A new twist on bait-and-switch

JungleprI was fielding a new business call not too long ago when the prospect asked if we practiced bait-and-switch in our business development.

I laughed and said, 'Not only do we not practice it, we like to tell prospects in a presentation that, for better or worse, what they see is what they get.'

The prospect responded with silence. 'That's not exactly what I mean,' she replied. The prospect then proceeded to tell me of a terrible experience with a legendary, PR Week and Saber award-winning, charter Council of PR Firms member agency's recent deportment:

Apparently, the blue-chip firm had assembled an impressive pitch team, wooed the prospect and won the business. Ah ha, you're no doubt thinking, that’s when they pulled the classic, big agency bait-and-switch (and proceeded to staff the business with a coterie of 23-year-old junior account executives). But, like me, you'd be wrong.

The winning pitch team continued to work on the business but, said the prospect, they were next-to-impossible to reach by phone. Beyond frustration one day, she called the firm's main New York number only to be told none, repeat, not one of her account team worked at the agency! It turned out that, hard hit by the weak economy and the insatiable revenue demands of its holding company, the legendary PR firm had chosen to staff the account entirely with freelancers (but, conveniently chose NOT to inform the client. Holy unethical, Batman!).

I assured the prospect of two things:

– I'd never heard of such a thing, and pledged to never even contemplate pulling such a stunt

– I shared her disdain with the moral and ethical implications of such a sleazy maneuver.

Such moral lapses hurt the image and reputation of public relations. They're also the stuff that our trade press should be investigating and our industry organizations condemning. But, I guarantee you won't hear or read a peep or word, respectively.

Bait-and-switch will be around as long as holding company agencies continue to trot out former White House press secretaries, retired U.N. ambassadors and erstwhile corporate communication chiefs to dazzle a prospect in order to win a piece of business. The gray hairs will then quickly be replaced by low-paid, more affordable Millennials who proceed to learn the craft of PR at the client's expense). It's always happened and, sadly, always will (because, as P.T. Barnum famously said, 'There's a sucker born every minute.').

I do hope, though, that this new strain of bait-and-switch is an aberration and not something that will only further hamstring an industry fighting hard to earn a legitimate seat at the C-suite table.

Re-establishing the client's trust after a traditional bait-and-switch is one thing, but trying to separate one's firm from the ethical violation of a big guy's passing off freelancers as payrolled employee is quite another.

PR needs its own version of Upton Sinclair to expose, if not clean up, this mess. So, who's ready to write a sequel entitled, 'The Jungle: PR’s Sleazy Underbelly’?

5 thoughts on “A new twist on bait-and-switch

  1. Perhaps, GoToPEngel, but the blog has already gotten the attention of PRSA’s ethics board. They plan to issue an updated warning to all agencies. Will that stop the practice? Of course not. But, it is nice to know someone cares.

  2. Any contract hire at a fly-by-night marcom outfit knows that this is a time-honored scam. Somehow it doesn’t really surprise me that the bigger fish would embrace this tactic. If anything, they’re more arrogant about it – they assume that both name recognition and a compliant trade press (as RepMan points out) will keep the wolves at bay.

  3. I, too, was shocked, Julie. I think the holding company environment is so money-focused that it forces good people to do bad things.

  4. I don’t know why I am shocked, but I am. Another example of corporate duplicity. How do these people sleep at night? Just gimme some truth.