PR doesn’t need you. You need PR.

By Historic American Engineering Record, Tim Whitely [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Confused about the headline? Me too. I should have stopped after the 13th pint last night.

What I wanted the heading to say and what this post is about is: Often businesses and business people don’t get PR. They don’t value it and so they think they don’t need it. As a PR person, should you educate them on why it’s important? Or just work with people who get it?

See. There is no way I could have put that in a sexy headline. You can think of one? Please feel free to let me know.

My earliest exposure to PR, even though it was not referred to as PR, was about 20 years ago. I was in high school and my father and his business partner were about to launch a new business. I overheard their conversation at home and his business partner said to him:

On the launch day, we will call a few journalists and give them some tea and biscuits.

What a strange thing to say? Is it for good luck? Why would they need to give tea and biscuits to journalists?

I asked my father and he told me its to let them know we are in business and they write about us, free publicity.

They will write about you if you give them tea and biscuits?

No “tea and biscuits” is just a term. It means we be nice to them and treat them to some refreshments.

Sure. “Refreshments” <wink>. What my father didn’t say at the time was refreshment was code for a bottle of Old Monk or McDowell’s Brandy. It was a friendly transaction. Not negotiated nor recorded.

What my father didn’t know was that this conversation had planted a seed in my head. His hope that his son will follow his footsteps to be an engineer was about to slowly start to fade.

This was how PR was done for a long time. Not just in India or Asia but around the world. The coverage they got was mostly in the form of announcements. There wasn’t an official press release, the journalists generally wrote up what they were told. This was also because there wasn’t much business journalism at that time, newspapers were mostly focused on politics and crime.

Nobody called it PR or media relations but it was recognised by most people in business. They advertised too but being mentioned as news carried more weight. This was mostly done in-house and the concept of hiring an agency to write up a press release and manage media relations was unheard of.

Sadly, even after 20 years, this mentality has not changed. Sure, the large companies, some government institutions and MNCs get it. It’s mostly the SMEs and old school businessmen who don’t seem to get it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to force feed PR services to companies and individuals who are not open to it. If they don’t see the value, why bother?

The trouble starts when they realise the media landscape has changed and they can no longer do “tea and biscuits” and get coverage. They can get coverage if they advertise but these are not usually the kind of media people tend to respect. Some journalists ask a lot of questions and coverage always don’t end up like you wanted it to.

It’s not that journalists don’t want “tea and biscuits”, there are several who really just need that because it sucks to be a journalist now. You have really bad pay, you have to pump out stories like in a factory to ensure clicks (your KPI is linked to it), you can’t be critical of anyone because that would mean cut in advertising revenue and the clients know that your publisher calls the shots. He is ensured of coverage dependent on the advertising package. It’s now called native advertising.

Most SMEs don’t have the budget for native advertising, which are usually long term advertising contracts. The old school businessmen (henceforth referred to as OSB) are still trying to figure out why they can’t just pay or entertain the journalists directly rather than the media company? So friends and most of the time, younger members of the extended family, suggest that they try hiring a PR agency.

“What? Pay someone to pay someone to write about you?”

That’s the mentality you deal with from the start. Most people are under the impression you are the middle man in-charge of paying journalists off. And when you tell them, you don’t pay journalists but pitch to them your story and convince them why you are worth writing about, they are even more confused.

Sure, there are PR agencies and “media people” who pay off journalists or gift them in kind, but these agencies or people don’t last for long. Every time they will need to pay more and if the word gets out (and more often than not, they certainly do after a few round of drinks at the press club), you have to pay more people.

The good journalists don’t take money or gifts, some even refuse to let you pay for coffee or beer. They will only talk to you because they want to know more about your client and your views on a recent trend or legislation. These are the journalists you want to build a relationship with because you know it’s two way street based on mutual exchange of information and nothing else. And yes, this exchange of information lets you add your spin and get insights into industry gossip.

Sometimes SMEs and OSBs think the best way forward is to hire a junior media or pr executive, arm them with a list of journalists and keep pumping out emails and request for appointments. It should work right? After all, isn’t this just what a PR agency does?

#Wrong!

That’s what you see from the outside, the end product. You see news items published and journalists coming to meet you. Wonderful. How tough can this be? OK, so my young in-house PR executive might not have “relationships” with journalists, so why don’t I just hire an agency for a few months and then get my executive to take over the relationships and then fire the agency! #GENIUS!

In reality, #ASSHOLE.

This sadly happens all the time. This is one of the reasons why most agencies, usually the larger ones, stay away from SMEs and OSBs.

What they don’t realise is that as a full time PR person, you are usually in touch with a journalist several times a week for various clients, sometimes even several times a day. You build a bond with the journalist (if you are a good PR professional) that you are going to respect their time and intelligence and when they say “No”, take that as a no and not be pushy.

Your in-house PR executive doesn’t have this luxury. She will be calling journalists repeatedly selling one story, she can’t take a no because that’s the only criteria by which her job is being valued at the firm. She can’t offer or hold a conversation about other matters or the industry at large because she is not senior enough.

Ignoring all this, if you finally do meet them and discuss business, they tend to judge you from the very first sight.

You can sense them thinking, “Why did his parents let him do this? Must have been really bad at Math and didn’t make it to a good Uni.” Their ignorance and lack of respect for your work should raise alarm bells, it’s universe telling you to look for the nearest exit and run.

There is never going to be a scenario these clients are ever going to pay you a decent fee. They will always complain and you will continue to service them losing money in the belief that the situation will change. It won’t.

If people don’t get PR, stay away from them. It’s a lost cause to educate them. Once they do realise the value, they will come to you and respect what you do.

PR doesn’t need them, they need PR.