Caveat publicist

There are oh so many positives to the digital marketing revolution. But, there’s also a darker side that will occasionally rise up and bite the unresponsive companies, the non-believing medical supply executives and, most troubling of all, the unsuspecting publicists.

We’ll bypass the corporations who continue to ignore the irate complaints of bloggers about their company, product or service. And, we’ll raise the white flag of surrender in terms of ever convincing the naysaying surgical gloves sales guy that blogging/podcasting are more than passing fads. But, the PR industry needs to wake up and do a quick intervention before more individual careers and client/agency relationships are destroyed by young and inexperienced publicists who can’t write, don’t understand "digital" media relations and are being "outed" more and more often by the media.

Gawker, for example, has already pilloried a poor Fleishman-Hillard publicist for a brutally-wordedBw1_2   KFC pitch. And, now BusinessWeek, the Holy Grail of BtoB publicity, has entered the fray by beating the bejesus out of a well-intentioned, but poorly trained, Newman Communications publicist (article pictured). In the UK, a PR agency hired by Rupert Lowe, the embattled chairman of Southampton Football Club, was caught posting comments of support on a fanzine’s web forum for Lowe ahead of an important board meeting. The forum’s host got suspicious, investigated the IP addresses called the local paper and the move backfired. Lowe has subsequently resigned.

Public relations has always had its share of grammatically-challenged publicists (and executives). But, the current crop seems to have reached new lows (Lowes?). Some recent college grads not only can’t write, they have no idea how to properly research or pitch a reporter. And, as a result, their ill-conceived, poorly crafted pitches are ridiculed by the media.

In the wake of such a public flogging, the client suffers, the agency suffers and, sadly, the publicist, Dave Overton, suffers.

I’m not sure if this is a Council of PR Firms issue, a PRSA challenge or something that each individual agency and corporate communications department needs to address. But, this is an industry problem. A small, but growing, problem that, left unchecked, will do a major job on our image.

The media are right to ridicule our horrific pitches. Now, it’s up to us to do something about it.

14 thoughts on “Caveat publicist

  1. Lunch boy is right. We don’t know what we don’t know. What we do know, though, is that these incidents are becoming more and more frequent and the press less and less forgiving…..

  2. that’s a big assumption. your situation was different as your friend handed you his paper to edit. with the businessweek situation, we are handed a pitch letter via the magazine. we don’t know how that pitch went from being an idea to being a pr outbound.

  3. My good friend and college roomate epitomizes the poor academic writer that you talk about in your blog. Once during sophomore year, he asked me to help edit a paper he had written on the war in Iraq. By the time I had gotten through the first paragraph, I thought he was joking with me. I was ready to ask him where the real paper was. The poor incompetent guy used the word “inevitable” at least ten times in the opening paragraph. I tried to clean it up as best as I possibly could. Some writing, however, is so catastrophic that it can’t be helped. I think he got a C on the paper despite my attempt at proof-reading. That said, I guess it’s these kinds of guys and gals that are going off into the work force and making fools of themselves.

  4. I wouldn’t want to comment on his training, since I have no idea how thorough (or not) it was. I’m sure the PR firm in questiobn will see this as a wake-up call and take corrective action. We all should.

  5. well, i think that is exactly what he meant. well before the “sticking fingers in the ears comment” he talks about what denial can lead to.
    regardless of that, you’ll have to argue that he has been trained by the worst of them, that he acted on his own, or that his higher-ups approved and allowed this? or a combo of all?

  6. Lunch boy: Totally agree about education. That’s why I said what I did. It’s almost irrelvant to the conversation (and, I’m proud to say I’m not an Ivy Leaguer btw). Re: the actual pitch letter, I have to disagree. It was poorly worded and phrased and insinuated that, if other CEOs didn’t follow pitch boy’s client’s advice, they, too, would end up like Lay (i.e. dead as a doornail). That’s not what pitch boy intended to say, but that’s how the reader reads it. His comment that “Lay’s death may be the equivalent of a child sticking their fingers in their ears to avoid hearing something bad. But a lot more final” is laughably sophmoric. And, that’s why BW lampooned it.

  7. rep: still waiting on your judgement about the pitch boy from newman. we don’t know if he was poorly trained or received any at all. we’re taking a pitch letter (well, BW is) and going from there. while it might be controversial to pitch, i still give credit to pitch boy. it wasn’t that poorly written. maybe the folks at BW felt bad for Lay after months and months of killing him within their pages book? now, let’s throw some garbage on the PR folks who doing the same thing we are (selling magazines/getting clients ink)???
    also, you two should drop the ivy league debate. it makes zero sense. you can go to any school – community, state or ivy league and still receive a great education. all depends if you want it enough and are willing to put in the time to learn. the name of the college doesn’t help the student learn.

  8. agreed that jornalism has taken a hit in light of events the past few years, but would love to see a head to head comparison of public opinion..might make for a good survey 🙂
    would also love to see a number of Ivy leaguers in pr. my bet is that the number is lower than ivy leaguers in the NFL or NBA. i could be wrong, but don’t think i am. has pcom ever had an ivy leaguer on its roster- b/c that would make for a decent sample size.
    i agree the fields are linked, just don’t think they are equal.

  9. I-man: your logic is interesting, but half-baked. Journalism’s image has tanked in a major way in recent years. In fact, journalists routinely rate at the bottom of the “most admired professions” list alongside lawyers and used car salesmen. That said, most journalists do cling to a “holier than thou” attitude when it comes to comparing themselves with their peers in PR (which they see as the Evil Empire).
    As for education credentials, I can guarantee that you’re dead wrong. There are plenty of non-Ivy Leaguers in journalism and lots of Ivy Leaguers in PR. But, it’s not the education that matters so much. It’s the drive and willingness to constantly learn new things that determines eventual success. Oh, and by the way, many, many journalists end up becoming public relations professionals, so there is a very real link bwetween the two fields.

  10. rep, notice i didn’t mention journalism in my post. reason is, pr and journalism are very different, especially in the minds of real journalists. and that can be seen in the fact that most journalists don’t realize or care to realize the value of a good pr person. they essentially view pr folks as salesmen or telemarketers (and that is probably b/c the unqualified pr folks ruin it for the rest).
    yes, the writers at BW, WSJ, NYT are highly educated and money is not their driving force. they love to write and they have a job doing it. It’s likely you will find journalists that went to Harvard, Yale, Wharton etc, but I bet you won’t readily find that level of education in PR.
    as you have often noted, one of pr’s biggest problems is that the industry’s reputation needs some fixin. a good journalist is well respected, a good pr person is just that- a good pr person.
    to equate the two is wrong and i bet that if you asked 100 journalists, less than 10 would agree with you. ask 100 pr folks and 95 would agree with you. the pr person wants to equate themselves with a journalist but the feeling isn’t mutual.
    in terms of your comment on salaries, you are correct, but that is why i said this is a bad chain of events-one i hope for your sake changes.

  11. Wow. quite a social commentary, I-man.
    I don’t necessarily agree that the “best and brightest” aren’t attracted to PR, but have chosen instead to pursue careers in law, medicine, etc. If a person loves to write and has a nose for news, he or she will end up in one of two professions: journalism or public relations. Are you saying that journalists (who often make less money than we in PR do) at the NY Times, WS Journal, Fortune, BW, etc., are not the “best and brightest”? Are you suggesting the best, natural-born journalists and PR people are instead, trying a case in court or suturing up some recent head wound victim in an O.R.? C’mon. Sure, the salaries should be higher. But, the salaries are a direct reflection of what agencies are able to pay based upon the relatively modest budgets we’re given by clients. So, until budgets increase, salaries are kinda stuck where they are.
    Back to the core issue. Yes, agencies and PR industry associations need to wake up to this problem and find a fix. And, yes, management needs to be responsible for the actions of its employees. But we need accountability in a hurry. Because things are only getting worse.

  12. great lunch time read today and good post by lunch boy. sadly rep, this all makes complete sense b/c it is derived from a chain of events that will be tough to break. the chain starts in college where students aren’t forced to learn to write properly. in addition, most don’t offer “pr courses” so students graduate without the skills they need for the job. the other problem is that most of the best and brightest probably don’t have PR pegged as their top career choice. those folks are likely going to pursue medicine, law, finance, (med supplies) 🙂 etc b/c they are chasing the almighty dollar. in addition, those folks are the better writers b/c generally they are blessed with the complete package.
    so, now you have the best and brightest in different fields and the rest to go find jobs in fields like sales, marketing, pr, etc where the pay is much lower and the title less sexy. mid level student + lower level paying job = unqualified employees.
    and there’s the problem in a nutshell. and since companies aren’t going to take months to train employees on writing, pitching, etc. they will never learn the proper techniques and will go on their entire careers until they are called out on it. now yes, pcom does a great job with its PSU’s but that is over the course of a career and once bad habits are developed they are tough to break.
    the only real way to fix the problem is to either boost entry level salaries to those in accouting, finance, etc. and recruit the best and brightest to the field or take a month or two when employees first start and give them complete immersion training. i don’t mean letting them learn on the job but a real training in which they don’t become a JAE until they are ready. Maybe call it the JAE In Training program.
    Until that happens, I don’t know what you can expect out of employees and even managers that weren’t the top of their class. There is a reason they weren’t at the top of their class and it’s the same reason they are struggling on the job.

  13. Also, after reading and re-reading this piece in BW, I am certain that the folks at ‘the book’ could have found a better “press release” to knock. I mean, don’t the gods at BW know that this is a pitch letter or a query and not a press release?? Where is the dateline, Mr. BusinessWeek’s Up Front Editor?
    Regardless of that point, the problem presented is followed with a viable solution. Although, I would reccomend a shrink verses a management consulting firm for the problems Lay was dealing with.
    And, Dave’s name is now in the number one business weekly, along with his firm, and client. Sure, this isn’t the best placement for all three involved, but it could be worse.
    Off to lunch. . .

  14. (Editor’s note: Someone by the name of Dandy Stevenson wrote me once, trying to find my IP address, I suppose. This is a blogger who will remain anonymous, but I will always be up for sharing a good lunch story.)
    Now to my point:
    I remember back on 9/11 there was an even more eager publicist who totally got it wrong. While the WTC buildings were collapsing, she sent out a note about how these people, who were going to be displaced/without an office or work, better have their personal finance issues in order to combat time away from work. Ouch. I wonder if she is still in the industry.
    To the present: I think there is a lot more than just a poorly written pitch/release at hand here, Rep. Let’s not forget the managers, the teammates, the mentors, and the client, all of whom should have read and approved this note. If Overton did all of this on his own, yea, he should be canned. But, I think others at the firm read it and gave it the go-ahead. So, let’s not shoot the messenger just yet.
    Also, coming from this PR Pro, I am going to bet Newman Communications has been getting pressured by its client, Leadership IQ, to increase the ‘hits.’ So, a hot story, one with legs, let’s see how we can latch on. All firms do so, just some a bit better than others, obviously. The media is right to blast us when warranted.
    But, am I now able to do the same when I facilitate an interview, and read my client’s thoughts throughout the article without any attribution? Hmmm, cause that sure happens, too.