I was having a conversation with a colleague in the public relations industry recently. She works for one of the big global agencies and was describing her firm’s approach to media relations. I was appalled.
Many public relations agencies, particularly the larger ones, create isolated teams that specialize in certain functions and are parachuted into various accounts when needed.
The stovepiping of interactive teams is at least understandable due to misguided perceptions that there are programmers and there are public relations pros and never shall the two meet. What I found disturbing in the discussion with my colleague, however, was the idea that you can stovepipe media relations teams (and all other specialized practitioners) who were never involved in the original account but brought in only during the times when media relations were needed.
This mentality is why so many firms provide cookie-cutter services to clients. It is a byproduct of focusing on the tactical rather than the strategic. For one thing, what does “media relations” even mean in today’s media landscape? Does social media qualify? Should social media practitioners be segregated from traditional media relations teams?
The idea that you can drop a team of media relations specialists into the middle of an account and expect positive results is perverse. Media relations is not simply scribbling a news release, downloading a media list from some service and blasting out impersonal mass pitches. It’s not even reaching into a solid rolodex and personally chatting up reporters with whom you have a relationship.
Effective media relations requires an intimate understanding of your client, of the environment in which your client operates; of the policies, products or services which your client is attempting to promote; the mission of your client; and the end goals of your client’s campaign. Only then can you have subtle, effective messaging in which you can pitch a reporter. If the reporter knows more than you do about your client or their policies and products, he doesn’t need you.
You don’t get this kind of comprehensive and contextual understanding without being a part of the team day in and day out; learning the nuances of the client’s message, background and goals; and spending time researching the position of the client and industry or policy environment in which he or she operates.
Without this knowledge, you cannot possibly develop nuanced messaging that sets your client apart from the competition, that subtly pre-empts competitors or critics and is persuasive to the target audience the client is trying to sell, persuade or influence. Your messaging will be as a fine-tuned as a telephone pole. Your pitches will display all the creativity of paper clips.
Most importantly, you will lack the ability to serve as a strategic partner to your client. You become a taskmaster, churning out notebooks of paper and impressive-looking graphs as if the sheer volume of work you have done should somehow delight the client. The client frankly doesn’t care how many news releases you pitched or how long your media list is. The client expects results. Stories placed. Relationships built. Messages that move the narrative. The client will view you, at best, as adjunct staff to help churn out work rather than as a valuable partner who will sit at the table and generate innovative plans to help the client reach his or her larger strategic mission goals.
In the coming years, the public relations industry has an opportunity to grow in a way that it has not in years. As the media landscape shifts from monologue to dialogue – from one-way communications typified by traditional advertising and news placements in traditional media outlets to direct interaction with consumers and target audiences – public relations professionals are ideally suited to capture a larger market share in a competitive media environment.
Tacticians who churn and burn, however, will not be the ones who capitalize on this new opportunity. Agencies today must rethink their business models. Creating a bunch of fragmented shops – one dedicated to media, one to interactive work, one to grassroots, one to social media, etc. – is not the way of the future. To thrive, agencies must develop the mindset of building integrated strategic consulting services. They must strive to know the client and the client’s business better than the client. They need to have the creative, intellectual and intuitive firepower to provide insights that the client doesn’t already possess.
Strategic communications consulting must transcend the traditional services of public relations agencies. It requires leadership, innovation, and understanding of the client and the client’s environment – and it requires all of these qualities from each team member – from the junior to the senior – and laced into a fully integrated team that can work as a cohesive unit. Without this, you have only tactics. Which means you can be replaced at any given time by a competitor who offers those same limited services at a better price.
It means that, in the end, you will not be positioned to succeed in tomorrow’s ever-changing media landscape.
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