Ethics in PR

Anyone have any experience with PR agencies? I’ve worked for PR agencies before, and now I’m in a leadership position for a marketing firm’s PR “department” … for lack of a better word. The reason I ask, is because I recently started working with a client who fired their PR firm. The reasons for their decision to fire aren’t germane to this discussion, but as I review the materials generated by this firm for my new client, I’m struck by the lengths to which many agencies seem to be willing to go in order to generate billable activity. Having worked for two similar agencies in the past, I’m well aware of the process, but I never had the clarity on it that I have now. My current situation is very different. I’m essentially a one-man operation as a PR practitioner within this operation, although I have some support from my boss (the company president who’s a very original thinker and visionary) and a summer intern (a bright kid with a great attitude and willingness to learn). In any case, back to the Fired Firm. Their documents are very formulaic, chock full of superlatives, PR-speak and jargon (“gold-plated list of customers” is an actual phrase from a company information document they wrote) and generally very generic. It is almost as though they fed the company name and a few key facts into a PR Document Package Generator that spit out templated documents with a company logo. Or worse, it looks like much of the content could have been plagiarized from somewhere. I saw no real evidence of original thinking, original wording, or a sense that the PR firm had even listened to the client and determined their actual needs. It seems to me that the client’s valuable financial resources have not been put to the most effective use up until this point.
This reminds me of an anecdote a former agency co-worker told me once. He tells a story of a colleague who was budgeting for a client’s project, and she had estimated 8 hours of billable time to write a press release. “EIGHT HOURS?!” he remarked. “What a ripoff! Let me tell you what I can do in eight hours: write a press release, play a round of golf, take a nap, answer some email, and be back in the office for a quick round of edits to the release I drafted that morning. It doesn’t take me eight hours to write the thing.” His colleague was estimating eight hours, at a billable rate of $180/hour to write a press release. That’s almost $1500, people. That’s a might expensive first draft, by anyone’s account.
So ask yourself, if you’re ever in the position of working with a PR agency: Are they listening to me? Are they giving me a standard list of “PR Activities” for a prescribed “PR Program?” Are they providing value, and getting results? Or are they just looking busy?

From where I sit, it looks an awful lot like the Fired Firm was mostly looking busy.

Unfortunately, many in my profession have seen PR and communications as a career where they can make a lot of money. It hasn’t attracted the country’s best. PR and advertising are perhaps the only two remaining professional services that require no advanced education or certification in order to find work. Lawyers and accountants require advanced schooling. Financial advisors and brokers and even real estate professionals require continuing ed. No such training exists for the communications/marketing pro.

I’m no advocate for mandatory certification in our industry, indeed, my career would have been very short if a certain degree were required. I have a Drama degree, and I’ve often been heard saying that nine times of ten, I’d rather hire a liberal arts major than a communications or business major for an entry-level job in this field. But it does give me pause to think that perhaps a greater level of service could be attained if more young PR and marketing pros went through some ethics training, at the very least, instead of billing their clients $1500 to write a press release.

As the chief used to say on “Hill Street Blues:” Hey, be careful out there.
Ciao for now …

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