The PR briefing process has singularly failed to evolve – despite the wider evolution that has taken place regarding the role of PR itself – and some of the real commercial benefits are at risk of being overlooked, because of an inadequate early-stage PR briefing process.
Why is it important?
Well, the link between PR and new business development is becoming increasingly important, and by digging deeper – by driving greater levels of engagement with your agency – and by creating a genuine partnership, you can unlock the true potential of a powerful, two-way relationship.
So, in light of all this, I’m opening up a real can of worms and sharing with you the ten most common mistakes that we see when reviewing and responding to inbound PR briefs. So without further ado, coming in at number one –
1. Treating the document as marketing collateral, not a PR brief
This is an absolute classic. It’s also one of the quickest and easiest ways to significantly reduce the impact of any future, commercially-focused PR campaign.
To be clear, what I’m talking about here is the tendency to communicate to your prospective PR agency as if they were a prospective customer or employee. In real terms, that means that you’ll naturally default to presenting the purest and most positive picture of your business. You’ll talk up your various strengths, highlight recent successes and portray a thoroughly marketable portrait of the business.
Which would be wonderful, were it not for the audience that you’re actually talking to!
A PR agency that knows the market well already recognise and understand where you are strong. They understand the basis of your business model and are able to contextualise what it is that you do within a wider industry framework.
As such, they’re not looking for that glossy sheen. Instead, what they’re really looking for at this juncture is a quick sense, warts and all, of where the business is at.
They want to understand where you currently face challenges, where you are falling short, and what ultimately acted as the trigger for you to write and issue the brief in the first place.
The agency won’t necessarily expect you to share and register every pain point – but at the very least they’ll be looking for some indicators and clues that help to unlock this understanding.
So, to reiterate, don’t fall into the trap of presenting that glossy image – leave that to your PR agency when they’re working for you! Instead, focus on presenting a realistic and concise picture of where you are currently at – outlining the key drivers behind the brief itself.
2. Being far too tactically focused
When it comes to writing a brief, you recognise that there’s an investment to be made in securing the services of a high end PR agency and that you therefore want to ensure that you’re seeing a clear return on investment.
As a result, you’ll quickly look from the brief itself towards the tangible outputs that the campaign might generate – and you’ll want to lock down those outputs and make them as specific and as focused as possible.
However, be careful here. Since, time and again, by shifting from the brief itself to the desired outcomes of the campaign, you can risk seriously selling the service short.
This might mean, for instance, that you want to stipulate coverage levels, identify target titles and so forth. And, while guidance is good, be careful not to end up being so structured that you leave no room for creativity and commercial cut through.
If you want to be smart, set yourself the target of aligning, to the best of your ability – long term sales, revenue and commercial targets with your strategic PR goals.
3. Lack of any business development team engagement
Honestly, it’s so common to see a brief that’s been issued directly by a marketing department – in isolation and without any meaningful input from anyone on the senior team or indeed anyone on the sales side.
That is a huge mistake. What it does is firmly focus the PR brief within the realm of the marketing department – not within the realm of the wider business. As the brief plays out, this strangles information and cuts off a source of critical insight for your PR agency. It removes the direct connectivity to those working with end customers on the ground and it creates a very real risk of a marketing bottleneck.
As a result, the marketing team end up having to spend vast chunks of time managing the transfer of information between the agency and the wider business.
Providing the agency with direct access to key individuals within the business the marketing department reduces inefficiencies in workflow and creates clear and direct accountability.
4. No indication of start dates and timings
A good PR agency can do many things. However, what they can’t do – yet – is mind read.
Jokes apart, what that really means is that, when reviewing and developing a response to PR brief, agencies are always looking for clear guidance on campaign start dates, key timings and milestones – all of which help provide a sense of the true immediacy of a campaign.
We’ve lost count of the number of times that we’ll receive a brief that singularly fails to deliver any sense of timings and as a result, is difficult to properly resource, plan and prepare for.
For absolute clarity – and perhaps this will come as a surprise to some – as an agency we’re not always looking for the shortest possible start date.
In fact, some of the very best briefs that we’ve worked on have landed in our inboxes well in advance of the planned start of any campaign. A six-month lead time is not unusual and for the right brief, we do plan that far ahead before campaign go-live. On the flip side, however, some briefs will come in and we’ll have a full campaign live and operational within 14 days!
The point, therefore, is that it’s important to get a sense of timings and drivers right from the very start. Don’t assume that your agency will know when you want to start a brief – and equally, don’t assume that they’ll intuitively understand for how long you wish to engage.
5. Trying to make the brief do too much
I’ll freely admit that this point is a contentious one! As such, here’s a bit of context to expand on this and to enable me to better articulate what I really mean…
The role of the PR agency has fundamentally changed. It’s a role that no longer sits in isolation within a marketing department and it’s a role that is increasingly interlinked into the senior management team.
When it comes to the size and scope of the brief, the role of the PR has been elevated as it can have long term benefits on everything, from lead generation to customer feedback, brand building, wider press profiling and ultimately, the bottom line.
However, all that said, PR is no silver bullet. It can’t do everything. It shouldn’t do everything and, most pertinently still, while it plays an important role within the marketing function, it is not a direct replacement for wider marketing services and support.
That means that, when you’re writing a PR brief you want to avoid the tendency to slip design services, branding, photography and such like, into the campaign and service scope.
6. Zero guidance on the budget
Ah, the delicate issue of the budget. In truth, PR professionals can sometimes be their own worst enemy with this particular one. Bluntly, there appears to be a continuing trend for professional services firms working throughout the marketing value chain – and pitching to prospects - to actively avoid asking about delicate matter of the budget. And it’s because of this conditioning that agencies are increasingly seeing this reflected back to them in briefs that have no guidance on budgets and fee structures.
From an agency perspective, the fear is that by outlining at an early stage some sort of fee structure or pricing guidance, they’ll unwittingly kill a lead dead in its tracks before a pitch.
While from the buyer’s perspective, there’s a concern that by providing guidance up front and unprompted, there’s a danger that they’ll get taken for a ride – and over invest.
It’s time for this to stop. Buyers have to have the confidence to stand behind their budgets – and stick to them – while sellers, PR agencies, need to be confident in their pricing and what they believe is their true worth. Both have to be in agreement and in sync.
If they’re not, the very real risk is that both parties invest time and effort into a pitch process, only to discover that there’s no financial alignment. Avoid wasting time and resources on both sides and ask the question – early!
7. Insufficient information on company objectives and goals
Often the commercial catalyst for opening up the tender process, in a bid to engage a specialist PR agency, comes about following frustrations that the firm in question just isn’t getting noticed. This is something that has huge ramifications for the sales and business development process and that has a significant impact on the acquisition of new leads.
Typically, this frustration follows a recognition that the customers key point of difference - its unique selling point - just isn’t getting cut through, for whatever reason, in the market.
That cut through – that differentiator, is something that is driven by the ambitions and commercial objectives of the business.
So with that in mind, it would make a good deal of sense to include these aims, ambitions and commercial objectives in the brief itself. It need not be chapter and verse. Nevertheless, some guidance and insight would be good – for, even if these need refinement and conversion into a set of compelling market messages – they offer the first insight and clues towards unlocking future campaign success.
Get those commercial aims and objectives into the brief and share them with your prospective agency short list – don’t assume any higher knowledge here – especially if you’ve currently had limited success in seeding this thinking into the wider market!
8. Withholding past PR successes (or failures!)
Typically, one of the most common drivers to push marketing and commercial teams towards hiring a PR agency, is an early taste of the benefits a PR campaign can deliver.
It might have been one piece of coverage in a local paper, a conference speaker slot at a target event, or potentially even a stack of competitor coverage that consistently frustrates your own internal sales team! Whatever the case, include that catalyst when you write the brief. Invariably, it’s small examples like this that provide an important insight into the characteristics and appetite of the business and that can help you work quickly with the PR agency of choice to refine and determine the brief and use it to shape the future direction of the campaign.
9. Hiding your company stars
There will always be someone. An individual within your own business who has a canny knack of story telling – who’s confident, outgoing and a natural, either with the media, or, if you’ve not yet directly engaged with the press, then with key customers and prospects.
The individual in question will be great at winning over the attention of a room, listening to their audience, captivating imaginations and in setting out a vision.
Have a think now, about whom within your company fits these criteria and who, outside of the marketing department could become a strong spokesperson for the business.
Having done so, don’t be shy – share this information. It’s another important signpost that the PR agency can take note of when responding to the task in hand and it further strengthens the specifics of the brief.
10. Abdication, not delegation (or, set and forget)
So you’ve written the brief, you’ve tackled all the meaty stuff and you’re on the lookout for that perfect PR agency. The one that really understands your market. That understands your business and the commercial plan that you’re delivering against.
There’s just one thing. In appointing an agency and getting them onboard, you want to be able to set them up and get them going – but you just don’t think you’ve got the time to manage them yourself. You can’t check in and work with them on a weekly basis.
In other words, in setting up the PR brief, and by not providing any guidance on the required line management and reporting responsibilities, it’s apparent that you’ll set and forget.
Be accountable from the outset. Give the agency of choice the confidence that you’re in it for the long run – that it’s a partnership and not just a buyer supplier relationship and make it clear that you’ll be holding them accountable, and working with them throughout.
It might sound counter intuitive but any agency really worth their salt will want that level of engagement and accountability, since it’s only by doing so that they’ll be able to deliver true campaign success.
So that’s it. The 10 most common mistakes that we see crop up time and time again in PR briefs are: