What Scares Me About PR

What scares me about PR

PR challenges that should scare the industry

PR is changing. I spend a lot of time talking to anyone who will listen – my team, clients, prospects, strangers at cocktail parties, Twitter friends – about how and why. I believe a shakeout is coming and firms that cannot deliver on the new needs of their clients will fall behind.

Does the industry need a unified voice about how PR should be practiced, professionals should be trained, results measured, and ethics defined? Is that even possible? While there is no single approach to this “new” PR, consistent conversation points continually arise.

The debates are healthy I suppose, but if I had any ability to be objective about PR, the dissonance would strike me as seeing an industry that (still) does not know what it is and what it can accomplish. While I know this isn’t true given the smart people, innovative firms and great PR programs I see, that there is even recurring discourse about the themes below scares me. Read below to see what keeps me up at night, and keep reading to find out what’s really scary.

PR is dead. Guess what? This week, I read an article proclaiming PR is dead. Again. Really?

Public relations is an estimated $11 billion business in the U.S. – just agency numbers, no in-house corp comm numbers included – $8 billion in the U.K. and significant in many countries around the world. There are 7,000 PR firms in the Unites States. 7,000! That averages out to 140 firms per state.

There is significant spend on PR, more PR professionals than journalists, thousands of firms, including big, publicly traded companies that must keep shareholders satisfied, and the industry is dead? It scares me that this perspective continually rises. Then again, there is constant noise that marketing is also dead, along with SEO, and content and social media. That’s a lot of dead.

Google makes press release distribution irrelevant. As maligned as it may be, the press release remains a trusty corporate communications asset. Algorithm changes by Google have had an impact on links in releases distributed via wire services and how the search engine views them. So what? This is not the death knell of the press release.

Releases are still an effective storytelling device, and as clients repeatedly tell us, provide credibility to their companies. I’m cool with that. Honestly, there’s hardly a journalist today who eagerly anticipates a press release before coming up with an article idea. If there are journalists out there waiting for releases, please let me know; I’ll start a list.

For my friends at wire services, however, I am scared. They’ve built healthy businesses, first on getting releases into newsrooms, and more recently by driving website traffic and helping stuff Google Alerts. What’s next for the wire service, and what impact will their challenges have on press releases? Even disclosure and earnings reports can happen through media other than wire services now.  Less SEO boost and an unengaged journalist audience does not make for a great outcome.

There is no creativity in PR. How do you define creativity? Is it a great pitch letter or turn-of-phrase in a speech? At HB, we advocate that businesses must act like media companies. While this concept encompasses the distribution, creation and consumption of content – and building community around the content – we believe the content must be visual, or at least supported by visual elements. But this does not happen consistently enough in PR, and leads people to think that there’s no creativity. Even if it’s a post for a corporate blog, create a square image that communicates the story through the graphics. Ignoring the power we have to communicate through multimedia assets is scary… and an opportunity for those of us who keep the creative juices flowing and earn the media hits as a reward.   

Who owns social media? Why does this industry make such strenuous arguments over ownership? Does it matter? Social media and community-building – more often than not moving in-house these days – is not about ownership. It’s about story and process and companywide philosophy on how to embrace social and community within an organization. “Owning” such a, well, social component of marketing is not good practice, and the debates over ownership scare me.

What about a great idea? I suppose this scares me the most. Great ideas rock. The right idea can be supported by PR, marketing, digital, social, whatever. That idea can power an entire company’s brand platform, infuse every piece of everything that it does. The best ideas don’t fall neatly into one aspect of marketing or another; they move an organization ahead powerfully because the idea is powerful. Nor, as Paul Gillin once wrote, do they necessarily have ROI. So what’s scary about a great idea?

This is: who funds it?

Marketing budgets are often still compartmentalized. PR gets this much, branding this much, etc. Buyer behavior is scary. It’s not the buyer’s fault, as PR and other marketing disciplines have worked so hard to create their own silos. Buyers are only doing what we trained them to do for years, ignoring the sea changes that were coming. And that was not buying the big idea in many cases.

It’s not as bleak as I make it out to be, of course. The PR industry is doing just fine. At HB, we find some prospects get it when we talk about helping them become media companies and others don’t, and some can fund it and some cannot. That’s OK. There are choices out there. 7,000 of them!

To overcome my fears, I take comfort in knowing that:

  • PR is alive and well, and done differently at different firms.
  • Press release must tell the company story, and search results do not dictate the entirety of a PR program; the best firms know how to address search and where it fits in a program’s content.
  • Creativity is subjective – clients and prospects – and their audiences – know the right creative for them when they see it.
  • Social media is part of the fabric of progressive companies.
  • Buyers are listening more to idea-driven marketing, and we will see change – slowly – in how marketing and PR initiatives are funded.

Do you want to talk about something really scary? Clowns. We all know they’re scary.

Catch HB and a group of other great companies this Thursday at FutureM as we tackle these issues and more. We’re speaking on the topic: PR is Marketing’s Future. Join me and talented professionals from The Holmes Report, Digiday, Connelly Partners, allen & gerritsen and Springpad. It won’t be scary.

What scares you about PR?

Mark O'Toole

About Mark O'Toole

Although Mark regularly creates meaningful, sustained relationships for clients, secures media coverage that builds no matter how long a client engages with HB, and consumes every type of media every single day, he knows PR is not about traditional media anymore. For Mark, PR has never been about media, but rather about helping clients meet business goals. By constantly applying his marketing mentality to solving business challenges, Mark created a platform that catapults client campaigns to new levels.

Learn more about Mark

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