Authentic Public Relations: What Your PR Firm SHOULD Be Doing for You

I’ve been reading a new book by Christian radio show host Teresa Tomeo entitled “God’s Bucket List” that challenges readers to put down their own to-do list and consider what God might have planned for them instead. Teresa is a former television anchor, who disheartened with the media’s unbalanced coverage, eventually found her calling as a Catholic Christian radio and TV show host, Christian PR firm owner, author and speaker.

In the book, she describes how she came to create her own public relations company, and it really struck a cord with me. She was incredibly disappointed as a television journalist with what she saw from PR folks and what they WEREN’T doing for their clients. She says:

“How PR clients were being misled was very evident at press conferences, where businesses and speakers came complete with virtual dog-and-pony shows because their PR firm had convinced them they had to spend a ton of money on slick press kits and glossy signs. Little did they know that, except for the basic information, those press kits ended up in the garbage. The signs were pretty much ignored by the cameras, since news stations were not looking to offer free advertising during a news story.

“In addition to the often ridiculous and unnecessary formal press conferences, PR types would often demand to be put on monthly retainers but rarely came through with the media coverage that had been promised in exchange for their hefty fees.”

Boy, if I had a dime for every time someone came to me saying, “I just spend $5K a month with this NYC/Washington/Big City PR firm and all I got was a TV spot on my local TV news station.” Aack! I hate that, because it gives such a bad name to the field of public relations.

Many large PR firms have a lot of overhead to pay for, including all manner of staff, fancy offices and more, so they require these hefty fees to “retain them.” Rarely do clients get any personal attention, especially if they’re not paying the really hefty fee of the big brands. They get shoved to the side, and before they know it, $20 grand is gone with little or nothing to show for it except, as Teresa described, a press kit and some fancy signs.

It may be impressive and fun to say you’re working with a “big New York City PR firm” with lots of connections, but if you really want the coverage and don’t want to go bankrupt in the process, I encourage you to choose a more specialized smaller firm or individual PR person.

Another thing I see big public relations firms doing all the time is telling clients that they must write and send a bunch of press releases for them. If they bill by the hour, this is a great way to bill lots of time and send you a giant invoice. While it shouldn’t take a competent person much more than a 1/2 hour to an hour to write a good press release (check to see what your firm is billing you for this), sending a release on the wires or individually sending to a gigantic media list can take up a lot of time and money and get you NO WHERE. I am convinced that unless you’re announcing the stock market crash or that Britney Spears got married, journalists are not going to look at a press release. Can you imagine how many they get every day? Time — and money — wasted!

What SHOULD you look for in a PR firm?

1) Personalized pitching – I don’t write and send a lot of press releases unless they are needed as background information or there is a major announcement that is timely. Instead, I discuss with my client the ideal media outlets they’d they like to appear in, study those, brainstorm angles that would be of interest to their writers and do targeted individual outreach. We might hone in on 25-50 instead of a list of 500, but you’ll get much better results. Ask about your firm’s approach to securing media coverage. Don’t just go on “we have connections.”

2) Work with the owner of the company – If at all possible, work with one of the company owners or partners. They are truly the only ones with a vested interest in your success. All clients work directly with me. I’ve been down the other route and it just doesn’t work nearly as well.

3) Check their track record – Ask the company where they’ve had clients covered recently and check what they say.

4) Choose a firm with a specialization – When a firm specializes in an industry or a locality, they truly will have contacts with media outlets in that field or region. It’s tough for a firm to have contacts across all media, and these days, contacts are critical to getting media coverage. Media are so inundated that it takes a fabulous pitch or knowing the pitch-er for it to even get a look. We specialize in travel public relations, including hotels, adventure travel companies, attractions, destinations and more.

5) Choose a PR pro who’s worked as a journalist – You can’t know how to pitch a journalist unless you’ve sat in their chair. I firmly believe it’s not something you can teach. I started my career in television news (and just like Teresa, darted out as quickly as possible), served as an editor for a media company and have continued write articles for newspapers, magazines and websites, including ever since. I like to continually hone my journalistic skills to keep my pitching and writing on target with current trends and techniques.

6) Check with past clients (or journalists) – You’ll want to be sure you get personal service and that if you send an email, it will get a prompt response. Individual PR people and smaller firms are much more likely to provide this type of close contact. Only a past client will be able to give you a sense of their level of service. If you really want to know if they’re good at what they do, as for a journalist reference. They’ll give you the real scoop :).

7) Make sure they don’t have too many clients – One of the downsides of working with an individual or small firm is they can easily get overloaded. Make sure they don’t have too many clients to ensure you will get the attention you deserve. These days, I work with only a select few clients on topics of interest to me to make sure I can manage all clients myself and ensure they get the best shot at media coverage possible!

What did I miss? Anyone care to share lessons learned with PR firms or bad experiences? What do you think of my recommendations of what to look for?

And be sure to check out “God’s Bucket List” for an inspiring read about discerning God’s calling in your life. PR pros and journalists will especially enjoy it because of her experiences working in the media.

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