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November 01, 2007
PR is useless
... When actions create the real story.
Walmart has probably spent close to the same amount of money trying to convince us it isn't the greediest company in the world. But its actions tell us the real story. Today, it's how Walmart is trying to avoid paying state taxes.
Comcast can say it's "comcastic" all it wants, but when its technicians fall asleep on customers' couches, or grandmothers with a heart condition get so frustrated by the company's inattention they smash up a local office, then no amount of professional PR can mask its dreadful operations.
Hundreds of smaller businesses pay PR firms to spam bloggers with meaningless press releases. That's because they don't know how to tell their own stories with actions, not words. They don't understand that real word of mouth, real PR, is generated at the root levels.
The root levels are the clerks, the sales people, the support staff, the receptionist, the call center people, the on-site technicians and consultants, or the police officers, the clerks at the government offices, or the nurses who take your temperature and blood at the hospital. It's their work that generates real PR.
The best PR comes from the smallest of actions by the root-level people. They smile when they first meet you. They call you by your name. They compliment competitors. They don't blame you for their system's misgivings. When forced to make a decision, they always, always, always do the right thing, even if it's not in the economic or political interests of their employer. They break the rules when it's obvious they must.
That's real PR. It's the total sum of stories people tell about you.
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Nearly every day, I get press releases by email, with cover notes that start something like, "Because you blog about nonprofit issues...." In nearly every case, it's immediately obvious that the PR flack who sent it doesn't read my blog [Read More]
Speaking of PR people, did you see this fiasco?
Make sure you read at least some of the responses from the furious PR people. It's fun.
Rumors -- Sure did. Where the post says "spam bloggers" is a link to Anderson's blog.
Not to be the devil's advocate here (although I have worked for the devil and he's a great client) but couldn't you list the four worst books of all time and deem all literature to be useless by this same logic?
Yes, there is a lot of bad PR out there. Would you rather that the money that goes to PR, which is a fraction of other marketing budgets, go to creating more advertising instead?
Let's not forget that people are drawn to PR by a passion for media and, while there are plenty of bad examples, there are also some creative people that have really helped some companies get their stories out to a wider audience. As much as I agree with your "smile when they first meet you" claims, I still think telling a story in a compelling way to the right people is a much more effective (and skillful) way of getting your message out there. It's not an either/or scenario.
Disclaimer: I work in PR (but rarely defend it).
My name is Omer Rosen and I am a consultant for PR agencies in Israel.
I really enjoyed this post and wants to translate it into Hebrew and post it in my blog, with giving you a full credit.
If you like that then please send me an email.
Love this posting, especially the spam email note...you continue to ring the bell and make people think a little bit.
I think what we're dealing with here is the classic example of - actions speak louder than words. If you're doing great actions, you can amplify their ROI by using the loudspeaker that is PR. However, if you're selling the sizzle without the steak, you'de better be spending a heck of a lot on compelling creative copy and messaging, because it's a damn hard sell.
At the end of the day, honest and sincere communications are always more effective than manufactured messaging.
The only point I'm not getting is where the disconnect is occurring at these companies internally. Doesn't senior management realize that they should be focusing less on PR and advertising and more on creating a corporate image that is worth speaking positively about? Isn't this marketing 101 here?
Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen!
Ben: The sound byte might then be, "all the PR in the world doesn't change the truth."
I agree with the point of your email but find a world of nuance in the examples. I'm framing up (I think, I hope) a post on how much we all hate front runners, particularly when they're in front by a lot. At the risk of going political, "our" friends loved the US when the USSR was around because they knew what the alternative was; we put American lives at risk to save ethnic Muslims in Yugoslavia, but today that good will is nowhere to be found. We can either call the Islamic world thankless or we can explore why people just can't live with only having one superpower. Or something.
Examples abound in the world of marketing, many of which you've listed above.
So let's agree that dogs still need to love your dog food for your PR to work, but having good dog food still isn't apparently enough.
Peter -- The question is: Does the devil pay on time?
Omer -- Yes, please translate the post into Hebrew for your blog readers in Israel. Let us know how your readers respond.
Herman -- Spamming bloggers is a growing problem. If we can cut it off before it comes a spamstorm...
Jon -- The best thing some companies could do is redirect those PR dollars into training and education programs.
Scott -- oh yeah!
Stephen -- On the political stage, our actions as a country continue to be disconnected from the PR messages: Guantanamo Bay, new definitions of what torture really is, onerous visa approvals for visiting the country that are hurting tourism destinations, our continued presence in Iraq, military bases in the Mideast, chest-poking Iran, standing on the sidelines as genocide continues in Darfur, etc.
Ben: conceptually, you've just laid out a whole host of complaints against the front runner that in another context would be right at home if aimed at Apple, or Google, or Microsoft.
Once you become the one and only number one, everything you do tends to be scrutinized to the point of debating how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin. This isn't the right blog for the political side of the above, but each of your points above register as little more than rounding errors when viewed against an African, or Asian, or Middle Eastern (etc) context.
The same logic applies to Microsoft (The anticompetitive Evil Empire that makes the software we all use everyday), Google (censorship in China, as if that's something new), Apple (how many ways can we complain about a company that has done such a wonderful job), and others.
Back to your post, it isn't the PR -- or the company's actions -- that deliver the results. It's listening to the market you've chosen to sell to and delivering the right product to them. If you're Depends, don't try to sell to Gen X. If your prospect is declaring bankruptcy, don't try to sell them a yacht. If you're marketing the image of the US, why bother trying to improve your image in a place where they blame you for their own incompetence (makes me think back to college reading Franz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth")? If Karen Hughes had spent these dollars marketing our image to our allies, she probably would have been far more successful. Maybe. At least in my opinion.
Enough for now -- thanks!
I agree with your general sentiments that the best consumer experiences (and thus those most likely to generate positive WOM) come from the “smallest of actions by the root-level people”, however I question the narrow definition by which you classify public relations as a field, as well as your dismissal of its importance. By my understanding, the term PR encompasses not only the associations connected with a brand or company as you intimate, but more importantly the process of educating and informing the public of its actions, offerings, and improvements. In such a context then, I find your assertion that “clerks, sales people, support staff, (etc.)…generate real PR” rather dismissive of the work done to promote a company by means of promotions, events, and, most especially, maintenance of healthy media relations that makes up the bulk of the work done by public relations departments. Your point that PR cannot change the true facts of a situation is completely valid, and in the case of Comcast, nothing short of a renewed commitment to superior service would be able to turn the tide of public disapprobation. However, without a well devised PR campaign, such a commitment might never be known. Studies show that consumers trust articles written by third parties about a company much more than they do obvious advertising by that company. Without the efforts of a skilled PR staff, information about a product or company might never reach the appropriate trusted media channels and would , therefore, receive much less attention and acceptance than if that same information were presented in a different format.
Your headline is all wrong.
PR isn't useless.
Business (or Govt) leaders who fail to solve the root problem are useless.
Yes, PR can often be badly executed and annoying, but conducted properly it can also work.
And Word of Mouth is the best for sure.
But it's not an either/or choice.
Stephen -- True, the front runners always end up with the most arrows sticking out of their back. But PR is useless, too, when small companies or even start-ups are spamming both the professional and amateur media with useless, irrelevant press releases and hoping for 1-2 hits out of hundreds. Wasted time, wasted money, wasted relevancy.
Abe and Steve -- PR is a campaign. It's a disguised salesman. Word of mouth is a movement. It has members with a story to tell.
Campaigns are designed. Movements are born.
This is right on par with what I always say. Quality customer service is the best public relations any company could have.
I often say that "customer service is dead." Each time I go shopping or go to a chain restaurant my statement is solified. Recently, I went to an italian theme chain restaurant - at 4pm. We were served our food by 4:20 - but for the next 30 minutes our waitress was missing in action. Thirty minutes later she comes by - by that time we had been finished and ready to have our food wrapped for 20 minutes. She said her general manager called all staff to a meeting. What arrogance! The GM calls a meeting during dinner hour on a Saturday for all staff. The bozo GM ended up giving us free dessert. But his arrogance and lack of customer service cost the company money.
But why are you wasting energy slamming PR?
Surely, if a product sucks or a business stinks, then - yes, yes, yes - PR won't work and neither will any other kind of marketing technique. And the nicest ever people in a call centre, still won't be able to turn those disaffected customers around.
But surely, you should be directing your firepower at the execs in the C-suite who allow these crappy products and services to get to market?
C'mon Ben, PR baiting is so 1.0.
Did you ever think there might be PR people inside your 'movement'?
You're somewhat correct, but in many cases PR goes far beyond spam and ineffective government work...
PR is about creating new ideas and developing new creative strategies for
connecting with customers....I just posted a blog entry about Orange Unlimited at http://www.thecreativeconnector.com/an-infinitely-long-webpagebecause-good-things-should-never-end/ that discusses their new "infintely long webpage"...now that creates great PR buzz...and is entertaining to the public...
This is really great advice for the kinds of people I talk to on http://newmusicstrategies.com -- mostly independent artists and music businesses who are quite often their own PR companies... and are also in charge of their own quality control.
You can tell the story as well as you like, but the story has to be a good one in the first place.
I thought you folks might find this interesting.
According to an article on boingboing, it sounds like Chris Anderson's "PR blacklist post" has started a bit of a catfight between various PR firms.
Share and enjoy...
This was a great post. I had the good fortune of meeting Jackie when she came to speak in Toronto and spoke at the Canadian Marketing Association. I quite enjoyed your book as well. Excellent stuff.
Now, I must comment on one posting by Stephen Denny when he calls the 'Islamic World' thankless. In the off chance he isn't being sarcastic or posting tongue in cheek...when you invade other countries for no justifiable reason (Iraq), threaten to attack others (Iran), turn your nose at world-wide institutions (United Nations) and treaties you have signed (Geneva Convention on Human Rights) and have a history of overthrowing democratically elected governments (Iran for one) because they don't suit your needs, you are going to have problems and no amount of PR is going to save you. The overthrowing of governments by the US isn't limited to the 'Islamic World' either - please note countries such as Chile, Greece, Argentina, Philippines and others in the past few decades.
Also speaking as a Canadian, when the US government deports a Canadian citizen to Syria (Maher Arar) to be tortured because he is a suspected terrorist that causes skepticism amongst the Islamic and non-Islamic world. Especially when our Canadian government finds him innocent and compensates him after a public inquiry. Furthermore when members of US Congress apologize but your current White House administration refuses to apologize and still keeps him on a no fly list - that again causes skepticism.
Americans are a wonderful and kind people but I agree that the $900 Million spent in PR would have been much better spent on foreign aid or even towards your own health care and education institutions within the US. Might as well do something productive with those tax dollars
Steve -- I'd say the post is aimed squarely at the executives of client companies, not the people at PR firms... except the ones who are unduly spamming bloggers.
Let me add that there are two elements of every brand: what you directly control (image) and what you don't (reputation). PR is an effective method to get the story to the right channel in a way that gets attention and consideration.
The problem, I would humbly propose, is not the PR engine per se, but it's the belief that one can push an image (branding, logos, advertising, controlled messaging, etc.) without the balance or consideration of the reputation. Reputation is what people really think (and say) about you based on their experiences and those of people they respect. Image / Reputation are two are to sides of the same coin and customers tend to get suspicious when one side looks like a tarnished penny and the other a shiny new Canadian quarter.
The budget is actually better spent on dialoging with customers AND addressing real issues. –Promise Phelon
Hi Ben. I don't view your post against PR itself as a potentially efficient comms activity, more about the authenticity (or not) of the message (spin in the face of evidence to the contrary) or the 'spray and pray' execution performed by many people/organisations that should know better.
The interesting question this post raises for me is one of hard cash vs. ethics. Are we saying that the PR companies concerned believed what they were communicating?
Naiveté or prostitution?
Good post (if only measured by the tone of responses!)
Promise -- Good to hear from you! You've hit on exactly my point, but I was unable to articulate it as well as you: PR used to push an image is bound to fail. Action is evidence over words.
Robin -- Many thanks. At the naive level, PR is often considered as a treatment for symptoms, not what really ails organizations. At the cynical level, PR is the tool to cover insidious tracks. Both are wrong, but at least one is forgiveable.
I can certainly attest to the power of word of mouth PR. Recently, Woman's Day Magazine wrote an article about a video we have up on our channel9 at www.calmagazine.com. We wrote at least a dozen press releases about this heartwarming story about six little girls that were adopted after growing up in the foster care system. It was word of mouth that got that video to Woman's Day. And, it was word of mouth that also got that video to Good Morning America. I stand by word of moutn.
This is a mixed up post:
1) Government PR is not the same as company PR; in your government section what you are measuring is a journalism effect and maybe a smattering of other country culture, and both are inherently very left-wing or socialist. Of course they're anti-American, amplified by the under-dog syndrome. As an example, the only thing Canadians hear or read in the news is a slanted, over-simplified anti-American chant designed to make us look stupid. Read it for awhile. And in the end, they aren't our customers either (yeah I get how they are).
2) Another huge phenomenon you are measuring or quoting or displaying is the ability of big business to lobby big government to continue to allow their spam. Who's fault is that? I would suggest it's the government. We've had a lot of 'spam' laws. Why don't they just fix it? It's really pretty simple. But we get the government we choose.
3) PR, like everything else, is a function of good measurable statistics and marketing. Your anecdotal post, along with the same dose delivered in most of the comments, betray the field and its professionalism. Be careful, your underwear is showing.
4) In the end, your syllogistic point is that a company's PR is just encouraging well managed companies that won't tolerate bad attitudes; OK, great, and tell us something we don't know. But that's not really the profession of PR, is it, which when done well elevates their work to an art form. Please don't denigrate the term.
This website has some great input. This post wasn't one of them, was it? I encourage you to dig deeper and let out your Zen. It's often there, or you wouldn't have developed such a following.