OK. Enough’s enough. It’s time to dispel another myth of this illustrious industry. I’ve sweated over this problem, worried over the dilemma and stayed up late into the night pondering over the best course of action. But I can’t take it anymore. It’s time every prospect, client and third uncle twice removed is finally forced to understand a basic truism. No PR agency can dictate a headline.
Why the sudden need to dispel this myth? Frankly it’s been eating away at my insides like a carnivorous beast since I first started in this game. Every time an RFP comes in, I die a little inside. Not at the thought of pitching – it’s actually one of my favourite parts of the job – but because at some point there will be a need to create some shonky mock-ups of “actual” headlines.
I’m sure plenty of you will know what I mean, but in case you don’t I’ll run through it in Five Easy Steps:
Step 1: RFP from Brand X is received.
They want the usual stuff. To support a launch of a new product (for the purpose of this example, we’re calling it a Toy-Rex. A toy dinosaur that is so technologically magical it really walks and thinks for itself. It’ll even eat your pet hamster). They want an online influencer campaign, one-to-one briefings, some sort of launch event and most importantly front page coverage in the WSJ, IHT and FT. Crucially they want to see in the pitch an illustration of the sort of results they would get.
Step 2: Our agency team responds
They work tirelessly, honing ideas that go above and beyond what’s needed. We’re not launching a Dino-Bot here, we’re creating a brand. So they work late into the night, refining ideas, testing them internally and eventually creating a presentation. This agency is so forward thinking, they’ve done away with a basic PowerPoint. To truly bring to life the idea they’ve basically rebuilt Jurassic Park just off Victoria Street. They really want the business (who doesn’t want to promote a Toy T-Rex?).
Step 3: Houston We Have A Problem
The RFP requires a bite-size representation of what results will look like. There isn’t much time left and the presentation room is jam-packed with a herd of cardboard dinosaurs, fake grass and a watering hole. Writing up the headline of a press release isn’t going to cut it – they all know press releases are a little bit pointless when you’re trying to tell consumers about a dinosaur. So what do the team do? They resort to another hangover from the Jurassic period. They draft the headlines, as if they would appear in the papers, and have them printed as if they actually appeared on the front page. As if, being the operative phrase.
Step 4: Agency hired
KPIs are agreed, the agency execute a perfect campaign that goes beyond what they promised – hitting analysts, trade press, events, consumer titles, experiential and those tricky ‘online influencers’. The Toy-Rex is the must have toy for Christmas, it flies off the shelf as though it has already evolved into a bird and the coverage come flooding in like a post-meteor tidal wave.
Step 5: Review Process
When flicking through the coverage reports we notice none of the ‘headlines’ bear any resemblance to whatever appeared in the press. Thankfully no one cares, because every person in the UK has a pet dinosaur. Well, the Hamster lovers of Great Britain are mildly despondent, but we’re not counting them…
Do you see what I mean? Nowhere in the process does a faked headline have an effect on the activity or the outcome. If nothing else it leads us up the proverbial creek by suggesting that any campaign can deliver perfect, on-message headlines in the pan-Euros. Of course that’s what we strive for, it’s the desired goal that should be at the heart of every campaign. But if any agency says they can guarantee headlines they’re missing the point and ignoring the fact that journalists and editors actually stand in their way.
I’m curious as to how this little bit of nonsense ever came into the general PR lexicon. PRs have never (or at least since I’ve been one) been in the game of actually writing headlines. We can influence them, sure. Sometimes we can guess at a few of the key words. “Apple launch new iPhone” would surely get near the mark. But my issue is that we shouldn’t be paying lip service to the myth.
In a world of multiple stakeholders and influencers, a headline in the FT – though still important from a strategic business sense – is now only one of many ‘critical success factors’. Surely we should have better ways of illustrating our success across all these media and influencer channels. We shouldn’t just steadfastly grip to old print media.
So I suppose for all my wailings I’m asking for two things.
1) Please let us find better ways of evaluating our success and representing it. Only then can we show clients the value of what we do and stop wasting time on pre-historic models.
2) If there is anyone with client experience reading this – I’d be interested in knowing what you look for. Do the faked headlines help? I assume you don’t read them as gospel – but do they influence your decision, based on deliverables, when you’re appointing an agency?
DISCLAIMER: I have never launched a Pet Dinosaur. I can but dream.