How to follow best practice when you’re told to spray and pray

Here’s a problem that practitioners new to PR can face. They know – from reading books, blogs and magazines, and going to events – that some of the stuff they’re told to do at work is bad practice.

But when their boss, a colleague from another division, or a client tells them to do counterproductive things – such as spraying irrelevant press releases at thousands of journalists, or asking journalists “did you get my press release?” – well, how can they avoid doing such things? Indeed, someone just last week put it to me: “When the people in charge just will not listen – what do you do? Any advice on how to deal with that problem would be great.”

This is a tough question. But it seems to me that a large part of success in PR, especially as practitioners get more senior, is educating others – both people in your own organisation and externally – about how public relations works and what level of quality and resources are required to achieve success.

Clients (internal and external) get all sorts of wrong steers. Lots of nonsense is spouted by people who don’t know what they’re doing. These include the claim that public relations offers “free publicity” that’s “three times as effective as advertising” through a seemingly magical device called “a press release” in which self-indulgent, jargon-infested drivel will somehow make front pages.

It is not helped by the fact that many PR people will agree to issue a press release not because it will work but because it will get someone off their back. This is the road to ruin: it sets entirely the wrong expectations.

Yes, agreeing to send a worthless press release makes life easy in the short term. But it creates future problems. First, it damages your reputation with your client (because your activities don’t seem to actually deliver results, and even if they claim that they don’t need it to land anywhere, except on their website, they are inevitably two-faced about that and later grumble that it didn’t make the media). Secondly, it damages your reputation with journalists (they block you for being a spammer). Thirdly, it throws away an ideal opportunity to suggest that you get involved upstream in their work (people generally do appreciate the idea that a PR person is going to engage strategically and early on).

The key to saying no to something is to have some alternative proposals up your sleeve – that way you don’t just look difficult or incapable, but knowledgeable. Frequently, when someone asks you to issue a press releasing announcing that “we are putting the customer at the heart of everything we do”, or asks for their executive team portrait to “go viral on Instagram”, that’s not what they are actually after. It’s just that, in the absence of a proper strategic plan for PR, they feel that something needs to be done. The most effective PR practitioners see the gap and propose a strategy and series of techniques that will actual deliver useful business objectives.

Of course, all this is rather difficult if you’re in your first job after university and you’re experimenting with what works. But if that’s you, here are some thoughts on how to improve your status – and ability to push back against idiocy.

First, a track record of success makes it easy to use your own techniques (best practice) rather than follow those wrongheaded but commonplace ones. If you’re getting people onto BBC One and into the FT, What Hi-Fi or whatever you’re supposed to be trying to do, it’s easier to suggest that you should be set objectives and left to use your own techniques.

Secondly, it can be difficult for more senior colleagues to see you as an authority. This is why it is so vital that you invest in a postgraduate qualification. I have no commercial interest in recommending this course of action, but I believe it can offer a real boost to your career. And even someone with a bald patch, like me, believes there is still so much to learn. I did a CIPR crisis communications diploma last year – getting a distinction was genuinely one of the proudest moments of my life. Do you think such qualifications help people take your opinion more seriously? It certainly does. It also shows your employer that you’re seriously committed to your career and makes you look more valuable as an employee.

Thirdly, if you’re part of a big team, are there wiser souls – such as ex-journalists – who you can seek advice from? They might be up for delivering some training across the whole team.

Fourthly, if your organisation has a training budget, go on a course and do the deal with your boss that you’ll report back what was taught. In some organisations, people who go on training are asked to present to the rest of the team, which is a good way of engaging in a conversation about what best practice looks like, without looking like you’re challenging someone’s authority.

Fourthly, it’s worth noting that results are not necessarily what all managers are trying to deliver. They may be trying to have a quiet life and they may find that box ticking enables them to prove outputs and justify what’s down on a time. It works for them, but if you’re ambitious it’s not exactly a useful form of training for you.

Finally, the unfortunate truth is that some bosses in PR are micromanagers, who cannot help but obsessively trap you into doing bad work. That’s life. Success and happiness in your career means you need to change your employer.