PR must be more like a cat than a dog

Let's have more meows and fewer woofs when we get in front of our clients.

PR agencies are getting over their traditional inferiority complex in relation to their colleagues in advertising and media as clients increasingly recognize the special sauce PR pros bring to the table.

But an old hand in the PR game pointed out to me the other week that there is a legacy effect that still holds back the progress of the communications discipline and causes PR folks to act more like dogs than cats.

Consider the scene when you return home from a hard day’s work. Your loyal and obedient dog starts barking as soon as it hears your footsteps outside the door. It almost knocks you over in its enthusiasm upon entering the room, and engulfs you with affection.

The cuddly canine stays by your side constantly while you settle back into your home. And it is grateful for any food laid before it, devouring it instantly. Then it will lie by your side on the couch devotedly for the rest of the evening, grateful for any attention.

Let’s compare that to the way a cat reacts. First it implores you to shut the door quickly, as you’re letting in the cold air. Then it sniffs imperiously at you from afar as it takes in this new visitor invading its space, however familiar that person may be.

Eventually the frosty feline deigns to sidle over and rub up against you briefly in a bid to get you to give it something to eat – but it had better be prime cuts and not that cheap own-brand variety of cat food from the discount store. Once fed, the cat cleans and preens itself before going back to its splendid isolation in the most comfortable part of the room.

You’ve probably already worked out that, in this analogy, the dog is the PR firm and the cat is the advertising agency.

The PR firm is grateful for any budget it can get from a client, especially a large blue-chip brand or corporation that will look good on its credentials presentation. It turns around RFPs in lightning-quick time, acceding to the clients’ unreasonably stringent deadlines - born of PR still being something of an afterthought - and getting staff to work all-nighters and weekends to complete the work on time.

It rushes to the client’s HQ to present, in whichever obscure part of the country it is located. And if the prospective client knocks back the carefully constructed strategic or campaign idea over which everyone has sweated blood, the PR agency reacts obediently and goes back to the drawing board to come up with something different that the client likes.

In time, the PR firm dutifully agrees to a budget cut to keep the business for another year when it comes to contract renewal negotiations, because the client has been told to "make some savings" by procurement. The campaign continues to thrive and sales soar.

The ad agency, on the other hand, asks for extra time to polish its pearls of wisdom. It tells the client its presentation just won’t be able to convey the true magic of the idea unless the client travels to its trendy office in New York City.

It then reacts with high dudgeon when the client rejects its work. It throws its toys out of the pram, says the client doesn’t understand the high-art concept, and suggests the agency should take its precious ideas elsewhere to someone who does have the intelligence to appreciate them.

The client, who likes the reflected glory of hanging out with its cool advertising friends, backtracks furiously and asks if the agency wouldn’t mind awfully making a few tweaks if there was some extra budget added into the mix. Everybody makes up - and the work gets done. A Cannes Lion follows. Sales are flat.

Of course, I’m generalizing and playing on well-worn traditional stereotypes. But you get my point.

I’m not saying PR firms need to become more like advertising agencies – the prevailing wind is blowing in our direction and the skills of communications pros are more in demand than ever. Dogs are routinely described as man’s best friend, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in PR firms being their clients’ best friends, as long as that friendship is not taken for granted or abused.

But I do feel PR needs more meows and fewer woofs if it is to continue its progress up the marketing services food chain to a place where it can really demonstrate its effectiveness and take market share from its higher-maintenance advertising and media colleagues.

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