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6 PR Agency Pet Peeves

In my first PR agency job, during the times that drove us crazy, the owner had a favorite line, “This would be such a great business if it weren’t for the clients.”

Bada-bum. Of course he wasn’t serious, and the comment was a way to boost sagging morale when clients behaved in ways that his young staff couldn’t handle. But many years later, it’s still a reminder of the unique pressures of the agency life.

And it’s not just clients who can stress us out. We serve many masters, including direct bosses, media contacts, and various levels of client executives. There are the politics of the agency itself, those of the client company, and those of journalists and partners. Here are some of the top PR agency “pet peeves” that are probably familiar to many communications professionals.

The black hole. You send a cogent email or leave a reasonably important message, only to be met with….crickets.  Whether a journalist, business prospect, or client, an email or call greeted by silence is frustrating enough that it makes you question your career choice. A simple “no, thanks” can save time and dignity.

The tease.  Perhaps worse than the black hole is the journalist who bites on a story (or a pitch), then disappears. We’re very careful not to construe or report mild media interest as a sure thing, but when a reasonable lead disappears, it makes us look silly. On a whole other level, there are actually companies who get PR agencies to spin their wheels developing recommendations when they’re not really serious, or because they’re shopping for ideas. May karmic retribution follow!

The end-run.  Occasionally clients will go around the agency team and reach out to media directly, or maybe they’ve been contacted by a journalist and forget to tell the team. (A nationally known technology journalist once forwarded us a note from a client explaining that he was reaching out to “check up” on the agency. Argh.) If it’s accidental, you both look sloppy; if it’s not, there’s a bigger problem afoot.

The all-or-nothing client. Only a D1 story in The New York Times will do. Or, success is defined as a live national television interview or a keynote at Davos. No matter how well crafted a PR program or thought leadership strategy may be, there are no guarantees, and such a narrow (and lofty) definition of success is not likely to be fulfilled.

The risk-averse spokesperson.  The media interview chair can be a hotseat, particularly if there are complex issues involved or the client company is on the defensive, so it’s understandable if clients are nervous about a particular interview. But if the agency is recommending it, there’s likely to be a good reason. Concluding that a certain newspaper is always biased, or that a particular blog “has it in for me” is not a productive approach. Neither is turning down an interview after agreeing to do it.

The halfhearted inquiry.  A company is looking for an agency – or are they?  The goals are unclear, the net seems wide, and no budget information is available. A lack of solid information to inform a decision usually adds up to tail-chasing and lackluster participation, if at all.

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