Is the crafty, lateral-thinking PR in danger of being wiped out as clients favour safer options over passion and pluck
I lower the phone to another breathless recruitment agent making a plea for a bright prospect who will not fail to impress me.
“Trust me Mark, give her 10 minutes to pitch. I am sure she will impress, she is a brilliant publicist.”
True to form, the potential recruit had as much grasp on the subtleties of publicity as the Princess of Wales had for non-ferrous metal welding.
As you will gather, in the hopeless pursuit of finding raw talent with the instinct to place a story, I am constantly disappointed. As I sink back into my chair, I contemplate the reality that the craft of the publicist is an endangered skill.
When breaking bread with prominent scribblers, I am continually told that the profession just doesn’t have what it takes to deliver ink.
I am reminded of the line that Charles Clover delivered to a hapless publicist when he managed to get the journalist on the phone to inquire whether Mr C had read his press release. The retort must go down as one of the greatest reposts: “Your press release has all the complexity of Kafka but none of the narrative flow.”
Public relations has many faces, more than the two it supposedly offers: from public affairs to the riches of investor relations, the labyrinth is long and twisting. Forward-thinking clients have a cornucopia of options to choose as the industry goes about picking pockets for fees. But the confidence in taking a leap into the unknown is not an option when so many examples of ill thought-out ideas turn into over-promised hype.
The industry tries to educate the uninitiated and hold up excellence, but memorable campaigns are as frequent as twitching the Hawaiian Oaaa bird on the Romney Marshes.
The gig has become a process game: to keep the client and sustain a moneymaking relationship over a long period. Large media groupings are under pressure to return profits at the expense of crystallising opinion. This, coupled with brand inertia, karaoke me to-ism and fear of fresh thinking, has disabled this once proud tradition.
Pitches constantly throw up mongrel ideas that are honeyed with marketing and sale promotion flavourings. A composite communication plan helps brand managers digest a strategy that keeps them in a job and retains an agency, but ultimately fails to change the perception of a business.
Bill Gates’ much-used soundbite that he would spend his last marketing dollar on public relations is beginning to lose its impact as more and more campaigns fail to connect in terms of winning meaningful column inches.
At a dinner party recently, I met a senior marketing head of a multinational who had just awarded a huge chunk of business to a PR conglomerate. When I quizzed him on the pitch he said that they were far from the best. The ideas were ordinary but he knew the board would be happy with the company’s process.
More shockingly, he said that there was an outstanding agency that pitched a breathtaking campaign, but having been burnt before, he was unwilling to pick passion. Who wants to hear whining apologies when the great ideas don’t make the cut?
So if a client is happy to accept the mediocre, why is there any need for the plucky publicist? The PR industry is more comfortable mimicking the 70s, where the best-in-breed were the oleaginous client wranglers that spent their time boxing up the client in cotton wool, hypnotically keeping them in a state of oblivion of the status quo.
It is a skill that is plentiful, but the crafty lateral thinker will soon be a museum exhibit as the fast-moving media agenda moves on and the deliverables become impossible to sustain