Public relations

Public relations isn’t a vending machine for news

A Wisconsin entrepreneur’s online offer might be amusing if it didn’t reflect a distorted view of marketing communicators. At a professional discussion area, a personal care products firm owner currently proposes this “challenge for public relations firms”:

If you can get my product written up in the following newspapers, we will pay you an agreed-upon fixed price.

A publicity vending machine, in other words, except that the client will deposit money after his selections are dispensed. Sounds like a business model inspired by J. Wellington Wimpy of Popeye comics fame, who famously said: “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

What flips this proposed Agreement From the World of Bizarro from comical to cautionary is the belief – not confined to one Milwaukee-area business owner – that public relations = buying media coverage. In newspapers, of all places.

Look at how the question posted March 24, 2010 on LinkedIn begins:

PR firms always suggest they can get your company/product published in major newspapers around the USA.

Really? In what alt.universe?

As any reputable PR firm or adviser would say at the first discussion, media relations is just one tactic — an increasingly less important one — of strategic marketing communications.

Editorial placements in newspapers generally are far from the main objective in an era when consumer and B2B buying decisions are influenced more heavily by online reviews, searches, blogs and social media. SEO, blogger relations and social media engagement are more important than getting one reporter at a time to mention a company or product.

“This is a very superficial approach to building and sustaining your corporate image,” comments Jed Nitzberg, owner of Flashlight Marketing Communications of Marietta, Ga., in response to the posting. “No serious professional would do this type of ‘pay for play” model. And anyone who ‘guarantees’ coverage is blowing smoke up your you-know-what.”

Moreover, before an agency could attempt to earn meaningful coverage for the Wisconsin prospect’s home-haircutting appliance or “spinal care system,” its team would develop points of distinction and newsworthy pitches based on:

  • Market research
  • Competitive analysis
  • Industry best practices
  • Identity branding or rebranding
  • Message development
  • Other campaign prep

“In the vast majority of cases, PR pros deliver proven results for companies that actually have a story to tell,” notes a reply from Cyrus Afzali, owner of Astoria Communications in Sloatsburg, NY. “The reason a lot of companies don’t get ink is quite simply because what they have isn’t interesting enough to a broad audience.”

But the offer is to pay only for placements, so campaign development hours would be on spec – hardly attractive bait.

But wait, there’s more:

This arrangement would be very easy to track and we would pay the fee the day after the article appears in print.

Really? Very easy to track? Let’s return to the real world:

  • Does one paragraph in a products roundup count?
  • Does a quote from the owner in a news feature qualify if he comments on salon vs. DIY haircuts or back pain?
  • How about a product photo with just a caption?

Or, as the owner of Amanda Cooper PR in Victoria, British Columbia, suggests in a LinkedIn reply:

Some people think that any publicity is good publicity. I say “be careful what you wish for.” I am curious as to what would happen if a P.R. professional took you up on your offer and an uncomplimentary write-up happened. Does the P.R. pro still get paid?

And hold on again: Even if a hungry bottom feeder bites and even if positive coverage is earned, what is gained?

Here’s how account executive Mary A. Burns at hGroup 55 Marketing in Detroit puts it in her forum response:

You will need more coverage than a simple article . . . and you will surely want to control how your brand is handled. What value will your company/product gain? How else can this goal be accomplished? . . . Clearly defining your goals up front will allow for the development of a strategic — and effective — media/marketing plan.

Bottom line: I can’t imagine who’d nibble at this pay-per article Automat offer.

Takeaway: This invitation for a piecework proposal is a reminder of our profession’s need to demonstrate the value proposition of strategic public relations. There’s no publicity-dispensing lever or button.

[This was published March 29, 2010 as an article at, a site for corporate communicators.]


3 thoughts on “Public relations isn’t a vending machine for news

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