Where is PR Going?

Okay, I keep planning to do a big think piece - or really, a "what I think" piece - on where PR is going in 2006. I have no answers, I don't claim to have any answers, I'm just some kid in Phoenix that is blessed to look 10 years younger than I am, has a good ability to write, and can be sociable when needed - some not-too-bad traits for PR. For the piece, I even have a nice photo of Phil Gomes on tour for Edelman, thoughts on the so-called 25 percent and if PR is changing, and other stuff along those lines.

Heck, I even gave a quote to Ragan's newsletter about predictions for 2006. More on those thoughts on a later date, but the not-so tongue-in-cheek part of the quote was cut, where I noted that those same divisions would just be swallowed into PR as a whole, when firms realize that they do not need to separate blogging outreach from mainstream public relations.

But, yesterday I wrote about Foremski and Rubel and their posts about the coming (or shortcomings) of PR. Both wonder what PR is going to be in the future, why it is growing. I just look at it this way: the mainstream media universe is shrinking, with more and more freelancers coming out from the cuts in the media. Those freelancers are only going to be only really known by PR professionals that have relationships that are not built via blogs nor email but from good old PR, with the phone and personal, high-touch communications and not high-tech. Many thanks to Al Golin, who brought up the importance of relationships and the over-reliance of high-tech in our interview. Every one in PR should re-read the bolded line, and think it over. And, also go read Richard Edelman's fisking of the Foremski piece - as the leader of Edelman, Richard always has good points, and this is no exception.

And, yes at the same time the media universe is expanding with bloggers and podcasters and other consumer generated media (or whatever you want to call it). Those are going to take a gentle hand to work with, a gentle high-tech and high-touch feel that is going to be a new thing for PR. PR has never been about control (ha!! - if any PR person can tell me when they have had control with the media, I'll buy them a burger), but has been about messaging. That's what PR should always be about - access to the message, getting the message out.

With more and more companies launching, it is no surprise that PR is in demand because companies - after their DIY PR stage - they are going to need the professionals to lead the way. That's PR firms. Now, I read the same article in the SFBT about the growth of PR firms in the Bay (btw, one wasn't so new, but just a new name) and just yesterday I got a "sneak" peak into news from SHIFT Communications. They are now the new AOR for The Churchill Club, an organization that does harken back to the days of the dotcom era. To me, it was a nice strategy - they know I write about PR here, they pitched it with the press release (bad, but not as bad if it were an attachment), and they answered my questions on what they are going to be doing (PR, marketing - the whole of promoting the club, events, and booking speakers). Heck, they even blog so they seem to understand that universe, but when the profile says "principal of the best damn PR firm, period" and you don't get the joking tone that you do from the FOX Sports show, it comes off as ... odd.

But, all this talk of Churchill Clubs and growing PR firms and changing PR and Web 2.0 and Social Networks makes me wonder ... is PR getting caught up in the same shit as it did in the dot-com era? Can PR firms push back on clients, and say "no, that's stupid" or are we going to do the same goose steps with bad campaigns that bring in money? One of the greater benefits I have had with blogging is that I have an even better sense of what is and what is not ... a story. And, I have no problem pushing back - can firms do the same thing, or are we going to see clients raped again?

That's the real future question for PR: did we learn from the first time around, or is this bust going to make the last one look like a walk in the park?

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7 comments

  1. Jeremy: Interesting piece, if a bit circuitous. I've had consultants of all kinds try to argue me out of spending money, and others try to convince me to spend way more. Sometimes they were being greedy, but as often as not they were trying to help our organization achieve its goals.

    I know there are ethical PR folks out there who will push for what works, rather than what will generate the most billings. And there will be the others. It's part of the dangers of asking a consultant for advice. They often have a vested interest in the advice they give, and can't resist tweaking the plan in their direction.

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  2. Totally circuitous, Eric. This was a true post for me, where I was putting down thoughts for others out there. :)

    But, part of it is that PR is changing, and at the same time is not changing. The same stuff I saw during the dotcom era - the thinking, the mentality, the pure greed - seems to be coming back.

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  3. As the growth in journalists (freelancers) continues, you'll also see some in media move to PR. PR, specifically media relations, has always had a low cost of entry. So, you do see a lot of solo practitioners and small shops. Actually, most PR firms as well as ad agencies and marcomm firms are small to medium in size.

    What I'm *trying* to say succinctly is that there also is a lot of competition among PR firms. While most will try to do what's good for the client -- many still will be in it for the money first; client service second.

    And, that will cause many in the industry to repeat history.

    Mike

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  4. Hey Jeremy. What follows are abridged comments that I made to Foremski's post. He hasn't posted them (yet)...

    The larger forces at play in the world of PR is how new communications mediums create forums for ongoing dialogues between companies and their audiences. It means that living press release to press release and trade show to trade show means you are reactive and likely irrelevant. It means that creating credible relevant messaging that stays consistent is more important as you become more transparent. It means that the value of strong crisis communications skills increase. It means that creativity to communicate in words, images and multimedia should flourish. It means that those who can lead debates in the always-on, always-talking world will beat those who only participate in the conversation. It means that those who can get John Markoff interested in writing probably showed vision endorsed by influential third parties and didn't rely on a phone pitch.

    The PR firms and teams who do not get this will go away. Those who do get it will prosper. New agencies will be created that can run circles around the big, slow firms that spend half their days counting billable hours. The smart tech PR firms will invest in honest research that justifies spends, provides insight into the value of various diffused audiences and the power of word-of-mouth by a select few.

    All said, the objectives remain the same as the strategies and tactics evolve. This shouldn't surprise anyone.

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  5. Sean, I agree and disagree. I just came back from CES - landing the front page of the WSJ for the first day - and it was a testament that tradeshows are still important for PR. At tradeshows, you get to cement relationships that you never are able to over email or IM or on the phone. You meet the people, you bond and you realize that high-touch, personal communications is never going to be replaced by technology.

    Plus, who is to say that the young and nimble agencies are going to eat the lunch of the old and established agencies? It comes down to human capital, and the young can be missing the valuable people while the old see the changing of the guard. There's a reason some of these agencies have been around for generations: the ability to adapt.

    Otherwise, I agree with you. :)

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  6. Good points, Jeremy. Though, I didn't mean to suggest that trade shows and conferences should not be important parts of the PR tool-kit. And, agreed that they are essential for relationship building. After all, I first met you and many other blogger-types at last year's New Comm thing. And, I'm headed to Davos next week.

    My point was that companies rely too much on these big events as the bedrock for their PR programs. And, when you do this, you are locked into telling your story when everyone else is doing the same and doing it on, largely, other people's terms. So conferences good. Dependency on them bad. And, it sounds obvious, but probably a majority of SV companies operate this way.

    On the question of big agencies with breadth versus nimble agencies with flexibility, well, I work at a small agency now so you no were I come down on this ;). But, really, there will always be a place for both, because there will always be a CEO or CMO who wants to hire a big agency for their international reach (even if they don't use it) and, most of all, their "safeness." But, I do believe that if we move to a more transparent, accountable and strategic model, it will be the new guard that stands to benefit (along with their clients) the most. [This is not to say, of course, that much like the first tech PR wave of the mid-'90s that many new indie agencies won't get snapped up by big ones. That is as predictable as the likely failure of their mergers.].

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  7. Aah, misread your point then, Eric. Bring me back a Davos t-shirt (yes, I am under the belief that all tradeshows have schwag, including Davos).

    Oh, companies rely on everything too much - they don't get the full balance of campaigns and strategies at times, and concentrate on one thing only. I recently met with a company that is doing a lot of tradeshows, and I asked for messaging for each vertical, or they're going to get eaten alive.

    Oh, and just tweaking you on the big and little agency. It's not about the size, it's about the talent. You can be a five person shop, but have great talent or none. You can be a 5000 shop, and have great talent or none. It's all about human capital (which is being forgotten, I think, in PR).

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