Muckrack CEO Greg Galant’s piece,”Why Public Relations Gets No Respect” hit a nerve in our industry. Though the post drew some indignant responses from the PR community, it was a thoughtful and relatively optimistic assessment of PR’s value, thanks to digital measurement tools, the prevalence of social media, and PR’s increased scaleability due to more distributed levers of influence across the web.
But one aspect of the business that remains outdated, and that impacts everything else about the client-agency relationship, is the agency search process. It’s directly related to PR’s poor reputation in my view. Which is why, when I first read about AirPR, a new company that’s been described as a “Match.com” for startups needing PR, I was intrigued. Armed with $1 million in seed funding from big-name VCs and angel investors, AirPR aims to prevent new businesses from spending up to $40,000 with large PR firms who push the work down to juniors by pairing them with qualified consultants or boutique firms who charge much gentler fees.
Now I don’t know many startups who begin with a PR firm at $40,000 a month (and if you do, please have them call me), but AirPR is right about one thing. The client-agency matching methodology is pretty broken. The best thing you can say about the RFP process is that it’s a frustrating, archaic, time suck for both parties. Agencies complain bitterly about the creative commitment, staff expense, and hidden (and not-so-hidden) biases in the process, while clients often don’t get what they need. Expensive search consultants or intern-led Web searches aren’t much better.
AirPR proposes to make a better marriage through “proprietary vetting and matchmaking algorithms,” according to TechCrunch. That’s way too vague and gimmicky-sounding to be conclusive, but it stands to reason that technology can streamline the process. The other “matchmaking” aspect to our business that’s incredibly inefficient, of course, is media pitching and story placement. For that, services like HARO and ProfNet, who aim to hook up buyers and sellers, have become indispensable. No, they haven’t eliminated random, sloppy, and spammy pitches, but the system provides a mutually beneficial service, and it basically works.
So, will AirPR save PR’s reputation? Disrupt the business? Remake it? Probably not. It’s unlikely to affect the traditional client PR search model, simply because large PR firms, the most common recipients of RFPs and large shoot-out-style searches, aren’t the least bit interested in fees at $10,000 a month or lower. But for consultants and boutique firms, as well as their typical clients, it makes sense. As has often been discussed and blogged in our industry, PR for startups is different. These businesses have unique needs and goals, and for most, PR is a critical tool. When it fails, it’s even more injurious for both client and agency.
The AirPR writeups also hint at something else. Its clients will evaluate service providers with the goal of creating a community committed to high quality standards, although we don’t know much about how that will happen. Presumably the criteria will go beyond deliverables like press releases and even publicity, to focus on more strategic offerings and business outcomes.
Count me in. Not because the AirPR model is a surefire disruptor, but because I’m tired of the agency-bashing that results from poorly articulated goals, unrealistic client expectations, and mismatched expertise. If the marketplace works, it will be because it makes both parties in the relationship more accountable. Clients must better define PR and business goals. Agencies need to delivering instead of spending time chasing new clients.
It’s time for a new search model. It will be interesting to see where this goes.