The Customer Isn’t Always Right

It’s tempting, but we’re not going to discuss the recent belch on Wall Street. Well, not directly.

No sooner had the gavel gone down on the New York Stock Exchange when the talkaloti took to the airwaves and bandwidth with their post-mortem analyses. The general sense is that investors have lost their patience with multimillion-dollar marketing budgets when the bottom line of the dot-coms and other like-minded start-ups is nil.

Venture capitalists are getting ready for a merger bloodbath as they start whispering about consolidating their properties. Likewise, the brick-and-mortar companies are like sharks circling the waters, ready to chomp up a deal. You don’t honestly think that Toys “R” Us hasn’t considered buying up eToys at the bargain-basement price of $4.75 a share, down from its high of $86?

Public relations and marketing people hate these kinds of weeks almost as much as investors. The first place the CEO looks to cut costs in rough times is the communications budget. The cavalier attitude that allows a company to blow its wad on one Super Bowl ad goes out the window when members of the board are drumming their gold-ringed fingers on the shiny cherry conference table. (Gulp.)

It’s important that PR and marketing types quickly position themselves as critical to the success of the company “Now more than ever you need to communicate a positive message, boss!” But they also have a responsibility to spend the company’s money wisely and to finally stand up to the CEO, who is dictating strategy based on wrong perceptions of what PR and marketing are all about.

The Most Expensive Communication Plan Is for an Audience of One

There’s an old saying that goes “The most effective advertising is the billboard on the boss’s commute.” This implies that a lot of corporate communication exists to stroke the ego of the person in charge rather than to contribute to the bottom line.

Creating a buzz does little beyond giving an executive cocktail party fodder. Company executives are still skeptical about the science and measurability of public relations; they just like to see their name in the article.

These executives are spending upwards of $50,000 in monthly retaining fees to some larger public relations firms. What they’re getting is a sort of PR sweatshop entry-level PR people calling journalists to confirm the receipt of press releases. Too many newbie PR firms have become press release factories, firing off announcements of one business-enabling solution or another.

Generally, they’re firing blanks. They’re creating churn. But they’re awfully busy. And in this age of frenzied activity, that’s what the CEO wants. Step lively! Write a release! Call a reporter!

It just isn’t glamorous to do some real market or public opinion research or to carefully plan a communications strategy. Real public relations is in it for the long-term, which doesn’t appeal to the seven-day-cycle mentality of the dot-com world. “What could I do? They pulled up dump trucks full of money!”

A couple journalists are planning a conference called BUZZ 2000. The conference is geared toward technology executives.

They’ve amassed an impressive roster of speakers reporters and editors from major news media outlets. These speakers will tell the audience how the media really work, how to get a reporter interested in a story, and other topics generally covered at almost every public relations conference around the globe.

It’s a noble effort to try to get executives to listen to sound advice about effective public relations. Emily has been trying to do that her entire career. (Sometimes they listen; sometimes they don’t.) It’s ironic that these same executives may feel they’re not getting the same valuable advice from their $50,000-a-month public relations firms.

To be fair, they’re likely getting this advice from their firms. They’re just not listening. So why are they paying these huge fees if they aren’t listening to the advice? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Part of the responsibility and blame falls on public relations professionals themselves. If their services are in such high demand that they are turning away business, then they have a responsibility now to elevate the practice of public relations.

PR pros have an ethical obligation to stand firm with their clients and offer them the right advice on how to achieve their goals. But if the CEO threatens to take his $50K a month to another firm, it can be tough to stick to your principles.

Diluting the PR Product

In the end, public relations professionals are doing themselves a disservice in two ways. First, they are hurting their credibility among clients when they charge huge fees yet leave executives searching for reasons why they’re still not getting covered in the industry press. Second, they are hurting their credibility among journalists who wince at the sight of their letterhead or email return address.

We hope technology executives do try to learn a little more about what public relations is about and how to select a firm that will offer them the best counsel. (And then heed that counsel!) But it’s a debate and dilemma that has plagued PR practitioners for a long time.

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