PR will lose Social Media to Advertising Because of Sex

Okay, not necessarily sex - but advertising does know how to make mundane things sexy.

And, at times, social media can be mundane. And, advertising (and marketing) understands how to sex-up the mundane.

So, after putting together this post, mulling it over in my mind since, I've come to some conclusions. Since Widgetcon - where although I was pretty much ready to vomit at how I viewed the advertising and marketing firms treat the community (as, well, commodity) - I did see that advertising (and marketing) would win the fight for social media.

Let me lay out the argument.

First, I am looking at this as someone that just came from a large firm in a multinational conglomerate that owns advertising and marketing firms. I'm also a poor sap that bought the stock when I first worked there under the employee stock purchase plan (hey, it was a good idea then!).

The reality is that the holding companies do not care who gets the cash. It's money in pocket and bottom line, and if advertising can get bigger bucks for campaigns, it's better to go to advertising.

I've heard quotes of $X millions for a YouTube campaign. That's just for a professional shoot, etc - because, you know, it's all professional and slick on YouTube. But, the clients eat up those numbers because they expect that from advertising, and, well, advertising knows how to sell itself. Unlike PR. Oh, and that cost includes nothing on outreach - it's just production. Take a minute and think of all the bad campaigns that advertising has done in social media ... but dayum, it's slick!!

And, well, look at the past. The Web sites should have been a PR vehicle - it's communications - but we lost it to marketing. Why? Because Web sites became a vehicle for selling - only. Messaging and communications rate, at best, a distance second (after)thought.

How many corporate sites make sense, and tell the story of the company? Barely any. Why? It's because PR ignored the power of the Web early on. Now, all that marketing / advertising has to chime in with is that they already execute on the Web with the corporate site ... and they will win that sales war (and still have crappy execution, as a whole).

In social media, advertising has that Midas touch, except it turns almost everything to shit. Plus that seat at the C-suite table helps them out ... while we're stuck in the lobby, pacing like hired help.

What can PR do to win - because at the end of the day, we need to win or social media will be ruined (and we'll be blamed).

Here's my bullet-pointed plan to save PR, have a statue put up for me in New York, and be remembered like Howard Rubenstein as a mensch.
  • Education programs - too many large firms have no real education programs, and have AAEs up to SAEs emailing social media all willy-nilly.
    • If you are a large or mid-sized PR firm, and you have no education program, you are a sham and joke. There's no nice way to put it, sorry. You simply suck as a firm and are doing a disservice both to the firm and your clients. End-of-story.
    • And, education needs to be quarterly, required for everyone, and done consistently. There is no real reason to have a specialized team in social media, because they will be cut out and likely have neither the knowledge or understanding of products and clients across the network. Education for all, so all get social media, and social media can then be smartly integrated into campaigns.
    • If you are a mid-sized, small or boutique firm, and you are looking for help in an education program, I can help (do it myself in Chicago) or recommend PR and social media practitioners throughout the country, including David Parmet, Heath Row, Constantin Basturea in NYC, Marshall Kirkpatrick in Portland, Teresa Valdez Klein in Seattle, Shel Holtz in the Bay Area. And there are others in the EU like Neville Hobson, Stuart Bruce, Allan Jenkins. And, go read Jeremiah Owyang's blog - and, yes, for a most part these people are independent PR practitioners or social media specialists, so there's no hard-sell. Heck, if you're in-house PR, bring someone in that won't sell, but will talk.
  • It's a community - have the teams understand that this is not PR anymore, but it's community relations.
    • The best analogy is an article about a local bar in Chicago ... think of social networks and communities as a local bar. Would you walk in there, no intro and no relationships, and start spouting off like Cliff Claven? Um, no - you'd be beaten severely ... like we see all the time when PR people are exposed ... thanks Marshall Kirkpatrick.
    • Hats off to Edelman and it's recent campaign from BlogHer for Kraft Cheese. The email I got noted I met them at BlogHer, and is working on being part of a community in a fun way. At BlogHer, Edelman had 10+ people networking, meeting, engaging ... unlike another male PR person that sucked up but did not discuss (no, that wasn't me - I gots chops at BlogHer for actually participating). Compare that to a flat advertising campaign on BlogHer - one that lacks creativity - and you will see a lack of understanding of community and engaging community.
    • The flip-side is that there are some that position themselves as community specialists ... but have nothing to back it up, nor can go beyond one community. If I'm at BlogHer, and I see these people not mingling and speaking to others at the event ... those are not community-minded people, but rather people that will talk a lot ... and only do what matters for their own personal goals.
  • It's about PR - sorry, social media is part of the PR mix, but a new look at it. If you are being lead by an interactive group, best of luck. You're being led by a team that does not understand the principles of public relations, or, well, client relationships.
    • In an agency-setting for social media, your clients are both the internal teams and the clients themselves, and it is about messaging.
    • If you cannot push back - and, well, interactive teams seem just to be able to build a Web page or two - then you are doing a disservice to the client and the agency.
    • Then again, interactive should be ordered around by a PR / social media team to build what needs to be built: Facebook apps, widgets, a micro-site ... whatever is needed for the real campaign work.
  • REAL social media teams need to be in the pitch - not a bullshit page or two in a presentation, but a seat at the table during the pitch and AFTER the pitch.
    • None of this "there's no money" when programs are sold in, and then the money is kept for one team only.
    • No half-assed sell-ins to clients, since the pitch teams just know buzz words and do not understand it.
  • Do not force the staff into blogging (or Twittering or Facebooking or MySpacing, or SecondLifing...)
    • I too often see junior staff jump into blogging not for the purity of it (thanks Jeremiah for calling me a purist at Forrester Consumer Forum) but because they see dollar signs and promotions. Those are just Clavens - they are going to be sniffed out as fakers and posers, and not really part of the community.
    • I often meet senior staff that go into blogging because they think they need to be there ... but have no real interest in being part of the conversation, but were told by higher-ups that they needed to "get it."
    • On the flip side, if there are not a few people that are engaged, you stil are a bunch of posers. No, you cannot force people to be involved, but they have to want to be involved. I do this stuff because I like to blog, I like technology - heck, I wrote a post about it already.
    • Don't allow junior staff to be know-it-alls. I've seen it a few times already in the blogosphere, and clients will sniff them out as detrimental to the account when their "counsel" falls flat. Sorry, but you need the PR experience to fully get the social media implications that follow.
  • Social media is not media relations - it is about PR (where the P is public).
    • If you have a specialized online media team ... they are treating it like media relations. It's not. It's community relations (yes, I am repeating myself, but it's an important distinction).
    • It's about community. To paraphrase James Carville, it's the community, stoopid.
  • Listen. Like Talib Kweli says - listen, for some reason no one listens anymore. For some reason, PR has forgotten how to listen. If we listen, we'll learn our clients want from us, and we'll learn from both junior and senior staff.
Large agencies are still standing, and there are people in most of them that get social media as a new skill set. It is not a replacement to other skills - but a complementary skill that is needed. Unfortunately, there are skills that are just as ignored in PR right now ... such as the simple ability of phone pitching, or writing, or providing counsel and handling a crisis. These are all skills that a good PR person should have, and include social media in there now (as the line is becoming blurred with traditional media and influence). It's why I never wanted to be characterized as a blog specialist: I'm a PR generalist that has a wide array of different skill-sets.

The reality is that it does not matter if PR, advertising and social media are all marketing communications - what matters is who is going to get control of social media, and make it right for clients and the agencies. In my view, it should be public relations because social media is very public and socially oriented. You cannot just pop in there and try to be part of the community, to never return again.

If you want to know which agencies are doing it well, well, there are a lot of them. MWW, Voce, Edelman, MS&L and others ... and there are agencies that are talking about getting it, but it's a talk and no real walk.

Will social media stay with PR, or is it going to be another marketing communications discipline? I do not know - I just know that there are some things that social media needs to have for it to be transparent, honest and community-oriented. If PR jumped the gun a little earlier, there wouldn't be these specialized social media practices popping up, and we would have the advantage on advertising and marketing.

Funnily enough, I thought I was being vague in this post - someone told me as subtle as a freakin' Mack Truck. Yes, the post is about my sentence at Weber Shandwick and Screengrab.
  1. Hey Jeremy -

    I don't disagree with a single word. A lot of what you discuss here has been discussed before (by yourself, among many others); it's good ol' common sense.

    BUT, the most worrisome part of the post was the frontpiece, i.e., the advertising firms know how to sex it up (and how to charge for it).

    Any advice on how PR can compete at THAT level? (Beyond being smarter and/or "try charging a lot more money"...)

  2. I started writing this amen-you-go-on-with-your-badass-plaid-pants-jeremy-pepper comment here, but then I said f**k it, it's about action for me and our team here, nothing I can say can will change the trends afoot right now, we (this entire firm) just have to be really, really good at what we do...that's my job, everything else is a distraction. Sorry to see/hear that WS thinks so differently...

  3. I can't find an emoticon that denotes a standing ovation. How about SOTFC instead?

    Great post, great rant, great manifesto. Those of us old enough to remember when the web got going, got taken over by advertising creative and got pissed off about the missed opportunity are going to do our best not to let that happen with social media and social networks. Quite frankly, I'm not sure most ad agencies no quite what to do with the whole anti-ad/anti-corporate bias that runs through online communities.

    I do agree that ad agencies know how to sell big hairy ideas with questionable metrics, so this stuff should be a no-brainer for them to apply some of that ad agency special sauce to and get the fat budgets to blow.

  4. Todd,
    I'll jump in here because Jeremy alluded to it earlier in the post - keep doing great work, providing sound insights and metrics/deliverables and earn the proverbial "seat at the table". Present enough case studies to senior management and they'll all turn (on?) to the ad agency et al and wonder why they're paying so much for no or little return.


  5. J-Pep,

    Thanks much for underscoring -- in your own idiosyncratically effective way -- the importance of social media education and immersion programs within a mid-to-large-size firm.

    As you and many of your readers know, I run a week-long immersion program at Edelman out of a lab that we built.

    My role is not to be a "social media expert", it's to be a "communicator". My job is to give other communicators in the organization social media expertise.

    Further, owing to the richness of the students' backgrounds, I learn about 2x as much from them as they do from me. I have no problem admitting that.

    The folks who have gone through the immersion continue to make me proud, developing program ideas and coming to right-thinking without much help from yours truly. (And that's the way it's SUPPOSED to work.)

    My message (underscoring your thoughts in the post): So-called "social media experts" (no such thing, IMHO) should start caring more about elevating their organization and their profession.

    The age of the superstar marketer is pretty much over -- Fiorina'ed into oblivion.

  6. Who cares who 'wins' social media or if PR is 'saved'? The network will exact a serious winnowing and make marketing much more efficient. End of story.

    My hunch is that no firm will look like it does today, but I'd have to bet on boutiques doing actual experimentation like Voce.

    People like Google or or Satisfaction are going to have a much clearer sense of what is actually going on, therefore I'd look to see new professional services accrue around these islands of understanding. The same way that the mass media age fostered service firms that hung remora-like to the mass media industry.

    I don't see a subtle reshifting of budgets among holding company assets, but a radical undoing of the forces that made rollups attractive in the first place. With marketing talent scattered to the winds and more money in play, new firms will coalesce in new forms.

    The 2000 Tech bust will look mousy by comparison. The businesses that prop up the current outsourced marketing ecosystem are dying. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

  7. Jeremy; I always love it when you go out on a well thought out rant.

    I happen to agree that PR pros have to have a diverse and solid background. I also happen to think that social media should be a part of a campaign, rather than some piece that is billed out separately. One of the best moments of my recent career was when a client introduced me as the person that was helping the company with their social media initiative, but who also had a classical PR background. It's like everyone tool a big sign of relief.

    Why? Because some people are trying to sell social media as a panacea for all ills. "You have a broken foot," he take this pill. "You have a headache? All you need is this pill."

    Just putting a problem into a social media wrapper will not solve the problem, good strategic counsel will.

    That said, companies are looking around them for people who understand this stuff. And while I have resisted "specializing" in anything, I am getting called more and more for social media services.

    and last time I checked, "social media practitioner" is about as unsexy as you can get.

    So, I am with Todd, how do we make this thing sexy without overselling (ala advertising) and making this thing more junk in, junk out?

    I think that the answer may partly lie in showing clearly how a particular tactic (social media or other) contributes to positive business outputs. Not easy to do for sure, but probably the only chance we have.

  8. Jeremy, great post - as usual.

    I'm sure you'll be stunned to hear me echo the required education / learning you refer to, and others praise in comments.

    You'd think that a profession and discipline grounded in communication would want to learn and ascend to the top in this relatively new form ... then plant our flag.

    We've all likely noticed a turn and willingness to at least pay attention by many, but not all. Barriers to entry (if only obstinance and ignorance) still exist. Some are not willing to spend the time doing it. Others are unwilling to spend the money to see it happen.

    Still, the real proof and tipping point will come with the best examples producing tangible convincing results. That might come in number of sales or number of people made aware - then act.

    Jeremy, I think some people are just so certain that cookie-cutter paint-by-numbers old school approaches will still serve them well. Whatever. We'll keep teaching the opposite of that for our part.

  9. Hey Purist

    Enjoyed the dissertation, this is really some high level thoughts. I too struggle with people joining the sphere for the wrong reasons.

    They will be sniffed out though!

  10. I'm teaching PR Theory & Practice to 1st year advertising undergraduates - they are bright, articulate and very interested in new media and the power of PR.

    If they can add the creative skills they'll learn in their advertising Units and the proven sales ability of their discipline to a better understanding of issues management and the more subtle communications of PR, they are going to be a formidable force.

    Why should we care whether they are labelled as advertising rather than PR people?

  11. @tdefren
    LOL - it's not about charging a lot more money, but showing that we have better value, better ideas and better execution. We need to showcase our values, and better package them.

    @mike manuel
    That's the point - be good at what you do, and showcase how good you do it. I hear about it all the time. And, I was looking at it more from a big standpoint than just the last place.

    @david jones
    Thanks. It was a long time coming, and just sat down and punched it out. You hit it though - the anti-corporate is more pro-community, and advertising does not see that.

    I was thinking of your program when I wrote about education. Your lab and program should be the envy of the industry, and I hope Edelman gets what they got with you.

    @brian oberkirch
    You should care about who "wins" because it is about a push and control mind-set (advertising/marketing) versus communications and dialogue (public relations).

    And, sorry, disagree with the rest of your hypothesis. The big firms and conglomerates have been around for a long, long time ... and are adapting fast enough that the boutiques will be swallowed up or go out of business. If you are a one-trick pony, you have no shot. Voce is not, so I don't put them in that category. Some of the social media experts and community specialists are more akin to shysters. They might get jobs ... but they'll get sniffed out eventually.

    @jeremiah owyang
    I hope they get sniffed out. I see too many around right now.

    @heather yaxley
    I'll reiterate what I wrote in the comments already: the discipline of listening and conversing is alien to advertising, but used to be the cornerstone of public relations.

    The ad people I've talked to and listened to tend to characterize online communities as only places to monetize and use. It's not about dialogue or conversations or listening - but how can we use "users" to spread our message. That's just plain wrong and bad.

  12. Okay - missed some, so here the other @ responses.

    @david binkowski
    Thanks - we just gotta do good work.

    @kami huyse
    Not sure it's a rant - it was something I'd been working on, though.

    The one point that I want taken away from the post is that PR needs to remember its roots, and be about conversations and dialogue and writing and pitching (via phone). It's too much than just one thing, and we need to get back to that.

    But, we can still be sexy.

    Thanks. For everything.

  13. I agree with Jeremiah (no, that's not a cop-out). I think this is the one medium where advertising won't win out because the community won't let it. We're also on the front end of the social media movement (still) and we can help dictate where it goes, particularly if we (the PR-minded ones) help steer the community to see through the BS and reject that which is not genuinely for them.

    Great thoughts all.

  14. Being new-ish to the social media world (only about a year in), I find these discussion incredibly helpful and insightful.

    What I don't get is someone like Brian Oberkirch whose post (especially the last couple of lines) made me want to run, screaming, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

    Thanks, Mr. Pepper, for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. You, sir, are no Poser.

  15. Right. Because PR shops have been great custodians of public discourse. The whole premise is off. No existing firm typology is going to be left as is.

    You don't have to agree. I'm just telling you it's going to rain. & that you should put your bucket out.

    Anonymous, the sky isn't falling. Unless you can't adapt. Newspapers, music companies, media rollups, telcos. They're going to get remade. It's that simple. Outsourced marcom is going to have to reshuffle. No amount of sexing up a decaying proposition is going to carry the day.

  16. @brian oberkirch
    Well, actually, for a large part PR firms have been custodians of public discourse. You make a statement that no existing firm typology is going to be left as it is - what does that actually mean? That PR firms are going to evolve and change ... well, yeah, they always have.

    In the old days, we faxed press releases. Prior to that, when Rubenstein started, he would type up media advisories and have runners take it to the newsroom - he told me the great stories about those days. PR evolves. Instead of PR 2.0, we're more like 5.0 or 6.0 - we continue to evolve.

    So, the bucket is out to collect ... what? When the storm does come, the large corporations are going to go with what they are comfortable with: large holding companies and their marketing and PR firms. How many of these special shops went under last time? Most?

  17. I don't think it's being done often, but I strongly agree that social media should be integrated into the whole staff at PR firms not designated to a special team who doesn't share their expertise with everyone.

  18. Might as well make this a family thing...didn't know about your latest gig. Glad you wised up and left another big PR firm. Nice post.

  19. Oh, and to the substance of your post:

    I think it's largely about budgets, as it always has been.

    Advertising firms figure out ways to justify big budgets,and PR firms are put in the position of emphasizing cost-effectiveness and working smaller-budget campaigns. So the companies that want PR firms, rather than ad firms, to handle their YouTube campaigns are often self-selected by the size and marketing budget of the client.

    Why? Because the "how" of getting something done is secondary to the client to the bottom line -- as long as the (ad or PR) agency can make a persuasive argument to the client.

    I also don't see PR as intrinsically purer as a discipline than advertising -- particularly with what I see going on on social networks today. Lots of posers for all disciplines and budgets.

  20. I'm not sure I follow your train of thought when you connect the idea that social media needs to "be transparent, honest and community-oriented" and therefore PR has the upper hand.

    While advertising is less and less trusted by consumers, to the average Joe the face of PR is the spin doctor that unashamedly twists and avoids the truth to suit their client's agenda. Advertising at least has laws to govern what can and can't be claimed.

    I think the previous posts suggesting a new hybrid specialist might be closer to the true "winner"... a discipline that combines the integrity of (good) PR shops with the sex and storytelling ability of an ad agency.r

  21. Great post Jeremy, as usual. Something I've been talking about a lot and trying to get folks to understand.

    The one area I'm interested in diving into is around the interactive group. While I can agree that leading social media through the interactive group is a bad decision, I think that there is a general lack of knowledge from PR people on how interactive services can help them implement social media and understand technologies.

    I guess it is under the auspices of PR people simply have to get smarter when it comes to the tools at their disposal, it is not enough to simply have an idea about online interactivity and community have to understand how it is built, how it works, how it might effect your client, etc.

    Having an interactive services group that can educate you concerning those facets of social media can be an asset. At the same time the PR folks should be doing the same for that group and making them understand the intricate weave of client relationships, community building, et al.

    Keep on shouting this from the rooftops!


  22. Very interesting post that I found thanks to your mention on India PR that also quoted my firm Blogworks. I wrote a similar post earlier this month - similar but different take in a way.



  23. Jeremy,

    Excellent rant. I find right now, when we are talking with PR and ad agencies that really the ones who get it are the PR firms (not all, certainly, maybe we're just talking to the right ones). The traditional ad agencies are pretty clueless -- they have no idea of the impact of social media or how they can put it to use in a community-oriented way.

    We have better luck with the digital/interactives agencies who are interested in trying new creative ways to engage people.

    I think what may happen is a new kind of agency that skirts the line btw pr and interactive.

  24. I hate the idea that either PR, marketing or advertising could "own" social media or must fight to keep it in their camp. We're talking about tools really, like the phone or email. Does PR own the phone? Does advertising own email?

    The point of social media is that it's by the people and for the people. Anyone trying to take it over should be ashamed of themselves and their greediness. Share it around; it can help everyone; that's the whole point of it. Any company that only has stakeholder relationships in one of its divisions should be headed for bankruptcy anyhow.

    Companies can and should leverage this new mode of communications to advance all aspects of running their business, from HR and professional development, to customer service and product development and tech support, to marketing, sales, PR and investor relations. They should definitely do it right by hiring knowledgeable agencies and consultancies like yours and ours ( But they shouldn't relegate it to any one department.

    I know that's not what you were advocating -- I'm just adding my rantlet to your rant.

  25. @cathy baradell-
    Good to see you. And, yes, that was one of my losing battles in a (recent) past life. :)

    @scott baradell-
    Good to see you too, and hope all's well. Thanks for the congrats, and it's been a kick so far.

    But, yes, there are too many posers that are messing stuff up for those that really do care about doing good.

    @steve wright
    Yes, unfortunately PR is thought of as spin, and that is because there is quite a bit of spin out there. Unfortunate, but true. I'm hoping for more of a pure form of PR, where it is about conversation and helping facilitate conversations.

    Thanks for the kind words. While there is value to interactive groups, there is a lack of simple PR understanding that I have run into. Is that true everywhere? Of course not, but they need the guiding hand of PR to help them do the right and smart thing.

    And, well, the best comment I got from someone in an interactive role was that it was okay for them not to read blogs or understand social media, because I didn't get interactive and Web design. A crappy argument from a fool, but the fact is that I can do a bit of HTML coding, and I do talk to web designers and engineers. Her excuse for not reading blogs or being in social networks was just an attempt at misdirection - and failed.

    Thanks for stopping by, and will go read that now.

    Thanks. You probably are just talking to the right PR firms (or at least the right PR people at the firm). I hate to rehash it, but it's about community and advertising is more one-sided, and push. I can see for some disciplines PR and interactive working closer together.

    @isabel hilborn
    Thanks for the addition. I don't think anyone owns social media, I just believe certain disciplines are better suited. :D

  26. I echo what Isabel wrote. No one owns social media. While the PR industry may be better suited, as it's in the business of building relationships with people, some social media executions call for design elements and other areas that advertisers are naturally strong at.

    The bottom line is: PR and advertising need to get over themselves. As long as we keep viewing this as a we/they consideration, everyone's going to lose. It's about communications, not about who owns it. Let's focus on evolving this industry rather than staking a claim.

  27. Jeremy, you are starting to sound like your old self.

    Good post.

    I am still not sure that any consultant can teach a company how to be really successful with social media. It seems to me that the companies that are really successful do it mostly inhouse. But are willing to learn a lot. I also think you need some different people besides PR -- customer service, product builders etc.

  28. Thanks, Mr. Pepper, for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.

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  31. I'm actually more concerned about know-nothing media companies taking the lead on social media initiatives. With their traditional base of print and broadcast disappearing, I'm seeing more intrusion from media buying companies who have tons of money to throw into research and measurement, two things that matter to clients...

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