‘There’s a lot of desperation’: Confessions of a PR industry veteran on PR’s ‘reputation problem’

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Public relations has a reputation problem. At least that’s the case according to a PR industry veteran of 16 years who predominately works with B2B tech brands. He says economic uncertainty has been a catalyst for shoddy communications practices, agency jumpers and flash in the pan marketing moments as opposed to sustainable brand building.

In recent years, fragmentation across the digital media landscape has put a strain on client-agency relationships as clients expect more than earned media and communication strategy, according to PR pros.  Per the industry veteran, the communications industry has seemingly cut corners to keep clients happy, maintain business relationships and keep money flowing into the company. For the vet, it has forced him to widen his agency’s capabilities to meet client needs, specifically for the B2B tech companies he works with, which go beyond earned media and into strategy, he said.

In this edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, an experienced PR professional and industry veteran shares frustrations with the industry, changing client expectations and his new business practices. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s happening in the industry that made you want to change how you do business? 

[B2B tech brands] don’t often have stories. They’re unable to talk about themselves outside of product features and benefits. There’s zero or very little value based messaging. And too many PR firms will take them on as clients. The reason why they take on these clients is to keep the lights on. The irony about all this is that PR as a discipline has a reputation problem.

What has been the catalyst?

There’s a lot of desperation. Not only to keep the lights on, but to keep people, to keep employees. The overarching problem that I’m always trying to solve is [to] do the strategy work upfront that pretty much everyone does not do. That is the root of all of the problems. [Brands] come in, they don’t have their positioning and messaging down. Their target audiences are all over the place. They skip all the stuff you need to do before you go to market, and they view PR as an afterthought. It is constantly viewed as the last coat of paint on a car. 

So PR agencies aren’t taking necessary brand building steps before taking on a client. Why is that?

So all the work that PR agencies should be doing, and I’ll say this very boldly, they don’t want to do it because they’re A) not equipped to do so. B) They have no reference of how to do it from peers or competitors. And C) they want that check deposited as soon as possible. Anything that delays that check and hitting the bank, they won’t do it. The strategy work not being done upfront is the killer for why we have bad campaigns, why people say PR doesn’t work. It’s because you’re skipping over the strategy.

In response to the current PR marketplace, you’ve changed how you do business. What does that change look like?

I couldn’t take clients to reporters or analysts anymore the way they wanted to be taken, the way they were presenting themselves was missing a lot [of brand building and strategy]. So I’ve gone backwards to do all the things they should be doing ahead of executing PR. Everything that they skip, I’m not letting them skip anymore. I grew a backbone, is how I’ve been describing it, and I’m telling people, “You’ve got to do these things and then you can do PR.” So, during the onboarding process, I’m doing this work with them.

I was told my entire career that [a potential client] comes in, you ask these [brand story and company] questions, you have these off the cuff and impromptu questions in addition to those initial questions during discovery and all that, and then you take them on as a client. The rejection of a horrible client, I don’t think that that is happening as much as they used to.

What does this say about the future of PR as a discipline? 

PR people have to not think of themselves as PR people. They have to look at themselves as comms strategists, strategic communicators. Public relations, as a term, almost needs to go away for people to view all that it offers and can do. It needs repositioning. There are people that are labeling themselves as [things other than a] PR professional, but they do PR. It’s because it’s one of many components required under the umbrella of communications. The initial step that needs to happen is PR people [need to] think about all the things that they should be doing for clients and start doing them.

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