What's Wrong With Public Relations?

Posted on August 16, 2008 by Tony Uphoff

If you've been monitoring the blogesphere lately you are aware that there is a hot debate going on about the future of PR. From Robert Scoble to my friend and former colleague Steve Rubel, the question everyone is asking is, "what's wrong with PR ? ".

There are some obvious forces at work that are causing turbulence for PR today. Clearly the Internet is the central discontinuity as it has been for media and so many other industries. The rise of the blogesphere, continued audience fragmentation and the redefinition of media brands in a search driven world are also causing a massive amount of disruption for the PR industry. There are a couple of related issues however that are creating even more havoc:

How Do You Define Success? PR value has historically been based on coverage, defined as literal column inches in print, amount of air time on television and radio and number of live speaking engagements, with increased value given to media outlets deemed to be top tier in their markets. The scarcity of media outlets drove this model. PR firms were ultimately judged by their ability to get coverage in a small number of top flight media brands. It was a model that was easy to track and monitor. You either got the coverage or you didn't. This was a "read only" model. The impact of the coverage was illusive to say the least. "Buzz" became an artful science and one fraught with misuse. The old adage of "there is no bad PR" became a cliche' for a reason. Good coverage or bad coverage was all relative. Other than obvious and extreme cases, the only really bad coverage was no coverage. Today with the Internet the center of gravity in media, scarcity has been replaced with ubiquity. Mass is being redefined. Buzz has become a tangible and one that can be tracked. Performance marketing is driving the vast majority of web based advertising today evolving marketing into what we call branded response. Performance-driven PR can't be far behind. Oh and there is one other issue...in a read/write media world they can talk back now. And when they talk back and you don't know how to answer them your PR announcement can become a PR crisis in a hurry.

Context Is Everything. The level of specificity and customization in media today is astounding. From the extraordinary functionality of Web 2.0 apps to the 500 cable channels covering every niche' market under the sun, todays audiences have the ability to find and engage with expert level content on virtually any subject and in most any format. In this environment context is everything. Deep market, audience and domain knowledge are required today to be able to provide the level of context that the media outlets and in turn the audiences they serve have come to expect. Is this in and of itself new ? No. It is more important today than ever before however and more apparent when it's not understood.

Ok so here are a few thoughts for today's PR pros:

  1. Provide Metrics. PR is not immune from the outcome based nature of the Internet. Frankly this can work to your advantage. There is a new calculus emerging: amount of coverage x the value of the media outlet x the tangible response generated = success. This does not mean that PR doesn't have intangible value. It does. But rather than get caught up in the rationalization debate, define your value calculus and provide a concrete level of detail for clients.
  2. Know Your Markets. Perhaps its the impact of the transformation of media but I've never seen a more confused and disconnected time for PR in my 20 years in the industry. Frankly there is likely a parallel here in the feedback I got when I came back to then CMP Media, now TechWeb, nearly 2 years ago. In my first few months I was inundated with feedback from marketers telling me that our average sales rep simply didn't understand the markets, their company or their products and in turn weren't offering enough value. As hard as it was to hear, the fact of the matter is they were right. After several years of living through the revolution in the media industry our reps had gotten so internally focused that they were out of touch with the markets we served. It took commitment and hard work but we dramatically improved our market-driven approach and our results reflect it. We keep working at it it too. Spend time in the market. Spend time with people who actually buy your clients products and services. Better yet spend time with people who could have bought your clients products but didn't. And listen. Learn about the ecosystem that connects with your clients products and services. Don't be afraid to develop a point of view about the markets. Everyone is looking for context. If you have a well researched and thought out POV on the market and in turn how your client fits in, it will serve you well.
  3. Know Your Media. Media today is multi-platform, micro to mega brand and increasingly integrated. It's a mind numbing challenge to stay on top of the state of well known media brands, let alone the massive number of new and or niche' outlets that are cropping up in all sorts of formats. The fact is however if you understand the markets your client is in and do your research you can determine what the leading brands are and how they fit into the market. Oh and just because a well known consumer brand has decided to launch a column in a B2B category doesn't mean they have discovered how to serve an under served market. It just means you've been given a good sales pitch. Pay attention to demographics. In an era of SEO, Web traffic has little correlation to buying demographics. Most of the time it's the opposite. The fact that a blog or web site has a large number of unique visitors is irrelevant unless there is a direct correlation to their ability to buy your clients products in volume. Improve your MQ, your media IQ. Study the latest applications, media usage trends and habits. Balance your quantitative and qualitative understanding of what's going on with media and again here don't be afraid of developing a POV that you share with clients and the media.
Ok so now that I've likely angered most of my friends in the PR community, what's your take? Is something wrong with PR? Is PR in danger of being disintermediated? Or are we just seeing the necessary evolution of PR in a Web based world?,

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