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
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.