Industry Responds to Financial Times ‘PR Is a Waste of Money’ Piece


The week’s most-discussed article was this one, by Emma Jacobs of Financial Times, which imagines a corporate world free from the “bland message[s]” of “spin-doctors” who “[drum] up controversy simply in order to increase their fees.”

Her overly emphatic point is that certain top financial executives like Warren Buffett prefer to speak directly to journalists and shareholders (though they all have personal assistants). The killer quote, delivered by an unnamed British tech comms director:

“I have no idea what [PR does] for us.”

…and it keeps going.

The same director argues that interviews with executives will always be better without the interference of middle men who only serve to water down the message. In what may be the most generous overstatement in the entire piece, one British private equity veteran says:

“Very often the most effective way of dealing with controversy is to do nothing.”

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that several top PR executives have gently corrected Ms. Jacobs in various forums this week.

The most positive point in her piece came from CIPR president Stephen Waddington, who said “as media fragments, communications becomes what everyone does within an organisation.”

He followed up on that thought in a blog post today, writing:

“…engagement requires professional expertise. Public relations has a role in listening and engagement in every department within a modern organisation.”

In a historical first, some of the comments on the article itself also provided counterpoints. Ogilvy CEO Chris Graves wrote:

“[Journalists] assume PR is the worst of both worlds: they are flacks taking the fire from the enemy journos while isolating their top execs from real reporting; or they pitch self-serving, thinly-veiled adverts as irrelevant stories at the wrong time to the wrong reporter. I once held that view, too.

The days of PR as Ab Fab swillers of ‘champers’ — fashion victims passing off ‘goss’ as news– are long gone.”

He later engaged with the writer, noting that given example Warren Buffett runs an investment firm and that the many companies in which he puts his money all need and use PR services.

Richard Edelman added his opinions in a blog post arguing that Ms. Jacobs has “a fundamental misunderstanding” of PR’s proper role:

  • Media relations/training comes after policy on PR’s priority list
  • No one measures success today in terms of column inches
  • Any PR pro whose only recommended comment is “no comment” is out of his or her element
  • Repeated studies have demonstrated the unique value of earned media, thereby decimating the argument that any PR spend is a waste of money

Here’s the most telling concession from Edelman’s response:

“It is true that too much work with journalists is ‘dumped’ onto junior staff.”

The problem, then, is that Ms. Jacobs has had too many negative experiences with lower-level PR staffers who probably shouldn’t be tasked with pitching her in the first place.

We do feel her pain. And we know how tired this conversation can be.

At the same time, the original article and the various responses to it make for a useful portrait of our industry’s own perception problem.

Unfortunately, the FT piece will certainly not be the last of its kind. Journalists who continue receiving bad pitches will, in turn, continue writing critiques like the one in question.

The worst pitch we got this week speaks for itself:

“We have an article about balancing pregnancy and a healthy sex life. Is that something you would consider for your site?

There is also an upcoming adult sex education event that focuses on a 50 Shades of Grey lifestyle.”

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.
Publish date: April 11, 2014 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT