PR work is expectation management: A short conclusion after 2 years of experience

Avatar photo Christoph Grimsel - 29th Apr, 2022

Mid 2019: My studies were coming to an end and the topic of my bachelor thesis only needed concrete implementation. I already knew that I wanted to enter the PR industry afterwards and informed myself about my prospects as a career starter. When I was accepted for a traineeship in Berlin by the end of 2019, I could not yet foresee how versatile the job as a PR consultant would be – and what challenges awaited me. With more than two years of professional experience in the industry, I am less wet behind my ears and have learned more.

PR work is expectation management

Early in my career as a PR consultant, I kept coming across statements like “PR business is people business” and “PR work is relationship work.” That made sense, because after all, direct contact with customers and journalists is an essential part of our job. Of course, we always strive for a good relationship, respectful interaction and a competent exchange. Today, I think the statements can be modified and summarized in one sentence: “PR work is expectation management”.

The reason for that is because whether it’s from the client’s side or from the journalist’s perspective, we have to meet many different expectations in PR consulting. The best example of this is, on the one hand, the client’s expectation to organise editorial in high-quality publications and, on the other hand, the media houses’ expectation to contact them only when we have a good story to offer. If we live up to both expectations, our relationship improves on both sides. But the reverse also rings true: if we don’t live up to expectations, for example through mass mailings and telephone terror, the relationship deteriorates. This also means dealing openly and honestly with expectations, even if we don’t think they are realistic. So working with people and their attitudes towards our work only leads to good relationships if we successfully balance all these positions.

Measurability of PR can easily become a contentious issue

Is there a one size fits all approach to measuring PR? Does the monthly clipping count of articles generated or published mean success, or the quality of the media?  Is the best solution combining both? To answer these questions invites policy debate.

In the last two years of experience, I could see that PR was most often measured by reach strength and published articles. That’s understandable; after all, a reach of 1,000,000 users and twelve published articles can be seen as accurate. It can be presented well and helps communications officers justify the use of a PR agency. Many clients also want to measure success by the number of backlinks, leads to their product, or increased website traffic to their product – this is difficult to implement in practice, because who can say exactly what traffic came from a specific clipping. For me, a clipping is properly measured when factors such as the target audience, reach and text content are taken into account. If a relevant tone and the right target group go hand in hand with a comprehensible reach, we once again live up to the principle of quality over quantity in our work.

This principle apparently still needs a lot of clarification, because when it comes to the “right” measurement in PR consulting, the solution, as always, lies somewhere inbetween. The discussion then usually quickly becomes a bone of contention when there are guidelines in the background that insist on exact measurement and allow no interpretation other than numbers. This challenge leads us back to expectation management and demands a lot of tact and arguments in consulting.

PR as part of the marketing department: Can it work?

In the last two years, I have rarely seen us as an agency serving clients who have an independent communications team. Almost always, the responsibility for PR was within the marketing department – and treated accordingly with too high expectations of the end result from the journalist (after all, marketing runs on the first go), copy being too promotional, heavy backlink demands, (after all, PR has to bring visible success), too many uniforms, coupled measures (after all, PR and marketing are supposed to bring parallel success).

Similar to the measurability of PR, the stamp as “little brother or little sister of marketing” is sometimes hard to get out of the minds of customers. Even though both fields come after the famous “something about media” study description, they are vastly different: marketing draws attention to the company through paid advertising, while PR uses good relationships, a strong, individual story, and a meaningful spokesperson to enhance corporate reputation.

A mix of the worlds of self-operating communications and marketing departments only works if marketing employees rely on the assessment of the PR (agency) – and vice versa. Only when this symbiosis succeeds (and both departments can concentrate on their strengths without interfering with each other’s work) will the department, which is already so often combined, also be successful in the media landscape, live up to expectations, and lead to a good relationship.

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