11/12/2012 04:42 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

You Can't PR a PR

Almost every PR agency tries to distinguish itself in some way or another, despite that fact that 95 per cent of them look terribly similar (employing somewhere between two and 40 people, and just about breaking-even financially).

But every now and again an agency creates a shiny bauble that's so stunningly brass-necked that other agencies notice and swiftly emulate it. Over the last year or two a coterie of PR agencies have made a point about the way they are structured. It's an attractive triple-whammy for an agency to pull. Redundancies are neatly squared away in a restructure, it can point to a new 'specialism' that's designed to aid the sales process and it creates lots of 'head of' job titles which pleases the promotion-hungry without actually having to devolve any decision-making to them. Or a pay rise.

The particular spin in each story is irrelevant. They all talk broadly about adopting more of an advertising agency model, whereby strategists can spend all day making pretty PowerPoint slides, while 'creatives' just create and project managers can indulge themselves in GANNT charts. Here's a particularly pompous example from GolinHarris, but it could be one of many other alternatives.

Quite how quickly an account handler (aka 'catalyst' at GolinHarris) can consult with someone from the strategy team ('strategist'), and run through the resulting strategic direction with the client, work with a 'creator' to get something written, then get it signed off by the client, then brief a 'connector' (someone who, God-forbid, actually talks to the media) is interesting. A little longer than it takes a three person team that's been working hand-in-glove for 12 months, one suspects. Especially when these little fiefdoms have had time to take root and the internecine warfare is in full flow.

The strategy will be chiseled into a tablet of stone by someone with a huge hourly rate and the best corner of the office, before being walked down the mountain (corridor) to where the grunt (catalyst) works. The expensive head of analyst relations will need to take a look too, of course, if only to justify having the second-nicest view from the office. The creatives, should they even be dirtying themselves with commercial requirements at that moment in time, will of course have carte blanche to ignore the actual brief. Before returning to nonchalantly playing table football, maneuvering around their fixed wheel bicycles and Star Wars figurines in their achingly hip '70s-style brown and orange bolt holes. A teenager with the life experience and emotional intelligence of six year old, aka head of social media, will need to add some generic figures about the amount of people that look at the internet. And change the Twitter logo, because that's the old one...

The poor old lackey (catalyst) will then need to best explain how this terrible Frankenstein monstrosity of siloed-agency-self-interest relates to the actual client and the topical event that happened two days ago and is now yesterday's chip paper. The media studies graduates with biro on their hands (connectors) will then ring some disinterested journalists who'll wonder why on Earth PRs are so bad and how these companies get hired. Well, it's because in-house people buying their PR services are impressed by silly shiny things like senior management grouping employees into one of four small boxes.

The business world would be a better place if this sort of nonsense didn't exist. That will only happen when in-house PR people stop gullibly buying foil wrapped sales twaddle. As a contribution to that happy day, here's the horrid truth about those oh-so-cool PR firms.

What a PR agency with a specialist writing team (or similar) is actually saying is: "Our people strategy has failed. And rather than putting in the long hard slog of recruiting and developing effective all-rounders who understand the world, their clients and the business of PR, we're restructuring instead."

It's rather like the worst of yesteryear car assembly plants, where each task was broken down to such a mind-numbing level of simplicity that even the drunk, drug-addicted or illiterate could perform adequately and quality control set new lows as a result. It's also the advertising agency model. Go figure.

Effective public relations is a little different to making a car, or creating an advertising campaign. PR is day in, day out. It has to operate at the media's pace (worldwide, 24/7). A particular position or message has to be tweaked to suit the situation, while remaining in line with the longer term strategy. Quite often, it might be better for a different organization to talk on your behalf. That is why public relations has always been a profession that needs people with a complete skill-set. It is why effective agency-side public relations is about small teams of well-rounded professionals, able to work together fast and effectively to support the client. Think law firm rather than advertising agency.

If you take the time to get your recruitment right there are people who can be hired and developed to understand large swathes of the economy, think, be creative, write, relate to people and hit deadlines. It's even possible for these people to know a little bit about analyst relations and possess more than a soupçon of digital knowledge.

But of course it's quicker, cheaper and easier to dumb everything down to process, hire a bunch of monkeys, and call it progress. Yet even that most basic and seemingly logical writing team doesn't add up in reality. The devil is in the detail. An 'expert' writing team full of aging journo has-beens and never-weres is not going to be able to knock out 750 words, on message, in just the way the CEO likes it, having never met the client. Not knowing how the messaging has evolved, in the sinew, without having been formally updated in over 18 months. Not knowing the preferences of the head of sales, who has the power to stop the CEO seeing it, if it's not to his or her own liking. Not knowing and being trusted by the three advocate customers that could have been oh so easily cited.

Well-rounded professionals as part of a stable team with powerful working relationships and priceless strategic and tactical knowledge? Nah. Silos, processes, staff turnover and someone who wrote for a paper once and talks a good game about the 1980s. That's the way to go...