PR is so over

by admin on December 3, 2008

in Featured,General,Marketing

After 17 years, I’ve come to the end of putting up with what most PR offers. It is time to draw a line in the sand. Accordingly, any PR that emails me gets this standard response: “I’ve stopped accepting email pitches. Please follow me on Twitter and pitch in 140 characters or less.” Why be so draconian?

When Louis Bernays figured out how to channel his cousin Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical approach to people, he created an entire industry based on the notion of ‘influence.’ It was incredibly effective. Bernays managed to con the American people into believing the automotive industry was a good thing. Now look at it. According to one colleague, has over 5,000 PR related jobs. It ain’t a dying breed.

But look at what it does – or rather doesn’t do.

In any one day I field up to 20 PR requests. I can guarantee that 90+% of them have done zero research to find out what I’m interested in. In the worst cases they won’t have done a basic Google search to find out who I am or where my interests lay. In 2008, that’s beyond unacceptable, it’s criminal. Why?

PR costs anywhere between £1,500 to £30,000 a month, depending on what level of crap they’re selling to their unwitting clients. All of it is based on the desire to get the retainer rather than be measured on results. In the 1990′s, good PRs could write a half reasonable press release that would at least be engaging. You would have thought that with the tsunami of material about social media that in 2008 the situation would have moved on. Sadly not. If anything, the industry has regressed.

At a time when discretionary spend is under the microscope you have to ask yourself what useful purpose PR and social media play. When near zero cost alternatives abound and where creative examples like Hugh MacLeod and Loren Feldman exist, why does this industry continue to breathe?

As I said on Twitter: The genius of Hugh and Loren is that they state the everyday obvious in creative ways that make us smile.

The rest of PR makes me feel ill.

If you’re a professional considering PR then think carefully. Get past the Colgate smiles and sharp suits. Ask them what they really do. The answer will usually be laced in psychobabble.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

Adrian December 3, 2008 at 8:22 am

Why so angry and anecdotal?

Dennis Howlett December 3, 2008 at 11:33 am

What part of putting up with 17 years of BS did you miss?

Becky McMichael December 3, 2008 at 12:58 pm

*sighs and hoists sorry looking PR flag up the flagpole yet again*

….posts like this make me both angry and depressed.

I hear you on the PRs are rubbish front…some are….you only have to look at the number of large agencies absent from places like Twitter to see that many don't make use of the easy to find intel around. But Dennis come on…."depending on what level of crap they’re selling to their unwitting clients"…..that is harsh.

17 years of BS pitches and wasted conversations are bound to wear a man down but please don't tar an industry with the same brush. I am proud of what I do and providing I am current, relevant and keep my skills and contacts up to date can't see an end to people needing the type of consultancy I provide.


Dennis Howlett December 3, 2008 at 1:12 pm

@becky: If what I've said makes you depressed then you'd be suicidal reading what I have to tolerate.

I said 90% – that leaves room for something to float to the top. I also said it ain't dying any time soon.

But seriously – this industry has barely moved in the last 17 years apart from dropping snail mail and moving to email.

I'm getting very friendly with my spam filter.

Becky McMichael December 3, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Dennis, I hear you loud and clear but you must have known I'd respond, no? :-)

Dennis Howlett December 3, 2008 at 1:16 pm

@becky – of course. But then you're a ballsy lass who knows her stuff.

Stephen Waddington December 3, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Cracking rant Dennis. Who's pissed you off? Hope its not us.

Dennis Howlett December 3, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Think Millbank

Stuart Bruce December 3, 2008 at 5:52 pm

Millbank, ah ha, Thank goodness I can sleep easy in my bed and don't need to shoot any of my team before Christmas.

Ben Hwang December 3, 2008 at 6:15 pm

I think you're totally right. Most industries (including PR) have been sitting on the same type of medium or thought process for way too long without adapting to newer and better ways to do things.

While I do see a need for a PR person in a corporate environment, I believe that there can be more things done in direct contact within the social networks. I think that's obviously proven by those that you have mentioned and tools such as Twitter, FF, etc.

I'm not discounting the everyday PR tactics but in these times, there are industries that will feel the pain if there isn't creative versatility.

Craig McGill December 3, 2008 at 6:34 pm

Couple of points if you don't mind Dennis.

You make a number of very good points and yes – there's an incredible amount of sheer crap out there – but there's two or three angles to that:

1) A lot of PR firms haven't had the time to adjust to this new style world.
(I'm not overly convinced by this one. I don't consider myself geeky and I've been online since 1997, so what's stopping others?) That's their loss though.

2) A number of companies can't see how to make online/digital work for them due to staffing levels or other issues, including who their client base is.

3) On that note, some clients – regardless of how much you push and promote – just don't get it or want it. I've been shocked by the people I've spoken to over the years who still think that online is a fad. And by that I mean, even having a basic web presence. And ultimately, if the client wants you to spend your time doing non-digital then that's what you have to do.

4) Some companies just can't afford all the PR options out there and instead concentrate on what they see as their basic markets (again, I think this is an error but it's the client's call)

5) What Hugh does is a form of PR but it's not one that can spread far and wide by itself – again it depends on what clients want or what they see as the target for them.

6) You say "All of it is based on the desire to get the retainer rather than be measured on results" which, I feel is a terribly sweeping generalisation and an insult to many. Without the results you won't get to keep the retainer – especially in these credit crunch times.

7) Even in PR companies that do see the potential, staffing issues or other priorities (inc. client demands) or even simple work/life balance may hold them back from being as brilliant as they think they could be. Like anything being done properly you don't just set up a blog, a Twitter account and consider yourself the next Wolfstar.

Doug - Velocity, B2B December 3, 2008 at 8:19 pm

In B2B markets, a good, hardworking PR person can make a real difference — especially for smaller companies who find it hard to get on the radar of the media and analysts.

But good, hardworking PR pros don't tend to work in the agencies.

In our experience, online PR generates better returns than any of the hacks anyway.

An excellent Online PR team:

Doug Kessler

Craig McGill December 4, 2008 at 1:56 am

@Doug, I disagree – most of the best PRs I know work in agencies and agencies tend to be a little more cutting edge as they need to stay up to date.

Dennis Howlett December 3, 2008 at 8:30 pm

@craig – all you need do is show them a recent Twitterstream (like about now) where I asked about e-books: instant suggestions from a bunch of my followers with links etc. How cool is that? check it out

@Doug – I'm not here to be an extension of any PR person. I'm here to bat for the interests of those who buy software. I don't know any PR that does that effectively and believe me I've been looking for a very long time.

Craig McGill December 4, 2008 at 1:52 am

@Dennis, I'm all about the Twitter love – though only as part of an overall strategy and not standalone – but for a lot of clients what you point out isn't enough. They need to see a financial return to justify outlay, even with strong persuading – and then there are people who just don't want to.

As for what you point out about software, I would give you that a little. I used to do the PR for a fairly well-known CDI company and it was hard graft – mostly because the client wouldn't let us do our bit. We tried and tried but they kept wanting articles in their jargon, wouldn't take the opportunities we saw, their suggestions were awful – and in the end wanted us to do little more than write white papers for them – and the relationship ended frustratingly for us both as they thought we were crap and we found them unresponsive.

That's something I've found in many software firms – they have an idea that they want PR but when you confront them with how to do it, they aren't keen as it's not what they expected or in their worldview.

Dennis Howlett December 4, 2008 at 2:19 am

I hear you Craig. We all have choices we can make in business about who we wish to work with (or not) and I'm familiar with the argument you put forward. I don't work with crap companies, editors or titles and life is much the better for it.

Tim Hurley December 4, 2008 at 12:21 am

Dennis, in (American) football parlance, your post is akin to a late hit aka piling on the ball carrier after the whistle has blown. This anti-PR rant (Arrington, Calcanis, countless others before you) has gotten old and you could have done better. You are absolutely right in one respect: the PR industry has been changing and those individuals, in-house or agency professionals who have not morphed, evolved or otherwise improved their strategies and tactics, not just during this downturn, or during this web 3.0 era, but during the last decade, ought to seriously consider what value they bring to their companies or their clients. But to paint the entire industry with the inadequacy brush is just wrong. There are plenty of people who do get it. They have elevated their game and adopted new social media tools and techniques and figured out how to apply them to their marketing initiatives. This is called serving as a strategic resource to implement the right, most appropriate programs and then being able to measure these activities to demonstrate a return on marketing investment. It worked 25 years ago, it works today and it will work in the future. Yes, it does take more than Crest or an expensive suite. It also takes more than 140 characters to get the job done.

Sally Whittle December 4, 2008 at 1:20 am


As annoying as Millbank can be, seriously, I think you need some perspective.

18 irrelevant emails a day hardly constitutes a torrent of information. How big a deal is is, actually, to scan and delete those emails?

Yes, you personally might find it convenient to receive information by Twitter but I think there's a danger of being so safe and happy in your bubble that you forget 95% of PRs and (more importantly) their clients don't use Twitter.

You're arbitrarily cutting yourself off from anyone with a story to tell that's too complex for a single sentence or two. You're cutting off anyone who has a client that doesn't have the resources to embrace a number of comms channels. You're cutting off a huge flow of information because you can't be arsed to spend 10 minutes a day dealing with email. Seriously? So most PR pitches are crap, and most aren't relevant and precious few are exclusive or useful. But in cutting off the ones that AREN'T like that, you do a serious dis-service to your readership, I reckon.

And I've done 10 years of hacking and probably get 10 times as many pitches as you in a typical day, so I do get why it's annoying. My advice is just filter ruthlessly, add the bad agencies and worst offenders to an auto-delete list and find something more important to worry about.


Dennis Howlett December 4, 2008 at 2:27 am

Sally – I hear you as well. I'm glad I'm not as popular as you. I'd never get anything done trying to field that level of crap. But then you are in the business of soliciting pitches.

My network serves me very well without the need to pitch. So what if I miss a few? I'm really not that interested in getting the same 'exclusive' as everyone else will have in 5 minutes' time.

Much of what I do comes from knowing what's going on in the real world.

But in the end – like most others, you're missing the point. You started out just about the time email was coming in as a popular form of communication. At that time, most of the people I knew were busy finding ways to dump the mountain of unopened snail mail we were also getting. We've moved on, but PR remains ressentially the same.

If I can move the needle a fraction for my benefit then great. That's what I'll do. I stopped opening snail mail around 1996, have been paperless since 2005 – this is just one more step in that evolution. Who knows – maybe PR might get inventive for once and actually delight me instead of constantly pissing me off.

Craig McGill December 4, 2008 at 1:55 am

@Sally You make some fair points but at the end of the day if someone says 'you want my attention, here's how to get it' then that's fair enough. If I approached a client and they said 'I want your pitch on a salmon delivered to my office' then if the account was worthwhile I'd do it because then you show willing.

Similarly Dennis wants pitched by Twitter, then a pitch by Twitter it is. He's the client/potential client so he gets to make the rules.

Paul Fabretti December 4, 2008 at 2:27 am

Interesting that this has reared its head once again!

Looking at this from the outside, i agree with some of the PR peeps i know like stuart, becks and wadds that it is unfair to tarnish a whole industry because of some downright lazy activity.

But i am amazed that others are saying that pr agencies don't adopt social media because they are underresourced or that the 95% of the industry isn't on twitter so how can they pitch to people on there.

Here's a quick and very bloody simple lesson to all the numpties out there – go where your target audience is and just LISTEN, find out what makes then tick and then speak to them.

We all learnt the Green Cross Code – stop, look and listen. Why should pr be any different.

Danny Bradbury December 4, 2008 at 3:14 am

Hi Dennis. Maybe you're facing the 'one of me, thousands of you' problem that most hacks suffer from, and it's one that frustrates most hacks and prompts us to let off steam from time to time. Nevertheless I'd tend to be more charitable about the broader PR community.

Way more than 10% of the PR bods I deal with are very smart and very responsive. The boiler room PR houses that don't even know hacks' names, let alone their beats, are relatively few and far between, I think. the problem is that they tend to generate so much spam (there's no other word for it) that it can be tempting to tar everyone with the same brush.

Also, while I do have a couple of specialist subject areas that I get more involved with on a deeper and more frequent basis, as a freelance I tend to write about anything and everything. I think it must be very difficult for PR folks to try and target stuff to freelancers like me because they never really know what will and won't hit the mark.

I think Twitter would lose a lot of value if everyone started pitching on it. It's harder to filter and spot useful info from hundreds of sources on Twitter than it is via email. If you're annoyed at email pitches, I think moving them to Twitter would just relocate the problem.

FWIW I do use a couple of techniques to help filter out the stuff that isn't relevant to me, and to encourage people to use the channels that I find more appropriate. I trained PR firms to send incoming releases and pitches to a separate releases@ address. Then I use server-side filtering on that address to spot key topics that match my deeper interest areas (security and environment/cleantech) and filter stuff into subfolders in that mailbox. I get way more than 20 email pitches and releases a day and I find it helps me to sift the wheat from the chaff.

If you're having PR folks pitch you by phone and you don't like it, then I'd advise sending out a polite email blast to all the agencies in your address book requesting a zero cold-call policy and explaining why. I did this before I moved to Canada, anticipating time zone and other problems, and it worked.

Finally, if you're getting 'what do you write about' queries, I find a professional backgrounder page helps, as does a features list blog (something that @Sally first suggested). That way you can use a boilerplate pointing them to the page and the blog. No feelings hurt, no time wasted, no harm done.

Better to try and manage the flow of information into channels like that rather than play Canute and stem the tide, in my book. And if there are some people that still don't listen, then yes, I block them (but the list is relatively small).


The Red ROcket December 4, 2008 at 7:59 pm

Spot on Danny and good advice, but also as a PR I'd say the industry does have to do waay more to understand journalists needs too.

Twitter's useful and I've noticed a few journos putting out requests that way. Couple of quick problems with it as the sole pitching method: 1) only a smidgen of PRs are actually using it so far. Think how much guff would be on it if 20 times as many PRs started tweeting; it's already got a bit too noisy as it is 2) it's search and 'string of information' make it a little unwieldy.

What we need is a cross between response source and Twitter with two sides: requests and pitches, divided into theme areas.

I mixed feelings about reading Dennis' post: a combination of sympathy/embarrassment that PRs get it so wrong and annoyance that he doesn't take some of Danny's advice and seems so angry, almost to the point of doing a GF and cutting his nose to spite his face.

Note to Dennis: fair play for taking the time to respond personally to many of the comments. Ironically, you've probably spent longer on this than the time you've wasted to us PR folk, but you've most definitely got the online PR point about entering the debate.

Steve Walker December 4, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Cogently put, Danny!

I have just posted a few thoughts on Andrew Smith's excellent blog comments on this posting –….

The thought occurs to me that actually, if “PR is so over”, and looking at an underlying trend – that social media are actually disintermediating traditional journalism – couldn’t we also take the points raised and come to the conclusion:

“[Tech] journalism is also over”?

Not yet, you understand, not yet, but…..;-)



Michael Krigsman December 4, 2008 at 3:21 am

I also get tired of receiving press releases where the sender didn't invest even a moment learning about my blogging focus — an absolute waste of their client's money.

On the other hand, there are PR people who contact me with relevant, focused material useful to my blog focus. In addition, these folks set up meaningful, high-level interviews with their clients on topics that directly within my interest area.

The best PR people act as value-add partners between the client and blogger. That means the value is exchanged in both directions — as it should in all good partnerships.

Sally Whittle December 4, 2008 at 3:33 am

Totally agree with Danny.

Yes, Craig, it's tempting to think that as a hack I am in fact the centre of your universe and you should do my bidding but I think I'm realistic enough to accept the world doesn't work that way. Besides, the bottom line is that not every good story CAN or should be boiled down to 140 chars. I might not like the email spam I get from PR agencies but better to look at using blogs, filters and blocking than simply sticking my fingers in my ears like a five year old.

Matt Churchill December 4, 2008 at 3:57 am

I agree with some points but not all. I hope you don't mind but i've written a comprehensive blog post (!) putting across of my point of view to the piece of which i've pasted the conclusion here as i can't think of another way to say what i've already said!

I don't think PR is over. In fact i think that it is slowly, far too slowly in my opinion, reinventing itself to work with the likes of Twitter to make hacks lives easier aswell as ours.

I am bright eyed and bushy tailed, but so are a lot of my colleagues. They too are embracing the new technologies and using them to make PR-Journalist communication more real and less contrived. I may be biased because I'm in PR. But I've sat on the other side of the fence and been approached by PRs who ARE lazy in the Dennis Howlett model and yes it is annoying, but, these were old school flacks who thought that scatter gunning press releases would score. No, it doesn't.

I don't work like that, and wouldn't want to work like that, it removes that human relationship and that is of course, half the fun.

Please feel free to argue and flame :-)

Dennis Howlett December 4, 2008 at 4:34 am

Please everyone – understand this is a blog. That means it is my thinking, my opinion and that I said 90% still leaves room for 10%. Bloggers are different to journalists so their perspective will not necessarily be shared by people like me. My journo colleagues at ZDNet US may disagree but that's not my position. I have to say though I am surprised that after 3+ years of the thinking behind Shel Israel and Bob Scoble's Naked Conversations, PR still trots out largely the same arguments it has done for donkeys years.

@Matt – don't lose that enthusiasm dude.

David Terrar December 4, 2008 at 11:29 am

Hi Dennis,
I agree with many here that your 90% and PR is dead may be your opinion, but it's unbalanced – you've had that bias since I've known you. It's like a relationship thing – I'd love to know which PR tipped you over the edge to make you hate them all.

Tim Hurley has it right when he says "It worked 25 years ago, it works today and it will work in the future." The problem is that there have always been B2B PRs who haven't got the basics right, put themselves in the position of the punter and asked "what's in it for me?". People (you, me, the customer) don't want the hype and blurb, they want information that will help them do their job better. It was bad enough when that happened in the old world of maketing, but it's even worse in the world of new media. It might take me all of 5-10 minutes to do some online research about you to get the ingredients to position my message in your terms rather than mine. It's unfathomable when those 17 PRs don't do that, and your right to be frustrated – I just think you take it too far to right off the whole profession.

Jon Silk December 4, 2008 at 1:05 pm

The good thing about journalists that blog (separately to their editorial work) is that they can share / vent / complain, and the sentiments can get picked up and acted on.

Before blogging, I'm sure journalists (and everyone, come to think of it) kept their feelings to a narrow field of listeners… Then gone and blacklisted a PR agency without hesitation.

The ongoing tension between journo and PR isn't new. At least it's now a conversation.

Chris Reed December 6, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Hey Dennis – what a debate you've sparked off – and thanks for the comment on my post about it. You're quite right I assumed you were a journalist, rather than a blogger – which actually makes me (as a PR) even more sympathetic to the points you make.

Jouranlists might well hate PR pitches but, there is still (even though it's probably fading fast) – as there has always been – an acceptance that a bad or a lazy pitch is part of the job. Not a nice part of the job, admittedly, but it's been part of the job ever since the first waste paper basket was put near the first letter-opener, then fax machine etc. etc.

But for bloggers or authors the rules of the game are different. I can see it from your perspective now. You're not any better off (financially or intellectually) from being inundated with bad pitches.

But what this whole debate has shown to me is actually not that the medium of the pitch is the issue (though clearly it is for you), but more the manner. A lazy pitch using the lowest common denominator medium (email) with no previous relationship will increasingly fail. Whether it's by carrier pigeon, over a glass of wine in a bar, or on twitter.

So I totally agree with Paul Fabretti's comment. PRs need to start by listening. Then listen a bit more before speaking…

Dennis Howlett December 7, 2008 at 2:23 am

@chris -I never intended to spark a debate yet I am minded of a similar thing that Gary Flood wrote more than 10 years ago. Message to PRs get with the freakin' program or go away. I have posted solution suggestions on blog sites that took the time to try think it through. G0 search…

Staci December 19, 2008 at 7:04 am

I respect your view and experiences. Just think of how much more work you would have to do if you did not have PR people trying to feed you stories every day.

Nathan Cafearo May 28, 2010 at 6:38 am

Just as an interesting note, a friend of mine released some webbased software last week with much fanfare and had sent out 50,000 targetted PR emails. He has yet to receive 1!! reply. I think you’re right. I tend to scan over my mails now and would disregard anything like that.

Nathan Cafearo May 28, 2010 at 6:38 am

Just as an interesting note, a friend of mine released some webbased software last week with much fanfare and had sent out 50,000 targetted PR emails. He has yet to receive 1!! reply. I think you're right. I tend to scan over my mails now and would disregard anything like that.

Derek Johnson June 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I also have a friend who did a release of 10,000 PR emails from a company that deals with Estate Agents and they had almost no response. I did a very similar release a number of years ago which had a pretty good response. My thoughts on that are just that with advertising revenues down and businesses being tighter maybe it’s not as effective as it once was. I’m sure it will come back into vogue when the recovery starts for real.

Derek Johnson June 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I also have a friend who did a release of 10,000 PR emails from a company that deals with Estate Agents and they had almost no response. I did a very similar release a number of years ago which had a pretty good response. My thoughts on that are just that with advertising revenues down and businesses being tighter maybe it’s not as effective as it once was. I’m sure it will come back into vogue when the recovery starts for real.

Derek Johnson June 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I also have a friend who did a release of 10,000 PR emails from a company that deals with Estate Agents and they had almost no response. I did a very similar release a number of years ago which had a pretty good response. My thoughts on that are just that with advertising revenues down and businesses being tighter maybe it's not as effective as it once was. I'm sure it will come back into vogue when the recovery starts for real.

mointernational August 9, 2010 at 6:52 pm

I disagree – we used a PR agency for our company and they were great.

mointernational August 9, 2010 at 6:52 pm

I disagree – we used a PR agency for our company and they were great.

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Shawn December 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I respect your opinion and experiences. Think how much more work to do if you did not have PR people try to feed you stories every day.

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