The PR Fuel Mailbag: Size Matters, Press Release Confusion, Finding a PR Firm, and More

The PR Fuel mailbag once again runneth over. I’ve taken some of the more interesting letters I’ve received over the past few months and answered readers’ questions about the world of public relations. Newbies and vets alike should find the following Q&A helpful in navigating the day-to-day world of PR.

Question: We are an up-and-coming entertainment public relations firm that keeps getting passed over by prospective clients for bigger, more established firm. The excuses we often hear are that other firms have more contacts and higher-profile clients. Lately, we’ve been getting inquiries from prospective clients who, having passed us over, are unhappy with their choice of public relations firms. So now they come to us, but we are expected to do the amount of work, if not more, to make up for what happened due to another firm’s negligence. Sometimes these companies want to pay us a lower rate because we’re smaller, or because they’ve already overpaid another public relations firm. What should we do in these types of situations?

Answer: If you need the business and you think the client is worth it, grin and bear it. Of course, any good public relations firm should always try to negotiate a reasonable rate. If that fails, try to get the client to agree to an option for a second project, or more business, at a higher billable rate. Tell them to consider this a one-time, friendly discount aimed at proving that you can do the job better. Then go out and do the job better.

Cleaning up the mess left by another public relations firm is never fun, but it’s part of the job. If you can prove you were the better choice in the first place, you’ll begin to build a desirable reputation. Public relations is like any other business — sometimes you just have to prove yourself before you can command the pay you deserve and grab market share from the competition.

And hey, if you don’t need the business, tell the client that you’ll do the job but at your standard rate. In fact, tell them that you would normally charge a higher rate since they passed you over at first. They’ve come to their senses and you’re more than happy to welcome them — at your standard rate.

Question: I’ve read a lot about public relations. Some say that you should know a contact before actually sending out a press release; others say that you should just send out the press release via a newswire service. Which is better? Also, will you always know if someone does a story based on your press release? Will they always contact you for more information?

Answer: You certainly don’t need to know someone before sending them a press release. Press releases are fairly anonymous in one sense. The person putting the press release together is telling a story and distributing that story to any media outlet that may be interested in it. It does help to foster relations with people in the media, especially those who are most important to your company or organization.

As for newswire services, they’re well worth the money if you have the budget, if you’re targeting a wide audience, and if you’re having problems making contacts. I find that I get better responses on press releases that go over the newswire as opposed to press releases I send via email.

And consider yourself a press release star if you can get a story based purely on a press release with no further contact from the media. That type of exposure means your press release was well-written and included timely and relevant information. Or it could also mean that a journalist was on serious deadline. Either way, if a press release is the only source for a news story, consider it a win-win situation.

Question: We’re getting ready to launch a new company to the public and we’re looking for a public relations firm that can handle a start-up. In the advertising industry, there are agency search firms. Is there such a thing in the public relations industry?

Answer: My advice for new companies seeking a public relations firm is to find a local firm with a long track record. These firms are usually successful, and tend to work more closely with clients. Also, I always suggest looking at what public relations firms other companies in your industry are using. These firms will already know what kind of publicity you’re looking for.

Question: I work for the public communications department of a mid-sized city with a large public relations problem, thanks to a very popular newspaper columnist with a nasty opinion of city leaders. His words cause a great deal of grief for my department and the city government at large. Admittedly, the city has dropped the ball in some hard-to-ignore areas. However, it seems our good deeds — even those that should agree with the columnist’s views — are never noticed, despite our best attempts.  Can anything improve this situation?

Answer: It’s important to remember that journalists, especially columnists, generally have massive egos. This guy probably thinks his job is to “tell it like it is,” “protect the little guy,” “rock the boat” and “stick it to the powers that be.” He’s right, of course. To an extent.

The best approach is a tough-love. The next time the newspaper columnist goes on the attack, if justified, call him after the column runs: “Hey, you’re right and we’re working it. We appreciate your efforts to be the eyes and ears of the people. However, we’re doing some things right and we’d like to talk to you about it. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying. We need people like you to help us do things right.”

Here’s the thing: The guy is not going to change his opinion unless he has a reason to do so. You need to attack the newspaper columnist head-on by calling or meeting with him. Tell him you appreciate his work — even if you don’t — but also let him know that you feel he’s not giving readers the full story. Treat him with the same respect that you’d treat a citizen who comes in with a valid complaint, listening while armed with information. Ask the city leaders under fire to sit down for interviews with the columnist. Nothing neutralizes a critic like a face-to-face meeting with his target.

The newspaper columnist isn’t going to change his opinion overnight, and you can’t run a government or business based on one man’s critique. If the columnist isn’t listening to both of sides of the story, however, he’s not doing his job. If he persists, it’s a tough call. You’re representing local government, and any pressure or attacks you exert could certainly backfire.

Question: Recently the the manager of a large grocery chain gave me the run-around regarding a customer service issue. After talking to some other people in the community, I realized this wasn’t an isolated incident. Should I contact the local television station to see if they can do an investigative piece? Or should I contact the grocery chain’s public relations department?

Answer: I’m going to tackle this question from two points of view: as a consumer and as a public relations consultant. As a consumer, call the chain’s PR department and tell your story. Let them know that you’ve tried resolving the problem at the store and your call is a last resort. If this call is ineffective, you’re calling the media and starting a boycott. As a consumer you’ll get more accomplished by going over people’s heads and calling the public relations department to fix the problem.

Now if you’re a PR person and you get a call from someone with a complaint, you should help resolve the situation. Every employee of your company has something to contribute to your public relations strategy, good or bad. If an employee is doing something which may lead to bad publicity, it’s your job to help fix the situation.

Public relations consultants can solve a lot of problems simply by listening to what customers have to say and then taking internal action. You may not think this is your job, but the most basic premise of public relations is to make your company look good. If your customers are unhappy, and they’re savvy enough to call you, it’s worth taking the time to investigate.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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