PR Fish Bowl

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April 18, 2017

Break These PR “Rules of Engagement”

Want your public relations to rule? Then be prepared to break some rules. Face it, the typical client-agency relationship can sink into a routine that, over time, becomes a little too comfortable.  Companies partner with PR agencies to add value to their business, and that means offering new ideas and innovative ways of looking at the organization’s challenges and goals.

Not convinced? Look at leaders in fashion, music, and technology for inspiration. Mark Zuckerberg famously quit school (though that’s not so uncommon among technology founders.) Renowned architect Peter Marino dresses like anything BUT success. And someone forgot to tell famed chef and restaurateur Gabrielle Hamilton that it was okay for women to be kind in business (she figured it out.)

By the same token, there are some PR client-agency “rules of engagement” that can be chucked on occasion. Some have become obsolete, while others just need tweaking. We like this advice that music students train by: know the rules, then break them. Let’s see how rule-breaking applies to PR relationships.

Gain the confidence to break some of these PR rules.

Rule 1. Start a PR agency search with an exhaustive list of possible firms. 

Many tasked with organizing a search begin with a lengthy list of firms that might match their needs, based on size, type of clients, geography and other criteria. Then begins the job of whittling a list of a dozen agencies to a top three. We say, go ahead and break that rule. With more agencies using their website, blog, and social media platforms to showcase what they do best, it’s much easier to quickly narrow down top contenders. This creates a more focused, time-efficient search that should produce more successful relationships.

Rule 2. Issue a detailed RFP to gain necessary insight on each firm. Unless the engagement is with a state agency or company spending  $1MM+ in PR, an overlong RFP is a bloated relic of a bygone era. And they’re seldom great indicators of what a firm can actually do. Instead, boil it down to three simple steps.

  1. Ask for credentials and applicable case histories
  2. Arrange to meet in person, or at least by Skype to see what kind of chemistry exists
  3. Assign a small, but demonstrative project to scope out an agency’s creative and strategic chops

The results should provide a fairly full picture of what working with a firm would look like and a level playing field for decision-making as well.

Rule 3. Hold weekly conference calls to keep abreast of activity.  Client conference calls that involve a large group are sometimes more of a security blanket than a truly productive exercise. Lengthy calls can be very tactical and, depending on the specific week, unproductive. Who among us hasn’t missed something while scrolling on their phone or other screen during the call? According to a survey by Intercall, more than 60 percent of call participants admit to doing other work on conference calls. Check out their graphic for a list of what people were doing on your last call. (At our agency, of course, we would never “cheat” on a client call!) But when the weekly check-ins become too routine, or the group is unwieldy, change it up. We have one client who insists on email updates, one-on-one calls with account leaders and monthly in-person meetings (with no cellphones!)

Rule 4. Announce all news with a press release. This is one of those rules that begs to be broken. It’s true that significant announcements like certain product launches, acquisitions, funding news and releases of major studies, for example, warrant a press release. For nearly everything else, there are other ways. Often clients think they should always do a release for fear of their news going unheralded. The truth is, according to PR Daily, nearly 2,000 releases are distributed each day. The chance of any story breaking solely through a press release is greatly diminished. Trust a savvy PR team to get the news out in a number of ways — most often with a pithy, well-written pitch, offering a “first look” to a select group of reporters. Some announcements have famously been made through social media, which can work if the platform and audience are a good fit, like Tesla’s Elon Musk on Twitter. It’s smart not to pigeonhole every announcement and leave room to brainstorm for the best way to reach an audience with company news.

Rule 5. Let the agency handle all media relations. Not so fast. In our experience key trade media relationships may be best handled by client contact. For starters, many clients have trusted, long-standing relationships with industry publications, and it can be disruptive to insert the PR firm as an intermediary. Additionally, with many clients advertising in their own trades, editorial coverage may be low-hanging fruit. PR firms can advise on how to leverage such coverage, but their time and resources may be better spent cracking desired outlets outside of industry verticals, making this rule an efficient one to break.

Examine your company’s internal and external relationships and look for ways to improve them. Also consider reading The Upstarts, author Brad Stone’s investigation into a couple of non-conformist companies you may have heard of – Uber and Airbnb  – that offers great examples of successful rule-breaking that may be adaptable to any company.

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