Dorothy Crenshaw October 31, 2022 | 06:09:50
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The Best PR Agency Horror Stories

Whether you work in public relations or another service business, you probably have  your own horror stories. Today is the day to reflect on the scary moments of PR and how to avoid them – or just enjoy them, knowing that they’ll make a good story someday. Here are some of our scariest PR agency tales.

A priority press briefing — in an empty room

The pandemic shutdown was awful in many ways, but at least we didn’t have to worry about attendance at press events. As any PR person knows, you should be judicious about media events. And if you do decide on an announcement press conference, always book a smaller room than necessary, and be sure to manage client and stakeholder expectations about media attendance.

Yet, bad things still happen to good PR people. You do everything right in planning and hosting a press event, and nobody shows up. Years ago, when I was confronted with the empty press room as a young Account Supervisor, my boss ordered me to call a few people back at the office and make them come out to impersonate reporters. (We talked him out of it in the end.) And as wrong as that was, I understand the panic of a press briefing where no one shows. What can  you do? Not much, except avoid avoid letting an entire campaign hinge on an event. In today’s fragmented media environment, media attendance is rarely guaranteed.

The terrible, awful, no-good, very bad spokesperson

PR teams typically have a voice in the selection and preparation of a television media spokesperson for their campaign. But, what if the logical media spokesperson is the founder, and the founder can’t communicate? One team I was on spent days messaging, rehearsing, and scripting a client company founder, only to see one bungled interview after another. Despite best efforts, the founder responded to normal business questions with meandering, evasive answers peppered with statistics that weren’t true! The overall impression was terrible, and to make matters worse, no one wanted to tell him. Things improved only after we brought in an outside spokesperson for hire. But the damage was done.

Ghosted by that nice prospect

There a reason why we call radio silence after a new account pitch “ghosting” – because it’s horrifying. Everyone’s been in this situation. You decide to respond to a big RFP, you do your research and put forth best efforts to pitch and win the business. The chemistry is good! They laugh at your jokes and nod at your ideas! After a couple of weeks you hear — nothing. All your emails or calls seem to fall into a black hole.

What happened? Sometimes the company decides against retaining a PR firm, but they forget to tell you. Occasionally they’re not serious or just shopping for ideas (the worst.) Or maybe they just can’t handle telling the truth. Either way, it’s probably a sign to be more careful in evaluating the next RFP.

Gasp…there’s no there, there!

This could be a well-meaning client who wants to burnish their story with empty claims. Or it may be the enthusiastic founder who’s prone to exaggeration. Sometimes it’s a large and risk-averse company in a regulated industry that’s scared to release information. There’s either nothing the PR team can use as a story, or the client doesn’t want to tell it for mysterious reasons. If this disturbing problem persists, the client relationship will be short. The only way to avoid it is to ask the right questions at the asset, dig for answers and assets that make a difference, and hope for the best. For tips on getting to the heart of an elusive business story, see this post.

The devil’s in the details

A former colleague called in this story. She once led media outreach for a multi-city event for a men’s grooming product with a big budget and even bigger expectations. After securing interest in a particular market, she followed up with full information in the form of a media alert. — or so she thought. It turned out the details she shared were for an event that had taken place the week before, so the local press missed hers. As terrifying as it was, the situation had a happy ending of sorts. It seems the assignment editor was amused by the snafu and wrote about the event after the fact, resulting in a very good story. Lesson learned: the devil’s always in the details. Pay attention to the small stuff.

One thought on “The Best PR Agency Horror Stories

  1. Another PR horror story is working with a client who appears to be Doctor Jeckyll but then reveals himself to be Mr. Hyde. My previous agency worked to promote the president of a large insurance holding company as a shrewd businessman and subject matter expert. He was later indicted on bribery charges and convicted (although it was subsequently tossed due to a procedural technicality).

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