1. They aren’t creating a compelling, heartwarming story that works.
Why did Spotify fire their PR agency? The reason is that a lot of artists now hate them, including the most powerful artist in the world. Spotify has simply failed to craft the right message and effectively deliver that message to the people they need the most: artists.
Sure, there are plenty of structural and serious issues that start at the top; but your PR person is supposed to help you spin that mess into a compelling, heartwarming narrative.
2. They send press releases instead of building relationships.
Press releases matter, but real relationships with writers and publications matter more.
If your PR person isn’t out on the streets, in cafes or bullpens finding ways to rally the writers that matter, then you won’t get the groundswell you’re supposedly paying for.
3. They threaten journalists.
This sounds really basic, but when you threaten a journalist to change their opinions or otherwise censor what they’re writing, they usually don’t react well. Sure, you might win in the first round, but you’ve now made an enemy for life.
If your PR person doesn’t know this, then they are the worst possible person to be leading your hearts-and-mind brigade.
4. They let you sue journalists.
Sometimes you can threaten journalists to shut their mouths. Other times, they’ll fight tooth-and-nail and even suffer jail time to fight you off and stand for their principles. Just ask Grooveshark, which burned three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to force Digital Music News to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter (hint: they lost).
It’s bad PR, bad for business, and your PR person should quit if you insist on moving forward with short-sighted ligitation against journalists. They should fire themselves.
5. They accidentally create viral stories about how evil you are.
Just ask YouTube, whose PR guy thought it would be a good idea to bully Zöe Keating into retracting her story about how YouTube was treating artists. The only problem? Keating kept copious notes of the conversation, which indeed showed that YouTube was bullying her into joining Music Key or closing her channel.
The result of all this? A hugely viral, David v. Goliath story that worked against Youtube’s interests.
If your PR person creates a viral story that makes you look horrible by doing things like bullying people, you should fire that person.
6. They are full of shit.
This should probably be number one: spin is one thing, but complete bullshit is another. Writers are usually a lot smarter than you think, and feeding them obviously-wrong BS is a great way to alienate them, or worse, motivate them prove you wrong and write something really bad about you.
If your PR person doesn’t know the line between spin and BS, they shouldn’t be working for you.
7. They lie.
Remember, it’s harder than ever to lie these days. Things have a way of coming out, sometimes years later (just ask Brian Williams, or BigChampagne). And that’s not just bad PR, it’s potentially corporate malfeasance!
Your PR person should be well-adept at shaping facts, not falsifying them.
8. They put really stupid things in writing.
Because every email, tweet, blog post, and text is not only recorded forever, it can also ruin you forever…
(Justine Sacco, fired as head of publicity for IAC after her ‘joke’ went viral.)
9. They get emotional.
If your PR people can’t handle brutal rejection and never getting return emails, phone calls, or texts back, then they shouldn’t be PR people.
Remember this: there are more asshole writers out there than nice writers. But even the nice ones simply cannot return the deluge of incoming communication, even if they wanted to be nice. They will reject or ignore your PR pitches, if they notice them at all.
If your PR person takes any of that personally and doesn’t remain doggedly persistent, they need a hug, not a paycheck from you.
10. They suck at dealing with people.
The CEO doesn’t need to be a nice guy. He may suck at talking to journalists. But your PR person needs to be incredibly adept at dealing with prickly writer-types, many of whom don’t have good people skills.
If they can’t deal with difficult people, then they won’t be effective at telling your story. Period.
11. They shut down in the face of criticism.
Not everyone is going to like your company, your idea, or way of doing business. Some will be completely brutal or publish things you don’t want published. But that should present your PR firm with a challenge, not a reason to shut down and cut off communications.
Because every critical journalist can be swayed, especially if they aren’t seeing the whole story. The jedi PR person knows how to stay above it all, take the high road, and win people over.
Here’s proof: a few years ago, Live Nation completely changed Bob Lefsetz’ mind after he completely crapped on them. They invited him over and completely reshaped his perceptions to the point that he was basically evangelizing.
If your PR firm isn’t trying to do things like that, they shouldn’t be working for you.
12. They aren’t creating amazing events and using goodies.
Sure, writers love to fashion themselves as wholesome, impartial authorities that can’t be swayed by favors. But they also love free stuff, and will warm up to you if you give it to them. And, it’s a great way to win them over, break through the clutter, get them to go outside, and subtly pitch to them the entire time.
So send them tickets to the festival with a +1, but make them pick up the tickets in your tent or suite (after they chat with you about how great everything you’re doing is.) Invite them to your party, and introduce them to all the wonderful people that are leading your company’s charge. Remember: it’s harder to tear someone down that you’ve met face-to-face, especially if that person has presented you with all sorts of different, positive aspects of what they’re doing.
Let me just call out a few companies that are doing this right:
Sonos, whose string of performances and events at the Sonos Studio in Los Angeles is a fantastic way to build relationships, prove their credibility to the artist community, and most importantly, keep journalists and other influencers totally up-to-date on their business. They’re top of mind, and they’re persistent about getting us out (both myself and Ari have already swung by a few times).
Jukely, an innovative ‘Netflix for concerts’ model that has gotten us out to check out their shows, and even set up a meeting with their CEO at a gig in LA.
Apple had us over to Cupertino for lunch. Just to tell us what they were doing.
13. They aren’t getting their top people in front of important publications.
Some PR firms deliberately block their clients from communicating directly with publications. Others smartly do the opposite, and forge rich, lifelong relationships that do them enormous benefit.
Let me also call out some other companies that are definitely doing this right:
The National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), whose CEO, David Israelite, contributes op-eds for DMN and whose press team stays on us to make sure we’re scheduling it (more on that later).
Audiam, whose founder Jeff Price has written multiple guest posts for Digital Music News, has kept us totally up-to-date on all sorts of important developments (in his company and beyond), and even buried the hatchet after years of arguing.
Steve Gordon, who partnered a long time ago with Digital Music News and has authored dozens of informative legal posts for us. And also has sold a lot of books and probably picked up a few nice clients along the way.
Fluence, who had the balls to present and defend their model on Digital Music News, and whose founder has even met with Digital Music News to explain it some more (with more than one writer).
If your PR firm isn’t paving the way for these types of interactions, or worse, blocking these types of interactions, what are they doing?
14. They aren’t music fans or tech geeks.
I’ll call out the Jukely PR team here, Miller PR. One of their people is obviously a die-hard music fan, the other even plays euphonium! That’s cool, and right off the bat, we’re speaking the same language.
If your PR team knows more about the Patriots than Patreon, or would rather go to the Catalina Wine Mixer than Jazzfest, than you probably need a new PR person!
15. They aren’t using the media ecosystem to your advantage.
Before the Wall Street Journal started criticizing Spotify, Digital Music News started criticizing Spotify. But DMN will just as quickly quote a Wall Street Journal article. Things trickle up and they trickle down, which is why your PR team needs to not only know people all throughout the chain, but know how to use the chain effectively.
16. They write emails in CAPS.
Don’t do this.
17. They aren’t showing up every day to try to create an absolute frenzy of media interest around your amazing company and its revolutionary products, and completely putting their egos aside to do it.