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The Business Of PR – Part One

(Note: this post originally appeared here on May 13th, 2005 – over 3 years later, how much has really changed?)

Discussion of PR on blogs almost entirely centres around media relations or external communication (2008: Twitter). However, no-one ever seems to talk about things like account management or business development. One of things that journalists rarely understand (and why should they?) is that media relations is only one aspect of the PR consultancy business (or in-house for that matter – you still have a client – in fact you probably have many different internal clients).

Someone working in a PR consultancy inevitably divides their time between client facing work, media relations, and possibly business development. We should also throw people management into the mix too. How much time you spend on each is usually inversely proportional to where you sit in the hierarchy. People who “get on” in PR companies are invariably people who are seen as good at client management or business development (interestingly, you rarely find people who are good at both – this is known as the “hunter vs farmer” distinction). And this has always struck me as rather odd. Those who are seen as great business development people usually prevail over the “farmers” ie winning new business is seen as “better” than getting more work out of an existing client.

But in my experience, those who “win” the business rarely take any responsibility for delivering on what they have sold the client. It’s actually quite easy to sell the client on hugely ambitious targets if you don’t have to do it yourself. One of the most common reasons for client dissatisfaction is failure to deliver on what was promised at the pitch. And one of the reasons why morale takes a nose dive in teams is when they are told what the client expects them to achieve.

Account manager: “You promised them what???”

New business director: “You’re just being negative/not a team player/don’t come back until you’ve got the result”

Another odd paradox is that being good at media relations is actually a hindrance to progress up the food chain – at best, you might be asked to train others do it, but inevitably you stop doing what you were good at in the first place. At worst you become labelled as a one trick pony who isn’t really contributing to the growth of the business (because you are not winning new business or managing clients or teams). There is a natural ceiling to what people are prepared to pay a senior media relations person –so a plateau is reached and the usual route is out the door.

And yet when all is said and done, the prime reason a company hires a PR agency is to change or improve its press profile. Which is why many journalists are surprised when the people they deal with and value don’t seem to get on in an agency – or if they do, they cease to have any press contact because they are doing more valuable things like client management.

So a curious schizophrenia operates here – on the one hand, I defy anyone to find an agency that doesn’t extol the virtues of its media relations capabilities – and will spell out very clearly to the client why it is highly valuable. And yet internally, it is typically seen as an activity to be delegated to the lowest rungs of the ladder – and anyone who is any good at it – and wants to keep doing it – is ultimately sidelined.

The underlying premise of a lot of this is that it is inevitable you will lose a client eventually – keeping a client for 2 years is seen as a good run. Hence the focus on new business – you have to keep more coming in the top of the funnel to offset the inevitable business falling out of the bottom. And certainly in the technology industry, this sort of makes sense – it’s a reflection of the fact that client marketing people rarely last more than 2 years in a job – and one of the most common reasons for companies switching agency is simply the fact that a new marketing director or PR Manager has arrived and they want to make their own stamp – and an easy way to do that is to bring in “their own people.”

So whereas the business management 101 rulebook says you should focus on customer retention, the PR consultancy industry almost instinctively ignores it. And where you should invest in your most valuable products and services, PR companies do completely the opposite.

One reply on “The Business Of PR – Part One”

You know it’s the same schizophrenia in journalism and probably every other profession with a mix of creative and management? You’re a good writer so you get promoted to be an editor who does business development and production oversight and management and hardly every bashes on the keys – because while writing is what fills the pages, the other stuff is what you get the money for. Hence – and for many other reasons – freelance writers.

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