How much do PR agencies know about their clients?

Robin HicksIn the 13,204th rant a journalist has written about the failings of the public relations industry this year, Robin Hicks wonders if there is really any point to PR agencies if they know so little about their own clients.

So, the short answer to the question in the headline appears to be: not very much.

This piece is inspired by frustration, and is one that should probably have – like many an angry email – stayed in drafts.

But it just got too much to bear.

Why is it that PR executives are so clueless about the clients they are paid to represent?

In what has been something of a cathartic exercise, Mumbrella has over the past few months asked a number of PR agency folk some fairly basic questions about their clients to see how clued up they are. Or not.

The results will probably come as no surprise to journalists based in Singapore.

Of the 10 PR people Mumbrella asked three questions each about their clients, only one got all three right.

Four execs – representing LinkedIn, PayPal, SilkAir and Glispa – did not give a single correct answer. Actually, they didn’t give an answer at all.

Four (representing Courts, VML, AIA and Discovery Networks) got one question right. One (Grab) got two right.

So, call a PR executive in Singapore, and the chances of you getting any kind of answer to a question about their clients is less than one in three.

And it’s not as if they were being asked for the sequence to their client’s genetic code.

A PR exec representing SilkAir, a junior who called to check if we’d received a press release, did not know who the CEO of SilkAir is.

Nor did he have any idea that Mumbrella had written a story about SilkAir the week before.

An executive representing Discovery Networks, a senior associate who’d sent out a press release about some senior hires for the Southeast Asia team had no idea about an influencer network Discovery had just acquired in China. Her response: “China is not the market that we cover, we only do Southeast Asia.”

An executive handling LinkedIn did not know how many users the social network has. Nor did she know which Asian market is LinkedIn’s biggest.

An executive representing PayPal did not know that just a few weeks prior the payment service had shut down its Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and Amazon apps. Or that PayPal’s co-founder had been embroiled in a legal dispute with Gawker.

This is information you’d really expect a PR agency to be on top of if they take any interest whatsoever in their client’s business.

The most frequent phrase I have heard on the phone to PR executives in Singapore is this: “Um, let me check.”

Or, “I’m not very sure.”

These phrases will forever more reverberate around the walls of my head. Let me check. Not very sure. Let me check. Not very sure.

A maddening merry-go-round of cluelessness.

The key point, though, is that the questions where all asked over the phone.

In some cases it’s likely that the PR knew the answer. They were just terrified of getting it wrong. Or just did not want to say.

That was probably the case with the PR for PayPal who was asked if she could name any of the payment service’s competitors. She simply refused, saying that PayPal had no direct competitors.

Of course, this is not true. But you can sort of understand her response. Why would any PR talk about their client’s competitors on the phone to a journalist? Unless of course they knew anything about how a journalist approaches a story.

There are probably clients who see merit in their PR agencies not breathing a word to journalists over the phone without their approval first.

Fewer mistakes, sure. But this strategy is not without risk.

A PR agency that takes two hours to respond to a simple question because they’ve felt obliged to put it in an email – and loop in 10 people before they’re absolutely sure their ass is covered – does not cut it with a journalist on deadline.

Chances are, as time wears on, the story won’t get covered at all. And there goes their KPI.

A single-fact story should take about 15 minutes to write. Not three hours because a journalist is waiting for a PR to check a fact, polish a boiler plate or remove their head from their bottom.

A journalist who works on a national newspaper in Singapore recently shared her belief that there is no point to PR agencies. Brands should take the function inhouse, she said, and hire a team that is sufficiently empowered to do their job.

It’s hard to argue with that when you call a PR agency with a question about a press release and find yourself in a yard of headless chickens.

A good PR agency should be an extension of their client’s communications department, should it not? Not an information vacuum.

But not all PR agencies in Singapore are a horrible waste of time.

Smaller, more local shops are probably the best bet, for clients as well as journalists.

As Lou Hoffman, the founder of independent firm The Hoffman Agency suggested recently, there will always be a market for small shops where the founder is also the client’s account manager. The same thing rings true for journalists.

The only agency that answered all three of Mumbrella’s questions was a local shop called Gloo that is a little over a year old.

The person who answered them (When did Oppo launch in Singapore? Who is the co-founder of Oppo Singapore? Where is Oppo headquartered?) was – yup – the agency’s founder, former Straits Times journalist Oo Gin Lee.

He was also able to do another very rare thing in PR cycles – talk about the client’s business and place in the world.

This ability to provide context, PayPal’s head of APAC communications pointed out recently, is almost unheard of in Singapore.

But it is fundamental.

So is the ability to give life to a client’s story with an anecdote or a bit of colour – another way in which PR agencies tend to make pitifully bad storytellers.

And storytelling is supposedly PR’s strong point.

So is having ideas.

In almost four years of covering Asia’s media and marketing industries, the number of genuinely interesting creative ideas pitched by PR agencies I can count on two fingers of one hand (thank you, Mutant Communications and Ying Communications!).

That PR people seem to know so little about their own clients, and seem to serve no purpose beyond slowing a story down or killing it, is exasperating for journalists. But this can sort of be excused by how often accounts move around, and how often people leave agencies, or the profession altogether, because – as the head of comms for a travel agent suggested recently (“I have my life back!”) – they’ve been overworked. Can’t it?

It can also be explained by the tendency for PR agencies to put interns in the frontline to do the grunt work, like pitch stories to journalists and check they’ve received press releases, which allows the agency’s bosses to escape blame when things go wrong (something PR agencies excel at).

One thing I have stopped is being mean to juniors who call to ask if I’ve received a press release, and clearly don’t have any idea about what they’re pitching.

Because it’s not really their fault. It’s their boss’s. It’s their agency’s. And it’s ultimately their client’s for paying for such crap service.

So, clients. Do yourselves a favour. Either do PR yourselves. Or give your agencies more power to make decisions – informed decisions that stop your stories from dying, and journalists from going quietly mad.

Robin Hicks is the editor of Mumbrella Asia


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