Snake Oil PR: Sure, Smart Promotion Is the Key to Everything


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“It’s good to have a sense of your own limitations.”

That’s the first thought that occurred to me (after my initial guffaw) when I saw that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had put out an RFP for some public relations help.

Sorry, buddy — but even in PR there’s such a thing as a lost cause.

PR companies often face their own marketing dilemma: Do they try to sell themselves to anyone and everyone with deep enough pockets? Or narrow the field of prospects to potential clients for whom PR would have a ghost of a chance? I have no doubt that several agencies wrote proposals this summer for the Tyrant of Tripoli, but maybe the upshot of the whole project is that Gaddafi is about to get mercilessly ripped off.

It’s a personal preference, I guess, but I hate banging my head against the wall. And there is nothing more cranially bruising than a client whose product stinks or whose character is, let’s say, questionable. PR challenge? You betcha; and challenges can be fun. But the truth should be in your arsenal, not on your list of problems.

To my mind, PR is about getting down to the interesting truth of a company — great motivation, great story, fundamentally revolutionary product or service — and bringing whatever that is to light and to life for the right audience. Honestly, that perspective requires harder work from an agency, as it demands real understanding of the industry, skepticism in the face of marketing constructs, and a willingness to ask potentially uncomfortable questions in the search for those core motivating ideas. Anything less is “yes man PR,” which is, at best, expensive tail-chasing, and, at worst, a reputational bubble that bursts for both the client and the agency.

Now, if an enterprising PR guru actually manages some surface image rehab for Gaddafi, I won’t be weeping into my beer over the near-certain looming *POP*. But I will be a bit disappointed for the PR industry in general, which suffers — hilariously — from some image problems of its own thanks to the “any client, any time” perspective. “We can do it” is a terrific attitude, but it’s got to have a basis in fact.

Back in the mid-1800s, Chinese laborers introduced a type of liniment to the U.S. that was similar in composition to the capsaicin-based liniments used today for topical pain relief. In appropriate cases such as arthritis or joint pain, it probably worked, but a legion of disreputable salesmen ran with the concept as a cure-all, and now snake oil is a byword for “expensive stuff that won’t do you any good.” I hate to think of PR people selling it.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kate Schackai
Kate combines a technical understanding of web 2.0 with classic PR savvy, resulting in online communications that both humans and Google love. She joins Crawford from WordPress development firm TCWebsite, where she worked in online marketing and search engine optimization.


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