The perils of PR with no strategy behind it

January 2013

Back in November 2011 a long-established client I had informed me that they were appointing a PR firm on a one year contract for 2012. This was a bit of a surprise, because it was hard to see what value any PR firm – even a really good one – could add to the core marketing objective we had in place of attracting more retail customers. And by ‘retail customers’, I mean large national players and in particular supermarket chains and the only major DIY chain. For further background, the client had a well-established pest control products brand but its historical strength was supplying independent high street hardware stores – which are obviously fast disappearing.

My first request was that I have a meeting with my client and the PR firm so we could a) ensure the PR firm understood the business and marketing objectives, and b) we agreed an appropriate strategy which would play its part in helping to open those heavy oak doors of national retail buyers.

That meeting didn’t happen, and I was told that the PR firm “knew what they were doing” and also had a broader remit to carry out consumer PR. The latter horrified me and hence the question I posed to my client: “Why would we embark on a consumer PR campaign? Firstly our product is largely a distress purchase so consumers buy it when they need it – e.g. because they have a mouse living underneath the fridge in their kitchen – and secondly our product isn’t widely enough available for consumers to buy it even if they did decide to stock up on mouse traps.” (Like you would…)

But sometimes even smart and decent clients don’t listen, and the PR firm was left to do its own thing. And ‘thing’ is the only real way I can describe the rambling list of actions produced by the PR firm which I was sent for information, which didn’t even have a heading for ‘strategy’ – let alone any meaningful content below one.

Then the first draft press release arrived in my inbox for me to run a ‘brand and marketing eye’ over it. And thank goodness I was given the opportunity: No doubt delegated to someone junior in their office (perhaps as it was ‘only for pest control products’) it was written in that dreadful ‘one size fits all’ style which PR people always fall back on when they don’t get a brand’s tone of voice, and whilst it would be fine for Butlins it didn’t really suit something as serious as rat poisons. And then there was the content; inaccurate, misleading and even the brand name was spelt incorrectly (I kid you not).

So marketing consultant to the rescue and I’m finally allowed to get heavily involved, set some rules, set some objectives, and also edit each and every press release produced (that’s ‘edit’ as in ‘rewrite’).

We then soldier on for the next few months pouring money into the PR funnel but with zero measurable results coming out the other end, or at least zero measurable results if you don’t count press coverage in obscure consumer press and niche B2B press that will clearly make no difference to our core objective of helping to get new retail customers.

And the outcome? Without a sniff of a major retailer coming on board, the owner of the pest control business decides to sell it and to a group with a strong track record with national retailers. So end of client for me.

A few lessons:

  1. Agreed business objectives need to be aligned with the right marketing tools, and in this case PR was NOT an appropriate tool.

  2. When PR is an appropriate tool, make sure that a) you pick the right PR firm to deliver it, and b) they’re given very clear objectives on which to deliver on.

  3. In the age we live in, PR IS a marketing tool (pre-digital it arguably wasn’t entirely) and therefore needs to form part of an integrated strategy.

But the biggest lesson is for me personally, because ahead of my client deciding to appoint the PR firm I’d taken my eye off the ball as far as keeping them on the straight and narrow was concerned. At that time they’d been a client for nearly six years, I was busy on other and, in truth, more interesting stuff, and they clearly thought they needed additional help from elsewhere. So I won’t be making that mistake again.

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