The Elusive PR Prospect: When They’re Just Not That Into You

PR firms are often asked to develop proposals on spec in order to secure business from a potential client. Sometimes it’s as simple as a word document laying out a strategy to solve a communications challenge, or it can be an excruciatingly detailed RFP (sometimes known as Request for Pain!)

It also happens that many of the proposals a PR firm submits go into the infamous “black hole.” The prospect seems to fade away and is never heard from again. Frustrating? Maddening? Yes, but there are some red flags to pay attention to that may help you make sound choices when apportioning precious PR agency resources in the pursuit of new business.

The turnaround time is incredibly tight. In our experience this sometimes means a marketing team has been tasked with the impossible and is looking to PR as a life raft even though they haven’t been funded to retain external counsel. Ask a lot of questions when you see a crazy deadline to help you separate reality from fiction.

Request has been sent to a cast of thousands. Always ask how many agencies are involved in the search and ask about size of firms, location etc.  Although there are exceptions, as in the case of government contracts, a good rule of thumb is that a client looking at more than 3-5 firms is probably “idea-shopping” rather than truly looking for PR agency partner. Run, don’t walk.

The client contact is tentative and inexperienced. This may signal a disconnect between the manager or director looking for a PR firm and the more junior person they have tasked to act as a clearinghouse. There is potential for a real mismatch and you may never learn why your proposal failed to make it up the chain. Try to get a conversation with the most senior person on the team as early in the process as you can.

The budget is ridiculously low or ridiculously high. Unrealistic expectations usually drive this conundrum. If your PR agency is in love with the project – it’s a premiere brand, it fills a category niche you have coveted – and you can find a comfortable approach to working on it, go for it. Important side note: if there is no budget, that is an enormous red flag. Perhaps these are people who haven’t thought out what PR will cost them and need to be educated before seeking proposals.

The prospect has been through a series of agencies. There’s an opportunity for your agency to be the one with the magic formula for success with this client. Just know that your days are numbered, as this leopard rarely changes its spots. If you’re privy to any of the agencies who were employed before you, check out the prospect with them for some inside scoop.

PR Agencies’ Faux Pas: Art Imitates Life?

Anyone at a New York PR firm has experienced those “you can’t make this stuff up” moments. Whether dealing with a touchy tech reporter or a mercurial consumer PR client, things happen. But how good are you at telling the difference between true-life PR disasters and those occurring only on TV? Answers to “art” or “life” are below.

1. Mid-interview, your celebrity spokesperson admits that she knows nothing about the product she’s endorsing or the underlying condition that it treats.

2. A spirits company tries to leverage Martin Luther King Day with a press release touting “Drinks MLK would be proud of.” Ugh.

3. A new client informs you that one of the reasons a competing agency was not awarded their business was because they referred to the [client] company by the wrong name throughout the presentation.

4. A crime victim with no media prep but valid testimony in support of a Congressional bill is put on “the hot seat” with a reporter and badgered to the point of speechlessness.

5. A corporate PR spokesperson tweets offensive and racially charged updates from her company Twitter account.

6. You represent a highly placed political leader who murders her husband and your team goes in to clean it up. Literally.

7. The CEO of a large media company unexpectedly fires an employee at a companywide meeting intended to boost staff morale.

1. Art.  Patty Lupone guest-starred on “Girls” and gave this funny interview to Hannah at her new Conde Nast publishing gig.
2. Life.  Hennessy Spirits was called on the carpet for this example of very poor PR judgment.
3. Life.  A cautionary tale for all!
4. Art.  “House of Cards”’ Machiavellian Claire Underwood submitted an unprepared supporter of her bill to a tough TV interview.
5. Life.  L’affaire du Justine Sacco, a sad footnote in PR history.
6. Art.  Scandal’s Olivia Pope and team – Oh, the drama!
7. Life.  This wasn’t an old episode of “The Office,” but rather a PR gaffe on the part of  AOL’s Tim Armstrong.

Want to know more about avoiding PR mistakes? Check out our tipsheet here.