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“PR is so over”: why Dennis Howlett is right

Dennis Howlett has thrown a veritable grenade into the PR trenches with his latest post, PR is so over.

Dennis is angry as hell and he’s not going to take it any more.

“After 17 years, I’ve come to the end of putting up with what most PR offers. It is time to draw a line in the sand. Accordingly, any PR that emails me gets this standard response: “I’ve stopped accepting email pitches. Please follow me on Twitter and pitch in 140 characters or less.” Why be so draconian?”

There have been numerous comments to Dennis’ post from both PRs and journalists – mainly suggesting that he has perhaps over reacted and is potentially cutting his nose off to spite his face.

I’ve known Dennis for over a decade and we’ve had plenty of conversations over the years about what PR should and shouldn’t be.

In short, I think Dennis is absolutely right. But it’s important to properly understand what he is saying.

Dennis is perfectly entitled to request to be approached in the ways in which he chooses. And if he wants to be pitched by Twitter, then that’s what PRs will have do to – simple. He is merely taking a drastic, but logical, step to filter the noise he is subjected to.

But what kind of pitches does Dennis get? I’ll hazard a guess. Many will simply be press releases – and probably all of them have no relevance to what interests Dennis. Or they may be e-mails along the lines of: “My client is really fabulous – please write about them or talk to them.” Or variations on these themes. As Dennis says, a cursory glance at his blog and other written output would suggest to a trained monkey that this isn’t going to endear you to him.

Dennis knows his onions – he can sniff out bullshit at 50 paces. He wants people who have real knowledge and experience to give him intelligent insight and genuinely new and interesting perspectives on the software market. So why does he receive such a deluge of crap?

First – think about who does the pitching in agencies – as has been noted ad nauseum media relations tends to be delegated down to the junior ranks. On the whole, these are bright intelligent folk, But without getting too ageist about it, they haven’t had enough life/industry/business experience to have the kind of knowledge or insight to build a case that would stand up to Dennis’ scrutiny. I think even Dennis wouldn’t dispute that most of these people are hard working – his point would be they are working hard on the wrong things. Or they aren’t being given the proper training and direction to allow them to engage in a meaningful conversation with Dennis.

Dennis also asks a deceptively simple question – what does PR do – or rather doesn’t do.

As I’ve pointed out before, contrary to popular belief, media relations figures low down the list of things that PR companies do (15pc of agency time). In fact, given the average agency seems to spend 70pc of its time on account management, reporting and admin, calling them PR agencies is a misnomer – they should be called PR account management consultancies. To take Dennis’ figures, that suggests that clients are spending between £1050 and £21,000 a month on non-press facing activity. Or looked at another way, a mere £225 to £4500 is actually being spent on media relations. In which case, perhaps we are starting to arrive at an explanation for Dennis’ travails. Given that the really large ie >£100K PR accounts are few and far between, that suggests that the majority of PR business is in the £1500 to £5000 a month mark. So is it any wonder that if only £225 to £750 is spent on media relations for the average tech PR account, you end up getting the kind of low rent service that Dennis and countless other journalists receive? The kind of PR intelligence that Dennis craves costs money – so you get what you pay for.

We can argue about whether all agencies meet this activity breakdown – but I think there has to be a fundamental rethink of how agencies are staffed and structured in order to deliver the kind of services that clients are willing to pay for (at a profit for the agency), that meets the needs of the majority of journalists (like Dennis) and gives employees valuable and meaningful work that encourages them to do better, try harder and actually stick around in an industry that could really do with some fresh legs.

14 replies on ““PR is so over”: why Dennis Howlett is right”

What’s interesting is that all the hot trends in PR appear to be about pushing media relations still further down the agenda, in favour of social media and/or direct content creation. I’ve even heard of agencies leading their plans on things which sound to my uneducated ears a lot like traditional product marketing, of the kind that internal marcomms managers would usually do in collaboration with product managers.

This has been very entertaining reading. Excellent points raised in Dennis’ blog and your points are very cogent, Andrew.

Actually, if “PR is so over”, and looking at an underlying trend – that social media are actually disintermediating traditional journalism – couldn’t we also take the points raised and come to the conclusion:

“[Tech] journalism is also over”?

Not yet, you understand, not yet, but…..;-)



Good balanced look at the Howlett Howler (as in Harry Potter bollocking ‘Howler’ rather than mistake).

And yes I think your life experience point is well-made. In PR career terms, I’m ‘middle-aged’, but I remember being scared to death as a newbie being given the task of pitching stories about technical subjects which I had scant knowledge of (even yesterday I was being quizzed far beyond my knowledge level about php and

As you learn you read up, harden up and when you’re senior enough have the opportunity to tell your paymasters when it is and isn’t appropriate to sell in a story. But isn’t there something wrong when the most junior member of staff has the responsibility of doing what is possibly the most difficult job…?

Some good arguements and to be honest, if Dennis chooses to communicate with PR professionals via Twitter then that is his call. Any PR worth his salt should know the best way to contact target journalists and if they don’t they should ask one of their colleagues. Every jounalist works in a different way and it is important to remember that. Some prefer Twitter, other prefer email, landline, mobile or free dinner. What ever their choice it is there choice and it is important to note it, tell your work mates and content them in the most effective way to ensure results.

[…] Andrew Bruce Smith provides some balance and context to the post, arguing, amongst other things, that actually the problem lays in the pitch process and who’s responsible. “First – think about who does the pitching in agencies – as has been noted ad nauseum media relations tends to be delegated down to the junior ranks. On the whole, these are bright intelligent folk, But without getting too ageist about it, they haven’t had enough life/industry/business experience to have the kind of knowledge or insight to build a case that would stand up to Dennis’ scrutiny.” […]

I’ve commented on this elsewhere but suffice to say, this is an interesting post with lots of valid points but “angry as hell”? Seriously? It’s a few emails. Dennis needs to get out more. There’s, like, actual stuff to get angry about, if you’re keen to have a ruckus.

Thanks to everyone for the comments – at the very least, you can’t argue that Dennis’ original post has stirred up some good discussion.

@Sally – should have been mad as hell, not angry – a perhaps too subtly ironic reference to Howard Beale (Peter Finch) “crazed anchorman” character in Network (1976)

The issue that I have with this post is its agency focus. There are countless communicators — like me — who are client side. We do pitch journalists and bloggers. But we also do internal communications, media training, strategizing, crisis planning, podcasting, internal and external blogging… While I sympathize with Howlett, declaring “PR over” is simply silly, as declaring almost anything from blogging to twitter over or dead. It’s never that simple.

Speaking as a slightly older member of the PR fraternity, I’m both fascinated and slightly repelled by Dennis’ comments. Could he be sounding the death knell of the profession I’ve spent the last 16 years working in? Probably not.

Dennis, as others have noted, seems to be suffering from information overload and havign to deal with a lot of very crap PR people, which is a shame but it’s something that blights the sector – the shiny, happy graduates with the right education, right accent and big space between their ears. (Gosh, listen to me sounding like a class warrior!)

But Andrew, on your point that PR agencies often spend relatively little of their time actually engaged in media relations, the problem often tends to be the client. By the time you’ve had the meeting, drafted the strategic plan, gone through two more drafts, had to sign it off with six different people at the client, and then had to draft five more project plans, you finally get to speak to some journalists and draft an old fashoned press release. The client and their particular culture have a huge impact on the balance the agency is able to achieve between planning and implementation.

And for your interest, I actually used to have one client – an in-house head of comms – who was proud that he’d not actually spoken to a journalist for five years!

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