PR people really are dead and mindless sheep

Work with us

By Francis Moran

Notwithstanding that I have an undergraduate degree in public relations, have worked in the industry for a good chunk of my adult life, and for nearly 14 years have operated a PR agency, I have never held the public relations business in terribly high regard.

My dim opinion of many PR practitioners is all the more acutely refined when I look at agencies.

Most PR agencies follow a well-established, widely accepted and tragically flawed business model. They are shaped like pyramids — and yes, any allusion to Ponzi schemes you might think I am making is wholly deliberate. At the top of the pyramid you generally find one or a few experienced, generally well-connected and usually well-rewarded agency owners or executives. Then the model drops rather swiftly through middle ranks to a thick layer at the bottom almost always comprised of thinly experienced and poorly paid youngsters who do virtually all the work. The top layer is all a prospect sees before retaining the agency; the bottom layer is pretty much all the client experiences once the retainer agreement has been signed.

It is a model that works extraordinarily well for he — and it is almost always a he — who owns the agency; less well for she — and it is almost always a she — who works for the agency, and not well at all for they who retain the agency.

The ubiquity — and sad futility — of this model is being painfully visited upon by me these days as this blog has suddenly become a pitching target for every spray-and-pray artist in PR agencies across North America. In a decidedly backhanded acknowledgement of our success at building a good audience here, our blog must recently have gained a listing on one — or more — of the many media directories to which PR agencies subscribe. That we have even been listed in the first place is testimony to the reality that the inaccuracy and uselessness of most such directories is exceeded only by the exorbitant prices they charge.

Here’s how it works.

The lowly, over-worked, under-paid, minimally briefed junior PR flack logs on to the media database to which her agency subscribes. She runs a search based on a handful of key words she has been given. She downloads however many contact names the database kicks out. This could be hundreds, even thousands of names. It doesn’t matter. In fact, the more, the merrier. She uploads the file into her agency’s blast email application.

She then crafts a pitch email. Having been taught that building relationships with journalists and bloggers is key to her success, she takes care to code into that email a variable field at the top that will result in a personalized salutation. Among the emails I received in the past few weeks were highly personalized salutations like, “Hey” and “Good morning,” although most did at least also include my first name. She then merges her pitch email with her list o’ thousands and hits “send.”

That, my friends, is what constitutes the current state of the art of media outreach in the vast majority of PR agencies in this day-and-connected age. And for this, most clients pay north — often well north —  of $10,000 a month.

Oh, unless there’s a follow up. Which there almost always is. It usually references the previous email, notes that I haven’t bitten on her pitch, and again offers to connect me with her client.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, let me highlight just one such email I received recently. I won’t name names — the interwebs are rife with sad examples of this sort of shoddy practice, a naming and shaming that you would think would curb the excesses. Sadly such is not the case. The email came from one of the larger PR companies in the U.S. and wanted to introduce me to a new website that offers “a convenient, quick, and cost effective approach to undergarment shopping” and the ability to receive “personal bra recommendations for 6,000 different styles of bras.”

The first email began with a “Hi Francis,”. This was downgraded to a mere “Hi there,” in the follow-up email three days later.

I have no idea what the PR flack who sent me this was thinking that led her to believe we would have any interest whatsoever in writing about a website that helps women select better-fitting bras. The mind boggles.

I wonder how this flack’s employer aligns such spammy, mindless, bot-like behaviour with the claim it makes on the front page of its corporate website:

[PR company name deleted] provides every client with a focused-plan [SIC] to reach the right media and the right target audiencePR is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. [Neither are bras, clearly!] Each company has its own demands and [PR company name deleted] has a specifically skilled team of experienced PR professionals to match your company or organization’s needs.” (Bold highlights are theirs; italics and editorial asides about bras are mine. And yes, I realise that by quoting the company’s website at such length, I am essentially outing them to anyone who can cut and paste into a search engine. Go for it.)

Every time journalists are surveyed about their opinions of PR people, they highlight behaviour like this as the most detestable activity of a largely unloved profession. And yet the practice persists. I am sorely tempted to take some of these dead and mindless PR practitioners up on their offer to be connected with their clients if only so I can tell the clients just how shabby a job their agency is doing for them. Then again, if clients weren’t such willing accomplices in their own fleecing, this PR malpractice would have died out long ago.

Leave a comment:

Join us

Events We're Attending:

  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description
  • image description