By Rob Farmer, LCI Director
In business, it’s always exciting to hear phrases like “We are launching in a week” – especially if it’s your company that’s launching. But in the public relations world, this phrase can be downright frightening, if not completely confounding. Why? Because more often than not, we hear this from prospects who have just contacted us to ask about our services.
Don’t get me wrong. We always love being contacted with an interest in hiring us. And we’ve been the happy recipient of many such calls lately. But the above last-minute scenario is happening so much recently that I think it bears scrutiny for a number of reasons. Why, for instance, do seemingly strategic, smart and otherwise resourceful enterprises begin their search for a public relations firm just a matter of days before they launch? Why do public relations or corporate communications not register as a part of a launch strategy until the 11th hour? And, most important, what can the public relations industry do to insert itself into the equation during the critical planning stages?
The answers to these questions are myriad. In many recent cases, I firmly believe public relations is not regarded with equal importance to a company – especially a start-up – as other business-model components such as funding, revenue generation or forecasting profitability. But I would argue PR has a role to play in all of these areas. Most companies realize this too, but not until the last minute. With all the pieces in place for launch it suddenly dawns on them: Wait, how will I continue to raise money, create revenue or become profitable if nobody ever hears about us? Hence, the phone rings at LCI (and presumably PR agencies around the world) with a frantic prospect on the line.
Unfortunately, this creates unnecessary challenges for both the prospect and the agency. Because they haven’t allowed enough time for a proper agency evaluation, companies who engage a firm under these circumstances risk making critical mistakes. It may be easy to determine capabilities and experience inside of a week, but how can you know if an agency is a match for your corporate culture? Or, how can you really know if they’ll be a good partner? Meanwhile, agencies who are asked to put together a proposal on a moment’s notice are not given the opportunity to go beyond capabilities and relevant experience and truly demonstrate their creativity and personality – essentials for determining a good fit and for getting hired. It’s also vital to long-term success with clients that agencies have a good sense of the culture at the companies they work for. These issues (and others) can be addressed with the benefit of time.
Now, I realize that business is not always perfect, and that especially in this tenuous economic climate we must adapt, evolve and tackle things as they come. Still, there is a real opportunity for the public relations industry to increase its role as a strategic partner in business. We could do with our own PR awareness campaign to demonstrate that our industry is more than just a mechanism for getting your company featured in the Wall Street Journal or on the Today Show.
Last month Gordon C. Andrew of Highland Consulting in New Jersey offered parallel insight related to the similar challenges faced by in-house communicators. In his blog, What PR Can Do to Earn a Seat at the Senior Management Table, he included the advice “Think like an agency.” Well, I turn the tables and recommend agencies—at the industry level – start to think like internal communicators. Let’s create greater awareness of our value at the planning stages.
I’d love hear from our fellow PR professionals about what we can do to become part of the planning process among our client industries. And to those companies out there in cyberspace, please tell us why PR is sometimes an afterthought. Can we ever get to a place where, when the phone rings, it doesn’t sound so much like a fire alarm?