before bothering to send you a full-blown release, etc etc. Others are good, but decide instead to rise through the ranks inside MEGA PR CORP, and guys like me stop hearing from them because they have been replaced by a spotty teenager / recent graduate who just reads your name and number out on a list and “checks if you got the press release”. Or worse, they call you to check if they can email over the non-exclusive (Aargh!) press release. Either that person learns fast and turns into a decent PR or they stay being the person who who cold calls you with crap – at least until they eventually realise they’d do a lot better in life as a bingo caller.”

It is a truism that people don’t buy from companies, they buy from people. And the PR business is no different. PR firms build their businesses on the promise of the brand (ie you can count on a certain level of value and quality whoever works on your account). Of course, this just isn’t true. Mike seems to bemoan the fact good media relations people have the nerve to want to get promoted. However, I’ve blogged in the past about the fact that the really good media relations people in agencies are faced with a Catch 22 situation – if you are good, you tend to get more accounts pushed your way – however, there is a ceiling on the number of accounts you can possible service to an acceptable level (because most journalists have no idea about all the other stuff that is expected of a PR – account management, billing, reporting, internal politics, etc). If you want to get promoted, you have to take on a more managerial role. Which means not doing what you were good at in the first place. Smart agencies would hopefully get the good senior media relations folk to train the rookies. But as per previous downturns, training is usually the first budget to go.

When Mike talks about PRs who “learn fast” or “eventually realise they’d do a lot better in life as a bingo caller”, he seems to be laying all the blame on the individual. I’d say it is more a fault of management. If that person were trained properly in the first place, much of the “learning” that Mike thinks they require wouldn’t be needed in the first place. And if they don’t seem to be “learning”, it is just possible that their managers have told them to keep doing it this way. Which may explain why so many boutique firms emerge.

In reality, when Mike says they are only a handful PR firms that are any good, he means there are only a handful of good PR people. But what journalists regard as good PR people aren’t necessarily the same people who can build large, successful PR businesses. Given that such universally derided practices such as the press release follow up call still persist, a cynic might argue that people wouldn’t keep doing it if there weren’t some value in it.

4 replies on “Mike Butcher, Techcrunch UK: “Only a handful of PR firms are any good””

Mike’s points are valid, there are plenty of us in the PR industry who are unimaginative, irritating and generally poor at our job. But then sadly I know a few journalists too that will be your best friend when you have something they want, and if not will be rude, irritating and generally poor at their job. Symbiotic relationships can be hard. And ABS as you rightly point out, if you want to get on in your career you often end up in management, and a good PR pro doesn’t always make a good and happy manager.

Perhaps I should have made it clearer that I don’t resent a good PR building a career and getting out of handling journos. Hell, good journos often end up becoming editors and not writing news any more (as I have done at various points when I took on that kind of role). The post was not really aimed at you – it was aimed at tech startups who come to the idea of media relations completely green. It was an attempt at advice, however poorly executed. Thanks for the link.

Mike – thanks for the comment – and just to re-iterate, it was a great post and should be required reading for all PRs. I guess I’ve heard the view about good media relations folk “disappearing” into management so many times over the last 20 odd years that it probably irks me more than it ought to. I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that media relations is still, to all intents and purposes, the reason why most PR firms get hired – yet the av. agency apparently only spends around 15pc of its time on it – and the same old bad practices never seem to go away.

It’s funny how with the advent of technology (email, blogs, Twitter etc.), this story never goes away…

I think the thrust of Mike’s post is fine. Basically, there’s an awful lot of people/agencies that are crap at PR. I’ve always hated the job of ‘media sell-in’, especially when you know the story sucks.

It’s hard when you’re starting out though. As you get older (more experienced), you’re in a position to ‘feed back’ to your client/bosses when it’s not worth calling a journalist up…I even feel guilty when I send over a sub-standard corporate press release and that just takes a nano-second to delete.

No wonder many journalists get the hump when called up with the ‘have you got the press release’ call. Mike’s always civil to PRs (many are much, much worse – no names mentioned).

It’s just, as an industry, we need to just think before we pick the phone up, “is this really a story that worth calling on?”

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