Social media will not kill PR, but it does expose industry weakness

Social media will not kill PR, but it does expose industry weakness

Summary: The way I see it, social media isn't putting PR in jeopardy, but it has exposed a weakness in PR that was always there -- too much focus on dialing for dollars and not enough focus on making PR stretch to support real business initiatives.

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Calm down, this is not another "PR is dead" meme. I'll leave that to this guy and this guy and this guy. However, after attending a Horn Group panel on Wednesday on the topic of "Is Social Media Killing PR?", I'm a little afraid for the future of the PR industry.

Let me explain.

The panel itself, co-sponsored by Girls in Tech, was insightful. Horn Group, by far, has always been one of the highest on my radar for agencies who "get it." Susan Etlinger, agency vice president, was joined by Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang and the ever-colorful Kara Swisher for a lively discussion moderated by Sam Whitmore. The discussion was borne of the aforementioned memes that purport social media -- and the direct connections it can provide between media and companies -- is putting PR in jeopardy.

The way I see it, social media isn't putting PR in jeopardy, but it has exposed a weakness in PR that was always there -- too much focus on dialing for dollars and not enough focus on making PR stretch to support real business initiatives.

During the panel, both Etlinger and Owyang handed these issues to the audience on a silver platter. Specifcally, Owyang made the critical points that yes, PR is changing, and it's more important now than ever that PR engage 1) beyond corporate communications 2) throughout the customer lifecycles and 3) with a new and improved skill set. And, most important, PR needs to fix its own reputation (Owyang expands on this in detail on his blog).

Yet the audience appeared unmoved. To varying degrees, comments from the audience centered around the tactical use of tools, or even high level comments on how tools alone are not enough -- but no substance as to the how. Some folks complained that they have to pitch the way the clients tell them; they can't push back (a historic, but solvable, problem). Others asked questions that merely stirred the pot rather than adding more savory ingredients.

In fairness, the Horn Group organized this panel merely to start the discussion, and as much as we in Silicon Valley would like to believe everyone thinks about social media in the same terms we do -- they don't. Etlinger made an astute observation on Owyang's blog post about social media early adopters and PR:

"But from where I sat last night, I saw a microcosm of the cultural barriers to social media: confusion, ambivalence, fear of letting go of strategies that no longer work, but also a lot of curiosity and pockets of innovation. We should learn from that; we may not have taken the conversation as far as we wanted, but it’s the price we pay for inclusion; for being social in the first place.

And ultimately I believe it’s our responsibility as early(ish) adopters and strategists to help bring the next group along–whether they’re PR people, marketers, customer service reps or plumbers."

And Susan's right. My concern, however, is that even in my conversations with attendees after the panel there was so much defense around the way that public relations has traditionally been executed. It almost appeared at moments that Etlinger and Owyang (and even Swisher from her unique media perspective) were shouting into a black hole when discussing the concept of public relations professionals using social media as a platform on which to step up as business consultants.

The question still remains, however, as to how?

I said earlier that social media has merely exposed a weakness in PR that has always been there. PR leaders need to change the way they are training their people -- stop sticking them in a corner with editorial calendars and awards and teach them about the fundamentals of business. Agency types need to find ways to leverage social media to prove to their clients that they are trusted counsel (i.e. be transparent -- let the client publicly see the relationships you have). When you push back, they are more likely to believe you.

Beyond the tactics? Look at the transparency as a positive. Leverage it in a way that will help you as a PR professional build your own brand and differentiators. Look at your client's or company's business as a whole. Don't just use Twitter to pitch them or suggest you monitor their Facebook presence. Ask yourself about the revenue model, support structure, sales strategy, marketing operations and market share. For the last time, read Owyang's blog post. Ask questions and read case studies as to how some big, big companies are tackling issues using social media and apply it all to public relations strategies.

Again, it's being done. The Horn Group gets it. Other agencies, such as Perkett PR and Sterling Communications, get it. Many individual corporate communications professionals get it. If you don't get it, while the industry may not die, you could very well be left behind with the weak elite who refuse to change.

Topic: Social Enterprise

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6 comments
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  • SoMe is just more PRToolz

    PR is everything and Smedia is just another arrow in the quiver. PERIOD.
    schratboy@...
    • RE: Social media will not kill PR, but it does expose industry weakness

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      just-do-it
  • RE: Social media will not kill PR, but it does expose industry weakness

    PR firms need to know when to get out of the way between client and journalist. That's the ultimate relationship that is right for the client.

    PR firms live and die by their relationships. I heard at a recent Society for New Communications Research panel that some journalists still rely on a few PR firms to deliver what the reporter needs. My reaction to that is "What a lazy journalist." There are only a couple of dozen people that have the best ideas for your news hole?

    I don't buy it. I believe that social media allows cream (good ideas) to rise to the top. When it does, everyone relevant to that issue and covering that space will need to cover it.

    Sure there may be a catch-22, but the more traditional media is plugged into social media e.g Rich Sanchez CNN and Steve Baker Business Week, et al. the more PR firms will focus on their client's message and packaging, do their due diligence on journalists, then stand back and watch the positive chemical reaction.
    amaruggi@...
  • RE: Social media will not kill PR, but it does expose industry weakness

    Jennifer,

    Thank you very much for mentioning PerkettPR in your post. Moreover, thanks for the post - it's important subject matter that needs to be talked about more. I really appreciate the viewpoints of folks like yourself and can only hope that businesses (i.e., beyond PR agencies and media) will listen.

    PR is not dead. It isn't going to die. Even the "traditional PR agencies" will continue to thrive... as long as companies and Chief Marketing Officers continue to pay these firms outlandish retainers without really analyzing the results or demanding improvements.

    Those of us involved in social media see the changes taking place and recognize we can do things differently ??? and, dare we say, better. And we'll continue to innovate and improve results for our clients. But I don't believe social media will kill the industry or even ???traditional PR??? - there's always good and bad to everything and the PR industry is no different.

    Your comment, "even in my conversations with attendees after the panel there was so much defense around the way that public relations has traditionally been executed...." supports my point here:

    1) I believe the leaders in "traditional PR" are defensive and slow moving because they can't control social media - and that freaks them out. They are used to having a lot of control. This is also the reason they are very slow to adopt social media into their campaigns ??? it opens up a lot of doors for scrutiny, doesn???t it?

    2) 10 years ago , when I founded PerkettPR, I recognized some of the same fundamental problems you're talking about when you say "PR leaders need to change the way they are training their people ??? stop sticking them in a corner with editorial calendars and awards and teach them about the fundamentals of business." We don't hire junior executives at PerkettPR but even so, one of the first questions we ask all candidates is "do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?" Why do we ask this question? Because we want people hungry to learn, brave enough to innovate and strong enough to lead. Agencies need to instill more of these types of attributes in their staff members ??? and they need to empower and trust them more. Again, it comes back to control. Junior executives are stuck in a corner because senior executives don???t trust them. (They might trust them more if they took the time to train them better.) I think social media is forcing PR leaders to take a look at their staff ??? all of them ??? and realize that they do need to train them better so that when they do participate in social media (and here???s a hint, your junior staffers are participating, whether sanctioned by you or not), they can trust they???ll do a good job.

    And that brings up another point about social media and ???traditional PR??? - at least when it come to PR agencies. Traditional agencies are focused on ???billable time??? and they were originally structured to maximize this by putting the most junior level people on as many tasks as possible - saving the senior level executives for the conference room where they a) sold the ideas in the first place and b) will convince the clients everything is fine when they begin to complain about the results of said junior executives. In addition, senior executives are often focused only on counsel ??? but reach a point where they don???t have to ???do??? a lot otherwise. Social media forces you to ???do??? by participation. And that takes time. And that means money to an agency.... So I guess I think the slow adoption of social media by PR agencies comes down to three things: fear of losing control, lack of interest in investing the time it takes to participate and therefore, lack of understanding.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience and insights. I look forward to more analysis in the future.

    Christine Perkett
    Founder & CEO, PerkettPR
    Twitter: @missusP and @PerkettPR
    chris@perkettpr.com
    cperkett
    • That is so funny...

      You mention this:

      "and they were originally structured to maximize this by putting the most junior level people on as many tasks as possible - saving the senior level executives for the conference room where they a) sold the ideas in the first place and b) will convince the clients everything is fine when they begin to complain about the results of said junior executives. In addition, senior executives are often focused only on counsel ??? but reach a point where they don???t have to ???do??? a lot otherwise. Social media forces you to ???do??? by participation. And that takes time. And that means money to an agency.... So I guess I think the slow adoption of social media by PR agencies comes down to three things: fear of losing control, lack of interest in investing the time it takes to participate and therefore, lack of understanding."

      I worked for a company that mirrors this exact attribute to which you describe.

      Oh, it all makes sense now.

      Yet, it was my favorite job ever. Then, the president got greedy, sold his secrets to the Mothership and canned everyone except himself and morphed into the VP of the newly developed organization it all became.

      Lame.
      Arphenion
  • "What" is an even bigger issue than "how"

    Admittedly, I'm somewhat of a PR agency cynic.

    However, from my experiences, as a client of PR agencies and as an adviser to marketing professionals, I have long felt that the most fundamental issue with PR firms is a long learning curve (at an expense of dollars and time) -and in some cases an outright inability- to effectively contribute "what" value and instead being overly "how" myopic.

    By "what," I'm referring to the core substance of the client's marketing imperatives -resting on top of the client's domain, market situation and the general foundation that every business operates by.

    I've never expected PR agencies to be management consultants; but, too much of the conversation and subsequent activity gets shaped by their "how" security blankets.

    From the client's perspective, Social Media is another "how" option to be utilized in the mix if appropriate to achieve the "what." Yes, we hire PR firms to provide "how" expertise; however, without "what" clarity it all becomes sub-optimal regardless of the firm's "how" richness.

    Even so, PR has not died before and is not likely to be done in by Social Media -or whatever other "how" comes after.


    Jesus Castillo
    Whiskey Hill Partners
    xprs2-net@...