Here’s Why PR Isn’t Working For You

5 years ago · 5 min read

In over a decade of leading digital PR for clients with Zen Media, I’ve made a staggering discovery that’s quite revealing. Clients either end their engagement sometime between three to six months or they keep going…for years. One of our clients has been with us since I started the company eleven years ago. We have an almost uncanny retention rate in an industry where hopping from firm to firm is very much the norm. 

So, what gives? 

I’ve analyzed the data. There is no common denominator between the companies that quit early vs. the ones that stay for the long haul when it comes to industry, size, b2b vs. b2c, or even the success of the campaign in question. What has often baffled me is that the companies that quickly call it quits are the ones for which we’ve created the most successful campaigns. Now, please note that I am not talking about the clients that come in for a specific campaign. Those have a clear start and finish date. Maybe it’s a product launch, an investor relations campaign, or just needing buzz about a specific service. I am talking specifically about clients with the need for ongoing PR. 

Out of intrigue, I’ve also kept an eye on some of these short-term clients over the years. What I’ve found is that the pattern continues. They are consistently dissatisfied. Compare this to clients who keep at it. They are no dummies. They range from Fortune 500 companies to smaller enterprises who reap consistent value because they invest year after year.

I recently asked one of our veteran clients who was skeptical about PR when we first started working together why he continued to invest.  His told me, “I realized PR is a marathon, not a sprint. The media mentions you’ve garnered for us over the years have far exceeded the ROI of our traditional advertising, but it hasn’t been a result of any particular mention in one article, it’s been the cumulative effect of all your work. It took me a while to get it, but there’s no denying that it’s been a success.”

When it comes to clients that PR doesn’t “work” for, what’s going on? Here’s what I’ve found.

  • They are shortsighted. We live in an age of insta-everything. I get it. But marketing and PR success belong to those who can see beyond the initial impact. One common thread among clients we’ve served for many years is the quality of their leadership team. Whether they helm large or small companies, these leaders understand and invest in relationships. Eventually, they win out over their more transactional oriented competitors. These relationships extend to their vendors, partners, and customers. They aren’t annoyed when a journalist interviews them and runs with only a single quote, or quotes them and their competitors in the same piece. They see the value in the visibility itself and appreciate the opportunity to build the relationships that make up their PR pipeline. Some of the best visibility and “virality” pieces have come from these “small but mighty” placements—and earned these clients big wins!  


  • They expect PR wins to work in a silo. Today’s PR game is massively different than it was ten or even five years ago. You can land on the cover of a magazine but without leveraging social media, amplification, and a sound lead generation strategy, its impact is limited. 90% of PR is how you leverage the wins to amplify the effect. This is what moves the needle. 


  • They weigh each piece individually vs. looking at the collective impact. I’ve been a guest on literally hundreds of podcasts in the last decade. Some had millions of listeners, and some had twenty. The number of subscribers has never swayed my decision, and I’ve never said “well, that podcast didn’t result in anything” because I know that’s not how it works. I’ve always shown up and given my best advice because that’s what I feel I owe the host and their listeners. Collectively, those podcasts have generated numerous opportunities for me from client partnerships to keynote engagements. PR is not an item-by-item game.


  • They may be working with the wrong firm. You have to find a team that is the right fit for you. If you are looking for a very conservative traditional campaign, an Edelman or the like may be a good fit.  If you are looking for an agile, creative team that’s more focused on creating memorable moments for your brand, Zen Media would be more your speed. Writing this, I’m reminded of a campaign where we helped to land Capital One and the YMCA’s annual Turkey Trot in the Guinness World Records for the highest number of people dressed up as…you guessed it, turkeys. Despite harsh weather, that campaign also broke the 40-year record for the highest number of people to sign up for annual memberships.


  • They don’t understand the value of branded searches. Think about it: you ask for Kleenex, not facial tissue. You order a Coke or a Pepsi, not carbonated soda. You search for Rothys or Birdies, not slip-on shoes. This is true for both B2B and B2C companies. I constantly hear from B2B clients that we succeed in shortening their sales cycle because brand name-recognition matters. The stronger your PR and visibility, the more people (ahem, your customers and prospects) will search for you directly. The implications here should not be overlooked. The value of branded searches will only continue to go up as the digital age becomes noisier. We need filters. Brands we trust become those filters. PR helps your company evolve into that go-to brand. 


  • They underestimate the qualitative impact. One of the first things you learn in the world of academic research is that there are two types of measurement, quantitative and qualitative, and both are critically important. The quantitative is what we tend to obsess over and explains our preoccupation with “data:” the tangible here’s-what-I-can see/count numbers. The qualitative is harder to grasp and often calls into question the assumption that data is the primary driver of success. It relies on a creative-centric approach that is powered by “outside-the-box” thinking, authentic storytelling, and human sentiment. When it comes to PR, the quantitative is fairly straightforward. How many subscribers? How many views? How much would this have cost as an ad? The qualitative, however, is more nuanced, complex, and powerful. As one client recently told me, “The ROI for us is when my sales team calls a prospect and rather than the brush-off, they get, “Wow, you guys are everywhere these days. Let’s talk.'”