Monday, March 8, 2010

Pay for sway? Hardly. O’Dwyer’s pulls rank, Gregory FCA faces a decision

Posted by Greg Matusky
Here at Gregory FCA, we try not to comment much on insider PR news and views. Nothing is more boring than PR people sniping at one another.

But the recent dust up at O’Dwyer’s made me realize that their decision to charge to rank PR agencies is one that more media will have to make in the future as subscribers and advertisers disappear.

For those of you outside the PR industry, Jack O’Dwyer is a long time booster, critic, and commentator on PR, whose annual ranking of PR firms sets the pecking order for our industry.

Gregory FCA has been a beneficiary of O'Dwyer's rankings. As we have risen in the rankings, so too have the number of unsolicited RFPs we receive, often the result O’Dwyer’s rankings finding their way into corporate decision making.

Jack called me the other day from New York. As usual, he was out of breath and manic. He goes on to compliment Gregory FCA for once again being named one of the country’s largest PR firms. Then he gets down to business. The fact is, he’s hurting, and so too are his newsletter and annual rankings. He’s being hit by the same forces that are undermining mainstream media. No one wants to buy traditional ads or pay for subscriptions. It’s that zero sum logic that information should be free.

I appreciate his candor. Then he tells me that O’Dwyer’s simply can’t afford to publish the rankings any longer without more support from the PR industry in general, and Gregory FCA in particular. From here on out, he is charging the country’s largest PR firms, including Gregory FCA, to be included in his ranking.

I think for a moment about all the implications. Does this smack of pay for play? Should Gregory FCA be in the game or out?

I know firsthand how much work rankings demand, especially when you are dealing with cagey PR people given to huff and puff. In my own world, I contend with a local competitor that is forever telling local media they can’t disclose revenue because they’re owned by a public company and restricted by Sarbanes Oxley. It’s a sham, of course. SOX is about transparency. It’s more likely the competitor wants to unethically inflate numbers, and the public parent objects.

Then it occurs to me. If we want to continue to have media at all, the media needs to find novel ways to tap new streams of revenue. If you want a media property to invest hundreds of hours in researching and vetting an open and true industry ranking, then those who benefit from the ranking should be willing to send in a check along with their applications.

If media continues on its current self-destructive course and refuses to charge appropriately for content, then not only is the press in jeopardy, but so too is the PR industry, which depends on this inelegant symbiosis for its raison d'être. Pardon my French. And anyway, where is it written that readers, viewers, or listeners have the right to consume reporters’ work and publishers' property for free, simply by searching Google?

Rankings and awards are two areas that can be clearly delineated from content, and should be fair game for revenue. After all, the media often sponsors trade shows and charges their loyal followers handsomely for the right to hobnob.

Rankings are a similar gray area that, in these desperate times, should be targeted. Jack also deserves kudos for the transparency of his decision. O’Dwyer’s blog published comments from both sides, those in support and those who now consider Jack the Antichrist (which is not too far from my opinion on my competitor’s decision to hide behind SOX rather than disclose real revenue numbers). You can read the gory details of the controversy on the O'Dwyer's PR Blog.

So Jack, I've sent the check! Your work has been too important to the industry and too important to my firm to ignore your plea. I'm happy to pay up for work well done.
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