Hearing about someone’s bad experience with a PR firm has a train-wreck kind of fascination for PR agency people. It’s painful to hear criticisms and generalizations about our business, but we can’t resist jumping in to diagnose the problem. That’s the case with our most recent public flogging, “The Trouble With PR,” which appeared in The New York Times “The Boss” blog last week.
My feeling is that 95% of client-agency problems comes down to one thing: expectations. On both sides. Expectations for publicity outcomes, service levels, and overall return-on-investment are not always articulated during the courtship, or even the negotiation phase of the relationship. But they nearly always circle back later, usually causing misunderstanding and disappointment.
A few of the things, then, that even the best PR programs cannot accomplish.
Replace a sales and marketing campaign. PR is actually a very unreliable tool when it comes to driving sales of a product or service. Yes, a strong publicity placement can make the phone ring, but a PR campaign more typically works to drive brand visibility and favorability over time. It’s just not a demand generation tool.
Serve as cheap or “free” advertising. As a brilliant former client once said to me, “I use advertising for frequency, but PR for depth.” Although a good, solid PR campaign usually has increased visibility as a long-term goal, it’s very difficult to achieve an ad-like level of control and frequency with earned coverage.
Overcome a bad product or customer service. PR can help repair customer relations after a service interruption or problem, but unhappy consumers will always share their feelings, and social media is a powerful megaphone. What’s more, typical PR tactics like implied endorsement from a third-party expert or celebrity can actually make matters worse if there’s too great a contrast between the PR and the reality.
Make you famous. PR can help you build a brand or personal reputation, and raise your profile in professional circles, but it won’t make you an overnight celebrity.
Cure a crisis. Most situations we term “PR crises” result from poor business practices, not faulty communications. Yes, a good crisis program will help you prepare for a problem or issue, and sound communications handling can mitigate its effects, but PR can do little in the face of unethical or shortsighted actions.