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What to do when a PR campaign fails

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

You send out the perfect media pitch to a reporter who seems like just the right person to tell the story. Killer subject line in the email. A press release that covers the 5-W’s to the nth-degree. You’ve got a great feeling about this. And… nothing.

Two days later, still nothing. Not just from that reporter you thought was the perfect person. You’re getting ghosted by everyone on your media list. Where did it go off the rails?

Any given week, public relations professionals like us will throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. What if it seems like nothing is going right?

In this episode of Mind Meld PR Breaking News, the team talked about what to do when a PR campaign fails. Check out the full episode, but if you want a taste, here’s one interesting part of the conversation between Mind Meld PR Founder Jonathon Narvey and Account Executive Shani Kotecha.


JN. There are degrees of failure. There is for instance a failure where reporters get back to you and they say “you know, interesting angle but we already covered it.” Or, “this is an interesting angle, but it is a bit outside of our audience. Or “you know what? This isn't for me. This is for my buddy in the next department! You should have had his contact.”

So, in terms of things that go wrong, sometimes reporters will tell you what’s going wrong. And if you start getting the same kinds of feedback from reporters from different outlets, you should be listening to that.

As a PR person, you’re not just a broadcaster. This is two-way communication.

Probably the worst thing that can happen from a campaign is that you get zero response. So, not just zero news coverage. But reporters don’t respond to you. They don’t even say “nope.” They don’t even say “Ah, not interested.” They don’t tell you why. You just get a wall of silence. That’s the worst, because you don’t necessarily know what went wrong! But you know something went wrong.

So, when it comes to what to do when a campaign fails, you know, spoiler alert, the main takeaway that you're going to get from this podcast is you want to use every failure as a learning experience so that your next campaign can be more successful.

So let's get into some of the failures we have actually experienced. We will not be mentioning any company names, to save them any embarrassment, but mostly to save us embarrassment. I don't know if we're doing that, since you know the topic is what it is... but Shani, what are some of the less positive experiences we’ve had over the past six months?

SK. I think my most frustrating one, one we sort of nailed what the problem was, involved a client that was using a very specific detail about their announcements.

So, I won't name what it is, to keep the client anonymous, but you know, whether it's like a specific number of funding or a specific location, or a specific name in the of those things was sort of a big part of their hook for the pitch.

And I guess, you know, the pitch went out. It was written well. It did get pick-up.

But the failure was that the key detail that made it so special was misunderstood. So, you know it was getting covered but not in the way the client wanted. So it was a weird one, because I think we thought that we succeeded. But it actually turned out to be a little bit of a fail.

When actually we thought that we had sort of asked all the questions and got all the right answers. But in fact the fact that it was a prominent detail meant that we probably should have asked 10 more questions just to make sure.

What to do when a PR campaign fails

JN. I know we’re not naming the company here, but if I recall this one correctly, we did ask those questions. We asked them not just once, or twice. I think it was, we must have seemed annoying at one point. Because it wasn’t that they weren’t giving us the answer we wanted. It’s that, there was… you know, people will use ambiguous words or phrases. And it’s okay, but this is an important thing that we needed to know. And we wanted to clarify this point, because we knew it could be an issue.

And we were right. It did turn out to be an issue. And what’s the lesson we take from that?

SK. You want to get your facts sorted from the outset. You want to manage expectations with your client that this could be an issue…I’d say, don't settle for ambiguity. Check to make sure, if you know if something's even remotely questionable

Another good way to sort of fact-check the ambiguity is looking at other sources (from the client, beyond what they might have talked about in a meeting]. So, you know if we looked at their public profile [on LinkedIn] we might have found out sooner… You can ask your client questions, but you also need to do your own homework. Sometimes you need to be a detective and just go and find out things that they've put up elsewhere, online to see if you can sort of corroborate details.

JN. Yeah, part of the problem is that in some companies, the left hand doesn't know

what the right hand is doing.

Maybe someone on the marketing team, early on with the company, say, posted up a Facebook profile info or LinkedIn profile info that was true at the time. But maybe they're not with the company anymore. That has gotten overlooked and hasn't been updated.

Or, you've got... websites for companies can be written by multiple people. It's not uncommon to have certain pages that, say, that the new head of marketing just hasn’t really taken a close look at. And there's a bit of a mismatch in terms of how they used to describe themselves and how they currently describe themselves, whether this is in terms of products, service, their processes, or even their location.

If something doesn't match, that kind of confusion annoying to reporters. And the last thing we want to do is annoy the people that we're reaching out to all the time.

There was a real danger in this situation, of just not getting coverage, which sucks… but actually burning a relationship with certain reporters, just because they were so annoyed… Fortunately, we got past it.

So, you need clear communication and acknowledgement if things have gone wrong. So, if a reporter calls you out on something that's a mismatch, acknowledge it. Don’t just cast blame. Don’t say something like “our stupid client did this.” No, no no. You’re working with them and you also have to take responsibility. If you [as the PR pro] have passed along some kind of communication, that means you should have vetted it. So we have to do our due diligence as well. I think that just about covers it.

What to do when a PR campaign fails


Want to hear the rest of the conversation about what to do when a PR campaign fails? Check out the full episode of Mind Meld PR Breaking News.

Are you tired of learning the hard way how to adapt when a PR campaign fails? Want to leave the hard work of getting media coverage to the professionals? Go pro by hiring a Vancouver PR agency!



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