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The Voodoo Science of PR in a Digital Marketing World | Bluefish Digital Marketing

November 11th, 2015 , Jeffrey Hodnett Digitial marketing, PR

As a PR professional and practitioner, I must admit. We are an odd bunch. We like to keep the magic behind the curtain and the alchemy of what we do is part of why we can charge what we do.

[Warning: Stop here if you are not really interested in some of the deep dark inner workings of a PR pros mind. This is going to get in the weeds. We have plenty of other great posts about fun topics like SEO, Branding and Design here.]

I encountered this reality head on the other day when I asked a well-known Global PR agency based in the UK for a copy of the media list. (I should mention that I was asking on behalf of their client, for a project that we would be working on jointly.)

They first sent names of publications. Not exactly helpful. I then, brazenly asked for "names of writers and editors". They resent the list that reluctantly included journalists at that publication. When I made what I thought would be a simple request for the actual contact details, you would have thought I had asked to see the Queens’ personal diary.  They refused to give it to me saying that it was propriatary information.

You see, I’m actually on both sides of this argument as I serve as an “agency” for some of clients, while also working as a consultant and a defector Director of PR for others. So I surveyed some friends in the business (on both the agency and client side) what they thought.


“ The Client Owns it” My assumption has always been that work done on behalf of a client, should technically belong to that client. While the agency may have resources like databases, that cost is amortized by agency in its fees. It seems like that was the consensus from most of those I spoke with.


“I don’t volunteer to share media lists, but make them available to clients when asked.  As previously stated, they pay for the research, they should have access to the list. The rule/law is that if you create anything in work time for a client, that client owns it.  That’s standard copyright law.  For instance, if I write a bylined article for a client, the copyright belongs to the client because they client was paying for the time.  If, and this is a big if, the client does not pay you that month, then technically the work belongs to the company you’re working for, not the individual.  Once someone pays, that person owns the copyright.  A good example is photographers.  They do work for you that you pay for but then try to get you sign away your rights, claiming they still own the rights for the photos.  Total BS.  The law is, if you pay them (and don’t sign their stupid contracts), you own everything, as long as you paid them.”

–          GM, Global Tech and Consumer PR Agency


“We provide our clients with full media lists based on the idea that they paid for the research required to compile the list. That’s our policy.”

–          Partner, Large Tech PR Firm


“…[screw] them. I consider media lists as PR materials that are (if agency is paid up to date on billing) property of the client…I would push back as I would always provide a full media list.”

–          Partner, Tech and Consumer PR Firm


“Haven’t run into this particular situation in the context of the UK so I can’t speak for whether they view this situation differently. But in the U.S. in my experience this is not a gray area – the client owns the media list. We might not always like providing to them for obvious reasons but whenever we’re asked, we fork it over.”

–          Partner, Large Tech PR Agency


Interesting question. I have always provided media lists to my clients if they asked, although not many of them do ask. My feeling is that if was done on their behalf and they paid for the work, they should have access to the information. I do know that PR in the UK is different in many ways . . . perhaps this is one of them?”

–          Principal, Small Tech PR Firm


“Handing over the list is the right thing to do.  But perhaps UK agencies see it differently.”

–          President, Mid-Sized PR Agency


Clear cut? Not so fast…


“I too have no problem providing a list of target media outlets and reporters/editors at those outlets, but I agree with the policy of keeping their contact information confidential.  I have many cell phone numbers and alternative e-mails for top reporters who gave them to me with the implied assumption that I would not share them with anyone else”  

–          Principal, Tech and Healthcare PR Agency


“We’ve recently lost a client, and handed off a complete media list to the client along with a list of activities in motion.  Meanwhile, we just picked up a client, and their prior agency handed off a partial list – names of outlets and reporters only – without contact information (emails, phone, etc.)  The prior agency actually had to go into their media list to delete the contact info before sending it over. Getting the media list in that shape was not very useful, and as it was, the list had lots of problems (including more than the usual number of dead reporters).”

–          President, Mid Sized PR Agency


“I agree that the media list (targets, contact names, contact information, etc.) is owned by the client. That being said, I’ve consulted with several PR firms in Denver, Boston, Atlanta, SF and the UK and they all refuse to provide this information to their clients, even if they were terminating the relationship and providing all wrap up docs. I’m still waiting for a reasonable explanation for this beyond “it’s our policy.”

–          Tech PR Agency


Voices From Across the Pond

I also solicited and received a couple of response from those who live and work in London and there does seem to be some difference, in protocol, legislation and in general course of business. These response are from two VP’s of communications at Global 100 companies and the GM or a Global PR agency who has worked extensively in both UK and US. It seems like they are willing to turn over names and pubs, but not contact info:

“ It’s true that most agencies will not hand over a full media list over here – and it is indeed due to a data protection issue. Many journos give their permission for their name/details to be included on a media database, but they do not give permission for that information to be passed on to third parties, and indeed, if I remember correctly, legislation was passed to that effect (I seem to remember in my dim and distant agency past many directives on the implications of this legislation).” 

“While I never gave away my media contacts in the UK, but I did share the list of publications with clients.  That’s not unreasonable for any client to ask of an agency.  “

“They should have no issue with sharing publication titles – he should be able to get a list of which publications the agency is targeting on his behalf with no problem. Equally, he should be able to get information on target journalist lists (so individuals within those publications, and freelancers). However, he will not be able to get phone numbers, email addresses etc etc. I don’t have any of that information directly; but I do have all of my agencies’ target publication and journalist lists. That way I know they are targeting the right people.”


Legislation, it seems, particularly privacy laws, are different as well….


“Yes, it’s totally different in the UK, both with the regulations and the day-to-day practice. When I worked there, we never gave out our media list.  That’s because we created it from scratch.  We didn’t use purchased media lists from the equivalent of Bacons or MediaMap.  Instead, we cultivated our own contacts and created a media list accordingly.  Giving it to a client, was like giving away our proprietary information – something that we felt differentiated us from other agencies.”

“We basically have much stricter data protection legislation in the UK (and indeed other European countries) than in the US; that’s where the issue comes in.“


Shocker. In the end it is all about relationships.


Despite the cultural legal reasons, at the end of the day it seems that this came down, like most thing, to relationships.

“…the turmoil in the newspaper industry is staggering.  My favorite reporter at the NYT has left for divinity school.   My favorite reporter at USA Today has taken a government job.  A reporter at the LA Times I talked to recently says she doesn’t know whether she or the person at the next desk will be there tomorrow.  It’s difficult to keep up with the flux; our media database companies certainly cannot.  

–          Principal, Tech and Healthcare PR Agency


“…This issue has always baffled me, as media lists have such a short shelf life and would be of little use to most clients anyway. 

–          Principal, Mid-Sized PR Firm


“At the end of the day, it looks like that what this is all about relationships. The relationship between media and the agency, and the relationship between the agency and the client.

Regardless of the law and regulations, there is some ‘professional courtesy’ that you extend to clients.  Does it piss me off that clients ask me for media list after they’ve fired me?  Yes.  But do they have the right?  Absolutely.  Will I always give it to them?  No question. 

Personally, I think it’s highly offensive in the US not to provide the client with all their materials.  If you’re that protective of the information, it tells me you’ve never had a good, trusting relationship with a client anyway.”

–          GM- Global Tech and Consumer PR Agency

What’s the BDF?

 If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a PR junkie and completely understand the issues at hand. You have probably also heard a lot of what we are saying.  For clients, they need to understand that its not always cut and dry. You cant always get what you want. And for Agency folks, your take away should be that you need to define and communicate ahead of time what is expected to be delivered for work product. In the last month of a transition plan after you’ve been fired is a bad time to start talking about this.

Its a twisted web, and as one PR pro I respect summed it up ….”Good bloody luck"