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The Big Lies Your PR Team Tells You, And How Not To Hire The Wrong PR Person
I was talking to my colleague Trevor about a plan we were writing for a client, and how deep down the thing we were writing came down to “do this stuff so that we can pitch and get you coverage.” This isn’t to say the client was wrong to ask for a plan, but that many plans come with a PR-industry led expectation of “strategy,” which means “lots of words that make it seem like we know what we’re doing.” The reality is that PR strategy as a whole is based on many, many elements that are either (or both) impossible to predict or control, with no real way to create an If-This-Then-That series of events you can plan to.
This got me thinking about other stuff that PR firms and PR people say and do that exists entirely to make a client think they’re getting value, and put them in a list, then put that list in Substack, then write some words around that list, then save it and send it to my newsletter subscribers.
The truth is that the PR industry has put significantly more resources into finding ways to sell clients stuff that doesn’t exist than they have into improving themselves. So, let’s go through those lies.
PR firms love to put together plans, it’s their favorite thing to do, and the expectation on the client side is that a plan should exist because plans are good, and other parts of the company - engineering, marketing, and so on - can create plans, so why not PR?
The problem is that without a constant stream of news, there is very little planning that can be done in PR. You can set up themes, and say these are the types of things we’re going to go about, but creating a grand plan that spans an entire year is something that a great deal of clients just…can’t do.
If you’re a company that has, say, two or three announcements a year, your firm cannot realistically create a plan for you that can be followed. They can say stuff like “we’re thinking about pitching these types of people” or “we’re going to focus on X Y and Z,” but the call is usually to have a vast 90+ day organized week-by-week plan that, without significant milestones to follow, is total hokum.
For example, a client that has several product announcements and a funding announcement can have a plan, but the PR firm really didn’t make that plan, the client did. The client gave them the things and the PR firm said okay, we’ll do them in this order. If that constitutes a PR firm “strategically planning,” then fine, that is “planning,” but there are times when you have a new client come to you and ask for a plan bereft of news.
This isn’t to say you can’t pitch without news, heck, I do it all the time, but trying to write a plan without news is useless. The result is that firms usually bullshit by making up “angles” (which I’ll get to) that they’ll attack each month, which suggests that the media is one big static lump of clay that can be comfortably molded and approached in a linear fashion.
Now, you can say stuff like ‘let’s look at the data’ and do data-dives, that works, but that oftentimes isn’t possible.
My favourite PR person “thing that we’ve done to placate client that is entirely made up” is the idea of “angles.” Angles are themes that PR people make up that they say will appeal to a certain subset of reporters - often 10 or more reporters! - that they will then pitch to the reporters, usually based on a particular month that they have to fill. Clients love to hear about “angles” because it resembles what they’ve been taught PR agencies do - they bring angles to reporters and reporters say “hey, that’s my angle, that’s what I wanted, I will write the story now.”
The problem is that a competent PR person pitching the media won’t use the same angle in one specific month on 10-40 reporters. Furthermore, whatever specific angle you highlight in a neat little paragraph that makes your client happy is probably not what actually works, as reporters don’t write stories based on a story that you wrote for the reporter then sent them. You can approach a reporter and say ‘hey this might be interesting because of X Y Z’ but there is no way you can come up with one block-text “angle” that a whole load of reporters will all jump for.
This is, frankly, a thing I refuse to do that has lost me business short-term, then usually got the client in question back long-term, because most efforts that are around “angles” are not actually productive.
It’s entirely a construction of PR people who want to pretend they know what reporters want and also want to show off how smart they are, creating the mystique that they ‘know how reporters work’ and ‘can get inside their heads.’ What may alarm you is how often stories are nailed without any angle at all - when you just find the right person and say “hey this thing exists, isn’t that cool?” and they agree. The “angles” process is usually just saying “hey, so this fits like this.”
Angles usually come up in the proposal process, or in the first month where PR firms are trying to establish a world in which the client needs to “just let the system work.” By saying that they’re going through a series of angles, your firm is buying time.
Guess who doesn’t care about what angles you’re using? A client getting actual coverage.
“A Big Team”
Unless you are a multi-billion dollar company, I sincerely doubt you need a PR team larger than three people, and you certainly do not need more than that on a weekly call. PR firms love to use lots of warm bodies to justify your investment. It isn’t necessary! It’s annoying!
There are no guarantees in PR.
Seriously, any single PR person who tells you that they can “guarantee” something is lying. They are liars. Expecting this is an act of foolishness, though one that I fully understand.
It’s simple - you as the client hiring someone are hiring a service professional and want results from them, and it is scary, because you could spend money and get nothing. The problem is that unless the PR person is doing something bad, they cannot guarantee you a person at X outlet will definitely write something. They can tell you' they’re confident, that they’re really confident, hell, they can tell you they’re sure, but that should not mean they are 100% guaranteeing anything.
Ideally, what you are buying from a PR person who’s pitching the media is someone who has got results before and can see how to get results from your story. The way to mitigate your worries about this is to ask to see recent coverage the person in question has got. The way to ask for this is to ask specifically for coverage that the person on the call got, and specifically if that person will be pitching the story. This may seem like something that you shouldn’t have to do, because people should be honest, but PR people aren’t honest creatures.
The best way I always put it - which at times loses me out on business because I won’t lie - is that I lead with the likely-case scenario versus the best-case. The best-case scenario can happen - for example, we got a client today both Mashable and CNET for their launch, but we had been direct and said it wasn’t likely they’d cover (but we’d try) - but it oftentimes doesn’t, simply because you can’t control the media, you can only seek to pitch them.
“Our Team” and Account Managers
The easiest way to get scammed by a PR agency - and I should add this happens from boutique agencies all the way up to the multi-billion dollar ones - is the bait-and-switch on “the team.”
The classic scam is to do a big, beautiful pitch with intelligent-sounding people and then put someone completely different on the team - usually two or three young people who are excited but don’t really know anything and/or don’t have any connections and/or don’t have the ability to actually write pitches.
This is the base-line scam, and one that you can beat by asking “who is doing the pitching and what have they done before.”
However, the secret scam (now that people are intimately aware that firms do this) is to Trojan Horse you with the same structure. It turns out that the person who got the results that you liked will be on the account and will be present on calls, but guess what? They’re not gonna be pitching! They are going to be “quarterbacking” and “informing strategy.” What this means in practice is that they will be present to tell you the things you want to hear but not actually doing anything, except when you are in danger of quitting, then they will swoop in and pull off something that they’ve been saving just to keep you quiet.
This is a hard trick to beat, but easily handled by looking at who actually responds to your emails and who actually presents opportunities. If it’s only the manager, but the manager doesn’t seem to be the one telling you about each opportunity, then that’s a clear sign that they’re not doing it. If they are the ones that are presenting it but seem to not really know the reporter and are just giving the broad strokes, that’s another sign.
“Senior Staff,” Account Managers and “Years of Experience”
Account Managers in PR firms are, honestly, an awful idea that exists to only perpetuate the issues that PR firms have. They exist to take work from actual workers and present it as their own, and the idea of “account management” is one that entirely exists to mask who’s doing things for you. I had the title of “manager” in a previous firm, but the reality was that I was still doing the pitching every day. A “senior” person on your account does not actually mean anything unless that person is doing stuff.
So, the only real way to find this out is to ask directly: will you, person’s name here, actually be the one pitching?
Also, if you get told by someone that “their team” got something, please do ask them "did you get this or your team?” If they fudge the answer, they did not get it, and they are stealing someone else’s work because that is the structure of PR firms.
If you are hiring someone to do PR for you and they sell you on the idea of having one senior person and two junior people, I will bet you ten dollars that what they are selling is the vague presence of someone with experience and the two underlings are the ones pitching. It is perfectly possible for you to have one or two people on an account, with one person who does the document stuff (coverage reports, briefing books for calls with reporters, and so on) and one who pitches, or indeed one person who does both.
Also be wary of anyone who talks entirely about their experience and working entirely on huge brand-names. There are very few examples of big companies (at least, ones that were big when said person worked for them) that actually apply to most other companies, and the same goes for if they did a big launch with a big company a long time ago.
It is big and sexy to say that they launched something globally-renowned, but that experience doesn’t really apply to you. If they are saying that they got a bunch of results for a client that looks like you but already had traction (EG: a big tech company that gets covered by default versus your relatively-unknown one), then that’s not as applicable. You want something that resembles the stage of company you’re at and the sort of thing you do as a company, and you definitely don’t want someone who was a manager on that account unless they can really show you somehow that they did the thing that resembles what you want to hire them for.
Also be very wary of anyone who sells you (and this goes outside of PR too) on “years of experience.” The specific problem with PR is that people oftentimes get promoted because they didn’t get fired and because everybody likes them versus their actual contributions. As a result, if you’re buying into someone’s bullshit because they have lots of flashy names and X years of experience, you are basically handing them money for no reason. The easiest way - once again! - to beat this is to ask for recent results (IE: 12 months old max, but <6 months ideally) that resemble what you’re working on.
This is also critically important in dealing with the solo-shop guys who make money because 20 years ago they worked with Samsung, or Sony, or Microsoft. These people are custom-built to extract money from you.
Avoiding The Bullshit
The easiest way to avoid a lot of these problems is to ask for actual things they’ve done recently that look like what you want. No 50-page deck, no glossy PDF, no 5 to 10 person meeting is more important than seeing what they have actually done for someone. The most fanciful correct-sounding thing that you receive is not going to prove to you that they can do this job well other than proving that they understand your product, and will mean exactly nothing if they cannot do the thing you hire them to do.
And yes, you do occasionally need a firm that will give you direction. But if you want to get actual things done, please ask them to prove they’ve done things.