It's Time to Re-Invent Public Relations

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I didn’t pick PR—PR picked me. 

Let me take a step back.

Thinking about my own career path since the beginning, I realized there’s a pattern. I’ve always been drawn to industries in the midst of change and disruption. I landed my first job as a graphic designer because I had entered the workforce with a valuable skill at the time—I had learned the essentials of desktop publishing and the company I went to work for was in the process of overhauling how they produced their marketing materials (migrating from traditional tools to digital). It was a huge change and for those who were resistant to converting their skills to digital desktop publishing—they faced early retirement.

Next, I spent about a year working in cable news—but it was an intense year as I worked with the Fox News Channel team helping launch the 24 hour cable news network. Fast forward over fifteen years later and that network is thriving, having tapped consumer demand in cable news and niche media coverage. I’ve worked at the Chicago Tribune in digital news media and witnessed first hand the differences in how the “digital” team and the veteran employees viewed their work. I spent nearly six years working for one of the original digital agencies which back then was expected to transform the agency space and now doesn’t exist anymore (—the remains have been swallowed up by corporate entities.

It was at the tail end of my experience there that I discovered “social”, first through the blogosphere and then Twitter and Facebook and I did stints at other digital firms and even a start up—hoping these organizations would lead the way in the transformation from traditional digital to a more connected form of digital communications. Eventually in 2009, I found a home with Edelman because it seemed the culture prioritized and valued everything that was changing because of the emergence and disruptive nature of social media. Back then, it was the PR firms that seemed to understand best what was changing. Today, it’s not the same story. 

I believe search, social and mobile are the three most disruptive forces in modern communications and they are working together to wreak havoc on organizations and their agency partners. Because I work for a public relations firm—I feel a sense of urgency to start here and lay out what must evolve. The people (stakeholders) we want to reach move effortlessly across a media landscape often times making no distinction. Increasingly they spend time on mobile devices skimming content in “streams or feeds”. The average consumer of media has the attention span of a squirrel on ritalin and getting them to pause to read anything more than paragraph is becoming increasingly difficult. The media industry has been disrupted and thereby public relations is an industry in the midst of change. Here are a few areas I believe PR must aggressively embrace and do differently. 

Most PR firms will say they have creative talent, but we have to ask ourselves if it’s the right creative talent. Can we produce apps that live in Facebook or mobile? Are we working on the next Nike Fuel or are we in position to just do the media outreach for it? My most recent hire is a digital veteran who has spent most of his career at advertising and digital agencies. We aren’t going to just get people talking about things—we are going to create the things they talk about.  

Analytics in Public Relations has to move beyond just counting “placements” similar to the act of pulling together traditional media clippings. Analytics in public relations has to integrate with the other measurement functions of an organization (like connecting earned to owned properties). It also needs to go beyond measuring and move into data collection and analysis. And analysis needs to evolve beyond merely analyzing into deriving core insights to inform decisions like how to spend media dollars and what the tone of messages should be. I’m currently hiring a senior analytics lead for my team and I describe the ideal candidate as part measurement wonk and part digital planner.    

Converged Media
Public relations was built on the notion of “earned media” which differentiated it from advertising. Today, it’s all just content as part of the vast quantity we are able to digest on a given day thanks to the deluge we are subjected to. It was Google that began infusing ways to “pay” to help raise visibility with the search engine. It is Facebook that has introduced to the mainstream a convergence of media through things like the promoted post—and it is the media itself that is offering more ways than ever to make advertising feel like it’s a part of the editorial universe. This convergence defies both traditional advertising, marketing and public relations constructs—yet poses great opportunity for any of the disciplines who are nimble enough to master. 

This brings us to today and tomorrow. Here’s what I am seeing in the industry: PR got a head start on social but it’s been rapidly eroding. Companies who value customer service have moved beyond how many PR professionals think about social and are gradually evolving how they service customers. The advertising industry which has always held “creative” in high regard no longer sees social, digital or mobile as add ons but rather core to their business. They are bent on not just talking about the digital world but rather they want to help build it—and they also understand how to leverage creative communication to get people’s attention. The partners who handle media transactions do so in bulk, but increasingly it will need to be done in real time. In short, it is the marketing and communications industry that is being disrupted and for those of us on the “PR” side—we must act quickly and decisively to re-invent ourselves in a way that looks more like the future and less like the past.

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