The empty suits of spin, and how to do PR yourself

Have you heard of the empty suit problem?

Empty Suits are professionals who (empirically speaking) don’t do any better than amateurs at their chosen profession. Nassim Taleb has a great chapter on this problem in his book “The Black Swan” (worth a read).

Stock pickers, fund managers and economic forecasters are good examples of Empty Suits.

So are most PRs.

PRs as Empty suits

When it comes to PR, my bet is, you can probably do as well – or better – yourself (the hallmark of the empty suit). And at the end, I’ll give you some tips on how.

In my experience, if you’re a business owner, marketer or even an in-house publicist, you’ll be better doing your PR yourself instead of employing a spinner to take your money.

Don’t believe me?

The PRs even tell you they can’t predict their own results.

Their own institute, the PRIA, specifically says:

“Public Relations is not a computer or lightbulb that you can guarantee will work or your money back. “Can you trust a doctor that guarantees a cure for cancer that all other medical practitioners have found untreatable? Would you believe an accountant who promises you will make a profit?”

I hate to break it to the spinners, but what a straw man they leaveth here.

In most circumstances, EVERY bloody PR will say your PR problem IS treatable – by them, AND with no guarantees.

I’d love an accountant who promises I will make a profit, thanks.

And – having just come from a funeral of a cancer victim – I’d love to have some scientist come up with a treatment THAT WORKS.

And if these people (professionals or not) can do it, why can’t they use a guarantee? Sounds like a good plan to me, unless they have something to hide.

Secondly, the fact that these examples are hard to believe is EXACTLY why a guarantee is a good idea.

So Why the heck should a PR not give a guarantee if they want to?

OK, I’m a bit irritated right now because one of my clients has been fleeced of about $10,000 for big promises of coverage, with donut results.

I should explain, I’m not anti PR.

I even like the term propaganda – after all, it’s what we marketers do all day.

When PRs are Good

Here are a couple of exceptions to the Empty Suit rule:

1. If you don’t have time to do it yourself you may need someone with the time and energy to make a campaign.

2. When you need to deal with an expert in a specific topic YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT – for example, aviation or hedge fund – AND your PR is a known widely in this very specific area (by known expert, I mean, pretty much ONLY works in that category).

3. When you have a good internal person who understands how the media works, or has at least read a blog on it.

4. When you have a true reputational crisis on your hands

5. When you are a celebrity and you need an agent so you don’t end up messing your negotiations

But if you, like most of us, have a product or service to promote and would like to see if you can get some media coverage, you can do an awful lot all by yourself.

Which brings me to the topic of how to DIY.

How to do PR Yourself

First, some common misconceptions about PR:

• PR is hard
Wrong! PR can be very simple and depending on the extent and quality of your coverage, insanely valuable.

• You need to use a PR agent to get coverage
Nope. Sometimes they can be useful but generally only in very specific niche industries. Even in these industries, they are not essential.

• Journalists don’t like talking to you directly
Sometimes they are busy, sure, but the good journalists actually prefer speaking with sources directly rather than via a spin-doctor.

• Quantity is what matters
Not any more. These days, a few selected Bloggers do you more good than hundreds of happy snaps in the social pages.

• Bloggers aren’t worth it
Wrong – think about where YOU get your reviews if you are considering a product or service…

How PR works in a nutshell:
A journalist’s job is ONLY to inform, educate or entertain her readers. It is NOT to promote new businesses or services. That’s advertising. HOWEVER, if you are able to bring a journalist an idea that their readers (viewers, or listeners) would find INTERESTING, they will consider your story.


A hook is the idea you’ll be pitching to a journalist or producer. They are NEVER about you. They are about what you have to offer their reader, viewer or listener. Here. Let me save you hours of reading.

Here are the hooks you should consider:
• A fight or scandal
• An emotional story (tales of transformation, overcoming hardship)
• Sex, drugs or rock n roll
• News – immediate and interesting
• Geographic or cultural proximity
• Topical – something relating to a current news story or problem
• Something that helps their readers (think, save them time, money etc)
• Celebrity
• An amazing stunt
• A big celebration

Media choice:
This is easy.
First, ask yourself “where does my target customer go?”
Second, “where would I like to be seen?”

How not to pitch:

• Not bother to read their columns or publication.
• Be impolite or aggressive.
• Speak to them about what you want without telling them why their audience should care.
• Assume they know everything about your category/product and what you do.
• Hassle or threaten to go somewhere else if they say no.

How to pitch your idea:
An easy way to start is by sending your target journalist or producer a simple email. Here’s a template that works effectively:


I wonder if your readers would be interested in an article on for your


Readers might be curious to know , amongst other intriguing stories.

If this angle is of interest to you, let me know and I’d be delighted to send some further details.

At this stage I have not contacted any other journalists about this opportunity.

Yours sincerely etc.

If they don’t reply after a day or two, you can follow up politely with…


Just resending this in case you missed it.

No response after that? Leave them alone. They’re not interested.

Finding your media contacts details:
A good way is simply to call the switchboard of the relevant organisation and ask for the details of the producer.

You can also use LinkedIn to find journalists easily. Send them an in-mail with your pitch.

Media releases:
Sometimes you might want to send a media release because you have a story you think everyone will want.

You can find some easy press release formats and examples on Google, and a good way of distributing them is to use a press release distribution service.

Remember – the headline is the most important part of the Media Release. Also, don’t use flowery language – lay the facts out bare for the journalist.

Let me know how you get on!

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