The Traditional public relations business model doesn’t work

The PR industry is hiding a dirty little secret that it doesn’t want you to find out about.  Don’t tell anybody I told you… but the traditional PR ‘sausage factory’ of client win… press release… e-mail/wire distribution… media outreach… interview… coverage… product release… press release… email/wire distribution… media outreach… interview… coverage… [repeat to fade] doesn’t work any more.

To be honest it hasn’t worked for quite a while.

If you work in PR, or are an in-house marketing communications manager, however, this is pretty much the rhythm of your professional life.  The PR company tells its client that it needs news to build momentum… everything relies on news for a release.  When a client has news, a release is written, re-written, signed off and sent out.  Usually only one release is written. Regardless of  how many publics [audiences] the company is trying to talk with, it’s distributed over a wire [usually a generic circuit – in my case it’s generally been a technology one] and emails to key journalists.  The release is then  followed up with calls to journalists – this is usually done by the junior team members – it’s a menial job, after all.  If you’re lucky, there will be an interview, or two, and some coverage. I say if you’re lucky, because the pitch is usually something like, ‘did you get the release I emailed you?’.

Once this process has been repeated a few times, its success is measured by a quarterly, half-yearly or annual PR review.  When I say measured, it’s usually a finger in the wind or activity driven calculation – we wrote, distributed and followed up X releases, managed Y interviews and received Z pieces of coverage.  If it feels like enough has been done to justify the investment then the process is repeated.  If, however, the client feels that there’s not been enough value delivered [usually measured by the number of pieces of coverage in the right titles] then the agency is fired and the client selects a new one.

The new agency does exactly what the old one did, but… well they’re new.  They need time to settle in.  They need news. They need case studies.  After a few cycles, guess what,  the client fires the PR company and selects another one that does – yes, you’ve guessed it – exactly the same as its predecessors.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Yet, the PR industry continues to do the same thing it’s always done.  Why? Because the ‘sausage factory’ actually suits both sides of the equation!  Both sides know that, ultimately, the agency will be fired if the sausage factory doesn’t produce enough ‘sausages’.

PR companies know that clients fire agencies regularly and circle like vultures in anticipation.  Most marketers realized that more agencies fail to live up to the expectation – but hire them anyway, knowing that if they don’t deliver they can be fired and replaced with another bright, shiny agency. PR agencies have a reputation for this sort of thing, after all!  They can’t possibly be blamed for the failure!

It’s the way that PR has always been purchased, and there is comfort in the process.  The use of the term retainer – money paid in order to buy favor – should tell you everything.

Doing something new, something different is… well… risky – it exposes both sides.  It might not deliver the anticipated outcomes.  But it doesn’t have to be like that.  PR can deliver real value – as part of a targeted marketing communications strategy that understands who the audience is, what an organizations USP is, what drives the target audience and that effective communication is not about broadcasting it can deliver incredible results.

Public Relations done right is about building meaningful relationships between an organization and individuals, using the right message, to the right people, with the right delivery mechanism, at the right time.  It’s also a two way process – listening is as, if not more, important as talking.  In a generation of big data, where everything is measurable, there’s no reason for PR not to be  accountable.  It just requires the identification of objectives and the basis on how success [or failure] should be measured.

Marketeers [and their PR companies] can deliver real value from public relations, but in order to do so they must not only start to think differently about PR and marketing , but also DO differently!  It also requires that we start to close down the PR sausage factories.

Other posts you might like:

PR People Are From Venus… The Media is From Mars

The Days of ‘Scattergun’ PR and Marketing Are Dead

Marketing Communications Is Not A Science

4 Reasons A Press Release Is Horrible


Lyndon Johnson is the founder and general manager of COMMS.BAR™.

COMMS.BAR provides early-stage companies with right size, right time communications strategy advice to help them figure out what they need to do, when they need to do it and remove any unknowns from their strategy. The company is based in Toronto, Ontario.

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