The Many Deaths of Public Relations

By Joshua Kail, - In Marketing

Picture of officials being interviewed on TV

Photo Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This article pertains to social media and media relations.

We have reached that time of year where if you have a hat and some basic knowledge of a topic then you are proceeding to throw that hat into the Ring of Prognostication!  Only a month into 2015 and I have already reached my limit on tweets and links about the future of marketing. Most of the time these predictions are wild guess based on trending issues at the close of the previous year. They also tend to be directly linked to a vendor product or service which marketing/PR firm or business can purchase to “get ahead.’ If it were 1890 someone would be selling them out of the back of wagon. “Cures all your business ailments from Direct Mail pattern boredom to troubles with you lady customer base!” Needless to say I have made no such purchases yet. This is not to say ALL marketing vendors are selling snake oil, just don’t make your purchase decision on what might happen and focus on what you need in the moment.

Even though making predictions in the future of something as complex as technology and human behavior for communication purposes is a bit on the ridiculous side, it is fun to guess what may or could happen in the near future. And if these predictions promise things like greater sales or customer retention, it is hard to not want to believe them, even if deep down we know better. Since I happen to own a hat or two myself, I have decided to cast my eyes to the heavens and pull down a prediction for 2015 of my own.

“Someone will declare Public Relations is dead.”

This is sort of cheating since every year someone claims this to be the case. Most recently, and what I think will be the reasoning for such declarations this year, has been Social Media. Prior to that, it was blogs, preceded by email, preceded by television, and so on. I am fairly certain that when the great Caveman Oog put his first berry stained hand print against a cave wall, someone in the background grunted “there goes PR.”

So why is PR declared dead more times than Abe Vigoda? It is a combination of a PR consuming public which is not fully aware of what PR is (see here and definitely here) and the use of that misunderstanding by competing vendors and disciplines as an attempt to usurp PR’s revenue stream. Now, if this angle of attack were based on facts and actual weakness of PR as a whole, then I would say it is fair game in the name of a free market economy and let progress take its roots. Thankfully, this is not really the case.

To see why, we need to look at the two most recent PR DOAs, Blogs and Social Media.

First up is the mainstream surge in blogs and blogging. This really hit its peak in the first half of the 2000’s .

What happened? Everyone and their mother (especially their mother) started a blog. During my brief stint at law school I was making a few hundred dollars a month writing blogs on hard hitting topics such as, why to by original art rather than prints and how fishing is enjoyable.

The problem was given the accessibility and free access to blogs and eZines at the, time traditional media like Newspapers and Magazines did not know how to compete. I remember, as an associate publicist at WNET in New York getting weekly emails just listing all the journalist contacts I could no longer use because they were all let go. It was a bloodbath. It was from this massacre that the smears of PR being dead were first wiped. After all, if there were no more journalists, if traditional media was falling apart, what exactly would a PR pro do? This new wave of free content created by the underground was replacing the old ways and PR was certainly an “old way”. Industry analysts dusted off that PR coffin from when email emerged and was ready with a still warm body to fill it.  Amazingly enough PR did not actually cease to exist or lose its relevance, in fact the opposite occurred.

The false footing of such predictions can be best seen in those blogs I wrote back at law school. They were terrible. I was a broke grad students getting paid 10 cents a word to write content for junk sites with no editors. My goal was simply use a lot of words. They were so weak I opted to use a pseudonym. I came up with an idea, shipped it out to the company and a few weeks later would get a check. I never received a single complaint. Such lack of quality in the early days we common place and it flooded the net with worthless material.

The fact that most blogs were full of terrible and often unsubstantiated content was a stay of execution for PR and traditional media. It gave us both time to do what valid and successful industries always do, figure out how to best use new technology and trends to the best advantage. Three things happened during this interim. 1) All those professional and talented journalists who were let go, started their own blog with actual high quality content. 2) Traditional media started their own blogs with high quality content. 3) Those original bloggers who always had created valuable content were recognized and celebrated for it. The industry legitimized blogging so that it was safe for consumption and set a standard as to what people expect to read online. Once blogs became a valuable source of real information, rather than die off as predicted, Media Relations PR just gained an additional branch of contacts to reach out to and share client stories and industry trends with. Today every media relations campaign not only includes digital publications but usually has them at the top of their outreach list.

Result: NOT DEAD YET

It was important to outline the history with blogs so that when making a direct comparison to the murmurs surrounding Social Media you can see how the perceived similarities are vastly different. Social Media can be seen as the natural progression of blogs. It is a digital place, with no costs, in which anyone can post any information they want to a direct network of personal connections or to a larger network of a like interested reader base. It extends that early blogger mentality of reader interactivity and has a focused consumption point along these networks. Naturally, all this, free, user controlled, say what you want to who you want, excitement has resurrected the PR dirges.

It is that last point of being able to directly target audiences which really get the morticians in a tizzy. If a company can go directly to their intended customer base and say what they want then who needs PR and media relations? The answer, of course, is the same people who needed PR the day before they started their Twitter accounts.

Whereas when blogs first emerged lots of people started writing them, with social media EVERYBODY has it and EVERYBODY posts multiple times a day across multiple networks. Most of the time those posts are insane ratings, just like early blogs. The thing is, the nature of social networking invites people to behave that way so the idea of moderating content authenticity and quality on such a massive is a much steeper task and certainly one that has not happened yet. Going to Social Media for legitimate views and stories is possible it is just not the majority. As much as I would like to think the results of the Which Bagel Spread Are You quiz is accurate, I just don’t see myself as peanut butter, even if that is what the peanut industry wants me to think.

As a direct source of material, Social Media has not matured enough yet. I am not 100% it ever will or really should. With that said Social Media is a fantastic aggregator of information. I was surprised when I realized I get a lot of my breaking news through Facebook and Twitter. The important distinction to make is that I do not read news through Facebook or Twitter. I read news from legitimate news sources, such as respectable blogs, websites, Newspapers, TV, and Radio. Social Media just highlights those stories and leads me to the places I want to go for actual details.

Once again PR does not die in this scenario. From a media relations perspective, we are still pitching the same sources for coverage of client stories or expertise. The opportunities for coverage are just as plentiful, but now with Social Media there is the added advantage of news distribution to highlight that coverage. This distribution potential birthed the PR subset of Social Media managers or professionals within companies. This subset works alongside media relations teams, not to replace but to strengthen the value of those media placements. In the past a great press hit in a key or secondary media source would only be seen by those who regularly consume the source directly. Now a company can direct existing and potential customers and clients to that material in an easy way while those primary source consumers can share the same material with potential customers and clients the company does not even know about. The footprints Media Relations make are now infinitely deeper thanks to social media.

Social Media Management is entirely doable from within any company assuming that there are people tasked with putting in the needed time and effort behind those efforts. What is not a realistic assumption to make is that all PR can be replaced with Social Media outreach. If a company goes out onto a social network and only talks about its product or service, if they only have people from within speaking on their behalf, two things will happen. 1) People will stop following them and 2) The claims made by the company about itself will be devalued.  In this capacity managing social media is like going on a first date. If all you do during diner is talk about how great you are, chances are there is not going to be a second date. The difference is that it is a lot less socially awkward for a potential customer to stop following an account than it is to leave a restaurant before the entree’s arrive.

There is a finessed approach to managing Social Media and balancing it with Media Relations efforts. I would not suggest engaging in Media Relations with no social media backup and I would definitely not suggest ONLY engaging in social media.

Each company needs to evaluate where it stands in capabilities of going forward with media relations and social media initiatives. In an ideal world all could be done at the same level of focus, but budgets are an unfortunate reality and restrictor from the ideal.

The best thing a company can do to figure out the path best for them is to ask a PR Firm. Be open about your budget needs from the start, let them know your goals and the in-house talent you already have on board. If the firm you are speaking with starts inching up the budget without respecting your needs end the call and move on to the next firm. Many PR Pros will either prepare a proposal within your budget, suggest a firm which works with smaller budgets if their firm does not, or give you advice on how to manage things entirely on the resources you have for the short term and offer to continue the conversation of a more formal approach down the road when the company is in a stronger financial place.

It may be easier to say PR is dead to justify allocation but at the end of the day what a company misses out on by side stepping PR may result in a zombie apocalypse. “Mmmmm third party validation and interesting content, hungry for third party validation and interesting content!”

Happy 2015, I can’t wait to see what else kills off PR this year.



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Josh Kail is co-Founder of Glass Lantern PR

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      Comments: 5

    1. Lyndon Johnson on

      The PR industry is responsible for the death of PR. It has been making false promise, after false promise for years. The majority of ‘PR’ professionals don’t can’t even tell you what it is – they sell public relations but deliver media pitching processes, social media [both publicity] and, increasingly, content marketing [yet fail to understand the basics of the discipline].

      Public Relations is dead and the industry only has itself to blame.

      Reply
    2. Michael Kelly on

      Does this sort it out?
      1. Content and media are different things
      2. Blogs and Social Media are both media, like paper, TV, tape, voice, air, etc. Media carries information/content/messages
      3. PR is about creating and building relationships, using whatever media is available .

      The only reason that PR would be threatened by media is if PR identifies itself with only one media. So, don’t do that. Use them all.

      I’d suggest that Professionals who work in PR, should think of themselves as Professional Relationship builders so instead of PR Pros (rather vague) there are PR Builders. The 20 second elevator speech or answer to the ‘what do you do’ question then becomes a possibly more interesting ‘I build relationships!’ or ‘I build the relationship foundation for successful business.’ Or something like that. Forget the media.

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      • Joshua Kail on

        Michael,
        Thanks for the response. I think when it comes to defining PR its a bit more complex than creating and managing relationship in the pragmatic sense. So while that is an accurate definition for someone looking for PR services it does not help them find a match for their specific need. You should read check out my earlier article http://www.fridgemagazine.com/marketing/what-is-pr-anyway/.

        It is also why I start all of my articles identifying the aspect of PR it pertains to. Just like if you were to tell someone “I am a doctor” you really need to go into more detail as to what that means, medical or academic, emphasis of study etc. With PR it is beyond “relationship manager” That definition is too vague for real world use and directly leads to the industry confusion.

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        • Joshua Kail on

          It is important to note, that this is specifically regarding the state of PR in the US. There are subtle and key differences with PR in the UK, particularly around media relations.

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