Digital PR Failures: What we can all learn from failing
When starting out as a graduate digital PR, it can often feel overwhelming when all you see on social media is Digital PR agencies posting high profile wins. Reality is not like that. Not all Digital PR campaigns go the way you want them to for a great number of reasons.
That is fine. It is all part of the learning process when you are starting out. The important thing is, for you to analyse ‘why’ that campaign did not go as expected and learn from that.
There is not one single Digital PR executive who has not experienced campaign failure as there are so many entities that we are just not in control of.
Before we get into the failures, let me make one thing perfectly clear…
Digital PR agencies post fantastic wins on social media because it generates new business. They are a business development tool. Many companies who see their posts contact the agency and say…
“Can you do that for us?”
Now, just imagine if agencies and digital PR executives started to shout about all their campaign failures! It would not look too good.
This post has been put together to publicly show you some of the digital PR campaigns that failed and the reasons they failed.
To show you that not everything is always perfect, and it is fine to fail as long as you learn from it.
To show you some real-world examples from the Digital PR industry and show you why they failed.
Now this post is not all doom and gloom. I’m a strong believer in the saying…
“If you don’t know what is wrong, how are you ever meant to fix it?”
Look at these failures as real-life scenarios and ask yourself…
“What would I have done differently now I know they failed?”
Think of this post as a learning workshop. Your digital PR learning resource.
I want to thank the Digital PR professionals below who were brave enough to share their personal failures with you all. Without them, we would not be able to explore the reality of the industry.
Away we go…
Digital PR Failure 1 - Someone got there before me
Firstly, I’m delighted to be talking about this topic, as sadly too much of the SEO industry is focused on shouting just about successes – and I honestly think we learn more professionally from a failure than we do a “win”, and need to be more open about campaign failures, as they happen all the time! I think the most memorable failure I had was for a retail client coming into Christmas a couple of years ago, I had data-led campaign around festive shopping trends for 2019. Was really proud of the pitch, concept and relevance to our client and was looking forward to sending it to consumer press. Only, within an hour of my pitch going out, a Guardian journalist had replied to tell me she’d said already yesterday that she’d cover it and to give her chance to write it. Similar comments trickled into my inbox, and a quick Google search saw a competitor brand release a near-on identical study 2/3 days before.
Frustrating doesn’t cover it, and I soon realised it wasn’t going to fly - at least not in its current format and having already shared it with journalists! Admittedly the failure was not having done a Google scan the day before or of my campaign launch, which would have given me the chance to pivot and tweak the idea before going out to journalists. And whilst it’s not an avoidable outcome for digital PRs (there really are only so many data sets and Christmas angles possible after all – similarity is inevitable), I’ve learnt to always add a unique layer to my campaigns ever since, whether it be a third party endorsement / extra comment or an interesting creative asset to offer something entirely unique and to avoid similarity or clashing with another brand/PR. Also strongly recommend using SEO tools and alerts to see what your clients’ competitors are up to as soon as it happens – you need to know this when it breaks, not when it’s too late!
Freelance PR consultant
Digital PR Failure 2 - Going too niche
One of the crucial failures I’ve learnt from in Digital PR is working on or conceiving campaigns that are too niche.
By this, I mean focusing a large campaign on one particular topic. Despite having multiple angles for the campaigns I’ve worked on, I have learnt that if your campaign is centred around something to specific, like a TV show or day of the year, you only have a limited number of people to outreach to with a limited number of angles (before you bombard them and get blocked). Therefore, your chances of success are extremely limited and it’s a very risky road to take - particularly when working with larger budgets or a new client.
Look at the broader picture of yours or your client’s chosen subject area and try to layer your campaigns to strengthen their chances of success.
Digital PR Failure 3 - Viral exposure is never guaranteed
In-and-post tour PR for the 'superb' Billy Walton Band from New Jersey.
The hook - taking the band onto the deck of the Radio Caroline (the boat that rocked movie inspiration) to play, making them the first US band in decades to do so.
The content - video of band touring the ship and playing and being interviewed by DJ Steve Anthony and interviewing him in turn.
The aim: to leverage the unique history of Radio Caroline via video to raise the profile of the band.
The outcome: some music and non-music press, some airplay, but no viral move for either of the two videos
Reasons the campaign failed (lessons learned):
There is no guarantee with viral. It can happen when least expected, or succeed when not dreamt of. That was known before we started
Poor lighting and music recording sound. The video team were inexperienced and unpaid, so their efforts were greatly appreciated, but there were those drawbacks
Lack of a significant and attentive social media base for the band and Radio Caroline to share this from
Absence of other promo and context. Looking back, lead in 'this is coming' warm ups and trailers and, later, snippets for various social media and out takes would have helped.
Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing. Looking back, I am proud of this and so too are the band of doing something so interesting and historic. It is still a source of joy. There is more than one kind of success.
Digital PR Failure 4 - Relying on the hype of a TV series
One failure I had early on in my digital PR career was trying out a product stunt related to the then hit TV show: Game of Thrones.
With the client, we created an Iron Throne bean bag, the throne being a key plot point in the TV show for those who somehow missed GoT. The Iron Throne was actually physically created and had some excellent product photography taken and the page was built with cheeky copy, including mock-reviews from the characters. We wanted to drive links to the page hyping up the fact that people could actually own this in their homes this year for the final season of the show. It achieved a few bits of coverage, but ultimately didn't do as well as I'd hoped.
As the product was understandably tied to the TV series, it relied on the consistent buzz and hype around the show that previous seasons had seen. One thing we couldn't have anticipated was that the final season was going to bomb (by almost 2 points on IMDB) and audience sentiment severely changed towards the show. The season was much shorter than previous ones too meaning the outreach window where people were hyper-interested was cut short.
What I learnt from this is to be extremely careful when relying on tying a campaign into a TV series, and if you do this make sure to track the hype of previous seasons (Google Trends/BuzzSumo can help) and outreach accordingly as to when journalists are ramping up their content for this - I would've like to have got it out earlier but it was intentionally a spontaneous campaign. In addition, if sentiment turns as it did here, try and see how you can turn the story around. In this example, perhaps the opportunity for someone to 'destroy the Iron Throne' (SPOILERS: this happens in the show) as a way of healing their wounds after being disappointed by the final season, coupled with an expert therapist, might have been a cheeky way to continue the story and build on it.
Senior Digital PR Executive
Digital PR Failure 5 - Targeting your headline to your audience
Last month we were working on a data story for a client in the States around the names of the most accident-prone people in America. We’ve had a lot of success for clients in all kinds of industries over there in the last six months (and the US press is very generous when it comes to high DA follow links!) and this story had all the hallmarks of being another hit. Except it wasn’t.
For weeks we pitched with no coverage, but even weirder, little-to-no feedback which is unusual.
A chance discussion with a friend outside of work who helped us spot our mistake – Americans don’t really use ‘accident-prone’ and so our headline wasn’t attracting journalists to look further into the story we were sending. A change of headline to ‘most likely to end up in ER’ was all it took to get links from People, the Today Show, Yahoo etc. In the end we secured 87 links, majority follow, across an average DA of 80 on a campaign we were days away from ditching and having to start from scratch. Cultural sensitivities really can make all the difference and once we got out of our way, the story flew and we had a very happy client.
It’s a crazy business we’re in when a seemingly inconsequential change could make that much of a difference, but here we are!
Head of Client Success
Do you have a Digital PR Failure story that our TAD community will learn from?
Get in touch and send it in to us and we might just add it here.
About the author
For the past 20 years, I have founded and grown three agencies, personally trained hundreds of professional marketers and have spoken on a few stages around the world, besides writing a best-selling book. Today, I am the Head of Digital at Hakim Group.