Hiring a PR agency: what to expect…

Speaking with a brilliant PR friend the other day, the conversation turned – as it often does – to  clients.

Everyone who has ever worked in PR has at least one anecdote about client demands. Crazy changes that killed a story. Secret, apologetic phone calls to journalists. Extended email arguments over grammar.

The problem, we agreed, was managing public relations clients’ expectations. Explaining right at the outset what PR is, how it works and what it’s for. Because if an agency says this stuff to its own clients, it looks like it’s making excuses…

Well, here’s the thing.

I’m not working in PR any more.

(Sure, I work with agencies who do PR, and I’m happy to write press releases and articles, but fundamentally Lungfish is not a public relations agency. Schmoozing journalists, justifying monthly retainers and monitoring column inches isn’t really my bag).

So it looks like I’m in a good position to tell it like it is.

Strap yourself in, public relations client. It’s time for a few home truths…

Employing a PR agency or freelancer? Here’s a few things you should know:

1. The publication does not HAVE to publish your story.

Some clients feel they have some kind of divine right to appear in print. One told me journalists should be grateful to receive their quality content, while another said a publication was “failing in its public duty” if if didn’t cover them.

Let’s clarify this immediately. A journalist’s duty is to their audience. NOT you.

Their job is to publish stories they believe their audience will find interesting. Informative. Entertaining. Useful. And PR (in this context) is where your company helps them to do that.

Ideally, the two desires – yours to look good in the media, and theirs to do the best job for their readers, viewers or listeners – coincide. You send them stuff that’s interesting, informative, entertaining and useful, and everyone’s a winner.

BUT they have the final say on what is and isn’t good enough. And that’s as it should be.

Think about it: would you read a title that runs any old story they were sent by whatever company, no matter how dull?

Nor would anyone else.

2. A press release is NOT an advert. A press release is NOT an advert. A press release is NOT an advert.

Have you read a newspaper lately? Listened to the news on the radio?

Did ANY of the stories start with “Such-and-such-company are delighted to announce…”?

No. So why do you want your press release to start that way?

Journalists write news stories. We want to help them. So your press release should read like a news story. It should be written in the third person, and sound independent and objective.

If you want to say something is “fantastic” or “groundbreaking” or “innovative”, save it for the bit of the release where you have a personal quote. There, opinion is fine. The rest of the time, stick to the facts.

Also, the journalist can rewrite the story, pretty much any way they like. And no, you don’t usually get to see a proof of what they’re going to write.

If you want something glowingly positive, or to control exactly what’s said about you, BUY AN ADVERT.

3. Grammar in press releases is NOT like you were taught at school.

If we’re making it easy for journalists to use our copy, we need to write using their conventions. Chances are, these are NOT the same as the ones you know.

In particular, I’ve lost count of the disagreements I’ve had with clients about punctuating quotations. Usually, these end with me asking them to pick up their nearest newspaper or magazine, and them saying “Oh”.

I have no problem with a client pointing out my mistakes – it makes the end product better.

But if you do, and your PR writer replies “No, that’s on purpose; it’s how it works in the media”, you should really accept their expertise.

4. If your quote sounds informal or easy to understand, it’s written that way ON PURPOSE.

I’ve been copywriting for ten years, and I have a degree in English from Oxford.

If I use the phrase “very good” in your press release, it’s probably not because I don’t know the word “exemplary”.

Everyone likes to sound clever, and the idea that longer words score bigger marks is ingrained from school. But believe me: there’s a real art to making things sound straightforward.

You chose your PR professional for a reason. Trust them.

5. Having a digital camera – even a really good one – does NOT make you a photographer.

I don’t care how many megapixels you have. Truly.

In ten years doing this stuff, a client’s amateur photograph has been good enough to use exactly twice.

Often, a great picture can make or break a story. If your PR person says you need a professional photographer, they’re probably right.

6. Phoning every journalist about every story is just going to ANNOY them.

You’re paying a PR agency because it has great relationships with the media. It’s probably best to let them get on with managing those relationships.

Journalists are busy people. Sometimes a story is worth a call, sometimes it isn’t.

Crucially, the decision about the call should be based upon how important the story might be to them, not how important it is to you.

7. A publication is not a charity. Ultimately, SOMEBODY has to pay.

For 99% of clients, PR is not an alternative to paid advertising. It’s an accompaniment.

Editorial independence will depend on the media you’re dealing with. Sometimes your coverage depends entirely on your ad spend, sometimes not at all. Usually somewhere in between.

But it’s a broader issue. If you want to communicate through a publication, radio station or whatever, who do you expect to pay for it? Expecting endless free coverage without giving anything back is not sustainable. It’s also a bit rude.

The media aren’t there for your benefit… which brings us back to point 1.

PR can be brilliant, important, and great value. But it’s not a magic bullet. It has limitations, and it needs to be done right.

Often (but not always), bad PR comes from a client insisting on something. I know very few PR people who have never had to call a journalist, off the record, to say “I’m really sorry, they made me do it…”

If you’ve employed someone to do your PR, trust them. Measure their results against pre-agreed, realistic targets, but don’t mess too much with the process.

I’m sure there are many, many more points I could make… and indeed many PR clients who have very reasonable counter-arguments to share… but I’ve gone on too long already.

However, if you work in – or buy – PR services, do feel free to share your experiences below, and maybe we’ll all reach some kind of happy understanding.

Let the healing begin…


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