Do You Still Need a PR Agency?

So it’s been a couple of weeks since TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington wrote a post questioning the value of PR agencies. In the post, Michael suggested that media relations is a little more than “smile, dial and pray” these days. Of course he was referring to media relations, in response to a New York Times article about how PR is done in Silicon Valley these days. I think I was most impressed by the fact that PR superstar Brooke Hammerling was featured in both articles about what she does best, leveraging relationships to help clients make big time news. I wonder if she pitched that story?If you read between the lines though, I think there’s a valid question of whether or not organizations still need PR agencies for media relations. In the age of blogs, social networking and other social media, it’s easier then ever for an expert to position herself in front of reporters and bloggers. As more and more experts take the plunge into blogging or twittering, some are discovering what good PR pros have known all along: it’s all about the relationships.

If you’re not the type of person that likes to network and schmooze with reporters and bloggers, then yes, you probably still need a PR agency to help you score interviews. If on the other hand you prefer to spin your own proverbial Rolodex, you can probably do just as well (or better) generating your own publicity opportunities.

For years, clients have hired PR agencies with the strongest relationships to help them meet and greet the press, in hopes of generating gobs and gobs of media attention. Today, anyone can build long-lasting relationships with influential reporters and bloggers. And as the articles suggest, mentions from an influential Twitter user with a lot of followers can be just as effective as a placement in The New York Times. The PR game continues to change.

I can’t help but wonder if the days of using a PR agency to generate your publicity are drawing to a close. As I look around at many of the agencies I follow, most seem to be focused on providing clients with more social media services, rather than sticking to the tried and true media relations angle. What’s behind this shift? I think a big part of it is helping clients build their own relationships, as agencies begin to step out of the role of middleman and into that of connector. The best media relations pros have always been connectors.

In the months to come, look for more and more agencies to shift to helping clients build their own relationships with the press through social media, distancing themselves farther from the middleman approach of years past. Reporters and bloggers want to develop relationships with experts, not necessarily PR firms. Unless of course those firms have people as connected as Brooke Hammerling is.

What do you think? Do you still need an agency, or should you start building your own relationships with reporters and bloggers?

(Image Credit: Old Bakelit phone by aussiegall)

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.

17 Comments

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Do you honestly believe that media relations is just network and schmooze and, anyone can build long-lasting relationships with influential reporters?

    No offence intended, but I’m guessing you are saying this to make a point, or you haven’t had to manage media yourself.

    I would love to see ‘anyone’ thrown into a press free for all upon the outbreak of a war, for example, in the Middle East. Bit extreme? I thought so too until it happened to me. How about managing crisis communications in a food poisoning scare about your own product? Happens (too) often. How about managing international press when your product is involved as a contributor to a fatal accident? That was my last job interview scenario some time ago for 3M.

    I’m not standing up for pr agencies in media relations. I’m just saying, you cant honestly believe ‘anyone’ can do these things. Social media experts may say it’s all about the relationships. But it’s not. I wouldn’t listen too hard to social media ‘experts’ 🙂

    Cheers
    Steve Seager

    • You make a great point with regard to crisis communications. This is one area where I don’t think you should do-it-yourself. You need an expert communicator for this, with experience managing crises. I also think reputation management is another area best left to the pros. When it comes to launching companies or products, I think you can be just as effective on your own as with an agency. That’s coming from my perspective managing media for close to 100 startups. Great points.

      • Thanks Jeremy. I’ve had no experience in managing startups from a media relations angle (although will be doing it as part of a bigger project for an international startup soon!) so would appreciate knowing why you say you don’t need a pr agency for this: is it really that simple in terms of media relations?

        • I would not use the words “simple.” If you have zero relationships with the media, and you need to secure publicity now, you’d be better off with an agency that has established relationships, processes, etc. That said, if you have a little more time to work with, know how to track down contacts and establish a rapport, you can have just as much *luck* in terms of results as you could expect. It’s difficult to secure publicity. Building relationships with people you don’t know is a lot easier. The latter can often lead to the former. Then again, it’s easy for me to say, I’ve built a lot of relationships already.

          The best mix is having somebody that can make an initial introduction for you (as some of the other comments suggest). Once you have the introductions, you can work to build your relationships from there.

  2. Good post. I agree that PR pros should steer clear of being the middleman as much as possible and connect experts and journos directly. But there are still many experts who don’t know how to tell their story (or don’t know how to get good info in front of a journo), and that’s where agencies can really help.

  3. Jeremy,
    As always, a post worth reading. That said, I’m going to risk sounding self-serving since I work for a PR agency, and comment.

    As you noted, the times are indeed changing for many of us in agency work – I spend the vast majority of my time doing other things than pitching MSM these days (though many on my team would not report the same change). But just because the rules of engagement are changing, that doesn’t make it any less important to have skilled communicators focused on building visibility. An agency offers many advantages that can’t easily be replaced by a DIY approach.

    First, no matter how good you are or how amazing your story is, garnering visibility takes time. An agency gives you a dedicated team of professional communicators whose sole job for you is to meet your communications goals: get visibility, engage target audiences/publics, tell your story, etc.

    Second, I actually disagree that having so-called “relathionships” with reporters is the reason companies hire (or should hire) PR firms. Even before the massive changes we’ve seen recently in traditional journalism, media has always been a field with high turnover – reporters and editors change beats, change papers, or give it up and go work in PR all the time. So those relationships that so many firms tout may not be worth much when Joe Tech Reporter becomes Joe Health Care Reporter. What is just as, if not more important than relationships with the media is the ability to recognize what is newsworthy about a client and to tell the story well. A reporter will listen if a) you’ve done your homework and b) the pitch is smart/you tell the story well – even if he or she has never before spoken to the PR person.

    That ability to tell a story is where the expertise of a PR firm is still incredibly valuable – it’s applicable no matter the communications vehicle – from newspapers to Twitter to speeches to brochures. So don’t count us out yet.

    So, don’t

    • As you’ve probably seen on this blog before, I think there are a lot of similarities between media relations and sales. Using this example again, relationships help you to get your foot in the door, but don’t get you the sale (or placement for that matter). Relationships help, but you need more than that. From my experience, an interesting executive that is passionate about his/her story can have far better luck hooking a big journalist than a media relations pro that knows the story well. Reporters and bloggers want to get the information from the expert, not from an intermediary. This is a generalization, but one I’m seeing more and more. Good media relations pros learn how to adapt to this and shift to more of a matchmaking role – introducing and letting the expert and reporter go from there. You still have to coach your spokespeople, but the outcome will be stronger.

  4. PR is about much more than just building/leveraging relationships and generating publicity, so I believe it will continue to be a valuable, if not integral, service for businesses for quite some time.

    The practice of PR — especially the tech PR business, in which companies must fight daily to gain visibility in a noisy, highly competitive environment — is a strategic discipline. It’s about analyzing clients’ corporate and technology assets, target markets, competitive issues, and customer needs, and then devising a customized strategy to reach their key audiences via the right combination of messaging and delivery vehicles. This may include press releases, pitching and other common tools and tactics, but it frequently involves other activities as well, including blogging, social networking and SEO.

    Having strong relationships is still very important, but you can’t overlook the various other aspects of the PR practices that many businesses need.

    I recent blogged about this topic on our company blog: http://www.walt.com/blog/techPR/tech-pr-is-more-than-spin

    Best,
    George

    • Thanks for your comment George. I agree that PR is more than publicity. This post was specific to the practice of media relations – pursuing and securing publicity opportunities. There is a lot of value professionals bring to the table beyond that. I just see the need for media relations services declining. I don’t think it will ever go away, just be in less demand.

  5. Interesting. The idea of skipping the PR agency and going straight to the media and blogs is akin to the idea that SM bypasses traditional media for more direct channels to target audiences.

    Todd Defren recently posted that it does not matter if the client is ready for SM, because the media’s ready and already there. Which is a key factor in the PR agency shift from “tried and true media relations” to social media.

    So DYI or hire a Pro?

    While an expert or organization can and should build relationships with “influential reporters and bloggers,” it may not always work going it alone. The PR agency provides research, media training, planning and valuable expertise that connects clients with media, and helps them build those strategic relationships. I’m biased, but the pros know. FWIW.

  6. True…
    You can cut out the middle man but in some instances not all agencies and companies are going to buy into the Social Media aspect. Until they buy into the practice old methods will still be used just not as often.

  7. I won’t say I agree or disagree–it’s a complicated debate, however, one fundamental problem I find with some companies using PR agencies (perhaps mostly in tech?) is often times they don’t have any PR expertise on staff, the CEO wants press so the marketing department hires a PR agency to take care of it.

    I think the best combo is in-house expertise that works with the agency, if it makes sense financially. For smaller companies, it may make sense to just have someone in house who is excellent at managing relationships with media.

    I am a little bias of course because I’ve always worked on the client side (and actually never with an agency), but I do see the value in using one in the right situation.

  8. Another thing many PR folks can help with is editing. So hopefully there’s no typos in articles.

    For example – in this very article, the very first paragraph – instead of reading:

    “In the age of blogs, social networking and other social media, it’s easier then ever for an expert to position herself in front of reporters and bloggers.”

    That “then” would read “than”.

    • I agree. I need a copy editor. I’ll put your name in the hat for candidates when we decide to hire one. Thanks.

  9. Jeremy, as always, a thought provoking post. Personally, I think that more than ever (i.e. in this economy) businesses need PR agencies. Of course, I may be biased because I run a virtual PR agency. But my rationale for this thinking is that smaller organizations in particular generally don’t have the budget to hire someone in a dedicated PR role; or perhaps don’t have enough work to keep a dedicated PR person busy all day, every day. Instead, they choose to outsource the function to an agency that can handle the critical work for them.

    As it relates to relationships, I’ve always been of the mindset that my job is to help my clients build relationships with media. I’ve met many a PR person who wanted to ‘own’ the relationships, but the way I see it, I add value by facilitating that relationship building. After working with a client for a period of time, I know I’ve done my job well when the media feel comfortable calling my client directly for an interview. Unfortunately not enough of us in the PR profession take this approach, choosing instead to sell themselves based on relationships (I wrote about this exact issue after reading the NYT article: http://echocommunications.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/nyt_pr/).

  10. First of all (regarding Michael Arrington’s blog), should we really be surprised that a former lawyer—now tech blogger—thinks most PR people smile, dial and pray? If I had a dollar every time I heard a lawyer question the value of a PR professional, I could start my own blog! Contrary to his belief, PR firms are a lot different than law firms. The ONLY similarity is that we are paid to perform a service. To be honest, most of the issues I have helped my clients resolve were complicated by lawyers.

    My best argument for hiring a PR agency is not for the relationships, but because clients sometimes need someone to tell them their idea isn’t that good because no one on staff will speak up or they are just too close to see potential issues. Wordnik is a good example and in this respect, Mr. Arrington does some great analysis on what should have happen. He also provides a great example of a situation where a PR agency failed a client. This leads to the real issue at hand…

    I agree that PR agencies shouldn’t be expecting clients to rely solely on them to develop a communications strategy to move their business forward, but shame on the company if they do not have PR people in the room during those conversations. In fact a good PR agency is there to help a client see the overall media landscape and guide the client toward their media relations goals.

    The assumption that PR in the age of DIY social networking and Web 2.0 is easier than ever is fairly myopic. I would argue now, more than ever, companies need reputable and knowledgeable PR, marketing and advertising agencies to help filter the B.S. they are bombarded with on a daily basis regarding how they should be communicating with the public. With all the different avenues a company has to pursue in terms of engaging the public, who has time to manage all of those channels of communication? To me, the smart companies are engaging communications companies that have more than a singular focus. They are consolidating resources and engaging companies that cover all types of communication so that they are putting out a unified message.

  11. Never has there been a more exciting time for companies large and small to learn the essentials of telling their own stories so the right people will listen. The tough economy has given all of us reason to examine our budgets, evaluate our activities and results, and invest wisely to build brand, reputation, and bottom line results. In particular, those who have escaped from cubicle nation and are making a go of it as independent professionals in what the Wall Street Journal describes as “the age of going solo” are wise to learn buzz building skills so they can spread their messages on a one-to-many basis and invite more or the right media and client opportunities.

    Those who take genuine interest in learning these lessons often learn that they are more capable than they had prior given themselves credit. Those who are both capable and prepared to invest wisely in the services of a PR firm can then be even better clients because they understand the skills, effort, and time associated with the process and the results.

    Those who learn their lessons well and realize the power that is within their own control will be forever enriched as they make even more magic happen in the marketplace under their own power.

    From where I sit as a teacher of DIY publicity strategies and tactics and a provider of publicity account service and results, it’s all good.

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