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PR Fail Story: Relations are Two-Sided, Not Self-Serving

on September 13, 2012

I just had an experience with a PR rep who reached out to me, wanting me to engage with her client. I responded that I’d be interested, and added that I was also interested in her client for professional reasons, and wanted the dialogue to be mutually beneficial. Her response was I’m sorry I can’t do that, and ended the conversation.

Holy CRAP! Who does that?

Here’s the email exchange. I have replaced the names of the PR rep, her client’s name, and the companies involved.

Hi David,

First, I’d like to introduce myself as a member of the COMPANY X social media team at PR COMPANY. Please feel free to reach out to me in the future.

Second, I’ve noticed that you often blog about companies’ social media engagement and I thought that you might have some interest in chatting with Andrea, the digital lead of the social media team at COMPANY X. Andrea can speak about the social media strategies employed by COMPANY X, and more specifically she can address the company’s brand journalism site, COMPANY X BRANDED SITE.

COMPANY X BRANDED SITE also hosts the video series BRANDED VIDEOS, (and then adds a description of the branded videos).

Any interest in talking to Andrea about COMPANY X, social media and brand journalism? Feel free to touch base with me so I can put you two in contact.



(links to  client site were included but removed)

It just so happens I was close to closing a deal with COMPANY X many years ago and it fell through. They’re a huge company with many divisions. I responded as such:


I’d be happy to talk with Andrea about COMPANY X, social media and brand journalism if Andrea would like to talk with me about Spark Media Solutions and our style of brand journalism. A few years back COMPANY X actually approached us about doing some work for the security division. Because of poor timing, we were not able to make a deal in time, but I would happily like to reengage COMPANY X again.


Maria responds:

Hi David,

I’ve heard of Spark Media Solutions before, great work. Unfortunately, I can’t speak for COMPANY X about their business engagements. I think we had a misunderstanding here, my apologies.

Maybe in the future we can collaborate on a different project.

Have a nice week!



The response was rather abrupt and I thought she misread my intentions, so I followed up:


There’s no reason you should know about my previous engagement.

The purpose of my email was not to sever conversation. I’m open to a discussion, but I would like a two-way mutually beneficial dialogue rather than a PR person just trying to get me to write about their client’s company.


Her response:

Hi David,

I completely understand and I would love to help you if I could. However, I can’t offer you the type of insight or access to the COMPANY X team that you’re looking for. But again, I will keep you in mind if there is an opportunity for us to work together in the future. Thank you for your time.



Uggh, there is so much wrong with this.

She initiated a request for a conversation with her client. While not spelled out, it was obvious that her intention was to get me to write about how her client does brand journalism, and the specific site she linked to in the email.

OK, so that’s what she wants to do. That’s fine. But wait a second. The script that she developed in her mind didn’t play out exactly the way she wanted it to. Somebody also had a motive that wasn’t exactly the same as hers. Instead of doing what normal people do and adapt for the situation, she shut down.

While she said very nice things all the way through, the end result is she didn’t want to fulfill my request at all. It came off as “we do it my way or we don’t do it at all.” My request was just as wanting as her request. No demands were made. It was just a conversation. It’s kind of insulting that she simply would not.

For example, say you said to someone, “Could we grab lunch and talk about these new job opportunities I’m interested in? I think you’d be a big help and I’d love to get a referral from you.” You say, “Sure, but your current boss is someone I’d really like to get to meet and was wondering if we could talk about what’s going on at your company and what possible opportunities there might be for my business.”

What would you say to that? Would you say, “No, I can’t do that. I don’t have that type of access”? No, because only a self-centered jerk would say that. You would be happy to help out because they would be fulfilling your request. It’s how humans treat each other.

Stop blowing people off

Unless you landed in America yesterday, we all know the line “I’d love to help you if I could” is what we say to people when we don’t want to help or we’re too lazy to help. All I asked for was a mutually beneficial conversation. How difficult is that? There’s no obligation attached to my request. I didn’t ask her to make me a preferred vendor and sign a six-year contract.

All I asked was that I could open up a dialogue again to explore the possibility of working with the company as a brand journalism firm.

I don’t know what she read into my request because she responded with “I can’t offer you the type of insight or access to the COMPANY X team that you’re looking for.” Just say to your client, he’s happy to talk with you, but he’s also going to be inquiring about opportunities at our company as well. That’s it. What more do you need to do?

The last line though is the kicker: “I will keep you in mind if there is an opportunity for us to work together in the future.” Of course you won’t. Because for us to work together we’re going to have to build a relationship first, and that starts with a conversation, a mutually beneficial conversation, and you’ve made it very clear that you don’t want to do that.

PR firms are usually very helpful

If someone at that PR firm wants to help me, they will help me. In fact, that’s always been the case with PR firms for which I do have conversations with and do have relationships with. We actually have mutually beneficial conversations all the time. It’s the way the world revolves. We all help each other out.

More on social behavior…

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Creative Commons photo attributions to GDL studio, Search Engine People Blog, amslerPIX, and Johnny Grim.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob September 13, 2012 at 9:55 am

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This is a problem with blogging, otherwise known hyperbolically
as “the new journalism.” It’s often a part-time occupation, done by
people whose real, moneymaking business is something else.


PR people are accustomed to dealing with journalists of the
old school and journalism by a particular set of ethics. No PR person in her
right mind would accept an offer from a newspaper reporter that went something
like this, “Sure, I’ll write a story about Company X, but will you get me my
brother-in-law a job interview in return?”  And no self-respecting journalist would suggest such a
tit-for-tat arrangement. The writer’s publisher would consider that a violation
of journalistic ethics or company policy and if it ever got out, the writer’s
reputation would be mud.


Newspaper publishers have (or at least pretend to have) a
firewall between their advertising departments and their news operations.
Business is one thing, reporting is another, and one is not supposed to affect
the other.


But bloggers don’t have company policies, and they often
don’t consider themselves bound by the traditional ethics one learns in
J-school. They see their blogs—and the “klout” they get from them—as a
vehicle for promoting their real business.


Sorry, David. I like you and I think you do
fine work. But in this case, I can’t say the PR person was in the wrong.  Perhaps you include disclaimers in your
blog, disclosing any business relationships you have with the companies you
write about. If not, you might consider doing that. Because if your readers
were to sense the appearance of prejudice when they expect impartiality, of
tit-for-tat, of a too-cozy relationship between your company and those you
write about, they’d have serious doubts about the trustworthiness of your

David Spark September 13, 2012 at 11:18 am


Thanks for your reply. I don’t believe that the tit-for-tat example you give is the same that I did. Because yours was disconnected and it was extremely clear that it was tit-for-tat. I think the other example I gave was more along the same lines.

But I will agree that there were definitely misunderstandings and other people who have commented on Facebook also side with “Andrea” in this story. I’m actually getting zero love here.

What is 100% perfectly clear here is that we’re talking about “brand journalism” where you WORK for a brand. A brand contacted me about brand journalism which is what my company does. There’s definitely no question about that. There are links to it on the top of my page. It’s natural that I would want a two-sided conversation. Also, I always always leave disclaimers whenever I post something that was done for a client or I’m referencing a client. Feel free to just go back and look at the most recent posts.

It’s one brand journalist from a big firm talking to a brand journalist from a small firm. Inevitably I want to talk business. I could have just said yes to the conversation and try to turn the discussion. But I like to be upfront in my engagements. I guess I ambushed her maybe a little too soon.

BTW, I like you a lot too! Thanks man!

Hal Thomas September 14, 2012 at 7:18 am

Thanks for sharing this experience, David. It highlights a key problem with so many social media agencies and their personnel. They talk about ‘social’ as if it is primarily about media, about technology.

Being ‘social’ is simply what we used to refer to as having good manners and that transcends both media and technology. It’s universal. It’s the art of good conversation, of verbal give and take, of learning to be both a good storyteller and a good listener.

Your example rightly points out the self-centered nature of the request. Sure, some might argue that it really wasn’t in this poor PR person’s scope of influence to put you in touch with her client, but that’s all the more reason for her (and others in her position) not to invite you to have a ‘conversation,’ which is by its very nature a dialogue.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with asking someone to write about your client, but if that’s all that is desired then call it what it is: a request for free press, an invitation to a one-to-one press conference. Calling it an invitation to a conversation is disingenuous if there’s only room for one voice.

David Spark September 14, 2012 at 7:39 am

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with her request too. She was doing her job which was a job us in the media (branded or not) are very familiar with.

It’s very possible that there was confusion in message that I was wanting quid pro quo, but nothing was overt on either side. I wasn’t required to write anything about them after a conversation nor were they required to hire me. It was clear it would only be a conversation. I believe the issue is the woman was just too green to know how to handle anything that wasn’t just a simple yes or no. She didn’t want to rock the boat so she decided to pull out and end the engagement.

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