Most PR flacks are terrible at their jobs
By Simon Owens
Look at the email inbox of any reporter and you’re likely to see a graveyard of bad pitches from public relations specialists, the detritus that comes as a result of a low barrier to entry and a fundamental misunderstanding of the very people they’re pitching. Having spoken to other journalists about this phenomena, I know I’m not the only one who, upon opening such pitches, feels a small sliver of pity for these robotrons and their overpaying clients before I send their neutered, lifeless copy to the trash bin.
Perhaps I’m naive, but I feel like there are few industries other than PR where there’s such a concentration at the bottom, a nine to one ratio of bad to good. Most of this poor quality, I think, comes from outright laziness, an unwillingness to put in the actual research to understand the journalists these flacks are pitching before they hit the send button.
Many don’t even take a moment to check to see what you actually cover. Instead, most of them subscribe to massive databases that collect reporter contact information and sort them by broad categories like tech, energy, or finance. Though I often write about tech, an even cursory look at my article output would reveal that I don’t ever write about new product launches, and yet I receive dozens of pitches each week from flacks representing products I would never cover.
The very worst flacks decide to place you on mailing list you never asked to be subscribed to and blast out every press release they produce. Over the past 10 days I’ve received three emails from the same marketer trying to get me to write about a device that cracks coconuts. Coconuts!
Of course for most journalists, these pitches are little more than a minor annoyance (though god forbid your phone number gets circulated on these PR databases. Then you start getting phone calls asking if you received their press releases). The real victims are the clients. Unlike most other industries that create concrete deliverables — an advertising agency, for instance, actually produces a finished ad and places it — the only deliverables in PR are when they secure media placements. This makes it extremely difficult for potential clients to vet the firm prior to hiring them, meaning these clients must rely on the firm’s claims as to what relationships and success it’s had in pitching stories.
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And hiring a PR firm is expensive. For any account you’re hiring at least one senior executive and a low-level minion who will do the brunt of the work. For a small firm you need to pay a minimum of $10,000 to even make it worth their time, and for a larger firm they won’t even pick up the phone for less than $30,000.
Even when they do get placements it’s not a terribly efficient use of a client’s money. Oftentimes, a media placement means that a company executive gets interviewed and quoted for a sentence or two in the middle of an article. Sure, it strokes the client’s ego to be quoted, but how much brand penetration are you getting when you contribute 10 words to a 1,000-word article, and were those 10 words worth $10,000?
This is why we’ve seen a growing shift toward content marketing. Rather than clamoring for journalists to cover you, you can actually compete with those journalists as an informational resource. Instead of getting a brief mention in a long article, you’ve authored the entire piece of content yourself and it’ll appear alongside your branding. There are much more concrete deliverables and measurements associated with content marketing. You not only have a completed piece of content, but it’s much easier to measure its impact in terms of traffic driven and lead conversion.
Meanwhile, the state of PR pitching only continues to get worse. It used to be that, at the very least, the product being pitched to you actually existed. But now with the rise of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo our inboxes are flooded with pitches for half-baked ideas and products that aren’t on the market and may never be. Whatever abuse my email inbox has received in recent years, the worst is still to come.
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Image via Mytechgurus