March/April 2012
Volume 32 No. 2

March/April 2012
View complete issue as a PDF»

PR Biz: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Lucy Cohen Blatter

The thing about publicists is that, though they are important to the editorial mix of any publication, they are very rarely seen or heard. Let’s change that and give them their proverbial 15 minutes of fame by turning the spotlight on them.

Knowing that there are different roles for PR services — to keep companies and people in or out of the spotlight, to help market a product, to serve as spin doctors (i.e., damage control), to take or deflect blame, to create an image and, at times, to “babysit” temperamental personalities — let’s find out what exactly the role of a PR company is for our type of media.
Lynette Piong of Singapore’s Red Bug Communications said simply that the function of a PR company is “to help its clients generate positive communications to its public (shareholders, customers, partners, etc.), primarily through media channels.”

“The key is effective communication and getting a client’s brand out there in the marketplace,” said Celine Xerri-Brook, of London-based Magena Media. “Functions will vary depending on the client’s remit, but in the case of corporate TV/film PR for example, the main function of the PR company is to first understand the client’s primary objectives — who are their target audiences, how are they trying to build their brand, in which markets etc…then pitch a variety of stories into the relevant trade publications or online feeds that would increase exposure, which in turn helps them sell their product,” she said.

But, “PR has become more versatile,” Xerri-Brook added. Companies are “offering aspects of marketing, copy-writing, translation work, and even creating connections that will help their clients’ business,” she said.

Blair Metcalfe of Ogilvy Public Relations’ London office concurred. “PR companies have evolved over the years from pure media — creating press releases and events — to being partners in the success of their clients’ business. Increasingly, PR activities have a role to play in overall business performance and a company’s perception in the marketplace.”

From Los Angeles, Steve Syatt of SSA Public Relations added: “The economy is such that conducting PR for image alone is a luxury. Today, PR should be focused on helping achieve sales, new business development — contributing to opening doors of opportunity,” he said.

“Many times we consult with our clients on issues as far ranging and apparently minor as the color schemes for their new electronic media kits to what kind of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to serve at their booth at MIP,” commented Sheila Morris of Los Angeles-based Morris Marketing.
“We, of course, also consult with certain clients on issues of major importance such as when to launch and what sequence to launch in. We really serve our clients best by becoming an involved business partner,” she said.

Like nearly every other business in the world, public relations has seen major changes due to technological advances. And it’s not just about the absolute necessity for smartphones and instant responses.

“In recent years, the social media aspect of PR (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, etc.) has become very important and most firms are incorporating these promotional avenues into their PR campaigns,” said Nicole Goesseringer Muj of Kultura PR, also in Los Angeles.

“This has become a business of digitally delivered news, tight deadlines and relationship by email — everything moves faster. Excellent writing skills and the ability to get your news across quickly and concisely are essential,” added Mary Powers of Canada-based MPowers Communications.

For Muj, “it is much more difficult to give exclusive news to certain outlets these days, because of the rapid fire nature of online media. I also feel that accuracy and fact checking is not as important to media these days, which is a shame. Sometimes journalists are so rushed to get their stories published and ‘live,’ the quality of their work is compromised.”

California-based Ink Media’s president, Pam Wilson, agreed: “In the rush to be the first to get ‘breaking news’, there are some media outlets who unfortunately do not check facts or sources. It is frustrating when articles are posted that are completely untrue or quotes from an executive or actor are taken out of context. Once something is posted on the Internet it can never be erased so the ‘untruths’ that are reported are always out there. And that’s a problem,” she said.
Other challenges for publicists revolve around acquiring new clients, something that can be done via word of mouth, professional referrals, and more formal pitching.

“There is no hard and fast rule,” on how to attract new clients, Ogilvy’s Metcalfe said. “Acquiring a new client can be via personal recommendation, introductions from our global network, or a competitive pitching process in response to a request for tender.”

“Networking is key. Maintaining relationships and engaging new ones will definitely open doors,” said Ink’s Wilson.

And the challenges don’t end once the clients are secured. “Each area of the TV business has its own particular pressures,” said Metcalfe. “Broadcasters for instance have strong regulatory demands on them, whilst distributors are more focused on the global marketplace and need international solutions. The key is to know your client, know the marketplace, know the relevant influencers and plan accordingly. In the end all clients have the same goal, to use public relations to achieve their business objectives.”

Added Daniel Colombo of Argentina’s Colombo PR, “All clients are demanding regarding the service hired. That is … why it is highly important to determine the strategy and implications altogether with the client in order to assign the more specific and suitable group of people to satisfy [their] needs. Particularly regarding the audiovisual industry inside a company, we report to a marketing manager and also to a production team, distribution, ad sales, etc., with strategies, timing, and different messages for each business unit,” he said.

When asked whether U.S. or international clients were more difficult, most of the publicists we interviewed said each client is very different.

“I’d say that when we started in 1990 international clients were a bit more difficult simply because the technology was not accessible,” said Morris of Morris Marketing. “Just think back to those giant telex machines! Nowadays, with technology and 24/7 communication, there is no difference between a U.S. and international client.”

But Gerry Buckland of Buckland Consultancy UK Limited said that, overall, “U.S. clients tend to know more what they want to achieve — and appreciate the value of PR more.” That was a sentiment echoed by Piong of Red Bug.

There are several ways for a client to measure the value of PR. Media placement is usually a large factor, but it’s just one. Xerri-Brook of Magena Media has very specific ways of measuring her company’s success on behalf of their clients.

“Clients always get clips as soon as coverage appears, and then normally get a round-up compilation and report at the end of a project. However I also compile Media Value Reports that assess the equivalent value of coverage that would equate to advertising space,” she said.

“Some clients need a daily measuring [of results],” said Colombo. “For that we developed technologies that allow us to summarize the evolution and the results (e.g. media appearance; social media evolution regarding a particular issue) and deliver the client the report in the agreed format. It allows them to get concrete results from our intangible work,” he said.

“The measurables applied to effective PR can vary from direct impact on a company’s bottom line to a change in sentiment expressed within a target group,” said Ogilvy’s Metcalfe. “It can also be just as important to assist a company in keeping things out of the headlines. Volume of coverage, introductions to influential companies and individuals as well as changing widely held perceptions are some of the varied targets we can operate to.”

And how to measure their fees? External PR companies (as opposed to in-house PR) can charge clients in different ways. The most common is with a monthly retainer, but per-project fees and even hourly fees are also common.

Oftentimes it can be less expensive for a company — especially a smaller, new company — to hire an outside PR firm. “For smaller companies, standalone PR can be a more cost efficient way. … It provides for experienced, executive level results without the expense of full time in-house staff. However, even for large companies with senior level in-house departments, outside PR provides an important extension of service for project related needs,” said Powers.

“If the company is a new start-up, using a PR agency can simply save time and money. …This frees up time for them to do other important tasks,” said Marylou Johnston and Melissa Chamberlain of MLJ Agency in Paris.

“An experienced PR agency can usually get a new business off the ground and noticed more quickly than if they hired a new in-house team because having an already established network of media contacts can usually guarantee some coverage,” they said. “An external PR agency can also provide an outside perspective that an in-house PR team can miss.”

When consulting with publicists, we couldn’t help but ask what the hardest part of working with journalists is (a self-serving question perhaps).

But aside from the occasional personality flaws — and tight deadlines — the publicists said they don’t have much to complain about.

“The media is not really difficult to deal with at all. The thousands of media outlets around the world are constantly looking for content. PR agencies around the world have the content,” said Morris. “The trick, if you will, is for the PR professional to package the right content for the correct media and present it at just the optimum moment in time.”