Don't Waste Money on a PR Firm: 4 Smarter Ways to Get Press

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

Every time I've launched a new business or a new product, the issue of public relations has come up. It always seemed obvious that hiring a PR firm was the way to get the word out. Yet every PR agency I've ever worked with proved to be disappointing. And most CEOs I talk to have had the same experience. What have we been doing wrong? The first company I engaged was a big New York heavy-hitter. Their portfolio was impressive, and they were sympathetic to the budget constraints of a new business. For a retainer of $5,000 a month, they promised we would soon be on the map of every important journalist in the land. Of course, for more, they could offer all kinds of extras: strategic consulting, brand advice, help naming the new business. Thank goodness we were too poor for these additional services.

What did we get for our $5,000? Nothing. A few glossy presentations that echoed back what we already knew. Some press releases. But that was it. The truth was that we were far too small a client for them to bother with. Small fledgling companies helped this agency pay the rent, but that was all.

Several years later, I thought I was wiser. I interviewed a wider range of firms and went for a boutique agency to whom we could make a difference. It should have alarmed me that its founder seemed to model himself on Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success, but in fact it was part of the firm's appeal. If PR's a dirty business, I thought, let's hire a street fighter.

This relationship was more fun, but it wasn't any more productive. We got more attention -- but it came from the agency, not the media. We paid a little less and got a little more. But the relationship still didn't deliver.

Over the years, I've talked to many CEOs and Chief Marketing Officers and I've never found one that truly raved about their PR company. The fact that these firms typically have huge overheads -- all those marble and glass lobbies -- means that they take on more business than they can do well. Many are desperately stuck in old media habits (press releases -- in this day and age?) that no longer have impact. And they're all either ignorant or willfully blind to the fact that registering in a mass market requires a very noisy campaign indeed.

So, if PR were my priority today, what would I do?
  1. Pay for results, not time. One company I know pays for column inches, another by the number of mentions in online and traditional media. This keeps everyone highly focused.
  2. Use a virtual agency. A newer model for PR and advertising is the virtual agency that coordinates a network of gifted freelancers. With no expensive real estate to cover and no deadbeats, they have to keep busy. They can assign specialists to your needs at a lower project cost or retainer.
  3. Build awareness through social networks. That way, you're building an asset -- the network -- that you own and whose intelligence you can leverage indefinitely. If you don't know how to do this, send your marketers to some courses.
  4. Integrate PR into your overall strategy. Don't treat it as an add-on late in the day. If your products or services aren't distinctive, no PR company will save you.
Of course, no company ever quite feels like it gets the publicity it deserves. But wouldn't be great if every PR retainer didn't feel like a rip off?
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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