The Worst Reason to Hire a PR Pro

December 8th, 2011 | Shonali Burke | 36 Comments

red flagRecently, I received an email from someone asking if I would be interested in providing PR services for a fundraising campaign he is embarking on.

He is doing this because so far, at least, he’s been unsuccessful in securing funding to build a prototype for what sounds like an interesting invention in the energy field. So now he’s turning to crowd-funding.

Specifically, he said, he wanted to “hire a professional PR specialist with [a] sound knowledge of social media marketing and [who is] also well-connected.”

I wrote back asking for more details on the project, including timeframe and budget.

The essence of his response was that because of my “position” – and I quote from his note with minor edits for readability – “top 25 women in online media, 5,000 [people have me] in their circles (I assume he means Google+), 12,000 followers on Twitter, etc.” – he thought I was the right person to work with.

The timeframe to get started was less than 10 days to “prepare a PR packet” and get started. And there was no budget, but we could discuss a commission structure.

I declined, saying that this was too tight a timeframe for me (which is true), and that I don’t work on commission (which is also true).

If this gentleman’s invention is as revolutionary as he says it is, I hope he finds the funding he needs.

But I also hope he goes about it in a more strategic way than he is trying to find PR representation.

There are so many reasons I say this – he wanted a “professional” but didn’t want to pay for one, he didn’t ask about my interest/experience in the subject matter, he assumed that a “PR packet” could be slapped together, etc. – but the biggest red flag for me was that he fixated on the size of my network.

This is the absolutely worst reason anyone can hire a public relations practitioner.

What difference does it make how many circles I’m in, how many followers I have, yadda yadda? Are those people going to cough up the dough to build this prototype? Are they even going to be interested in it? Are they going to become part of his community?

Nope.

And I have seen/heard of countless pros being approached primarily for this reason – that they have large networks – regardless of what their experience is, regardless of how well-suited they might be for a project, regardless of their interest in a particular field.

If, as a business owner, you’re in that mindset, please get out of it. Now.

What someone’s social score is, or how many followers they have on Twitter, means diddly-squat for you. Because it’s their network. Not yours. And no matter how much you try, or even they might try, they are not going to be able to transfer that community over to you.

It might work a little at the beginning but it certainly won’t be sustainable, unless it’s a very niche community… which means that, in all likelihood, it’s not a large one. Which brings you back to Square One.

So when you hire, please hire wisely.

Hire for experience. Hire for quality. Hire for smart, creative thinking. Hire for interest.

Hire for commitment. Hire for reliability. And certainly hire for budget, but don’t expect to get any practitioner worth his/her salt for free, because I can tell you that a lot more goes into creating and implementing a strategic public relations plan than putting together a “PR packet” and banging out a few news releases.

Please don’t hire because you think their network is going to fall in love with you/your business/product/service.

It just doesn’t work that way.

Image: Yosef M. via Flickr, CC 2.0

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Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
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36 comments
Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@Shonali I see this disconnect all the time. Sometimes I look on boards for piece work and the posts are ridiculous. 'Seek social media guru to get us 50,000 fans in 4 weeks. Budget $500' or what we have discussed and I have blogged about...publicity vs public relations with a tight budget.

What this person really needs is a mentor who can help guide him in the VC world or figure out Kick Starter. I mean did he expect you to get him on TV? (Publicity). And the commission really means he needs a professional salesperson.

Not sure what planet some people are on.

Daniel J. Cohen
Daniel J. Cohen

I am on the PR team at a test prep company in Houston and our boss had a PR guy from years before us who had a great Rolodex... but once he was out of contacts, that was all you got! SOCIAL JOBS ARE CREATIVE JOBS. Hiring for quality is absolutely the name of the game,

Way to hit it on the head, Shonali!

jennimacdonald
jennimacdonald

@Shonali this got me fired up! I get pitched almost daily to help friends, or friends of friends, out with their social media strategies but they are not willing to pay for my services. I am a professional, I have been in digital marketing for 6 years and have been administering social media strategies for companies for 4.5. Now if you're a doctor with that experience you're going to get paid for your services.

I have had past experience with this situation with a degree in Graphic Design and when I was actively designing full-time I would encounter the same situation. I would often hear "I can use Photoshop, so I can design that too." -->Really? Did you study Art for 4 years and learn about color, composition, typography and design? Ok then.

I think that since technology gives everyone access to the tools we use everyday, everyone thinks they can be successful using them. Sometimes yes I agree if you study and practice but there should be something to be said for those of us who have experience and backgrounds in using these tools, and as such we should be rewarded for our knowledge.

That is my rant for today. : )

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

Word. No, let me try that again. WORD! Like @jenzings mentioned, the part that gets me is the strategy of levering YOUR network for HIS goals. I see the 'must have great media list and working relationships w/ reporters' on listings, inquiries and shake my head b/c clearly, these people don't get it. Any of it, how it works, how busy/transient reporters are, how much strategy, time and WORK it takes to develop relationships w/ the right journalists and bloggers.

The other part of this - the commission; it's one of my 'spot a tire-kicker' red flags. Never mind be unethical ala being paid per placement (queue the shotgun, spray and hope it sticks in all the wrong places crap), it circles back to the overall debate on how to bill, how to charge, how to VALUE our services. Slap something good enough together, in a couple weeks? And expect results? For no pay? Think it's a little of the 'beer taste, tap water income' we talked about earlier. And you're right, it just doesn't work this way. FWIW.

jenzings
jenzings

If he's looking for funding, he really should check out the average salaries of PR pros if your connections are of that much importance. I think he might be disappointed. (not saying your Twitter followers are exclusively PR pros, but what he seems to need is VC funding, and how, exactly do your Twitter followers lead there?) In other words, to use a different example, if someone in aeronautics hires me, or you, to increase the visibility of their new planes based on our followers, etc.--how exactly do our followers translate to their target audience?

This, I think, goes back to the incorrect notion that PR=Media relations, and that when you hire a PR person what you are really doing is hiring their connections to journalists. The fact that this doesn't translate to social media seems to be beyond the grasp of understanding for some.

I snarked about Klout scores in your FB post on this piece, but yeah, that's the problem: numbers in a vacuum do not translate to the appropriate CONTEXT.

*Le sigh.* When will this sink in?

Great, but disappointing post (disappointing that people still think this way. You know what I mean!)

:-)

davevandewalle
davevandewalle

I will also say this OUT LOUD, and it will get me in trouble: this is the exact same approach that book publishers are using. Their metrics are akin to a Klout score for bloggers and "influencers," and they use this perceived influence to assume two things. (1) You can promote your own book and (2) You can write.

I can't tell you how bloody dangerous this is - I have actually skimmed through some books from people who fall into those categories and, while perception on point 1 is that they do okay, perception of point 2 is oftentimes DEAD WRONG.

As for the PR consulting portion of this - it's likely that this person is going to get a similar response from all the others that meet his criteria, then he'll have to expand his list, then he'll eventually need to go offshore for help. He may find someone to work on commission, he may not. Whatevs.

Never a bad idea for people in his shoes to actually pick up the phone first and call someone. Call a friend who has hired PR help before. Call an agency he's heard of - even if you know that you can't afford them, ask them to refer someone who is more in line with his budget. Etc.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

So many great points here. The first thing that came to mind for me is some friends I have in PR. Friends that are just a few years into their career but they are wicked smart people. Thing is, unfortunately when you work a full time job just starting out, you don't always have much time left to devote to say your personal blog, network etc. Sure this is very different because at that point you'd be hiring someone from an agency but what I'm trying to say is, from the surface you may look at their network and say hmm..1,000 people that's nothing, they haven't written in their blog in awhile etc. Does this mean they aren't smart? Darn good at what they do? No it sure doesn't. This doesn't mean I don't think it's important to also put time into your own "personal branding", because I do. I just think your point is well taken and for me personally, I can see how it applies to many people I know in the PR field. Unfortunately for this gentleman, he wouldn't have even stopped for a second glance at some of these not as well networked PR pros. It reminds me of the Klout score post, these numbers aren't the only thing that makes you successful, there are many factors. As there are in all professions.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@HowieG From what he told me, he tried, and failed, at securing VC funding. Which makes me ask... why? Is the product not good enough? Were you not committed enough? Perhaps he wasn't plugged into the right VC network, but particularly in that case, how would my working on his project help? I'm certainly not plugged into that network! Sure, I could create great content and generate good visibility and, I'm fairly confident, interest from the right kind of media/bloggers, but it certainly wouldn't happen in 10 days.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@Daniel J. Cohen Heh! Thanks. :)

I think the Rolodex (note, we are still using that word, LOL) can help, but only up to a point, as I said to @jennimacdonald . What if your pitch sucks? What if that person is no longer there? What if - gasp! - it's just not relevant? Through my career I have constantly built new relationships, including with the media, and now, bloggers. Research and a good, well-crafted email (cough, @erinmfeldman and @ShakirahDawud, cough) go a long way.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@jennimacdonald Oh goodness I can completely relate with you on your rant! The Graphic Design one in particular- I studied both Communication and Design in college and although I do some freelance design and wedding stuff for friends (as my gift) people do constantly either want you to do things for free or think it's not that hard they have Photoshop too. Ugh!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@jennimacdonald Today I got a note from @robjwu - who I consider a friend - who wanted some quick advice. You know what was best about it? That right off the bat, he didn't ask me to give him a freebie, but offered to pay for my time. Because I know him, I said, "No, you don't have to pay me," and helped him out as best I could. (Hopefully it was helpful, Rob, LOL!). But it meant the world to me that a) he reached out to me and b) respected my time and expertise.

I think it was @laurascholz who made a comment similar to yours, that made me smile, about trying the commission line with her accountant or attorney... ha!

Technology is a wonderful thing. But it's absolutely given rise to this DIY mentality (and pricing). And because PR does such a bad job of PR for itself (don't get me started), everyone thinks they can do it... and therefore, when they deign to give you some work, they shouldn't have to pay for it.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@3HatsComm That's one of the things that's always a red flag for me. When I moved to the US, I didn't know anyone, let alone have media contacts. Sure, the agency I started working at did, but if my work had sucked, nothing would have saved me. Does it give one a bit of a leg up if one knows the media in the field? Maybe. But you still have to have a good product/service/client, pitch well, etc. - those contacts aren't going to burn themselves for you. Besides which, given how quickly *everyone* moves from one job to another these days, what's to say those contacts will be at the same outlet a while from now? Nothing. @jenzings

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@jenzings Wow, if I had a dollar for every time I saw a lead or had someone ask, wanting to 'hire my connections to journalists' .. I'd have so many more dollars. *le sigh, deux.*

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@jenzings Exactly. I do know what you mean, and I was disappointed too. Which was why I wrote the post. And I'm continually dismayed by the lack of understanding of what PR entails, and what it *can* entail. There are many of us who try to correct the notion that it's just media relations or blathering on about nonsense, but it's tiring. You'd think we'd have "come a long way, baby." But sometimes I wonder. I really do.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@davevandewalle I've heard that about publishers too, and one I spoke with recently mentioned it as well. This is the reason I don't do a lot of book reviews; most of the books I hear about/read, especially the PR/SM books make me either yawn or roll my eyes. I do have a few that I want to go through, but that's because these are people who, I think, know what they're talking about, so I'm curious to read their books.

Calling is such a good way to go about this, or asking for referrals from people you trust. I do that to this day.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@rachaelseda Same applies to people who've been at this a while. Just b/c you've got 5K followers and 500 blog posts doesn't make you any smarter or more of an expert than someone w/ a fraction of that. It's the whole package - and what will work best together.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@rachaelseda Exactly! Let's look at you working with me, for example - because I know that won't offend you. If I had only looked at your social score/profile, we wouldn't be working together today. But it was your interest, your skill and willingness to learn (and teach), and your commitment that led us to where we are today.

It's important to build up a body of work that speaks for itself. In this day and age that includes participating in SM, blogging, etc. - particularly if one is in our field. But to focus just on numbers - ugh.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@Shonali The VC thing is really hard for someone like that. It isn't finding the VC it is presenting the opportunity beyond 'hey check out my invention'. They will want to know product positioning, what you know about the market, revenue potential, when they will get paid back etc.

But you are correct not sure what you would bring for him unless he just expected your network to have deep pocket investors.

Erin F.
Erin F.

@Shonali@Daniel J. Cohen@jennimacdonald@ShakirahDawud Don't even get me started on email. It's almost the bane of my existence. I received a "pitch" from a college student the other day. I took pity on her because I remember the emails I used to send when I was a young college student and didn't know anything. I think colleges and universities should spend time teaching students some pitching skills. Best pitch I've received recently? It was from a person who supposedly wanted to write a grammar post for my blog. He sent a snippet from the post, and it insulted any person who still believed in following the basic rules of capitalization and punctuation. Good grief. It's never a good idea to insult the person you're pitching. Since I'm trying to find publications that would welcome my Write Right series, I've taken to being very specific with my pitches and what I want to accomplish with my series. I guess I'm still in the research phase. I think I need to find some business publications, not the local newspapers.

robjwu
robjwu

@Shonali Shonali you are awesome.Totally helped. You're so much more eloquent that I can ever be. Your metrics don't have to prove that :)

@jennimacdonald I find that a lot of people always ask for freebies from graphic designers and web designers for some reason. I've concluded that it's because people most people don't know how much expertise, experience, and work it takes to create something in the design or tech space.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@Shonali@jenzings Re: good product/service/client, I call it my 'New Coke' rule. Best campaign in the world can only do so much.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@3HatsComm Exactly! It reminds me of my mom who's a Nurse Practitioner...I'm not saying this because I'm biased and she is my mom but truly my mom has always had a very good sense for people. She can read someone very well and she has an uncanny ability to diagnose people. I realize now that it's actually not easy for a medical professional to diagnose you, they don't know everything. But my mom has pretty much diagnosed my friends even while we were away at college. One time a friend was sent home from the ER given pain meds and told her stomach pain will pass, when I told my mom her symptoms she immediately told me to take her back to the ER demand she seeing the doctor again and just lie to them and tell them your mother is a doctor (because they wouldn't care if I said Nurse Practitioner) and she said she has appendicitis and needs surgery ASAP before her appendix ruptures. I did exactly as she told me...and guess what if we had waited any longer that's exactly what would've happened.

The point I'm trying to make is just because your a "seasoned" Doctor doesn't mean your better at what you do than a Nurse Practitioner and that whether your a 20+ year professional or 5+ year professional we all have a different perspective and talent to offer, neither being less valuable than the other.

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@Shonali Amen sister, exactly! I'm glad you didn't just look at those numbers!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@HowieG Exactly. And while I've never looked for VC funding, I imagine how you present that information is equally important as the information itself. That's where a good PR pro could help... but simply for the network? Nope.

Latest blog post: Butternut Squash Soup

SuzanneSRQ
SuzanneSRQ

 @3HatsComm

 So very well said!

Suzanne Dameron, CEO Lime Communications, Sarasota Florida

 

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@rachaelseda I'll spare @Shonali a wicked long rant on meritocracy, experience, nepotism, dues-paying and say, THIS!

I'm not discounting experience, or gut instinct which is often honed by doing the work year after year. But holding a job - in which your most significant achievement was not getting fired as you slowly move up the ladder to hide in middle management - does not a leader or expert make. The 'kids' can still have perspective, ideas, work their butts off and maybe, be better suited for a certain project or client. I've always been caught behind that eight ball of "experience needed to get gig/can't get certain experience w/out certain gig" and .. grrr! The smart, young whipper-snapper w/ anemic portfolio may well have a better take on a project than the 'seasoned vet' w/ a padded resume. /end mini-rant

And FWIW mother, sister, friends are in healthcare; seen lots of more accurate diagnoses from them, know that it's ok to seek a second opinion. Even if the first opinion is correct, sometimes there is still great benefit and value to getting others.

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