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Why no one Likes their PR agency

February 5, 2019 - Business Psychology -
By: Chris Riley

A good content marketing operation will frequently intersect with the other marketing activities of SEO/SEM, Demand Generation, and Public Relations (PR). These activities are necessary to make sure that the content that is produced gets the best opportunity to excel out in the wild. But when it comes to public relations efforts, almost no one is happy.

Why do so many companies dislike their PR agencies? And why have I heard more than once that “PR agencies are like socks, you have to change them often”? With PR agencies as such a common part of marketing efforts (even more common than practitioner content marketing), you would expect that companies by now would re-evaluate their PR strategies before complaining about their latest attempts. But they don’t. The reasons why are habit, hope, and hubris.


A large portion of marketing activities and budgets comes from a long history of standard marketing practices that are not often questioned. The reason is rooted in human nature. When trained in something that is well understood, it becomes easy to justify money and effort. When things go wrong, it’s the agency or the state of the market you blame, not yourself. It’s when marketing teams try to do something new that everyone’s ears perk up.

Hiring a PR agency is just something you do. And in fields outside of tech, the results are pretty cut and dry. Inside of high tech, though, it’s just a gamble.


There are many cases where PR is a must — for example, when you’re a public company, your earnings are lower and you have to instill confidence. Or when your smart camera starts spying on your customers, or you exposed personal information to the government without letting your customers know.

These are examples where PR is used as a medicine, and a necessary activity to protect the brand. But for most companies, PR is an activity that is supposed to drive new awareness — to entice analysts to talk about you favorably, get article placements, and get influencer praise. When these activities pan out correctly, they are very beneficial. But they are not necessary, and results are not always consistent.

While healthy PR is a good part of any marketing practice, technical founders expect magic. They want to believe that the results of PR that have worked for others will work for them. (Think TechCrunch mentions, or being named a “cool” vendor by Gartner, or getting a famous techie to write about you.)

Techies mistakenly think that everything is like application development — You follow the same algorithm as someone else, you get the same result. But that’s not how it works.


Many tech companies that are not familiar with PR (and/or technical founders) cannot fathom that influencers may not be as enamored with their product as they are. In this case, PR activities are largely based on blind hope. I’ve been briefed by technical founders whose enthusiasm for their software radiates through the phone line, and I’ve felt guilty when my enthusiasm didn’t match.

Hubris leads to a lot of disappointment when analysts and influencers do not respond favorably to a product, and most of the blame for the reaction falls on the PR agency.

It is not an algorithm

Tech companies, on average, grow frustrated with their PR agency 3-6 months after they’ve been hired. But the issue is often not the PR agency. Instead, the vendor is not realistic about what activities it takes to support good PR results. The process is not an algorithm you can follow.

PR agencies are often treated as nothing more than an entry in a Rolodex. They come with influencer relationships, and when they can’t actualize those relationships for the vendor, the vendor moves on to the next, even more promising company. This trend is propagated by the PR agencies themselves that focus on their relationships, more than the value of a PR strategy and long-term execution of it. And now that there are many influencer CRMs on the market, they have become more aggressive.

Tried and true works in most industries. But in high tech, “true” is a moving target at best. When a tech company starts the selection process for PR agency number three — just like marriage number three — you probably should start asking yourself, “Am I the problem?” Redefine your marketing activities so that they align with measurable and attainable goals, check your expectations with reality, and your perception of what you’re offering.


Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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