ImPRessions

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When PR People Overshadow Their Clients

A while back, my firm was in a competitive review for a plum account. At our meeting, the potential client confided that he’d just come from a session with a well-known name in our industry and had crossed him off the list. The client wasn’t impressed. Or, rather, he was, but in the wrong way. “It was interesting to meet him, but he wouldn’t shut up about himself and his new book,” the prospect complained. “He’s too busy with his own PR to worry about mine.”

There’s an adage that PR pros should generate the story, but never be the story. It crossed my mind then, and again today after Romney press aide Rich Gorka lost his temper during the candidate’s recent trip to Poland, telling a persistent reporter to “kiss my ass” and to “shove it.” Gorka later apologized, but the exchange, caught on video, was fodder for at least another news cycle or two. The incident wasn’t serious, but it’s an example of the worst kind of behavior from a PR person; not only did it distract from the campaign’s messaging, but it reflected badly on all involved.

But what about flattering press? Hot tempers aside, should PR pros really stay in the background? In the age of Twitter, Facebook, reality TV and 50 ways to build your personal brand, isn’t that advice outdated? After all, what’s wrong with a little self-promotion, as long as it’s positive? It’s good for business – just ask Brooke Hammerling.

At first blush, the biggest risk for a well-known publicist seems to be eliciting the envy of peers. And envy might have been behind some of the harsh criticism of Hammerling as a strategic lightweight after she was profiled in a New York Times piece about Silicon Valley spinmeisters a few years back. But does anyone think she lost sleep over East Coast smugness?

Yet there is a downside to overshadowing your clientele. Anyone who hooks up with a boldface PR pro will attract greater than normal attention to the relationship. That’s okay when things go well, but if they go badly, you’re likely to be under a brutal microscope.  And if the publicist’s fame overshadows that of her clients, or, worse, seems to ride on a client’s own celebrity, it’s usually the beginning of the end of the relationship.

Hollywood uberpublicist Howard Bragman has the best advice. Actually, it’s his advice for clients wanting to achieve fame, but it applies as well to communications pros. According to Bragman, it’s a bad idea to be famous for fame’s sake. Don’t be known for flashy clients, parties, or gossip. Instead, be recognized as an expert – a crisis manager, cross-promotion queen, creative marketing genius, or social media pioneer.

For PR professionals, it all comes back to helping our clients reach their goals. The bottom line is, it’s better to be a Bethenny Frankel – known for building a business based on personal skills and drive – than, say, a Kim Kardashian. For professional recognition to be valuable, it should grow out of good work. The rest is icing on the cake.

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  1. Mike Maney

    I’ve been arguing that effective PR now requires pros to be as involved in their clients’ communities as the clients themselves (more in this presentation I gave at the Social Media Summit in October: http://www.slideshare.net/mikemaney/influencing-the-influencers-9649216). It’s no longer enough to just be the connector…you have to be as smart on the industry as your client. But, as you point out, it also means you are now as visible as your spokespeople.

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