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PR agency personalitiesBy Arthur Solomon

Those of us who have been around the track several times know that PR agencies are not “one size fits all” entities when it comes to management and their ability to help with account problems, especially during the creative and media contact process.

In fact, the strength of many supervisors is their expertise at bean counting. Being able help develop news angles that appeal to the media is often lacking; putting the entire blame on the account team is not lacking when program story pitches are rejected by the media.

I’ve heard many complaints from staffers that they were being hung out to dry because their supervisors lacked the ability to pitch in and help. But during my more than 35 years in the PR business, which includes nearly 25 years as a senior vice president/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, I found what junior associates most complained about was the personalities of their supervisors.

Everyone in the business will recognize these traits:

  • There’s the “cheer leaders,” who tell underlings “we can do anything.”
  • There’s the “shouter,” who believes that screaming will produce better results from account people.
  • There’s the “intimidator,” whose management style is to threaten people with unemployment.
  • There’s the “social director,” who believes that paying for a few drinks at the bar after work will transform disgruntled account execs into “I’ll follow you anywhere troops.”
  • And there’s the “know-it-alls,” who believe he/she invented PR and refuses to listen to others.

All believe that their management techniques are the key to getting better results from their minions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Experience shows that none of these techniques work better than hands-on managers who are willing to disregard their titles and have the PR savvy to assist those who need help.

Account groups at agencies also have distinct personalities.

  • There are the “doing it by the book” groups, which too often results in lackluster programs. They spend more time fighting over strategies, objectives and tactics than ideas that would work for both the client and the media.
  • There are the “playing it safe” groups, resulting in the rejection of new thinking. “That’s not the way we do it here” is a common supervisor’s rebuff.
  • There are “doing what’s best for the agency” groups, which can result in not doing what’s best for the client, leading clients to request new account groups or worse. This group believes in deliberately going above budget and then asking the client for additional money to complete the program. Occasionally it works. But most often the strategy leads to write-offs.

There are “doing what’s best for the client” groups, which I believe trumps all the others. Because doing what’s best for the client results in multiple agency rewards, client loyalty, increased budgets and, hopefully, increased employee salaries and recognition at promotion time.

I’ve worked with all the above personality types during my career, before, during and after leaving B-M (where I played key roles and managed national and international sports and nonsports accounts and traveled as a media advisor with high-ranking foreign government officials).

I also witnessed the sameness in many PR practitioners and how they implement programs. Too often, programs are constructed to achieve substantial publicity breaks, instead of being crafted to gain, maybe fewer, but definitely more meaningful “hits” that actually deliver client message points. (Using a well-known personality as a spokesperson is the essential tool for this type of programming. Unfortunately, message points are often disregarded by hosts during TV interviews and not included in print stories.)

Question: How does a TV interview or print story help a client if message points are excluded? Answer: It doesn’t.

On the supervisory level, presentation skills and managing accounts for maximum profitably takes precedent over public relations skills, resulting in programs that too often resemble each other.

The sameness of account personnel is more difficult to solve. When I entered PR, after several years as a reporter and editor at New York City pubs and wires services, the PR business included seasoned journalists. These journalists each had different views on approaching stories and brought their divergent perspectives to agencies when dealing with the media and during program planning. This changed when journalist salaries increased, slowing the movement of news people to PR.

Then communications schools became the rage, turning out cookie-cutter graduates by the zillions. The maverick PR practitioner, who fostered original thinking regarding client approaches, became a victim of the communications schools’ assembly lines and “team concept” thinking became the norm. Sameness often was the result and is still with us today.

Robot-like PR approaches are now the norm. I know that from speaking to many dozens of young PR practitioners when I made presentations at leading agencies for a national media organization.

Also, from a several months assignment with a fairly large New York agency to work with and give creative publicity lectures to young staffers there was much resistance from the young account execs. “That’s not what we were taught in communications’ schools,” was a recurring comment.

Too often, young PR people complain that editors and reporters don’t want to talk to them and ignore their email pitches. Maybe the reason is that the sameness story approaches has resulted in one pitch sounding like another. Or, more likely, that the stories pitched are more like advertisements in the form of press releases, lacking any unusual human interest or feature angles. Only the names of the agency and clients are different.

What works is the ability to develop stories that work for both the client and the journalist. That requires individuals who think like journalists, which is learned by spending hours reading the print publications or TV shows that you want to pitch. (Note to staffers and agency executives: Journalists aren’t impressed by the name of your client or size of an agency.)

PR supposedly is a creative business. Too often it is a “do-it-by-the-book” business. The maverick is said not to be a “team player.” Maybe it’s time for agencies to again recognize the importance of mavericks in the management mix. They might not play the agency game, but neither did the pioneers of PR who invented the business.

Several years ago, a prominent nationally known newsman and author recommended me to teach a course in public relations at the university at which he was teaching. In preparation for a discussion with the department head, I purchased a few PR text books to acquaint myself about what was being taught. And what did I see? Sameness.

PR agencies that hire individuals with outside-the-box personalities will produce greater creativity in pitches. Their original angles will more likely be noticed in the sea of conformity. That will generate more media mentions that include the client’s desired messages – and more satisfied clients.

 

Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.