Agony Uncle: How can I get my team to pick up the phone and actually speak to journalists?

PRWeek's Agony Uncle answers questions on picking up the phone, ethics in PR, the lure of London, and whether agencies actually make any money.

Get some training before you pick up the actual phone, says PRWeek's Agony Uncle
Get some training before you pick up the actual phone, says PRWeek's Agony Uncle

It’s good to talk

Q. How can I get my team to pick up the phone and actually speak to journalists?

A. Three tips. Never ask your people to call a journalist and ask whether they have received the press release. This drives journalists mad and makes them very grumpy with young PRs, which in turn makes the young PRs even more fearful of calling journalists. After all, who wants to be called and asked "did you get my junk mail?" Secondly, lead by example. Let your team see you making calls. And finally, train them. The PRCA does a course, or you can set up your own. Selling in a story is a skill. It takes time and practice to get good at it.

The rights and wrongs of PR

Q. In your experience are PR people less ethical than other professionals?

A. A journalist once said to me in outraged tones that every corrupt person they had ever met had a PR person working for them. No doubt true. But the corrupt individual or organisation will also have an accountant and lawyer working for them and will probably have succeeded by having a journalist or two in their pocket. PR people are an organisation’s interface with journalists who, at their best, have an eagle eye and sensitive nose for unethical behaviour and call it out. As we have recently very clearly seen, this isn’t good for careers or business. Other professions tend to have a lower profile, but that doesn’t make them more ethical.

The lure of London

Q. I work for a smallish consultancy in the Midlands. I have a nice flat, a short commute and generally a good life. But I have just been offered a very good-looking and better-paid job in London. Should I go?

A. Forget the extra money. Unless it is really substantial that will soon be eaten up with accommodation and commuting costs. So the career question really comes down to how far in PR you want to go and think you can. If you want one day to be very senior or even the head of a global or national agency, you probably have to do London. If your ambitions are a bit more modest then I see no real need to move other than to experience the unique work and social buzz of London… which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if it means living in a hovel south of Croydon.

Money on my mind

Q. Why do so few PR consultancies seem to make a decent profit?
A. Well, according to accountants Kingston Smith, PR firms are now more profitable than other disciplines in the marcoms sector and, in my experience, PR firms today are better run than they used to be. But there is still much to be done. Part of the problem is that most PR businesses are not large enough to grow their own management class or achieve significant economies of scale. Add to this the fact PR is not a closed shop and anyone can start a PR firm tomorrow, which keeps fee rates down – or competitive, depending on your point of view. Plus most ‘creative’ people who are attracted to PR are not very money-minded. Be honest. How many PR people do you know with a maths A-level? It isn’t a coincidence that multi-millionaire Sir Martin Sorrell is a money man. But don’t despair. There are firms out there making margins of 20 per cent and more.

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Trevor Morris is the co-author of PR Today and Richmond University's professor of PR

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