PR in Transition

June 11, 2009

One of the more interesting articles I have read on the present and future of public relations ran today on the San Francisco Business Times site. The article is largely based on a thought-provoking post by another journalist on his blog SiliconValleyWatcher.

Now let’s ignore the typos that tell you something about the present and future of journalism and focus on what these posts have to say about PR, because the insights are rather dead on. I’m paraphrasing here, but here are the points that really resonated with me:

Point #1: The PR industry (like the media industry) is in a severe state of disruption in the face of Web 2.0.

Point #2: Journalists receive far too many uninformed, inappropriate, misdirected and even insulting pitches from inexperienced, junior-level PR people. With journalists and bloggers drowning in a sea of information, these pitches are more irrelevant than ever.

Point #3: PR pros (and many clients) still focus far too much on print media and not enough on internet media.

Point #4: Monthly PR retainers will vanish, replaced by a project-based model. (See my thoughts on this below.)

Point #5: PR people need to embrace and master social media.

Point #6: PR needs to focus on outcomes, not outputs. Clients need to understand this, too. Clients who measure the effectiveness of PR based on how many press releases the agency pumps out are kidding themselves.

Point #7: As in any good relationship, PR pros need to say “no” to clients who have lame ideas. It’s a fiduciary duty, really.

What does all of this tell me? Now, more than ever, it’s about quality, not quantity. That is something I fully embrace. It’s how I live, and it’s how I want to work.

Now some people might be scared about this stuff. But for me, individually, I fully embrace all of these changes. They make sense. They reflect how media is now generated, presented and consumed. They reflect how I and everyone I know get news and information. They reflect how I’d prefer to deal with my clients.

I feel that these changes ultimately will make for better, more effective PR. The issue is how to quantify and report it to clients… not to mention, how to charge and bill for it. This is where things are likely to get dicey in many cases. For their part, clients need to understand these changes as well. It’s going to be a long process, but it’s going to make all of us better on the other side.

The problem right now is making this transition. We’ve all got the legacy of old-school thinking dragging us down too much. We don’t need to reject all that we know, but we need to incorporate it into a whole new way of doing business. We must embrace change and lead.

The PR firms (and the talented, thoughtful people who work for them) who get all of this will survive. The ones who keep on keepin’ on as if its still the 80s or 90s or, heck, the early 00s, are likely going to be left to the dustbin of history.

Now, as far as Point #4, retainers vs. project-based work, this speaks to our very livelihoods as PR professionals. This hopefully won’t happen overnight, and for many clients, retainers will still make more sense. But PR firms must embrace project work. It’s a less secure way to operate, but it will enhance our value as a profession in the end. Think of it like the legal industry. Some lawyers work on retainer, others take work on a case-by-case basis. The fact is, we provide expertise. We provide a valuable service. We need to be available to share that expertise with companies who need it, at a moment’s notice. A side benefit is that our mission becomes much clearer when we work on a project with a beginning and an end. I believe it will inspire us to work harder and work smarter.

We can still make a living. But we must understand that the economic rules, as well as the media world, are changing permanently, and we must change with them.

Posted by Joe Paone