PR Secret Revealed: What's Behind The Door?

For too long, the work of PR firms has gone on with some degree of mystery to clients. It takes only a small dose of cynicism to point to the big firms that got away with big fees for little work for many years. They enjoyed a lack of transparency so clients wouldn’t know what was happening back at the office. “Just get the media placements” was often enough.

This has created a misunderstanding that hurts us all in this new environment. Too often, clients act as if we go back to the office, unlock a mystery door and then turn on the “machine” we keep in the back room. It’s as if all they have to do is sign a contract and the “PR machine” kicks into gear on their behalf.

But there’s no mystery door to a back room. And there’s no such thing as a literal PR machine. It’s time for clients to understand that the best results come from collaborative processes.

Here are a couple of examples of the machine myth. Several years ago, I worked on a team that was representing a medium-size professional services firm. A few months into the engagement, one of the senior partners was upset that he hadn’t “gotten any press.” When I explained that was because he had not discussed with us any of his cases, or his opinions, or his expertise or anything interesting or newsworthy, he didn’t want to hear it. I explained the process of creating PR opportunities but he wasn’t interested in that. He exclaimed “we’re paying you to get us press.” He wanted the machine and, unfortunately, his attitude spread through the firm, as negativity tends to do, causing an adversarial relationship.

More recently, we were hired to create messaging for a private business having a challenge differentiating itself from its relatively well-packaged competition. At the onset of the engagement, we explained how the messaging process should work. We facilitated a meeting of the company’s senior staff for them to explain who they are, what they do and how they are different. We reviewed their existing materials as well as rough copy, written by one of their partners, for use on the Web or in brochures. We next presented a draft, labeled as such, of boiled-down (from meeting notes and dozens of pages into a two-page document) key message points, based on what we had seen so far, as a starting point for discussion as part of the defined (and proven) process.

Company leadership was not happy with what they received from us. We were told “you just spit back what we gave you” and “there are several errors.” They apparently expected that after one meeting and a review of materials that we would be able to completely brand their company and know their business inside-out. They refused to participate in the rest of the process and sought “another direction.” In other words, they wanted a machine.

So, to bust the myth once and for all, firms don’t have a machine to do the work. But the good ones do have talented, experienced, passionate people who, working with our clients, can provide the human touch that is crucial to long term relationships and success.