Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Why traditional PR firms have one foot in the grave

OK... so it's no secret that I used to work at a PR agency. It was great work... the people I worked with had a high regard for getting results for clients, we offered a tremendous value to them for their money, we were honest with our clients... so on and so forth.

A couple of months ago, I got an irresistable offer to go to the dark side of the force and lead the global public relations efforts for a publicly traded technology company. It was painful leaving my agency solace, and the relationships I had made there were as close as family. What I didn't realize at the time was how rare that firm's particular practice of PR is... my eyes have since been opened.

In my new role, I manage our PR agency relationships. What a shock this has been! I now know why PR firms are getting such a bad reputation... it's amazing any of them are still in business. To illustrate why I have this position now, I've created this list of how not to do business if you're a PR agency... hopefully it will illustrate my frustration and utter disgust with the state of our industry.

1. Don't make excuses for why you can't get coverage. Everyone in the industry knows that having a customer who will talk to the media is like a pot of gold. If you are a technology company or a security company, customers usually don't like talking with anyone on the record. This is just a sad fact of our industry. So... if you're going to do media relations for companies in this space, learn how to be creative and position your client as an expert on trends or given topics. DO NOT give them excuses like "well... you guys haven't announced anything new in XX months" or "if we just had a customer, we could do something." I heard these excuses my first week here from our lead PR agency, and we actually had both a new product announcement and a customer announcement in the weeks right before I started. It wasn't even a true excuse! Even so, if you're going to pitch technology companies, you have to be savvy enough to know how to get around the need for customer testimonials... otherwise, you're just not qualified to do this work!

2. Don't cry a river about the amount of your retainer. This issue completely blindsided me! I came from scrappy agencies that appreciated every dollar a company entrusted to us to do work on their behalf. While we did have a set minimum below which we couldn't do effective work, if we committed to work for them at any level, we worked hard - and never brought up the amount of money we were paid as an excuse for not doing great work. This last Monday, I was on a call with one of our firm's principles, and out of the blue he said, "Well, you know our retainer was cut significantly, and it's really been a challenge for us since that time." I wanted to vomit and actually gave him an earful about how that was the wrong thing to say to me. In fact, it wasn't even true... after I'd had a conversation with our account prime there a few weeks ago, his work focused well, and they've started to get some great results and interviews for us... and even at the same "low" retainer we pay them. The work is focused to fit inside the retainer scope, and I am pleased with what they are doing... why the hell would this guy now bring up their cut retainer to me? FYI... it's still nearly $100K a year even at the cut rate, so that adds even more to my ire. The lead firm also cried about how their retainer had been cut, but they're no longer around to irritate me with this poor excuse for doing mediocre work.

3. Know what your client does and the trends upon which they can comment. This seems like a pretty basic tenet, but the lead firm I mentioned (FYI - this also is the same firm that touts how they are number one on client satisfaction surveys... and they are a giant global firm) actually sent me an article in the New York Times about identity fraud and asked me if this was the kind of story we could comment on. I went through the roof! Our marquee product helps banks prevent online identity theft for their customers... it's core to our very business. Why is this idiot asking me if this is the kind of story we want to be part of? Are you kidding me??? When I asked him if he had been properly briefed on our story and product lines, he responded with a very condescending, "What I've been trying to do is get the right pieces together to build a strategy, not just to respond to these one-off stories." (This is pasted directly from his message.) I could not believe my eyes... is it really too much trouble for him to pitch these "one-off stories" for the freakin' NEW YORK TIMES??? So... tenet #3... know what your client does and what trends upon which they can wax eloquently.

4. Have a way to report your activities regularly to your client. Again, this is something that seems so basic, but of the three firms we had on retainer when I started here, only two of them had any kind of regular reporting mechanism in place. Even those mechanisms are only sent out once a month, so during the month, I have very little idea of what they are doing on a day to day basis. The firm I left was completely obsessive about maintaining constant communication with our clients. Weekly status reports were meticulously kept and sent out like clockwork on Thursdays to every client. Daily communication with clients was the rule, and I doubt any client had a day go by when they wondered "What is (old firm's name) doing for me today?" In my current role, there often are weeks that go by when I don't know what the hell my firm is doing for us. I'll get a clip or some communication from them every once in a while, but I honestly couldn't tell you what they are doing for us at a given time. The firm that has the most egregious violation of this has been put on notice, so don't think I'm not addressing the issue.

The bottom line is that marketing dollars, while starting to creep back, are still precious. If a company decides to hire a PR agency, they expect them to act like an extension of the team. If they can't do this with any degree of competence, they they are wasting our money. With PR agencies acting as I've described, it's a wonder any of them stay in business at all. I guess they just have to find a bigger sucker who's willing to fork over several million dollars to them... maybe they'll find the time to learn about that company's business and pitch them with some good results. If not, the pending doom of the traditional PR firm is a fate they will not be able to avoid... lord knows I'll gladly put a nail in that coffin.

Private sector drains FBI talent

Senator: `Critical jobs at a critical time'By Andrew ZajacWashington BureauPublished May 3, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Two more senior FBI officials announced plans to quit in recent days, continuing a hemorrhage of top talent to the private sector that has complicated the bureau's efforts to refashion itself as a counterterrorism agency.On Friday the FBI announced the departure of Gary Bald, head of the bureau's newly formed National Security Branch, who is taking a job with a cruise line.On Tuesday, Bank of America announced it had hired the bureau's No. 3 official, Chris Swecker, the acting executive assistant director.

Swecker's predecessor, Grant Ashley, left the FBI just three months ago for a security post at a casino.Another senior executive, Louis Reigel, who headed the cyber-crime division, retired to join a food service company earlier this year.The turnover is particularly acute among counterterrorism officials, such as Bald, who had been in his job overseeing the FBI's fledgling domestic intelligence operation for only eight months.