PR’s Groundhog Day

Here’s a piece from PR Week. (What do you mean you don’t read it, blog snorkellers mine? Go out and buy a copy immediately. This week’s cover price is – for the sake of argument – a highly reasonable £32.57.)

It’s about integration – and lest anyone be unclear – that’s the integration of communications disciplines through the creation of what used to be called ‘one-stop shops’.  PR Week see fit to grace the front page of their organ with this story, so they obviously regard it as ‘news’.

But – hold on, and correct me if I’m wrong, hasn’t this happened before (twice, as far as I can remember) – and then sort of un-happened, sort of dis-integrated, if you like? (And I do.)

Doesn’t it prove that the old adage ‘PR – it’s a young person’s game’ is fundamentally wrong? It’s not a young person’s game because young people can’t remember the hideous fuck-ups of the past and thus cannot learn from them.

Mind, as long as the clients are young as well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. They can all repeat the same errors together. Again and again and again. It’s like Groundhog Day, but it will never sort itself out and it’s somewhat less amusing without Bill Murray in it.

And the final bit of the ‘story’ just underlines what cack it actually is. “It’s not as simple as being in the same office” – no, you’re right, sunshine, it’s not – “there has to be a willingness… work together to understand…….” Yes, nail, head.

There has to be a mutual respect, an acceptance that the ‘idea’ can come from anywhere, and an innate ability to recognise what makes a good idea. These three things do not come from making the poor, hapless drones sit together and share the same canteen. Didn’t work in the late eighties, didn’t work in the early noughties, won’t work now.

Oh, and for the record, PR Week has been around for much, much longer than a lot of agencies and most account execs. Why, then, is PR Week slavishly reporting this, rather than working from its years of experience and pointing out that ‘integration’ is not new, not big and definitely not clever.

Social Media – PR ‘Students’ And Twitter

You couldn’t make it up. This is another one of those jaw-dropping, what-the-f*ck moments. A moment when – for someone who’s spent the best part of two decades in the corporate communications business – I actually begin to question why I’m here and why the industry exists.

Here is a link to a post on the Teaching PR blog (May 2009), from Grady College, University of Georgia. I can only presume that this is a seat of learning with the same level of gravitas and respect that is accorded to Keele here in the UK.

It provides some hints and tips to PR students on ‘what not to tweet’. I’m not going to paraphrase it here. Trust me, you need to read it in all its truly frightening originality.

Without beating about the bush, the hints about ‘what not to tweet’ are not bad. Basic, but good guidelines for those embarking on a Twitter feed. But they’re all about image and communication – things that, arguably, a student of PR should have a natural feel for.

Personally, if I came across a potential communications practitioner making any of these mistakes, I would advise them that perhaps they have made the wrong career choice and that they should f*ck off and trouble some other industry with their ridiculous and naïve viewpoints and attitudes. (Hey – call me harsh.)

On top of that, if Grady College feel the need to give these hints and tips to their students, then they have wholly failed to engender any sort of PR sense into them – thus, arguably, their course should be shut down.

It’s this sort of misunderstanding, naivety and ill-informed behaviour that will provide the comms industry with the next generation of PR lovelies – all blonde hair and parties – that will perpetuate the crass mythology of PR as a business of fluff and spin and will continue to deny the industry its seat at the top table.

My faithful blog snorkellers will know my feelings on social media. This scary nonsense does nothing to change my opinions, or give me any faith in the future of our profession. I’ll leave you with the following:

“Earlier this semester, @BarbaraNixon tweeted a wise suggestion to her students: go to the Web and look at your last page of tweets. Is that really how you want to represent yourself to the world?

If not, it’s time to rethink your twitter strategy.”

No, it’s time to rethink your life.

Public Relations – All Talk, No Substance?

Thanks to PRWeek for this, which talks about a new piece of research from YouGovStone which (apparently) shows that almost 25% of senior UK professionals (sample size 701 – senior professionals from backgrounds including politics, business, academia and health) believe that PR agencies are ‘all talk and no substance’. Further, only five per cent of those questioned regarded PR and communications agencies as vital.

A sad indictment of the industry,  I am sure you’d agree, even if it is rather ‘one size fits all’. Who are these senior professionals? When they were asked to pronounce on the PR/communications industry, were they asked whether they had any specific agency in mind and, if so, in which sector did that agency practise and what were its areas of expertise? Did their opinions stretch to in-house communicators,  as well as agencies – or just agencies? I’m sure all of this was covered – only, during my brief trawl of the internet, I’ve not been able to find any other reference to this new research.

Anyway, I bet the lovely folk at Finsbury, Brunswick and Edelman are mightily relieved (to the tune of their share of the $240m advisors’ fees) that Kraft and Cadbury are amongst the five percent.

As for the rest of us – I guess we’ve got some work to do.

PR – The Perfect Client

Some time ago I did a bit on the Perfect Client – based, unusually for me, on some research findings. Mostly my own research, clearly. Recently – thanks PRWeek – there was a bit of a kerfuffle around a prospective client paying for the ideas presented in a pitch by the losing agencies. (Personally, I don’t see what was strange about this – I don’t like doing it, but I’d say I’ve been paying (something) for pitches for the last decade. Why should any professional give of his/her services for free?)

Anyway, out there in the internet, the discussion raged and I came across this. It’s a nine-point plan for a client approaching an agency, aimed at making the agency selection/pitch process easier. It’s presented in a letter from a client to one of a shortlist of agencies that he’s selected. It’s great, and it’s fair – but what it fails to take into account is the nature of the agency. So, in the spirit of balance, I composed a reply.

I reproduce both texts here – but for the short of time, I’ll summarise the conclusions. Just as there isn’t the perfect client, there isn’t the perfect agency either. Agencies moan about the lack of knowledge of the client (the in-house practitioner) and the in-house practitioner moans about the agency’s lack of commitment, of creativity, of get-up-and-go.

Both have a point. The best way to forge a relationship is to make it commercial – pay for the pitch, pay for the results. Personal relationships come later. You don’t (have to) have a personal relationship with your lawyer, accountant, banker or architect – why with your PR provider?

The question we should be concerning ourselves with is not about paying for pitches, but about paying for – and by – results. No more retainers, people – payment by results. Incidentally, perhaps if you pay for the ideas in a pitch, you should be paying on a sliding scale. How much value – expressed in terms of cold, hard cash – did that idea deliver? And what percentage of that are you prepared to give to the agency? Oooh – it’s a big fat debate waiting to happen.

In the meantime – here’s the client’s letter and the response I imagined from Obfuscate, Bulshitt and Fluff:


I’m the PR manager of Les Chapelles Holidays, and I’m looking for a new PR agency. I’ve drawn up a shortlist of four agencies and you’re company is one of them. As such, I’d like to meet.  This is what I’d like to propose:

1. I’ll come to you if that’s OK? I’d like to see your offices.

2. I’m only planning on meeting each agency once in the selection process, but would like a three hour meeting in the afternoon (the reasons for which will become clear a little later).

3. I’m presuming you’ll do your research, so you’ll be able find out lots about our business from our website, coverage search, social media analysis, etc etc. If you have any specific questions, however, feel free to drop me a line.

4. I’m not giving you a brief, because I’m not asking you to pitch me creative ideas and a communications strategy. I’m a forward-thinking guy, and (a) don’t believe that you’ll be able to get under our skin enough in the next fortnight to develop a decent strategy or associated tactics and (b) I respect that your strategic nouse and creativity are valuable, and I should really be paying for them.

5. When I come in, I’d like to meet the team of people that you would foresee working on the account. I think you’ll be able to assess who those people might be from your research on our business, and our budget is currently about £10k a month, so I reckon I’ll be meeting four or five people (and if there’s more than one director in the room, I’ll smell a rat). It’d be great if each of them could give me a five-minute precis of their experience, role and the piece of work of which they’re most proud. I’d also like to know their favourite band and cocktail of choice.

6. I’d like you to present comprehensive agency credentials. Agency history, client base, key areas of expertise and anything else you feel would be relevant. I’d also like to see three case studies of work you’ve done for clients that you think are relevant to our business area. I’d expect these to include the business challenge, strategy you developed, tactics you implemented and the results generated. I’d also like the people in the room to have worked on the case studies, because I might have questions.

7. I’m going to test you guys out with an exercise that will take about an hour. It’ll be challenging but fun, and will give me the chance to see how you guys work together (and with me).

8. I’d like to take contact details for three client references away with me.

9. After we’ve had the meeting, can we go to the pub for an hour or so? I’m buying.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Dear Mark

Thanks so much for your letter – it is genuinely refreshing to come across such honesty in this vale of tears that we call spin. And as we’re being honest, it’s actually refreshing to come across such naïve honesty in this vale of etc etc etc.

We’re delighted that you’ve chosen Obfuscate, Bulshitt and Fluff to be your incumbent agency. (Hey – I know you didn’t say that, but we’re being honest, and – face it – we’re never going to read anything you send us properly and, even if we do, we’re not going to understand any of it.) I think it would be a good idea to meet up, and here’s my honest (you started it) response to your ten points. (See what I mean?)

1)       By all means come to our offices. You’ll see reception, the nice white corridor lined with random coverage, and our super spangly boardroom. You won’t see the rickety stairs and poky offices, crammed with old mismatched desks and young mismatched execs, threadbare of carpet, limited of storage space and littered with the detritus of product samples past. Why would we show you that?

2)       Three hour meeting in the afternoon? No worries. Although it’ll mean that some of the team don’t get down the pub at lunchtime, which might make them a little edgy.

3)       You’re presuming we’ll do our research – well, I guess we’ll do a bit, thanks for the tips about the website and the coverage search. A lot of our staff spend a lot of time Twittering and getting all Facebooked up, so I’m sure they’ll be able to do some of that social media stuff as well. But, as you’d expect, we’ll also leave some glaring gaps in our knowledge, so that one of our more senior people can regale you with irrelevant stuff that is almost embarrassing in its simplicity, in an earnest and patronising way. You’ll enjoy that.

4)       No brief? Excellent. That’ll save some time and effort and trips to the Nurofen cupboard by those of our staff – most of them, actually – who get a bit confused by the concept of ‘strategy’. Mind you – no problem with tactics, if you want a few. Nothing new under the sun, eh? Oh – and don’t worry about the question of paying. As George Bernard Shaw said to Oscar Wilde (probably) “You will, dear boy, you will”.

5)       Ah – that old chestnut. “The team that will be working on the account.” Yes – we can do that, but bear in mind that staff turnover’s pretty high, clients come and go, first impressions aren’t always right – I think we both know that the team will change regularly. You’re right, we’ll field a team of four or five – but, again, I think we both recognise that your day-to-day will be the small one at the end of the table. Like Russian dolls, d’you see? We’ve got lots of directors by the way – easier to promote than to increase salaries, you know how it is – but, if it makes you feel better, we’ll pretend that none of us have titles. A five-minute précis of their experience? We’ll start making those up right now. Favourite band and cocktail of choice? Well – er – OK. You’re the boss.

6)       Cool – agency creds. We usually find that most prospects lose the will to live during this bit – you’d be amazed how difficult it is to stab yourself to death with a ballpoint pen, but it doesn’t stop them trying – but you seem to want the whole nine yards! Bless.Let me personally guarantee you that by the time we’ve finished, the last thing you’ll want to do is ask questions.

7)       Oh, goody. An exercise. Listen Mark – between you and me – you and I both know that this is a mistake. Like those tabletop crisis management exercises. All you’re going to learn from this is how it could be done better next time. What you’re not going to learn is how we work together or work with our clients. But – hey – you’re the boss.

8)       Three client references? No problemo. We’ve got several in-house PR people wrapped round our little fingers (via a combination of nice lunches, hospitality, celebrity introductions, Christmas presents and their own astounding lack of knowledge and experience) – they’d be delighted to talk to you.

9)       And the pub. What a splendid idea. Obviously, as we leave, we’ll be joined by another member of staff who ‘was just dying to meet you’. It won’t be clear where she fits in, but who cares, as her brief will be to hang on your every word and do a little light eyelash batting. Relax – you’ll enjoy it! And just in case you’re questioning our policy on equal opportunities, if your name happened to be ‘Marcia’, we’d find a member of staff to do a little tight t-shirt flexing.

10)   Oh – yeah. There isn’t a number 10. Sorry.

Hope all this works for you – oh, and don’t worry about the whole ‘who’s buying at the pub issue’ – we charge all our clients a monthly ‘contribution’. This ostensibly pays for our office running costs, but, in reality, is more of a ‘slush fund’. Have a drink on them – it’ll be you soon!

All the best