I’ve hired and worked with more than a handful of public relations agencies over the past 15 years.
I fired them all within a year or so.
It’s not that they were bad. Quite the opposite. They all came highly recommended. Some of the best in the industry. They were doing their best, but I believe it’s the typical public relations (PR) model that’s broken — or at least in need of evolving. The market has moved on and, based on what I’ve seen, the PR industry has yet to adjust.
Last time I had to say goodbye to a PR firm we hired was a couple of years ago. They went through all the motions we’d come to expect: biweekly update calls on media outreach and stories they were developing, checking in with us to see if we had some exciting news that reporters would be interested in hearing, and explaining that a few of the stories we were hoping to get published weren’t going to happen because the reporters they had pitched to simply didn’t find them compelling enough.
The more I thought about it, the more inefficient it felt to me. I had three different resources reaching out to an overlapping list of influencers pitching our stories: our PR firm, our internal marketing content team and our search engine optimization (SEO) firm as part of its backlink-building efforts. Inevitably, this caused embarrassing conflicts when two or more of them reached out to the same influencer, making us appear unprofessional.
On several occasions, our PR firm came back empty-handed after weeks of pitching what we thought was amazing content. Frustrated with our content work potentially going to waste, we decided to post it to our social media channels as a last resort before throwing it into the trash bin.
Then, something amazing happened. Our followers on social media took interest. A lot of interest. They started liking, commenting and sharing our content. They tagged their friends, who, in turn, started engaging with our content. When all was said and done, we had a few thousand people engage with our content piece — the same one we were told couldn’t be published for lack of reporter interest.
Then it hit us: With the direct audience and influence we were quickly gaining on social media, we could publish our own content directly and get immediate feedback from our followers and their friends. This would also allow us to go from ideation, through content writing, to publication within hours, not weeks.
It was time to part ways. As friends. Really, it wasn’t their fault. They were doing what they had always done. It just wasn’t working for us anymore.
Since then, we’ve been our own content ideators, writers, editors and publishers, publishing on our own social media channels and on guest blogs we are frequently asked to contribute to. Our content has received millions of views and many thousands of interactions on social media. Through it, we have built an undeniably strong brand in our space.
Time For A PR Evolution
Reflecting on these experiences, I envision PR firms evolving in at least three different ways to keep up with brands’ needs in 2019 and beyond:
• First, I believe they’ll start focusing on business outcomes and results, not on metrics like print placements. Our board of directors cares about last quarter’s revenue, not how many times our brand was mentioned in trade publications. It’s high time PR firms cared about the same things.
• Second, a PR firm should feel like a natural extension of an internal marketing team — showing up to critical meetings, providing useful insights and truly understanding how they fit into the bigger picture. This is very different from the traditional biweekly update meetings that tend to position PR as an isolated effort.
• Third, to be a modern-day PR firm, it’s no longer relevant to focus on traditional print media alone. Firms absolutely have to be well-versed in new media channels like social networks, podcasts, gaming and other emerging opportunities. A robust PR strategy will inevitably be comprised of a clever combination of earned, owned and paid media and a mix of traditional and new media channels.
But PR firms cannot carry all the blame for a failed brand-PR relationship; a brand must assist a firm in understanding its needs and what it hopes to gain.
Marketing And Communication Teams Can Help To Improve Brand-PR Alignment
• First, set clear objectives for your PR efforts. Are you looking to recruit 100 employees this year? Sell to 25 enterprise customers? Raise $10 million in funding? If you don’t know what business goals your PR efforts need to support, chances of them getting it right are slim to none.
• Second, you need to figure out your brand’s story and narrative. No one knows the origins, DNA and future plans of your company better than you do. If you can’t clearly articulate them, how can you expect your PR team to deliver on your communications objectives?
• Third, communicate what PR success will look like for your brand. Has the PR firm you hired demonstrated success on similar goals with other clients? If you’re expecting to become a hit on social media, a PR firm that specializes in traditional print publications probably isn’t going to get you the results you’re looking for.
I haven’t given up on PR yet. In fact, we just signed on with a new PR firm that seems to understand the new world we are living in. They are getting into the weeds of our business goals and working with our digital team members to achieve them in an omnichannel, concerted effort.
It’ll be a few months before I can report on results, but one thing is clear: The traditional PR model needs to evolve with the industry to continue to serve its clients, and brands and firms must work together to achieve success.