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April 19, 2010
Defending Your PR Expertise in the Digital Age

An interesting discussion got kicked off last week on LinkedIn following a posting by an entrepreneur who issued a challenge to PR pros. Only it wasn't your typical challenge, and it highlighted one of the reasons that PR doesn't get the respect it deserves.

This “dare” involved an effort to try and find someone willing to operate on a pay-for-placement basis in an effort to secure press for a personal grooming device that he didn't elaborate on extensively. Predictably, the suggestion unleashed a firestorm of comments for about a week from PR pros who were irked that he was basically saying most PR firms just take their clients' money and can't really get clients in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. His offer was to arrive at a fee scale based on a paper's circulation.

What he didn't realize is several firms already claim to operate on this model. Rather than just point out that fact as I did and let him choose to go with one if he wished, many practitioners got upset at the suggestion and pointed out it was unethical, etc. Unfortunately, while passions get stoked by such dares, the profession doesn't do much as a whole to defend itself against those challenges and unjust comparisons to other professions.

As PR pros, if we're going to counter such arguments, we need to use other arguments besides ethics because, honestly, a client that's going to try and secure that kind of arrangement doesn't care about ethics. Many PR pros will take the challenge, either because they're trying to break into the field and want to just try it for the clips or because in this economy, they need any possible revenue they can find. Neither side is going to care about the fact that it's against the PRSA Code of Ethics because in all likelihood no one involved in that potential transaction is a PRSA member, thus making that point moot.

The entrepreneur also mentioned that some law firms operate on this model -- a typical point that's made in these discussions. However, what people bringing up this angle never highlight is the fact that contingency work, which is what this type of arrangement is called, is only used by personal-injury attorneys and others having a specialty representing plaintiffs. Because such firms receive a relatively high percentage of any money collected, if they can get enough cases in the pipeline, odds are enough of them will work to sustain a business.

One of the things that few PR pros ever mention is that the biggest component to whether a product or service makes it in the market is whether or not it's actually unique and/or serves a need that enough people have. While there's a conspiracy theory among many entrepreneurs that anytime a PR program doesn't secure a ton of ink, it's the firm or consultant's fault, in reality it's most often because the product or service just isn't that appealing. This is further illustrated by the fact that few products actually succeed on the market.

To me, more PR pros should go as far to do as much as they can to get these kinds of inquiries off their plate because nobody can build a business with these kinds of companies. Part of having a solid bottom-line result is making your business run as efficiently as possible with the maximum margins possible. In plain English, this means you want to minimize the amount of time you spend on non-billable activities, such as selling, and put more time into activities that actually earn revenue.

Secondly, as Michigan PR pro Alan Stamm so eloquently put in an article he authored on Ragan.com last week, PR pros need to avoid a “vending machine” approach to PR and focus on the fact that media relations is just one PR tactic. Social media engagement, analyst relations, and other tactics are often a big piece of an ongoing program -- something that most people never mention.

As PR practitioner Amanda Cooper of Victoria, British Columbia, suggested in the LinkedIn conversation: "Some people think that any publicity is good publicity. I say, 'be careful what you wish for.' I am curious as to what would happen if a P.R. professional took you up on your offer and an uncomplimentary write-up happened. Does the P.R. pro still get paid?”

Finally, anyone who's been in the business for any length of time will tell you the most vital part of ensuring a successful client relationship is establishing clear expectations up front. In the minds of many, even if it's something that makes sense on some level, one of the biggest problems with “pay for performance” is arriving at a metric everyone can agree on. Beyond only paying for certain circulation achievements, how much “ink” qualifies as a hit?

Unfortunately, if the reputation of PR as a valuable service is going to change, it's professionals who have to lead the charge. We owe it not only to ourselves but our clients to do a better job of communicating our value proposition and explain that just as no single product can literally be a fit for anybody, no single PR strategy is going to work for every single company.

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Cyrus Afzali is president of Astoria Communications, a New York City-based PR consultancy serving clients in financial/professional services, technology and real estate. Before opening his PR consultancy in 2004, Afzali worked at several New York agencies managing accounts for real estate, technology and legal clients. He started his career as a journalist, working as an editor and writer for nine years at outlets ranging from small, daily newspapers to CNN Financial News.

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