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.