Story of a PR disaster

Anatomy of a PR disaster… and how not to let it happen to you.

PR companies can be great if you want to raise general awareness of your company. Story of a PR disaster A good PR professional can create a buzz about you, getting your name out there. But there are times when you simply do not need to pay for PR and in fact paying for the service can never guarantee you will be happy with the result.

Let us tell you about a PR disaster that befell one company recently. Such was the embarrassment of this published piece, which you would only like if you believe all publicity (even bad) is good publicity, the poor MD was forced to address the ‘issues’ in an article in his company blog.
Yet the sad thing was he could have had publicity (which would have been positive and an article he could have seen before it was printed) for free.

A few weeks earlier we had stumbled on this company’s website and spotted this extraordinary story. We can’t tell you what it is because that could identify this organisation and we would not want to cause them any further embarrassment.

But suffice to say we rang the organisation and they seemed keen for us to approach one of the huge national newspapers we regularly write for. A few days later we had a deal for a big piece in a newspaper that usually any PR would see as the ultimate PR scoop – and something that as all copy is written by us would also be totally controlled. The company MD would also be given copy approval. Indeed I couldn’t imagine how this amazing story could be written up in anything but a positive way.

Then a problem. The MD explained in an email they already had a PR company on board – could we go through them?

We can’t say we were thrilled – unfortunately some PR companies are notoriously difficult to deal with – but we thought, OK, we will go via them.

Another problem. The PR came back – via email with no contact phone number on it – they already had something in the pipeline for this company. Yes, they admitted it was a much smaller piece in a far smaller newspaper (think thousands of readers, rather than millions). “Ethically,” he explained, “we will have to stick with our paper.”

There are times when huge national newspapers will run a story after a smaller publication (in fact we regularly negotiate multiple deals every day for our clients) but this snobby PR company didn’t even suggest that – possibly because it wasn’t them that had gained such a big newspaper deal. Instead, we received a ‘thank you for taking an interest in our client’ message (PR TIP: NEVER send that patronising phrase to anyone.)

Incredibly, despite admitting themselves in their email that yes, they would usually be thrilled if they themselves had gained such publicity for a client, we were left with no choice but to turn down the big national newspaper that every other PR company we’ve ever dealt with asks to go in.

Part of this was due, we suspect, to a naive client who believed as he was paying big bucks to a PR company to gain them publicity (sister site Featureworld does not charge any fees for PR because they are paid for writing the story) that his money guaranteed the good publicity he thought he was buying.

Anyway, fast forward several weeks and this long awaited article in a little known spot in this not very well read publication finally appeared.

To say we were shocked would be an understatement. It wasn’t so much that it was tucked away so it wasn’t even in a main part of the paper (we had expected that) but it had been written in a nasty sarcastic tone. What should have been celebrated as joyous had been rubbished by a writer who believed it was clever and more edgy to do that than simply write a straight-forward happy article.

Clearly too, this client had not had any sight of the copy before it was printed. Nor, it seems, did he or his PR company have had any idea that this journalist was going to write in such a twisted way.

Unsurprisingly, save for a nod to the fact it had been printed, the company did not proudly tweet the article that probably cost them thousands of pounds to secure. Instead, 48 hours later the MD was forced to take to the company blog to address the issues raised in it, reassuring existing customers of their good practice.

The motto of this sorry tale? If a national newspaper journalist approaches you, then you have a very good story. And if you have a good story, you won’t have to pay anyone to print it for you (in fact sister site Featureworld will pay you.)

Can your PR company handle it? Certainly they should be able to – if they are former national newspaper journalists turned PR – then they should definitely be savvy enough not to let you look a gift horse in the mouth. They should be able to keep BOTH deals for you AND keep control over exactly the angle any journalist is taking on your story so you are happy with it.

But if your PR firm is the sort that has a photo of them all as young luvvies with lists of awards they’ve won and barely any information whatsoever about what they have actually achieved for their clients on their own website – as this guilty PR company does – then give them a wide berth.

Don’t blindly accept what a PR company says just because you are paying them. Do your own research and if you are a company wanting publicity (so much you are paying to try to get it) question any PR person who tries to convince you to choose a low-circulation trendy publication over straight-forward world-wide media coverage.
Yes as you are paying them, that PR company might fawn over you and take you for lunch (Featureworld might be far too busy selling and writing their own stories for that, I’m afraid) and they will therefore tell you how lovely you are. But actions – and results – really do speak louder than any words.

The harsh truth is this: for many small businesses, the opportunity to gain seriously huge good publicity might only come once in a lifetime (if ever.) Don’t waste it.

You might also like: How to choose a PR Firm and How PR turned our business lives around overnight

Have you had a bad experience with a PR company? Or maybe you have had a great experience that has put your business on the map? Why not tell us about it and help others by giving your views below…


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Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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