PLATFORM: First-hand work with clients will benefit PR drives - PROs need to experience the sales front line in order to better serve their clients, says Alastair Gornall

How many agency practitioners in the public relations business have had any real experience of working in the front line of a retail environment or running a sales territory? Rather too few, I think.

How many agency practitioners in the public relations business have

had any real experience of working in the front line of a retail

environment or running a sales territory? Rather too few, I think.

I believe this type of ’real’ selling should play an important part in

the training we all need to receive if we plan to spend a career in the

public relations business.

Prior to my move into public relations in the early 1980s, I spent

nearly four years running a sales territory in the US. This experience

taught me some very valuable commercial skills that have, without doubt,

been of huge benefit to my PR career.

I learnt to listen to what customers want; how to sell benefits and

solutions to problems, rather than products and services; what it’s like

to work in an environment where nobody has ever heard of my company or

product versus one where they have.

I saw the impact of second-rate communications campaigns that failed to

strike a chord with my potential customers as well as seeing and feeling

the effect of those that did. I saw what happens when marketers design

campaigns for target audiences that they have little understanding or

empathy with, and I saw first-hand how easy it is to waste money on poor


All too often young, enthusiastic, bright newcomers to the world of

public relations receive little formal training and are expected to pick

up skills like learning how to package and sell stories to clients and

journalists as they go along.

We all have to sink and swim in this tough environment, but the

long-term impact of this scenario is that many PR agency practitioners

(from juniors to board directors) often have little commercial

understanding of how their clients are actually developing and selling

their products or services. This manifests itself in clients rightfully

questioning some of the thinking that agencies put forward because they

believe the programme may not do anything for their business or ’bottom


I am so bored with having to justify our industry to potential clients

and one of the things we must all do is to make a real effort to stop

proposing highly creative, but commercially questionable campaigns and

ideas to clients.

Our people have to understand the real environment in which our clients’

sales take place as well as the barriers and triggers to purchase and

this knowledge has to be reflected in the structure, creativity and

tactics of our PR plans. Woolly, flaky PR has no part to play in this

new world, even though there are some agencies (and it always seems to

be the same ones!) who like to ’hook’ a client in on this approach and

then fail to deliver, thereby letting down the client, themselves and

the industry.

I think everybody thinking of entering the world of PR should spend some

time on the front line of a client’s sales operation. If we could

harness the knowledge that this experience would bring and combine it

with top class media skills then I think we could produce a whole new

generation of public relations practitioners who will be able to offer a

great deal more value to their customers.

There is no doubt in my mind that the PR agency winners of the next

millennium will be those which are full of highly experienced,

commerically aware, professional consultants, who operate in a

progressive and business-like environment where the ongoing training and

development of its people is highly rated by both the staff and


Alastair Gornall is managing director of Consolidated Communications.

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