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August 4, 2004
There Are No Magic Bullets
 

My first jobs after college were in radio/television news departments, and that was the first time I ever heard of consultants. When things weren't working the wisdom was "let's bring in a consultant" to fix what's wrong.

The feeling was the consultant would come in with a ton of wisdom that would change things overnight. Some times things got better (never overnight), some times they didn't. The stations that succeeded did so because they participated in the solution, rather than sitting back and expecting that consultant magic.

Now I'm the consultant and I can tell you there are still too many people in the advertising business that think a consultant is the elusive magic bullet that will solve all their agency's public relations/external communications problems. Just a couple of press releases and a discreet phone call or two and they're media darlings.

If I had that ability, trust me, I'd be raking in the dough. I don't. No one does.

A colleague was once brought into an agency because the shop didn't feel it was getting enough coverage for its creative. Before even getting a look at the agency's reel she was hit with: "Who do you know at CA? Who do you know at Ad Age? Who do you know at the New York Times?" The presumption was that the creative was strong, and the problem was not having an 'in' with the major publications. Guess what? The problem was the work. It didn't deserve that level of recognition.

I spend a great deal of my time advising agencies on what is going to improve their chances to get some publicity, so I'm not going to spill those things here for free because I have kids bound for college. But I will be happy to unload some things that are to successful press relations what square bicycle wheels would be to Lance Armstrong:

  • Publications set the agenda about what constitutes news. Never call a reporter and make the following pitch: "I know you don't usually do stories about (fill in the blank) but we have a new (fill in the blank) that we"re pretty excited about." A reporter not under deadline pressure will decline with thanks. Other reporters will tell you to take this idea and stick it in your (fill in the blank).
  • Do not stockpile your account wins over a period of months and then release them with a combined billings figure. First, anything won months ago is not news. Second, when you bunch account together under a combined billings number you look bush league: "Wow! Look at us! We can't win a $10-million account, but we can win four accounts with combined billings of $10 million!"
  • Do not expect anyone to care, in a major way, that your agency has celebrated an anniversary. Anniversaries measure quantity, not quality. I know several well-run, but unremarkable agencies that have been around for decades. If the coolest thing you can say about your agency is that you're still in business after 25 years, you have nothing to say.
  • Never blow a reporter's deadline. They have tight publishing schedules that can't be changed because your president or creative director won't perform the simple act of returning a phone call. And reporters have long memories, which is not to say they carry a grudge. But when a reporter misses a deadline because of something you did (or didn't do) they look bad to the people who control their future employment. There are too many agencies that can be trusted for them to be handing out second chances.
  • A good agency pr person doesn't create stories. They exploit the newsworthy workings of their agency. If your new-business win rate sucks, if your creative is causing people to slip into comas and if the major award shows return your entry fees, then your lack of press coverage isn't a public relations problem.

There was once a cat food company that was going broke. They looked at everything inside the company from top to bottom—production, distribution, R&D, sales, packaging, etc. They determined everything they were doing was great and blamed the cats for their flat-lined sales. And up to the day they went broke, they were still screaming: "It's those damn cats! They won't eat the food."

If no one wants what's coming from your agency, don't blame the cat.


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Jim Osterman is a writer, speaker, and creative communicator. In addition to Web content and ad/marketing copy, he writes a column for "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution." For more information visit www.jimboknows.com

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