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UK PR professionals could learn from their counterparts in the US, and vice versa

12 Feb 2013

PR lessons from across the pond

At the end of 2012 the leaders of two London agencies caused the closest thing in the PR world to a ‘diplomatic incident’ when they claimed, in an interview with PR Week, that standards amongst New York agencies are low, with clients paying “through the nose for what they describe as bog-standard PR”. The US industry was, of course quick to bite back suggesting that anyone who thinks they can pitch up in NYC with this attitude is unlikely to succeed.

I watched this incident with interest, not only because a bit of industry mud-slinging is always entertaining, but because having worked in agencies on both sides of the Atlantic I feel like I have something to contribute to the debate.

Now the NYC PR world is by no means perfect, but I certainly learned a few valuable lessons during my time in the Big Apple:

1. There’s no substitute for enthusiasm
When I first moved to New York all of my friends were expecting me to start complaining about the relentless positivity that we Brits associate with Americans. But I actually found it really refreshing, especially in the workplace. To survive in the PR industry in New York you must have a can-do attitude, the word ‘no’ is very rarely spoken. That doesn’t mean that New York PR professionals don’t push back on clients – far from it. Because clients know that their agencies will bend over backwards to get the job done, when they do push back, they know it’s for a good reason.

2. Regional media shouldn’t be an after thought
In response to its London based critics the US PR industry was quick to point out the scale and complexity of the US market. Compared to the extremely London-centric UK market the US is indeed complex with multiple media centres in multiple time zones. That doesn’t mean you can’t run a national campaign from New York, but it does mean that you need to take time to understand the regional media landscapes, get to know the journalists and understand what makes news in Chicago, Sacramento or Dallas. PR professionals in the UK would do well to remember that there are more opportunities with media outside London than offering a regional breakdown of survey stats, and with the much of the BBC moving to Salford perhaps they finally will.

3. Earned and paid media need to work together
A criticism I have often heard levelled at the industry in the US is that there are too many paid opportunities – particularly in big media like the daytime talk shows. It’s true that there are paid integration opportunities but that doesn’t mean that PR is somehow easier or less effective. The best campaigns employ a combination of earned and paid media to drive credibility and reach. This is especially true online, where you can have the best, most engaging content imaginable but if no one sees it you are unlikely to meet your business objectives. PR and media buying agencies need to work together to amplify earned media through paid and vice versa.

And one bonus lesson, this time from London

1. Bigger isn’t always better
I think this may be what PR Week’s interviewees were getting at when they criticised the New York industry. Blue chip clients in the US tend to stick to a small roster of big network agencies, often at the expense of creativity and fresh thinking. When you consider the scale of their campaigns and the sheer size and complexity of the market it makes sense – they want to be confident that their agency has the infrastructure to deliver. However, in London, small agencies with big ambitions have shown time and again that they can deliver for big brands, both in the UK and across regional and global programs. Which is why ultimately, when I moved back home to London I decided to move on from a global network and join Kaizo.

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