Thou Shalt Not Follow In the Footsteps of Mr. Rip-off
I used to know the head of a PR agency (we’ll call him Mr. Rip-off and you’ll know why momentarily) and he once found himself in a very unusual situation. One of his clients, a second-tier security consulting firm, abruptly began to bubble up with a dramatic amount of activity. All of the hubbub was due to a security consultant who discovered that he loved to be the center of media attention. This consultant, who specialized in speaking on issues relating to the post-9/11 environment, became fairly ubiquitous in a short time thanks to interviews published in major newspapers and guest shots on national talk shows.
And how do you think Mr. Rip-off reacted to this? By praising his team for energizing this sleepy account (which went from two hits a month to seven hits a week)? By reminding his client on the value of a well-focused PR effort? No, Mr. Rip-off literally slammed on the brakes, ordering his account personnel to stop pushing that consultant’s media profile. From what I was told, Mr. Rip-off’s exact words were “I’m not being paid enough to justify that level of activity.”
Huh? Considering that Mr. Rip-off’s account team did their aggressive work primarily by e-mail contact and an occasional phone call, there was no excess financial output to generate A-list media coverage. But that wasn’t the case. In Mr. Rip-off’s mind, he was being paid “X” amount for a monthly retainer and the client wasn’t deserving of more than a certain level of media hits. Of course, that wasn’t in the client’s contract.
I’ll say it again: Huh? But I’m actually feigning surprise, since Mr. Rip-off’s actions are not an aberration. One of the dirtier secrets of the agency side of PR involves the slamming of breaks on active smaller accounts. For years, I’ve heard stories of smaller companies who hired PR agencies and wondered why they weren’t getting very good media coverage. And, truth be told, I’ve witnessed it repeatedly on a first-hand basis.
Why does this happen? The answer is simple but troubling: the agencies are more obsessed in milking their cash cow accounts and the smaller companies (with their smaller monthly fees) were literally designated to afterthought status.
Here’s another real life anecdote. My pal Matt is the head of marketing for a software company that serves a very specific business niche. The company isn’t tiny, but it would be an exaggeration to call it mid-sized. Anyway, they hired a major Manhattan PR firm (no names here, we’re all friends) to promote them. But after a few months, Matt was bothered by the lack of quality coverage. There were a couple of new product briefs here and a personnel announcement or two there, but the level of media coverage his company needed was suspiciously absent.
So Matt called the PR reps and he was told, rather bluntly, that the publications he wanted to appear in were just not interested in that story. Matt then called the publications himself, and discovered something rather interesting: not only were the publications highly interested, but they also were never contacted by that major Manhattan PR firm.
In the scheme of things, Matt’s PR firm had some of the world’s largest corporations as clients and they saw his company as small potatoes. The large accounts that held the bulk of their attention and, not surprisingly, had media coverage to spare.
Oh, I should say “Matt’s ex-PR firm” – he fired them when he got air of their tricks. The same thing happened with Mr. Rip-off: his client dropped him when they learned why the media spigot was abruptly turned off on their interview-happy consultant.
Many PR agencies avoid representing smaller companies strictly because of fees (they literally feel it’s not worth the bother). For those who deign to accept these companies as clients, they inevitably delegate these accounts to junior level account staff with the expectation that nothing significant should come about. The smaller companies, who often don’t know better (if they did, they’d do their own PR) usually accept the story of a lack of media interest for a while. But when the costs of a monthly PR retainer outweigh the promised benefits of representation, they pull out with bitterness over not getting what they paid for.
Honest and talented PR people go the extra mile for their clients, while the Mr. Rip-offs of the industry can’t even be bothered to go the contractually required distance. Sadly, it is the Mr. Rip-offs who ruin things for the industry, as a lot of companies who get burned by such con artists junk the PR push altogether in favor of other marketing pursuits. In that scenario, the PR industry gets burned with a nasty image – and Mr. Rip-off and his ilk, who get lousy reputations and begin to lose business, will ultimately not be laughing all the way to the bank.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)