Online journalist and new media consultant David Spark outlined his terrible experience with a large PR firm yesterday on his blog. It’s the same old story and one that many bloggers and journalists experience when working with PR consultants from big agencies. In this case, David was spammed by the agency and approached to be a “friend” of their client on Facebook when neither the agency nor the client knew who David was – or had bothered to read his blog or his web site.
David showed a lot of class by refusing to name the offending agency or the client – something that many bloggers would never do. It’s a credit to David’s character.
It’s these types of situations that bloggers and journalists point to as evidence that PR people just don’t get new media. But that’s not true. At all. Take a look at any PR agency on the web and you’ll find at least one blog, RSS feeds, and invitations to join them on Twitter or Facebook. All of them use hyperlinks and try to optimize news releases for search. At this point, the vast majority of PR agencies not only get social media — but are actively participating it.
So what’s going on? Why do PR agencies continue to fumble media relations and social media?
Here’s the answer: it’s economics.
Bear with me as I explain. PR agencies (especially agencies that do technology PR) really came into their own in the 1980s. But they were mostly smaller, regional shops. But during the go-go 1990s, PR exploded and suddenly every company desperately wanted a PR firm (in fact, many venture capitalists demanded that start-ups invest in PR. It’s actually a wise decision – PR gives companies fantastic ROI.).
Monthly retainers soared. At one point in 2000, when I worked for Weber Shandwick, the minimum retainer was $40,000 a month. Agencies grew like wild-fire and they merged and acquired and grew into big brands. But they were structured and designed around large monthly retainers. Consultants who worked for the firms worked on an average of three accounts.
But then the dot-bomb crash ruined everything. Retainers plunged and firms were forced to lay-off staff and reduced head count. In the mid-2000s, firms started to recover, but retainers never recovered. A $40,000 a month account was now a large client – not the minimum. Then, of course, we entered the latest economic downturn (bloodbath?) and retainers have sunk to even lower depths. The average PR retainers are about $10,000 – some even lower.
I’m speaking in generalities here — obviously there are still large companies spending millions on PR annually. But even the big companies have reduced budgets drastically. But the consequences have been the same: PR agencies are forced to reduce the size of their account teams and assign their consultants to more clients in order to be profitable. So consultants that used to work on three clients with an adequate staff are now working on more than five accounts with teams that are too small.
The result is overworked PR consultants at a time when social media is exploding. That’s why we get PR consultants making bad decisions: like using mass email pitches to reach bloggers and journalists. It’s why they continue to improperly research targets. They don’t have the time. They take shortcuts because they have to. Client expectations have never been higher. PR consultants need to prove they can get results every day and you’re only as good as your last success.
Unfortunately, in the new world order of social media – your mistakes come back to haunt you. Sharp journalists like David Spark catch you and call you out.
It’s difficult to know how this will all shake out. But I predict a movement back to smaller PR agencies – where senior consultants can give more hands on attention and counsel to clients (please note that I’m a solo PR practitioner). The economics make it difficult for large PR firms to work with small and mid-sized companies.
I’d love to get some feedback on this topic. If you are a client what’s been your experience with your PR agency lately? If you’re a journalist or blogger have you noticed this trend? And I’d love to hear from any PR people about their work environment lately (comment anonymously if you’d like).