7 Lessons PR Pros Can Learn from Bruce Buschel

Before, during and after last week’s flurry of posts in response to the New York Times piece, the excellent Solo PR Pros LinkedIn Group continued the conversation with insightful comments and observations. Community member Christa Miller (who was the first to post the article to this group) noted that she always looks to learn from criticism, “I try to find the nuggets that might contain wisdom or the grains of a solution.”

Regular readers of this blog know I welcome fresh voices and new perspectives, so I asked Christa if she’d be willing to share what she learned. Lucky for us, she obliged. This post was scheduled prior to my reading Mr. Buschel's additional tirade yesterday, but it still holds true.

Bruce Buschel’s anti-public relations rant in the New York Times last week raised the ire of many PR pros. Couldn’t he see, they asked, that his own lack of communication was too much of a barrier, his expectations too high, for his PR consultants to work around?

If I had 10 or 20 years’ worth of experience, I might feel much the same way. But I don’t. I’ve only been working in the field for 2 years, following 8 years as a trade journalist. So it was with a self-critical eye that I read Buschel’s op-ed, ultimately finding more than half a dozen nuggets of potential wisdom within.

1. Know your client before you pitch

“Six months before Southfork Kitchen opened, a local public relations director pitched me, telling me what he would do, how he would do it and how much it would cost,” Buschel wrote, making it seem as if the director cold-pitched him.

I hope they met first, without Buschel assuming that a “local” PR director would “just know” how to promote his business. Then again, the way Bruschel frames his pitch makes the director seem overconfident in his own abilities. Or maybe Bruschel sold him on more substance than actually existed.

There is no way to know the actual dynamics of this relationship, but the op-ed does indicate two people who bought into each other’s hype. Therefore, PR pros: focus not on the possibilities, but on cutting through the fluffy meringue to get to the lemon pie underneath.

2. Listen to your client’s stories before deciding where and how to pitch
“We came up with story lines and a list of outlets that might like them,” Buschel wrote. “Print media, electronic media, social media…. We would appeal to locals and tourists and transplants and day-trippers and pescadores, locavores and flexitarians….”

In the push to get the word out, did the agency take the time to think about their client’s stories, to develop a few before deciding on outlets? Did they try to guide their client, to talk him down from his precarious perch to a much more stable (if one with less of a bird’s-eye view) platform?

If 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clients, then it stands to reason that those 20 percent are loyal because your business resonates with them personally. The judgment “too Long Island for the New York media” should have been an asset, not a liability, based on Bruschel and his staff’s core stories.

3. Communicate as issues come up, not all in one fell swoop after you have driven each other crazy
Bruschel told us that the PR staff blamed the lack of publicity on the shifting opening date. This is certainly a central problem, but not until later, following mounting mutual frustration, did Bruschel and his staff find out that there were other issues.

In my experience, those issues come up sooner, often as gut feelings that something seems “off.” To tell the restaurant staff that “other area restaurants were equally sustainable and/or organic” should have come out a lot sooner, especially since Bruschel himself seemed so convinced that it was his major differentiator. If the agency didn’t agree, perhaps they were not as tuned in to the local area as they should have been.

4. Work with the resources you have
Bruschel wrote that his “blog was a problem, either scooping them or getting in their way.” Honestly, this is the first I have ever heard of this. Most advice I hear about blogs relates to their strength as good background material for journalists.

So what if it scooped the agency’s stories — should they, at that point, not have tried to pitch Bruschel as a columnist for some local magazine or newspaper? Repurposed his blog articles as feature pieces for other magazines?

5. Consider the dynamics of different forms of coverage
A documentarian, following your client around all day? Fantastic! Actually, did the agency consider the effect of this dynamic? How might the observation have altered the management team’s decision-making? How might it have altered their relationship with their PR agency?

Certainly, the opportunity was remarkable. But even observation is its own form of interaction, and the agency should have recognized and counseled on this — both at the outset, and at intervals during the shooting.

6. Criticize constructively
Bruschel’s new PR agency, present for his restaurant’s launch, handed him a laundry list of everything he had done “wrong.” This made me wonder: was there anything people liked about the opening?

When I was a new fiction writer, getting involved with critique groups, I learned early on to tell other writers what they did right as well as what they did wrong. Without that balance, the writer will never learn what works or how to improve what’s wrong.

Bruschel never mentioned whether the new PR team bothered to talk to the other opening attendees. Did they make assumptions based on their own feelings? Were they reading the body language of others in the room? Did they interview those people to see if their impressions were correct? (This is where it benefits PR agencies to have journalists on their teams.)

7. Don’t “twist reality into pretzels” – believe in your client
Bruschel was flabbergasted that his agency felt the need to taste the food after months of working with them, and he was right to be. If it had been that important to them, they would have asked for a sampling up front — perhaps a dinner as they got to know their clients and stories.

Especially as solo PR pros, we’re often given the advice to take on only our ideal clients. We learn to cultivate buyer personas for ourselves as well as our clients, matching values and communication styles. How else can we overcome the derisive view that we are but “spin-meisters”, manipulating hearts and minds?

If customer loyalty is grounded in values, then no amount of buzz can make up for that deep, long-term appeal. Only PR pros who believe in their clients can communicate those values to a degree that will invite people to come in, make themselves comfortable and stay awhile.

The Takeaway

In the end, it would seem that these dysfunctional relationships were based on two factors: the lure of easy publicity, married to the lure of easy money. Fellow PR pros, we can do better — we can make it harder for clients to criticize our profession by listening, challenging our own assumptions, and sticking to our own personal values.

What have your experiences been with the above issues? Would you add anything to this list?

A professional freelance writer/editor since 2001, Christa M. Miller now provides public relations and communications strategy to professionals in the law enforcement and digital forensics communities. See her website, ChristaMMiller.com, for more information.