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May 24, 2007

The Top Ten Reasons Why PR Doesn't Work


Margie Zable Fisher runs theprsite.com. Every day someone tells her that he or she has been “burned” by a PR firm, and Margie’s goal is to help small business find the right PR firm. I asked her to provide the top ten reasons why PR doesn’t work:

  1. The client doesn’t understand the publicity process. PR folks need to better educate people about how publicity works. The first thing many clients ask is, “Can you get me on Oprah or the front page of the Wall Street Journal?” The answer might be “yes,” but the process to get to the “yes” may take months or years, and may first include a series of smaller placements.

  2. The scope of work is not detailed and agreed upon by both parties. Here’s a typical example: a client signs an agreement to spend $3,000 per month. Client expects to get three publicity placements per month. PR person expects to work 20 hours, regardless of the outcome. The inevitable disconnect leads to customer frustration and the feeling of being “burned.”

  3. The client has not been properly trained on how to communicate with the media. Proper training for interviews is crucial; otherwise, key messages can be misconstrued, and even negative stories can result. Clients seldom blame themselves when this happens.

  4. The client and the PR person or firm are not a good match. Example: Client hears about a local PR person, meets and likes the PR person, and figures it’s a good match. Or the client chooses the lowest price PR option. And the PR person, instead of referring the client to another practitioner who is a better fit, decides to take on the client—and the money.

  5. The client has not gotten results quickly enough and ends the relationship too soon. Client should plan on conducting a campaign for a minimum of six months. And even that is aggressive. A year should really be the bare minimum to commit to PR The media works on its own timetable, which is usually much longer than the client’s.

  6. PR people don’t explain the kind of publicity placements a client will most likely receive. Every client wants a big profile of the company on the cover of a major magazine or newspaper, but most stories are about a “trend,” several companies, or some recent news with quotes from experts. Profiles are few and far between. Yet, instead of explaining this, PR people often tell potential clients what they want to hear, in order to get the business.

  7. Clients don’t realize that what happens after you get the publicity coverage is sometimes more important than the actual placement. My smartest client didn’t care if he got a quote or a profile—he just wanted to be included in major media. When it was time to get an agent and publisher for his book, he handed them a list of all his media placements, and this clinched the deal. The agent and publisher figured that if all of the major media was willing to include him as a source, then he must have something important to say.

  8. Clients refuse to be flexible on their story angles. One of my clients once said to me, “We only want profiles.” When the media wasn’t interested, they refused to consider other story angles that the media was interested in. Now I make sure clients are willing to have us pitch three to four angles.

  9. Clients get upset when the media coverage is not 100% accurate or not the kind of coverage that they wanted. One of my former clients said, “That TV segment on me was only a minute long.” When I explained that length of time was impressive in TV Land, she refused to understand.

  10. Clients won’t change their schedules for the media. Clients need to drop everything if the media calls. This may be inconvenient, but the media waits for no one. If you want to be a “media darling,” then you need to make yourself available at any time. Those who do will reap the best benefits and placements.


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That is a valid point about negative publicity. Does reverse psychology really work? If a reviewer on Amazon.com happened to state that a certain author’s work was a load of badly written twaddle, would that deter the majority from buying the book and judging for themselves? I would like to think not.

Look at the negative publicity that happened surrounding Britney Spears shaving her head (which could be construed as having a negative effect on the public perception of her appearance and her sanity). It would be interesting to know what effect the bad publicity has had in her Britney products – the DVDs, the doll, and the perfumes? Is ALL publicity good?



>> key messages can be misconstrued, and even negative stories can result.

I love the way PR people / clients always interpret a negative story as the journalist "misconstruing the key message". Journalists are not there simply to parrot the client's "key message". They probably completely understood the line the client was trying to feed them but perhaps it was irrelevant to the story they were researching at the time. Many negative stories are perfectly valid. There are two great quotes about journalism - one is that our job is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" and the other is that "news is something that somebody doesn't want you to know".

On another note, Stuart Bruce makes a good point that this post focus exclusively on 'media relations', which is a small subset of 'public relations'.

This is a great example of PR working (with an excellent headline).

The #1 top reason for PR *succeeding* is that a story can have just the right angle at just the right time for a particular outlet (and I include blogs, social media etc in this). If a business doesn't have a cut through angle and they really want publicity, then its time to 'get better reality' (thanks for that excellent quote Guy).

Since we are mainly talking PR for business here, my 11th rule (for when PR doesn't work) is that in terms of newsworthiness, negatives outweigh positives. Positive stories have to work a lot harder just to get on an equal footing with their negative cousins.

You have the gift of the GIST.

I say good PR is an ability to communicate effectively, in other words, grist and grit for the mill or the mall.



Is it just me or is everyone clueless? Why send in a babe to suck up to TechCrunch when you can post a truemor on Guy's new site to "sneak" your new product?

I've watched Guy delete crap mercilessly, but if you position it as a truemor/news, it usually sticks. Get with it PR folks! You can control the message, the timing, and it's free.

this should be required reading for ALL companies who hire firms.

Awesome, Guy!

In the grand tradition of shoeless cobblers' kids, and do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do, Fisher's personal PR is horrible.

Her website features a ridiculous unprofessional Hollywood-cum-Barbara-Walters soft-focus photo, a tired and uninspiring design, a blog with a totally different look and feel ...


I wouldn't hire her to promote my company's image. She can't competently create her own.

. . .
. . .

(I'm feeling a little negative because of the pervasive blame-the-client theme running through the answers.)

Been in the PR business since 1984 and I don't think I've ever seen a more accurate description of the problems facing both PR firms and their clients, especially when it comes to expectations about press coverage. My firm, Bruni PR, works with Net startups here in NYC and we face these problems and misunderstandings on an almost daily basis.

I tend to get pretty good results with PR. If implemented properly, it can deliver some of the highest return on dollars spent for a small budget and, for a larger budget, can ad more power to the other marketing dollars spent.

I was lucky enough to have engaged a great PR firm (www.bohle.com) a few years back. They not only did excellent PR, but the also taught me how to act as a client.

When I market, I target my end customer. The PR firm taught me to not only target the end customer, but also to target the media folks. Don't try and make the media speak to my customer. Speak to the media and help them understand how what I do will excite their readership. It's a different perspective.

Duane Benson

It seems like most (or all) of these problems could be solved simply by better communication between the firm and the potential client. The firm needs to spell out to the client exactly what they will provide, and what the client should expect and when. The client needs to spell out what they expect. Problems solved.



This is a good discussion you've started. Thank you. I also am happy that I now have been introduced to Margie Fisher (and Margie's now introduced to the power of TechMeme).

@ Dave - just commented on your take http://500hats.typepad.com/500blogs/2007/05/top_5_or_6_reas.html#comment-70718328 (PR people, his take is worth reading)

Like traditional advertising, PR is undergoing technology-driven changes that many traditional PR practioners don't understand. PR is essentially the relationship that exists between the media and the PR practioner who knows how and when to pitch them. But the media are increasingly not getting their information through the traditional channels (phone, mail, fax, etc.). Today's PR practioners have to master e-mail campaigns, blogging, RSS feeds and a host of other communications tools technology savvy and highly mobile media types are using. Another big change is the need to know how to construct a press release in a way that "optimizes" it for automated systems that scan the news media for keywords. By crafting a release that contains keywords you know are being searched for my certain news and industry websites, the release can quickly be picked up and spread far beyond the initial push.

As a PR pro at a small firm, I agree with a lot of the comments posted here. It is sad that many people people do not understand social media or even how to use an RSS reader, let alone the pr impacts of applications like Twitter. Todd at Prsquared had a great post yesterday that had questions to ask your PR firm in to determine their social media knowledge.

Here is the link: http://www.pr-squared.com/2007/05/quizzing_a_prospective_partner.html

Many of these reasons could also apply to buying a coffee at Starbucks, or going on a date.

I think she's right about the relationship between client and advisor is key to success. If there's no understanding and trust, your chances of success go way down.

Stuart's comment above about this list limiting the scope to media relations is quite true. Good PR permeates the way on organization behaves - with customers, the public, employees, investors, etc. A PR campaign may succeed or fail due to one of those reasons, but a company's public relations fail when it doesn't know what it wants to say, to who, when, and in what context, and has no way of monitoring and managing its efforts.

I just had some scary flashbacks from my days working for a tech PR firm (and will probably have nightmares tonight) because I felt like I was caught in the middle between the worst of both worlds. I've experienced every one of the clueless client nightmares, and I've had the annoying boss who refused to provide a reality check and instead promised the client all kinds of things that they didn't really need and that we couldn't really deliver, and then I was stuck being the one who sounded "negative" when I told them that we probably couldn't get them in Time or Newsweek, and that if they were making a product that would go in the CO on the network backbone and that most consumers or even businesses wouldn't even know existed, they'd get better results (if less status) getting in the telecom trades rather than in the consumer or business press. But after they got their egos pumped by my boss, they had stars in their eyes. As a result, we spun our wheels, getting no results in a place that wouldn't matter anyway and neglecting the areas that would help. I know those companies didn't get their money's worth from the PR firm.

If you're a tech company that wants good PR, you need to be willing to listen to the most realistic and knowledgable person on your PR team (and that probably isn't the head of the company). You need to provide information about your product and technology to the PR team. This may mean taking the time to brief them and demonstrate the technology. Sending over the specs or a brochure isn't enough. A human being may be required. That human being should not be a sales person and probably shouldn't even be the marketing person. Someone who actually knows how the product works and can describe why it's new, different or better is necessary.

Before you even go after public relations, you need to know what your product does, what niche it fills in the market, who will buy it and what benefits they will see. When I was working with telecom companies coming up with Internet applications, they would talk a lot about end-user benefits, but could often not explain how that product would make money for the telecom or Internet companies that would have to buy the product and install it in their networks. Yeah, it was really cool, but how would it make anyone any money?

It would be nice if the product actually existed somewhere other than in a PowerPoint presentation and could be produced and sold if someone found out about it and wanted it. That may sound obvious, but in my career I launched several products that turned out not to exist at all, that never did exist. The company was launching the idea of a product, getting publicity for it, and then using the response to the publicity to see if there was any market demand for the product before they actually bothered developing it. They neglected to mention this fact in dealing with the PR firm. On the rare occasion when they did actually end up developing the product, they expected to get the same amount of publicity for that launch, even though announcing "we really have a product now!" meant admitting they'd lied about having the product earlier.

This would be why I'm now making my living writing fiction, and probably dealing with more truth than I did when I was doing tech PR in the late 90s/turn of the century.

From my experience, PR firms are nice for (1) companies with the money to spend to reach much of the mass media or (2) companies that really need some good consulting on how to conduct a public relations / media relations campaign. However, for small companies and start-ups on a tight budget, give me one good person on my staff and the two of us can produce great results using much of what we have learned about Guerrilla Marketing for a lot less money than a good PR firm.

However, I agree with the previous posts that a really good PR firm should also be a good educator / consultant for the client.

Results on Tv is the name of this great little firm that puts interesting ideas, products and services on national talk shows, morning shows and news programs, the cool thing about them is they only charge if you air! zero risk not a bad deal when they got us on dr. phil and we got 2 million hits on our website in the next 48 hours!!!! best bang for the buck i've ever come across---i was going to keep them a secret but it's just nice to finally come across a company that over-delivers so there it is: www.resultsontv.com

While I don't disagree with much on the list, it isn't actually about PUBLIC RELATIONS. Just about everything on the list is about media relations, will is only part of what a real PR firm does.

It doesn't help companies to perpetuate the myth that PR is just media relations or even publicity. Number shouldn't be "The client doesn't understand th publicity process", but instead "The consultancy has failed to successfully educate its client about public relations."

While I enjoy flogging ignorant clients and crappy PR firms as much as anybody, I'd like to make one small point.

The headline of this discussion is "The Top Ten Reasons Why PR Doesn't Work."

Am I the only one who assumed this was going to be an indictment of PR as a viable strategy?

The fact is, PR does work extremely well. It isn't easy and it requires hard work, sound strategy and flawless execution. Most of all, it requires a true partnership between client and firm built on mutual trust and full disclosure.

My experience with PR firms has been that a compelling product or service is something that only the company can produce. Only compelling products or services are going to get attention in the market (yes, I know there are exceptions but this is generally the rule).

Dave makes some pretty interesting points. The main ones being that PR firms do not understand "internet marketing" nor do they understand the technology/product of some start-ups.

First, I would never hire a PR firm to do SEO or Internet Marketing and vice versa. A PR firm's role (to me) is to work through the traditional media channels such as TV and print (a necessary evil regardless of your personal opinions about blogs vs. WSJ).

Second, the greatest piece of advice I was given about start-ups (other than from Guy) was from a former friend and marketing executive for McDonald's... "If you can't explain what your product/service does in less than three sentences, you will have a hard time marketing it- regardless of the channel."

This is sage advice that has served me well. No one cares about your paradigm shifting, Web 2.0 technology (sound familiar Guy?). They care if it is provides value to the world.

Of course, that's just my opinion. If you want more of it; contact my PR team. :)

Ahhh yes another list that drives folks to bash PR firms, how refreshing. Josh is correct however, this should not be about how the client is NOT providing the correct scope, and that is how it is read (by me at least). Shame on any PR person (firm or individual) that allows the relationship to get to that point.

As someone who has been on both 'sides of the fence' for a long time; you don't need a top ten list on why PR relationships fail. All you need are two things for success:

1) Set and re-set concrete expectations of each other from the very beginning and every day thereafter;
2) Pure, unfiltered honesty every single day;

The most fruitful relationships I have had with PR firms and as a member of a PR firm are when we treat each other like we would a trusted colleague. It's a cliche for a reason...


I agree with all your points Guy, but it misses the bigger picture. Too many PRs fall into the trap of being glorified administrators. Again and again I meet PRs that neither challenge nor advise their clients.

What they want to do is organise and slog through whatever work the client gives them (I am not denying they work very hard). What they should do is learn their profession properly and consult. So many agencies call themselves consultancies, but never explain to the client the hows and whys. I have refused to issue a press release that I know will long-term damage the client, I have sat with a client and explained why not getting to the point will bore the press to death and I have refused work from companies that just want us to be press release monkeys. And every time I have given them the best advice I can from my 20 years in business.

And Dave – absolutely agreed. We are hiring at the moment and struggle like mad to even find PRs who have read a blog, let alone pitched one!


hey guy -

while i'm sure there's some validity to the perspective on this top 10 list, you might want to do a followup top 10 on the same subject from the entrepreneur perspective.

having been on both sides of the table, i'd suggest the problem is just as likely to be on the PR side as on the client side.

in the meantime, here are my top 5 reasons PR doesn't (always) work:

1) The PR firm doesn't understand the product or technology.

especially with tech startups, it's easy for the PR firm to not grasp the basics of the product or service, and subsequently they don't get the best angle on how to present the company's product. or they sound fuzzy or not confident, which can often lead to...

2) The PR firm is seen as a spinner, blocker, or gatekeeper to get access to the CEO/CTO/company braintrust.

while there are a few PR firms which are great about lining up reporters / bloggers / analysts and connecting them with company execs at just the right time, more often than not most media folks would rather bypass the PR firm and talk to someone knowledgeable at the company.

3) the PR firm hasn't been properly trained on how to communicate with bloggers or social media.

again, there are a few great PR firms (but mostly just individuals) who get blogs & social networks, but most don't. most don't blog themselves, and aren't really even casual users of many popular social media tools & services. this is a HUGE issue... sort of like doctors who smoke, or heart surgeons who aren't aware of the benefits of exercise & a low-fat diet. practitioners should know their trade. PR firms should understand blogging, and bloggers. most don't.

4) the PR firm prefers doing big traditional media & offline events over smaller online media & online PR channels.

while there's no doubt that circulation for the NYT, the WSJ, and WaPO are much bigger than the readership for TechCrunch, GigaOm, and VentureBeat, i think most PR firms miss the fact that online PR *IS MORE VALUABLE* than offline PR, perhaps by as much as a factor of 10 or more, possibly 50 or more. Here's a simple thought experiment: if you're an online service, what are the chances someone reads a blog or website article, and clicks thru on a link? maybe 2-5%, perhaps higher if you're lucky. what are the chances of someone reading a newspaper or magazine a clicking thru? PROBABLY ZERO. ok, maybe not zero, but they have to leave their current medium (paper), go to a computer, type in the URL (which they might misspell or misremember), and then MAYBE you see a customer. now obviously you want different demographics & reach, but there is a HUGE benefit to having online PR over offline PR simply because the likely conversion to your website is 1-2 orders greater magnitude.

5) the PR firm doesn't understand SEO, SEM, widgets, blogs, tags, social networks, pictures, video, or other online & viral methods.

hell, you're lucky if most PR folks actually understand how to write a clear & simple email, with a catchy subject line. but there's hardly any chance AT ALL most have experience with all the new online marketing & communication channels noted above, or how to take advantage of them to reach new audience quickly, inexpensively, & effectively.

ok, so i'll stop at 5... i could go on, but hopefully the perspective is balanced with your top 10. i agree there are issues on both sides of the table, but there's certainly more that most PR firms can do to keep up with the times & the technology.

however, on the off chance you DO find a good PR firm or individual who gets the stuff above, by all means HIRE THEM. (and if you can, hire them in-house ;)

they are certainly a few smart PR folks out there... but rather than naming them, if they're monitoring TechMeme or their RSS feeds & readers, i bet we'll seem them chime in here on the comments sometime in the next 24 hours.

speaking of which, there's another one...

6) Most PR folks have no clue what the hell TechMeme is.

anyway, i digress...

Great Top Ten Reasons why PR does not work, but... from PR firm's point of view, really. Anyway, I agree with the list.

From the other hand, it will be very interesting to hear the Top 10 reasons from client's perspective. I am pretty sure it'll be a completely different list.

Here's one from me - PR companies often promise too much.

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