When I started my career in PR, you were encouraged to create a “little black book” of contacts. This was your bible and a symbol of the importance of building personal relationships.
Subsequently, computer systems enabled contact information to be collated. In marketing terms, this was called “customer relationship management” (CRM). It was led by IT specialists and ironically reduced human understanding of customers. “Personalised” mailings were mass produced and distributed. From junk mail to spam, the approach has been one of numbers – annoy thousands for one or two hits.
This approach has been replicated in PR where a database approach to contact management involving buying lists and distributing information as widely as possible. It involves little effort, cost and minimal knowledge of media.
Indeed, it means anyone can work in PR – they don’t need to have built up a black book of contacts. Even better, the contacts belong to the company, not the individual, so aren’t at risk of leaving when they move on. We don’t even have to maintain the list – there are companies to do that for us.
The process is mechanised – in-house and agency PR teams are tasked with issuing a specific number of press releases, like factories churning out widgets. And, it’s measurable – add in column inches generated, multiply by advertising value equivalent – and hey presto, a £75 press release worth ten times its value in coverage generated.
The marketing approach to PR continues with a focus on puff as content. In addition to plugging new products and services (or finding ways to make them appear new and improved), we’ve become creative. After all, its the coverage that counts; mentions and messages. Releases without news can generate headlines through surveys, awards, stunts… bogus and pseudo is just as good as any genuine information.
Marketers also expect PR to generate coverage for the marketing approach itself. The campaign becomes the story – press releases about open weekends, marketing offers, adverts and new websites (or blogs).
The consequence has been that journalists view most PR practitioners as little more than telesales people. Emailing junk and following up with pointless phone calls.
PR has become about pushing information – seen as “free” advertising but with the added bonus of journalistic endorsement. Tighter time and budget constraints on journalists and publications has led to increasing PR content and a spiral of prattle.
I’m not saying that PR cannot help organisations to achieve marketing objectives. Nor do I believe there is no place for the stunt, the survey or other creative device.
The problem is that the typical marketing PR approach is cheap and lazy. There is little originality. It relies on poorly trained practitioners – who have no incentive to develop better skills when their appalling press releases get coverage, which is packaged as success for clients.
I’ve heard PR practitioners blame clients for forcing them into this method of operation. There are those who believe the hype of Max Clifford and view PR as something able to deliver them the control over what the media reports, which they believe a Hollywood A-lister has. Others blame the media – hey, they report this stuff, so it’s what we’ve got to give them.
Good journalists know not all PR practitioners fall into this stereotype, and there are many clients who have been educated that PR is more than false press agentry.
Does it matter that there are many others who don’t get the value of building relationships and doing the job with a focus on quality over quantity?
I think it does as it impacts on the wider reputation of PR – although the value for those who do get it right is much higher.