PR Fish Bowl

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October 27, 2017

2017 PR Horror Stories And Lessons Learned

Whether you’re working in public relations or another service business these days, things can occasionally get.. well, scary. But Halloween offers an opportunity to reflect on hair-raising business experiences that, if nothing else, make good stories later. The ones below apply mainly to us in the PR trade, but as readers may see, some could apply to anyone. Proceed with caution!

PR tales of terror

The mystery of the empty press event.

A client is introducing a new product with interest to the large segment of “family” bloggers. The agency has selected a cool venue, an emcee with audience cred and has even vetted the time period with select journalists. The guest list looks solid, so what could go wrong? Despite best-laid plans, some media events don’t end up being the draw that the agency planned. And, nothing can quite compete with the misery of standing at a bright and shiny media event, with no (or very few) media in attendance. What’s a PR person to do? Not much, unfortunately, except to never let an entire campaign hinge on an event, and to give clients the heads-up for this possibility when weighing options. A thorough look at the risks can help the team decide if, given today’s fractured media environment, an event is the best way to go.

When spokespeople choke.

Agencies are usually very involved in determining the best spokesperson to represent a client company and offering customized prep for that spokesperson as well. But, what if the perfect company spokesperson (the founder!)  is also the least articulate? We spent countless hours developing messaging, conducting practice interviews and scripting one spokesperson only to see one bungled interview after another. Despite best efforts, each interview contained inaccuracies, long-winded responses that went nowhere and a general discomfort with the process. Things improved when we were able to convince the company to work with some outside spokespeople who complemented and enhanced the brand messaging in select media situations.

The deadly deception.

Somehow, you’re caught in a lie. Maybe a pitch contains bad info, or a story is printed with a key fact wrong. This could be a well-meaning client who just wants to amplify the company background to make it more compelling to a journalist. But beware the negative consequences. If caught in a lie to a journalist, particularly about numbers – market share, sales, downloads, or dates – the story will never see the light of day, or a nasty piece may result.  Journalists get understandably angry when misled, and a rapprochement can take forever. We’ve learned to take the time to educate clients and demand scrupulous adherence to the facts, warts and all, before committing to an announcement or other story pitch. Think your story isn’t good the way it is? An agency can help craft the most interesting version, something we tackled in a recent post.

The evils of missing details.

A colleague recalled the time she led the media outreach on a multi-city event for a razor brand. On securing interest in a particular market, she followed up with what she thought was the appropriate media alert for that locales, but it was for an event that had taken place the week before, so the editor was unable to use it. As ominous as that is, the story has a silver lining. The editor was bemused by the snafu and wrote about the event after the fact, resulting in a very good story. Lesson learned: PR is a fast-moving business, but sacrificing accuracy for speed will be a fail every (well nearly every) time.

Ignoring C-suite relationships at your peril. 

We recently heard of an agency “relieved of its duties” for a client based on a rather flimsy rationale. A little digging revealed that much of the good work done by the agency failed to reach the C-suite, either by accident or design, but some less than successful in-house efforts seemed to place blame on the agency – and that news did travel upward. The takeaway here is to establish contact with senior management early and often. If the precedent for involving the CEO (or at the very least cc-ing those in charge) is set up early in the relationship, there is far less chance of key decision-makers missing important communications.

Beware the overpromise when it comes to media coverage.

Even the most seasoned PR pro is taken aback when a journalist commits to a story and backs out at the last minute. Sometimes the story doesn’t live up to the reporter’s expectations or a bigger story came along and bumped yours. The point is, develop a sound contingency plan for this disappointing turn of events. It all starts by managing expectations in the first place. From early on in the campaign, the client and the agency should have thoughtful conversations on how the media operate, acknowledging that while journalists are never obligated to cover anything, the agency will employ all of its know-how and strategic insight to make a story happen.  At the same time, it’s important for the account team to have more than one journalist to pitch at any one time and not put all the eggs in one media basket.

The communications “black hole.”

No agency is immune to the potential client that engages firms in creating proposals before disappearing like Barb in “Stranger Things.” When an agency receives a suitable request for proposal, they’re naturally eager to win. But the dark side is that some companies fail at the process, either deciding against retaining any firm, or, horror of horrors, they’re just looking for free ideas, not an agency relationship. It takes a seasoned eye to catch some of the red flags early on. Look for senior involvement in the process. If the entire search is being handled by an assistant with a year’s experience, that’s a bad sign. Or, if the search involves more than a handful of agencies, this could signal a lack of seriousness about actually selecting a firm. Finally, if the whole process is taking an inordinate amount of time to complete with little or no communication, that may mean that an agency should cut its losses and move on.

The horrible hire.

Sometimes a potential new staffer appears to be the answer to an agency’s prayers. The candidate has all the right stuff, aces the interview and comes in with great intentions. And then the behavior problems begin. We’ve seen them all, including: the chronically late employee; the constantly-on-a- smartphone AE; and the underminer, who pits one team member against another. But probably the worst offender is the account executive who subtly disrespects clients, who cuts off the client in conversation or argues a bit too forcefully for a recommendation, showing impatience in the face of constructive criticism. Better vetting early on can help avoid the bad hire, but the best advice here is probably found in the adage to be slow to hire and quick to fire.

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