Red Herring ... I mean Alarm:Clock says fire your PR firm
Cluelesstrain Edition

From the ruins of Red Herring came Alarm:Clock. And, damn, it didn't take them much time to climb onto the cluelesstrain.

From Alarm:Clock comes their reasons to why you should fire your PR firm.

Alarm:Clock Crashes the Cluelesstrain Posted by Hello

I like to think that I have a different perspective on why you should or should not have a PR firm as a start-up. I worked in-house. I worked at a large, mutinational agency. I worked at a boutique, and started my own PR boutique. And, here's the best reason to have an outside firm: you need the outside perspective, someone that is detached enough to bring up various points, be the devil's advocate. When you are in-house, you are submerged in the culture, and ultimately may become drunk on the Kool Aid. Plus, having a team of PR people to brainstorm on ideas works better than being an in-house PR team of likely one at a start-up.

In the spirit of blogs - here's a step-by-step fisking of their post, which begins with:
Most startups are better served by running PR in-house. That’s our opinion. There are sound reasons for larger publicly-traded companies to bring on an agency, but for most startups the primary motivator seems to be insecurity and a desire to do as the big boys do. Here are five reasons not to hire or to fire your PR firm:
1. If PR people talk about the relationships they have with journalists to the start-ups, it's because the start-ups - and the VC firms - want to know who they know and what they have done. It's showing what you have done in the past, and do have the ability to do the work. There's nothing wrong with having clips, which I am sure journalists have for their next interview.

Alarm:Clock people once worked with a journalist that broke up with his girlfriend because she worked at a PR firm. If the journalist really broke up with his girlfriend because she worked for a PR firm, he has bigger issues, and used the PR line as an excuse. I guess that was a good "It's not you, it's me" line for the dotcom era. Have to give points for creativity, though.

2. Alarm:Clock over-generalizes the work of PR firms, claiming that everything is scripted and we never get back to reporters. If all PR was scripted, and we never got back to reporters, PR firms should be let go. It's not about having "the time" but sometimes prioritizing. And, as reporters have told me - reporters who aren't ashamed of having a PR person as a friend - the strategic call is done at the end of the day for the "no comment" kicker.

As a PR person that was at an agency, at a start-up during the dot-com era, I can tell you the benefits of having a firm as an in-house PR person.

3. With more than 200+ PR blogs out there, it's a generalization to say that PR doesn't understand blogs. Look at the largest independent PR firm in the world, and you will see the president's weekly blog. "Don't get it" doesn't hold water.

4. I am looking at start-ups that do PR well, and I see PR firms. The one example brought up is Topix. One problem, though. Topix has a PR firm: CooperKatz.

Name a start-up, and invariably the in-house person(s) are from large firms, or they are using a firm, or they are working with consultants that came from firms.

5. On the claim that PR is a waste of money for junior people, with the resurgence of boutiques, that $10K/month is getting you senior counsel - even at the large firms, you have senior people working on the account.

The other argument for having an in-house PR person is that they can "carry out other functions during PR downtime." There's downtime in PR? I would love to know when.

Hat tip to David Parmet for the head's up.

UPDATE: Sarah Lacy - please don't call her Stacy or Lucy - from BusinessWeek's DealFlow has a great take on the Alarm:Clock's PR rant. She has some valid points that PR firms need to have balls (my words, not her), and that too few PR people can stand up to clients and push back. Thanks to Tom Murphy and Constantin Basturea for the link.

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  1. Very well put Jeremy. I read that Alarm Clock post and was hoping for a good comeback - you came through.

    One point that you mentioned sticks out in my head most - how in house is submerged in the culture and how having a team of PR people brainstorming ideas works better than in house. I couldnt agree more, we spend all day brainstorming for clients at my agency and always come up with out of the box ideas that in house may not have time to think of b/c they are always so swamped.

  2. Jeremy:

    I don't disagree with your comments, but I also think there's more than a touch of truth in the original post.

    Some PR firms -- many PR firms, actually -- aren't worth anywhere near the money they charge, and cause the entire industry to suffer.

    In Houston, for example, there's a well-known firm that wins lots of business ... and then a few months later promptly loses most of it, while laughing as they deposit their money.

    I cleaned up after them on many an occasion, and yet they are still in business and still winning new accounts ... amazingly so.

    I think your points about boutiques are well made, because I believe many big firms are simply saddled with too much overhead to be cost-effective. But I can also see how many start-ups wind up getting rippped off and souring on the whole PR firm thing.

  3. John, i'm really a bit surprised to see you make an unsubstantiated claim like that. Houston isn't that big of a city.

    Your claim is also anecdotal (along with being unfounded and unprovable without evidence) and lends credence to those that see blogs as gossip pits.

    alarm:clock's claims are also similarly tainted by being anecdotal and unfounded. Is this 'venting' day? I thought it was Cinco de Mayo?

    Wait, maybe 'that' is what is contributing to this random venting we're seeing today. :grin:

  4. I did PR inhouse for a start-up and I would definitely recommend it as the way to go. There was no need for outside perspective. Come to think of it, maybe there was, but that didn't stop us from getting onto the Today show and Discover Channel, not to mention Time and the pub mentioned in your post, Red Herring. If the PR person is sharp, well informed and media savvy, it doesn't matter if he's inhouse or agency. Well, it does matter because with the Agency route there are hidden costs, unnecessary reports no one ever reads, sudden changes in the team, shockingly high bills and a cavernous gulf between what the agency promised you and what they delivered. Is that what start-ups really want to deal with?

  5. Hi Anon,

    It depends on how large the in-house team is for a start-up, but as you know, you cannot cover everything.

    We can compare war stories all day, but when you have a good combination, the in-house person and agency working in tandem, as partners, it can work very well.

  6. Ah some great points by all sides. As an editor I have seen the best and the worst of publicists. Those who are like a dog on a bone -- and those who resemble poor Joe Pisarcik (famed Giant who dropped the ball against the Eagles).

    In any event, aside from jeremy's points, also consider a firm's resources -- into databases like Nexsus-Lexus, ProfNet & access to analysts.

    The bit about blogging however does not hold true in my world. Our magazine focuses on high-end contemporary design and we BEG the industry to comment -- they don't get it, they don't understand it and so they don't use it. (I welcome anyone who wishes to prove me wrong!!)

    Personally I believe in an outside agency -- but I have very strict criteria -- which databases do they subscribe to? Do they understand blogging, webcasts, podcasts? How successful are they with speaker's bureau? And what 3 angles can they think of off the top of their heads about me business.

  7. Robert:

    Sorry for the delay in responding ... I just now made it back to this post to read the remaining followups.

    I realize after reviewing my original post that it may have sounded like gossip, but I did not intend to spread rumors.

    I was trying to use a personal experience to show that there are PR firms out there built around a business model that is almost guaranteed to under-deliver, and that those firms are thriving.

    We always assume -- incorrectly -- that any business that consistently under-delivers on its promise will fail. But that's usually not the case.

    I think it's especially true in our profession, especially with firms that are media-relations heavy. The promise of big visibility is almost always a lie, except for a few exceptional clients that have a newsworthy product or service.

    Your points are well-made, however. Next time I will be more careful in pointing fingers. - jw

  8. I agree with John.

    The trend is as much visible in India.

    Many of the Indian PR companies, especially the bigger ones, are becoming more prone to falling short of the promises they make when pitching for the accounts. This not only hurts the industry as a whole but also makes lives tougher for the smaller PR agencies trying to build up their profile.

    The bigger agencies still manage to net new and gullible clients and when these clients get a little wiser, they leave the bigger agencies and give hell of a tough time to smaller agencies that have to do the clean-up act...

    PR Consultant India & SEO Expert India
    Creativizt Communications
    Web Designer India

  9. PR industry needs to change its existing perception. Industry has to create attention towards the technical part of PR rather than highlighting its media relations. Clients needs to be educated for better execution of any well planned PR campaign.

    Deesha Communications


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