Sunday, February 24, 2008

How to Effectively “Sell” PR

(Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 17, 2008)

Even the most talented public relations professionals need one key ingredient before they can work their magic: A company willing to trust the PR pro with their program. Getting to this crucial point isn't always easy, and the way PR has traditionally been sold has a lot to do with it.

The business pitch process itself is relatively simple: Find a client that's a good fit for a consultant or an agency's experience and background and convince them you're the one for the job. While that seems simple enough, like many things, the devil's in the details. While it's understandable that an agency or consultant may want to pull out all the stops to get new business, in many cases, the way it's done now is all too often the problem.

Often, a new business pitch consists of an agency or consultant wowing a prospective client with PowerPoint presentations and telling them all the great outlets they're sure to appear in if they just select their firm. They talk about the placements they've achieved for clients and how they can do that for darn near anybody on the planet – including, of course, the company they're pitching.

Now no one in their right mind would go into a business pitch with a demeanor resembling the comic Steven Wright and/or an attitude that didn't reflect competence and confidence; but the key thing to remember is going overboard is no better. During the “dot-com boom,” we were all treated to stories about how company x was going to have the next best thing that was sure to shake the competitive landscape of its field. And when most companies are looking for a PR pro, they feel just as confident about their product or service and think it's just a matter of time before the high-level ink will come rolling in.

When an agency or consultant typically hears a prospective client talk like this, they often give encouraging feedback and/or do their best to echo what the client said. However, at this juncture, what we should really be thinking is not so much giving the client back what they want to hear, but giving them honest feedback that reflects the experience that comes from managing good PR campaigns. To get a better idea of what I mean, think about law firms. I do a lot of work with law firms large and small, and I feel that PR should do more to model itself around the legal profession and other portions of the professional services world. By that I mean, even the best lawyer in the country will never promise an outcome they're not sure can be delivered. In addition to the fact that doing so would run afoul of a myriad of ethics rules, they also realize all too well that even if someone's the greatest at what (s)he does, sometimes they'll lose for reasons completely out of their control.

While it may be tough to say even to ourselves, even the best PR campaign will fail sometimes, even if the client has a good idea. After all, the proverbial road is littered with many sound ideas, services and products that just never took off. A good PR agency will bridge the gap between what they can and can't do in terms of the end result by explaining what works and doesn't work, as illustrated through campaigns that are similar to what the prospective client needs. You can tell a lot about whether a company will be a good client by how they react to your objective advice; if they don't take it, odds are they're going to want to pin everything that doesn't go right in a PR campaign directly on you, even if the reason something didn't work as expected was completely out of your control. That doesn't mean I would say you should never take business from a company whose executives act in this manner; my point is merely that it will prepare you for what could lie ahead and allow you time to think about managing the issue. If you follow the path of giving a prospective client objective advice and they come aboard with your firm, you're already going to be on much more solid ground than if you'd promised anything and everything under the moon just to get them in. And to be fair, you really can't blame the client in this instance, as nobody forced the PR pro to say something they didn't want to say.

In all likelihood, taking this path will go far toward earning you that “seat at the table” that so many PR pros covet. To be successful, you'll need an advocate inside the company that communicates your successes and embraces your ideas and is willing to go to bat for you and those ideas to key executives. You'll also likely find that the client will respect your abilities more if you give them objective advice, even if it confronts their conventional wisdom at the time.

The best reward that this approach will likely bring is both a happy client and a long-term client. As I've written about extensively on my blog and in other forums, if every professional service firm had to replace their clients as often as PR firms do, they'd be thinking something had gone horribly wrong. Yet, for some crazy reason, we in PR just accept it as a fact of life. What makes this doubly crazy to me is that if you asked PR pros whether they'd rather be engaging in selling or strategic PR, most would choose the latter. Given that, why not do all you can to maximize client retention and, thus, reduce the need to constantly sell? I'm convinced taking a better approach to sales will not only benefit the practice of an individual practitioner or an agency's, but also be a great thing for the profession as a whole.