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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.