This morning, a story in the Houston Business Journal caught my eye because of its provocative opening sentence. And I quote:

Public relations is a waste of money.

PR-buttonThe subject of the piece is not condemning PR generally, but PR for certain businesses – in this case, small tech startups for whom PR is a big dollar investment that doesn’t pan out financially.

As a guy whose business is built around providing public relations advice to everyone from tribal nations to small and big businesses, fire fighter and police organizations to law firms and sports franchises, I absolutely have to agree with that premises … kind of.

Public relations is a waste of money. For some folks.

I’ve turned down a fair amount of business since starting Leibowitz Solo in 2009, not because it wouldn’t pay well, but because the chances of achieving success were super slim. Prospective clients inevitably show surprise when you explain PR isn’t for them, but they get it once you lay out the reasons why.

How can you tell if PR will be a waste for you? Easy. See if you answer “yes” to any of the following:

  • I need a bunch of customers to show up at my business tomorrow. PR isn’t magic. One story on the 6 o’clock news is unlikely to create a human landslide at your restaurant, shop or local polling place. It’s a noisy world out there; PR pierces that noise over time – a few months or years, not a few days.
  • I am talking to a PR practitioner who says a bunch of customers will show up at my business tomorrow. There’s a term of art I use to describe people like that. They’re “full of sh-t.” The sad part is, in PR just as in the practice of law, the deceitful few give a bad rap to the honest many.
  • I just need someone to write some press releases. Let me let you in on a dirty little secret: Press releases are a lot like junk mail. They get read sometimes … in three seconds, on the way to the trash can or spam folder. No one needs “some press releases.” What you need is someone with a set of relationships that give the releases urgency and a reason to be read. Otherwise, save your money.
  • I’m not sure exactly what will make my business successful. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of folks who don’t need PR – they need a business coach. As someone who has been successful because of a combination of great advice, trial and error and sheer dumb luck, trust me on this: Long before lack of publicity kills your business, not having a plan will.

PR, done right, can be a huge boon to a business. But it isn’t for everyone – especially at a cultural moment when social media and uber-cheap digital ads can end run the media and accomplish raising your profile at a fraction of the cost.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is pretty much living out that term of art.