In this age of cost-cuts and rationalisation, why do organisations need external PR agencies?
Back in May 2003, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called ‘IT Doesn’t Matter’. To quote Carr, “When a resource becomes essential to competition but inconsequential to strategy, the risks it creates become more important than the advantages it provides.”
Now that’s precisely what one can say about the public relations function today. When managements across the globe are tightening their belts, taking a hard look at organisational charts and examining which functions to eliminate, why is the axe not falling on their PR budgets, or, indeed, PR agencies?
As a journalist, nothing can be more irritating than receiving a mass-mailer from a PR agency that starts with: ‘FOR IMMEDIATE PUBLICATION’ or some such inane combination of words (in capital letters, always) on a company’s subsidiary’s obscure product launch in Burkina Faso. Or whatever. It keeps happening, all the time, and makes you bolt for ‘delete’ faster than Usain Bolt.
And then comes the follow-up call (‘when are you publishing the Burkina Faso product launch?’) which makes you want to throw your phone across the room, risking the loss of all the contacts stored in your instrument and causing serious bodily harm to your co-workers.
Coming back to the communication that normally comes out from PR agencies, all these press releases have a last line which says, “contact us for more info” or “if you would like to interview (a particular company executive) or “need a quote (from the company)” on any development, “please call”—it all ends with names and numbers of an account executive from the agency.
For whom is this last line meant for? Why should a journalist seeking information always have to go through the PR agency? It would make more sense if a release ended with the name of a company spokesperson or anybody else competent enough to handle the query (along with all the relevant contact details). When you receive a press release without these details, one sure feels that a company is not interested in the contents of the release, and is just sending out a communiqué which is one-sided. And all too often, the PR account executive almost never gets back if the recipient has any queries, for reasons best known to the agency.
Nothing bugs a journalist more than getting a release and then receiving no clarifications or follow-ups.
Again, press releases are almost always quotes or discourses from head honchos on developments the company considers positive. You are also flooded with “interviews” in releases where the questions and answers look like they belong to some internal company newsletter. Is this what readers are looking out for?
Where is the value-addition that a journalist is supposed to provide when a company is being interviewed? Do these agencies—and companies—seriously believe that any publication of repute will actually publish these prefabricated interviews? These ‘interviews’ come across as some kind of an insurance that companies want to take so that they are not faced with any uncomfortable questions when a press conference is thrown open to the Fourth Estate.
The argument is always made that given the number of media outlets in India, a PR agency will be in an ideal position to reach out to all of them. But that’s where PR companies go wrong—they always seem to blunder into the ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy.Will PR agencies never learn? And more importantly, cannot organisations spend their money in beefing up their internal corporate communications departments, instead of putting their strategy and reputation at stake with such external entities?
If senior executives still have this irresistible urge to employ PR agencies, these outfits should be better trained—and work much more closely with an organisation’s corporate communications and marketing departments. The standard response (‘we’ll get back to you’—and which never happens) on any query a journalist might have on a company when she contacts a PR executive is unpardonable, to say the least.
To paraphrase Carr, the risks involved in employing PR agencies far outweigh whatever perceived advantages they deliver to organisations. Space and time limit yours truly from going on further on how redundant the whole function has become.
The relationship between the corporate world and journalism should be symbiotic. There is absolutely no need for a go-between—if everybody can speak the same language. If there is anything a publication—we’re talking about the better ones here—considers newsworthy, then that article, review or interview will surely see the light of day. This does not require a PR ‘push’.
Of course, there might be a PR agency somewhere on this planet that’s been doing a great job. Unfortunately, I have yet to stumble into it.
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