Just say no to a PR tactic without a strategy

My colleagues and I in PR often decry the decline of our business, as ad agencies, social media operations and promotional firms all grapple for clients. It used to be fun, we say, when we did big events and had big budgets. When it was less about data mining and more about the clever idea and a solid PR strategy.

Now companies cast about for free ideas, via RFPs or crowdsourcing or websites in which creatives compete for (absurdly low-priced) business.

I was brought back to today’s stark reality when a friend and I attended a little event in town. Shop-owners had merchandise displayed on tables outside, an artist was dabbing paint on a canvas that depicted a Paris scene and a guitar player was strumming away. My friend, who was not in the PR business or any related industry, was waxing eloquent about promotional opportunities with the shop owners. She suggested local media outreach, participation in area fairs and event tie-ins with nonprofits. Stuff I might have suggested, but didn’t.

The merchants were polite, but you could see their eyes glazing over as she talked. They nodded, just to be nice.

I used to do that. A lot. Offer unasked-for advice on PR and promotions, thinking I was being helpful. Do doctors offer an unsolicited on-the-spot diagnosis? Do house painters drop by and touch up the trim on your house unasked? No and no.

And while there’s no lack of “free advice” online, on websites, Twitter and Linked-In, most of it is pretty obvious — strategies and tactics business owners and corporate execs should already know.

Few businesses offer anything for free. Most of the time there’s a necessary purchase involved. But in PR, we’re often compelled to show people how smart we are by giving unsolicited and (usually unwanted) counsel. And companies take advantage of this compulsion by putting out RFPs and getting numerous responses from PR agencies.

Frankly, offering business owners your opinion on what they should do to promote their firms is pretty insulting if they haven’t actually asked for your advice. And especially if you don’t have any more information than what you can find with a Google search or a visit to Linked In.

What’s more, it devalues the PR business as nothing more than some thoughts carelessly tossed off. Stock tactics, like press releases, or perhaps a charity tie-in using a variation of the ice bucket challenge.

Today, many clients are seeking the golden ticket, which may come in the form of a New York Times story or a viral video or a campaign trending on Twitter. Those are only tactics, however, and will mostly likely result in a short-term increase in visibility.

In this age of the quick fix, in which advertising and PR are done on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis, where’s the long view? It’s up to PR professionals to say no. No to the list of unfocused ideas that clients want to execute. No to a tactic without a strategy.

Let’s stop offering free advice. It’s not worth anything without a frank conversation with a client, some due diligence and an appropriate fee. We’ll benefit with a boost to the bottom line and our profession will benefit with increased respect for our skills.

Toni Antonetti is president of PR Chicago. This blog post was originally published on Medium.

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