How to Spot an Old School PR Agency

Posted in Agencies, PR

aimClear has long embraced an online marketing model in which public relations is a core component. Among our staff of 22, 6 have deep experience in public relations. If the value PR brings to online marketing is not painfully obvious by now, you haven’t been paying attention. The opposite is also true. Online marketing tactics add so many facets to public relations programs that, frankly, agencies that aren’t implementing them are dating themselves and limiting the effectiveness of the campaigns they undertake.

Reading the PR trades, you get a distinct sense that there are two breeds of PR agencies/executives these days: Those who hold the traditional tactics sacred and believe any encroachment smears the honorable profession, and those who embrace a classic approach coupled with online marketing tactics to cover earned, owned, paid and shared media. If all you want out of your PR firm is gray-tinted hands from stacks of print coverage, go ahead and hire the former. We’re guessing that most companies are more interested in an integrated approach. Fortunately, it’s easy to spot the old school agencies. Just keep an ear open for the following phrases:

“It can’t be done.”
A big part of any PR executive’s responsibilities is setting expectations, but there’s a difference between being realistic and not trying. In online marketing disciplines such as PPC and SEO, the mantra is test, test, test. For many in traditional PR, if they’re asked to do something out of the ordinary or that isn’t standard operating procedure, they get uneasy. Why? Is it because failure is that much more public? Probably not. It’s likely because they’ve been doing the same thing for so long, they’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Whereas that can be a good thing, complacency never is. It also implies a template approach to public relations that leaves no room for innovation.

“We’ve been doing that for years.”
FleishmanHillard, an esteemed big business PR agency, recently announced that they’ve shifted their focus from traditional PR to earned, owned, shared and paid media, in addition to removing the hyphen from their name (can you imagine writing that release? “Fleishman-Hillard is now FleishmanHillard”). All joking aside, this was a big story in the industry, with a feature article in The New York Times, among others, as well as a piece in PR Daily, a widely read e-newsletter for the PR industry. The writer of the PR Daily article talked to several agency owners about Fleishman’s new strategy, all of whom replied that it’s nothing new. They’ve embraced it for years. And yet, these are the same people you’d probably hear saying:

“Public relations is earned, never paid.”
Where did this notion come from? Definitions of public relations abound, and one of the most common is “helping an organization communicate with its publics”—no distinction between earned and paid. Even in PRSA’s latest definition of public relations, there’s no mention of PR being executed solely via unpaid tactics. Perhaps the naysayers simply mean we shouldn’t be paying for media coverage. But what if forking over a couple bucks here and there means we get our message in front of the media in a novel way?

Inbound PR has proven to be one of the best non-intrusive methods to get ideas in front of busy editorial staff and bloggers. We know that a majority of journalists use the Internet to develop story ideas and find sources, so why not be present where they’re already searching?

Just because there’s an exchange of money, doesn’t mean something should automatically be classified as advertising, and thus, not under the purview of PR. If PR is helping an organization communicate with its key audiences, what’s wrong with paying to promote that Facebook post that would otherwise be seen by fewer than 20% of your fans? Why not amplify an article that ran in a 1,000-subscriber newsletter to a precisely targeted audience of 80,000? The best way to be in the news is to do something newsworthy. So do it, then tell the world what you did on your blog, and promote that content to media roles. Implementing paid organic amplification tactics not only helps you reach wider audiences—whether that’s media, customers, employees, community members, investors, donors, etc.—they can also make your PR efforts more measurable.

“SEO is pointless.”
Reading the comments on articles about SEO aimed at those in the PR industry can be a jaw-dropping experience (sometimes the article itself is just as dumbfounding). Invariably, the comments complain that SEO is all about stuffing keywords into press releases and the like. There’s usually at least one commenter that gets on his/her high horse to report that content produced for the media should be written with the media in mind, never SEO.

It’s a shame that SEO has gotten a bad rap with public relations professionals. But you almost can’t blame them. After all, most articles written about PR for SEOs focus on the almighty press release, which, of course, is laughable to anyone with some degree of PR experience. Can SEO, AP Style and the inverted pyramid coexist? Absolutely. And the PR executive who takes the time to study the basics of search engine optimization will understand and quickly outpace his/her peers in developing content designed for the target audience as well as search engines.

All of the above have one thing in common: a closed-minded mentality. If the old school PR exec is resistant to new ideas, the modern PR pro is open minded, willing to try something new and take risks. They’re confident in their abilities, but they don’t have a superiority complex. They welcome change and collaboration with marketing professionals of all disciplines without being territorial.

Does your PR agency recognize the value of integrating classic public relations with disciplines such as SEO, PPC and social? Or are they still using a fax machine?

  • Mark Bietz

    Great post Lindsay. It seems as though most PR agencies are still chasing to get digital into their core competencies while in reality, that should have been done years ago.

  • Amy Rosenberg

    PR is such an all-encompassing,sometimes meaningless word. As a long-time PR practitioner, there are many times the client demands the traditional PR role…when I do this work I call it “PR” with an eye-roll. But when I get to think of the box for many of my clients, I call that real “work.”

  • Lindsay Schleisman

    Thanks, Mark. Totally agree. It’s a big culture shift for many firms, which is probably why so many have avoided it for so long.

    Amy, love your comment. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of saying “we need PR,” companies would come to us and say, “we need your help solving this problem or meeting this goal.” Who cares what it’s called, let’s develop and execute a plan that accomplishes exactly what the client wants without worrying which traditional marketing silo it falls within.

  • Valerie

    Nice, Lindsay… for SEO professionals I think the biggest challenge is educating not only the clients using PR, but the PR agencies themselves are mostly clueless when it comes to using inbound PR and earned placements as an SEO strategy.

  • Lindsay Schleisman

    Valerie, right on. I’d be willing to bet that many PR firms can’t explain the value of an editorial link, let alone dig into analytics to evaluate the results of their efforts.

  • Old School Irony

    And there was me thinking it was old school to promote your awesome business all the way through the first paragraph…

  • Lindsay Schleisman

    Old School Irony, would have been old school to use it as the call to action at the end. But alas, the intent was not to promote, but to provoke discussion. Glad it provoked you!

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