beyond the press release


Why Do Clients Hate PR Agencies?

Before I attempt to answer the above question -- and address what we can do about it -- I want to begin with a joke about public relations I found while googling. A mathematician, an accountant and a public relations officer apply for the same job. When asked by the interviewer “what does two plus two equal?” the mathematician and accountant say, ‘4.’ The public relations officer responds: “What do you want it to equal?”

Come on people, we’re not really that bad. Are we?

PR professionals might not think so, but it’s clear that many outside our industry share much of the joke’s sentiments.

I recently spent two days at the Online Marketing Summit in Miami and had the opportunity to chat with a number of marketing execs in the loyalty, mobile tech and travel industries. While we discussed their business and latest industry trends, I also endured quite a bit of PR-industry trashing.

I’m not oblivious to our industry’s plight. Reporters say we’ve “gone over to the dark side.” People call us spinsters. Just read the comments of this article about disagreements between Wikipedia editors and PR people who represent the subjects on the Web site:



"No one on earth has a more 'dishonest' relationship with ‘the truth’ than those in the PR profession. Their reputation as 'hired gun' liars and swindlers is legendary and well-deserved.”

But this was different. What threw me was that the majority of people I spoke with had negative things to say about their own PR reps. You’d think of all people, these “hired guns” would be immune.

When the public rants about PR pros they’re often thinking of the crisis-management outfits that help Big Tobacco or British Petroleum sell their oily slick propaganda.

But client complaints are a whole other matter. Most of the gripes I heard ranged from: “All they did was write press releases” to “they weren’t creative or strategic in planning,” or my favorite, “they charged a lot but didn’t do much.”

If this pervasive dissatisfaction is what I’m hearing in such a small group, I shudder to think what’s thought of us elsewhere.

So why are so many clients unhappy with their PR companies?

Perhaps, like any joke, there is a kernel of truth in their collective accusations. I can tell you this -- I founded ThinkInk in part because I too was fed up with PR firms stuck in traditional modes -- press release factories that failed to explain why a reporter should write about or quote a client. Releases like that don’t grow legs (and make for a future story) -- they grow wings and fly themselves headfirst into the nearest rubbish bins.

Of course, press releases are part of what we do. But where is it written that press releases must inevitably be a lower-evolved form of journalism? In the end, like journalists, PR professionals are storytellers too. Seen in this light, the press release is an adjunct fleshing out the story, acting as a reference with client facts laid out.

As industry insiders know, sometimes you have to bow to a client’s wishes if you want to maintain the relationship -- even if the result produces a bloated document whose contents could have been reduced by half. While that’s not the same as saying 2+2=5 or asking a client what we’d like the numbers to add up to, it’s a reality that sometimes is scarily closer than we care to admit.

We can poke, push and prod our clients to take risks -- to try new ways of getting their message out -- but sometimes a client is unmovable and we just have to “make it work.”

So dislike us if you want, but realize that sometimes it’s our paid job to turn mayhem into magic and with few resources to go on. But even so, my summit experience jolted me into the realization that there’s clearly a problem here -- one that affects the whole industry.

So in the spirit of curtailing that hatred, I want to start a PR community discussion. Let’s ask ourselves, “Why do they hate us? What are we doing wrong?” Let’s do whatever we must to fix the problem and make sure that in the future, our clients have more good things to say about us.

Let’s remind them that like an accountant and a mathematician, we too know that 2+2=4.





5 comments about "Why Do Clients Hate PR Agencies? ".
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  1. Susan Von Seggern from SvS PR, June 22, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.

    Well I'll bite. I do consulting now, but when I was in-house I had a variety of negative experiences with PR firms, especially the larger ones. I found them expensive, often difficult to get a hold of, and I actually got a lot of pushback on ideas we wanted them to execute. Once I went to smaller agencies or consultants I was able get the results I wanted. I think part of the problem is that clients have one bad agency experience and extrapolate it to entire field. When I do speaking engagements on PR I will tell the audience, you might not find your perfect PR partner on the first try, or the second or third even. I'm sure the big agencies must do good work for some of their clients or they couldn't stay in business, but they aren't right for every client, even large ones. I am not the perfect PR partner for some companies. Clients shouldn't let a bad experience sour them on everyone. As marketing executives it's up to them to find a fit.

  2. Todd Appleman from The Appleman Group, June 22, 2012 at 4:54 p.m.

    My comment to this article is narrow and focused, and based on my experience first as a journalist, and then as a PR professional. Throughout my 25-plus years in PR, which includes jobs on the corporate side, positions with four of the top 10 international PR firms, and serving clients successfully through a "virtual agency" that I founded in 2000, the one prevailing issue that I believe our industry must address centers on telling the “truth.” For me, without a conviction to defend and tell the truth is fundamental. Living up to this challenge can be risky (you might lose a client). Still, I find it much easier to pursue the truth. Yes, sometimes it is better for the client’s own good to say "no" when you know your client wants you to say "yes." Take the risk! Many times, the client will thank you for standing your ground. As you say in your article, we are "story-tellers." Hedging, exaggerating, or omitting known facts, must be avoided at all costs. After-all, telling the truth is the life-blood of an honest story. If our profession aims to gain credibility, and the respect of journalists, our clients, as well as our client's stakeholders and customers, we must be steadfast in the quest for telling the “truth” – even when doing is uncomfortable. This is only one small facet of taking the "spin-factor" out of PR. I may write a book one day on the larger issues impacting our dynamic and every-changing profession. However, for today, honesty, truth, and building trust is a great place to start.

  3. Vanessa Horwell from ThinkInk Communications, June 24, 2012 at 7:42 p.m.

    Thank you Susan and Todd for responding to my call for action.. Nine hours after I asked PR professionals to begin a much-needed dialogue on why we’re so hated as an industry and already two thoughtful responses.

    I think both of your comments boil down to one word: transparency. And it’s something sorely needed in our industry.

    Transparency begins with how we represent ourselves to our potential clients. As a PR firm, if we don’t feel we fit the client’s corporate culture, then we should have the courage and confidence to say “no, thank you.” But too often, big egos and even bigger dollar signs in the form of contracts get the better of us.

    Transparency continues by remaining ethical. Is it our job to show companies in their best light? Absolutely. But not so exclusively and single-mindedly that excessive spin spins us right off our ethical tracks.

    So here’s a question back to the two of you (and other future respondents). How does our industry improve its self-regulating guidelines?What can we do that is not already being done to reign in and penalize companies that don’t play by the rules? I doubt though that lessons in truthfulness will resonate with companies that fail to understand the meaning of that word to begin with.

  4. John Kovalsky from Hitman - NPRA, August 27, 2012 at 7:54 a.m.

    The problem with big public relations agencies is that they use generic mindsets... in fact, most corporate personnels consist of uncreative, sometimes even stupid people. They are great when it comes to obedience towards their bosses, but they fail big time when it comes to serving a fellow man. In fact I got so angry with corporate arrogance, I have created Negative Public Relations Agency... it seems that a few hit companies took the point... and I am happy with it!

  5. Vox Usi from The Voice of the User, August 28, 2012 at 7:25 p.m.

    PR people do not know what they are writing about. Hence the bad habit of filling the space with hollow sentences that leave an impression of going round in circles rather than telling any story. However, client must bear some of the blame for the fiasco: they expect miracles without giving the PR partner all the elements that would help them build the said story.

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