Why is clippings still a PR metric?

07 May 2010

I’ve been working with PR and communication in one way or another since 1997. Before that I spent a couple of years as editor at the Swedish edition of Computerworld, covering networking and data systems. When I left the paper, I had seen so much lousy PR – badly written press releases, uninformed PR consultants with poorly written scripts, bad messaging and general confusion – that I thought I could go into the PR business and *Make A Difference*.


But I soon realized that the bad scripts sometimes come from not having enough time to really understand the product or service to be launched. That the person writing the script, and the ones calling the journalists, often lacked the skills and understanding of the subject needed to make it interesting. I saw that clients where expecting the PR consultant to call a certain number of journalists regardless if the ones called where actually interested or not. But my main disappointment with the agency life was when I came to realise that what most clients want is press clippings. Not increased revenue or awareness. Just clippings. Preferably measured in volume, rather than content and attitude.


I have worked with serious corporate communication, developed a large number of messaging platforms and communication strategies during my 13 years in the communications industry. But it still is amazes me that the majority of clients use agencies for mechanical distribution of press material and that press clippings is still by far the main driving force for most of them. Despite most of these clippings having absolutely no effect on clients’ bottom-line. 


At most agencies I have experience from, either as an employee, owner or client, integrity is said to be very important. Most consultants, at least on an Account Manager level and up, know what really works and if someone asks us to compromise our beliefs, we should just decline. An example of this is the typical client asking us to send out a news release on something that is of very little interest to anyone, least of all to the media. We know that it is wasted time and resources but for the client’s PR manager, it might be a way to appear more active towards their internal organization for example. So we get instructed to just do it.


And we shut up and get on with it - against our beliefs and thereby compromising our integrity. This is annoying. Even though the client pays for my time and tells me what to do, the only way I can respect myself is by actually telling the client what really works – even if that does make me a miserable old fart in the eyes of the client. But I so wish that we all, in that kind of situation, could just tell the client to shape up and get a grip, rather than assist them in wasting their company’s resources.


I know there are more aspects to consider, like the client’s work situation and internal politics. I recently begun working with a (yet another) client whose PR manager’s worth is measured by the number of press clippings the agencies generate every quarter. At the same time, their business isn’t one often covered by the general media making each clipping a major achievement. So it is a challenge. Now, the client pays well. So should I just shut up and do exactly what the client asks?


Then consider this; most of that client’s business comes from existing customers. And former customers recommend the company to their friends. The company is considered one of the leaders in their industry and if they set up a seminar, loads of people in their target group comes and usually that generates some leads. Would it not then be totally evident that the thing to do is to invest the public relations budget into keeping this public close, updated and interested in the company rather than creating more or less artificial article ideas that in the end generates little of no business?


Generate coverage or help the company reach their business goals? No-brainer, right? But a majority of clients prefer us to generate sometimes useless coverage rather than business since the PR manager doesn’t get measured on sales, client satisfaction etc. That is the sales manager’s job. So confronted with exactly what I’m saying above, most PR managers say they’ll rather have publicity than good sales.


In the PR industry, we know all of this. Most of our clients know all of this. And still we continue with the charade. I may sound bitter and of course we do so many things in our work that actually does make a difference. We help shape messages to make them understandable and attractive, we train spokes people to get their message across and help them locate the right journalist at the right publication. We help clients speak to their employees and owners. We keep the client calm and coherent during a crisis and make sure things are said in the best possible way. We simply help our clients look their best but this still is not the main revenue source – that would be generating coverage.


Give the PR professional a target in sales, likability, general knowledge among the target groups or stakeholders. Let them use all the wonderful tools in the portfolio, not just press releases and PR stunts, working themselves to the ground trying to get an uninterested journalist to write a more or less faulty article that probably won’t make anyone buy your products. Let them set up meetings, produce magazines, arrange events, do surveys, drive relationships in social media forums, basically help manage the direct communication with the stakeholders – through all available channels – then you will see real and measurable return on investment – not just a bunch of articles. 




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