After careful consideration, I still think PR is Dead

After my well-received Business Blogging 101 workshop at the Blog Business Summit in San Francisco last week, my strong exhortation to the audience that PR is Dead was the buzz of the Summit. Even publications like the San Jose Mercury News and InfoWorld were talking about it, even though I’m certainly not the first to propose that the traditional job of public relations has been supplanted by the blogosphere.
The most interesting discussion I had on the topic, however, was with Doug Free, Group PR Manager for Microsoft and Lynann Bradbury, Senior VP of Microsoft’s PR agency Waggener Edstrom. To set the scene, Lynann greeted me with “Hi. I’m not dead yet!”
But as we talked about the impact of blogging and, more generally, findability and the online world on traditional public relations, something became very, very clear…

What we agreed upon is that there are two types of public relations firms and that any informed public debate about the impact of the blogosphere and Internet on the profession of public relations must take these into account.
Large companies like Waggener Edstrom offer companies counsel on how to present themselves and their message to the public and their market segment. They are truly focused on, quite literally, public relations. But they’re in the minority.
I contend that there are in fact a significant number of so-called PR Agencies who believe – and their clients believe too – that PR stands for press release. Poll a dozen businesspeople about what their PR Agency does for them over and above managing and issuing press releases and too many of them will say “uh, nothing, actually.”
From personal experience, I’ve been involved with a number of companies where the executive team issues an edict that states the company will issue a press release every two weeks and then it’s up to the PR Agency or PR department to figure out what the release needs to say.
It’s primarily that type of PR that I’m targeting when I say “PR is Dead”, because frankly that type of PR never worked in the first place. Reporters don’t make story decisions and editors and publishers don’t assign articles based on press releases. Frankly, in my experience in newsrooms, the one place you can guarantee press releases go is straight into the recycle bin.
At the Blog Business Summit it was telling that the PR professionals all came up to me and defended their profession – and reasonably so! – but that the attendees all were delighted that I had come out and publicly stated what they already knew, that the PR that their company does is pointless, ineffective and far more expensive than any value their companies derive from it.
And then there are companies like Wagg-Ed and professional PR teams like Doug’s group at Microsoft. Are they dead too? I don’t think so. At least, not yet.
In fact, one positive outcome of the inevitable death of what I’ll now suggest we call Press Release Agencies is that it will force the shakeup and reinvention of public relations to focus more specifically on the company message, the “story”, if you will, and how to convey it effectively into the public arena, which includes the blogosphere, but is also the mainstream media, influencing thought and opinion leaders, and much more.
But there’s a bit of a dark cloud hanging over true public relations too, because it’s built upon the assumption that the message can be controlled or crafted in the first place. One of the more interesting effects of the rise of bloggers and citizen journalists (and, for that matter, “citizen industry analysts”), is that the message is taking on a life of its own and that it’s more and more frequently getting into the public eye before the company is ready.
In a world where messages are born, evolve and disseminate without controls, it does beg the question of what’s left for a public relations professional. But that’s a question for another article, one that would most usefully begin with a few PR professionals explaining what PR is all about to them and their clients, I think.
Meanwhile, after much thought, I believe that I’ll stick with my original statement: PR is still dead.

26 comments on “After careful consideration, I still think PR is Dead

  1. I’m (partially) a PR guy who was speaking at the conference, and I managed to forgo defending my industry. This debate is as tired as the phrase “[x] is dead”, but here’s my CAN $0.02 on the subject.
    PR is, not surprisingly, about relationships. It’s a specialized form of marketing, where instead of selling to customers, you’re selling to the media (mainstream, blogosphere and whatever else you like). Good PR (or whatever you want to call it), is about building and maintaining those relationships. That rule still applies, despite the exciting disintermediation that’s currently going on.
    The press release is an old-and-busted tool used in those relationships. Like many tools, it’s outliving its usefulness. It’s not dead yet, because occasionally a press release results in a press mention which results in sales for my clients. Money talks, and so we still do press releases.
    If you’ll permit me to cite a client, here’s an interesting example of how this all works. I’ve got a client called QA Labs. We do PR and marketing for them. Part of our marketing was to create and launch QA Podcast, where QA Labs staff interview guest experts about QA-related topics. The goal here was to build relationships with everybody–customers, the media, other experts, the online community, etc.
    What interests me is how this tips the conventional PR-media relationship on its head. We’re, in part, foregoing the media and talking directly to potential customers (a sort of advertorial approach). More interestingly, we’ll invite journalists and bloggers on the show. Instead of company personnel being interviewed by a journalist, the roles will be reversed. This seems exciting to me, and fosters a more level, partnership kind of relationship. It is, I hope, an example of what certain gurus are calling The New PR, but what I’ll refer to as ‘effective marketing’.
    Did we create a press release on QA Podcast? No (though, interestingly, the client went ahead and wrote one of their own to put on their site). Instead, we contacted a bunch of bloggers which QA Labs knew, or had been reading, or discovered through research. We asked them to give it a listen and send us feedback. We’re building relationships. We may do so, but we haven’t contacted any mainstream journalists about it.
    Now, clearly QA Podcast isn’t a world beater. However, if it eventually gets 500 or 1000 subscribers who are software professionals, we’ll consider that a great success. A success achieved through relationships.

  2. Dave,
    In no way shape or form is PR dead. It’s changing, however, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s been taken over by the blogosphere. The blogosphere is as full of hot air as PR folks.
    It helps if PR folks understand the blog world, but it will be some time before blogs are really significant.
    The reality; most businesses haven’t even dipped their toe into the world of blogs. Sure that gives early adopters (like me and you) the ability to make money educating people about blogs.
    Good PR firms provide a very valuable service to their clients. I, for one, appreciate the many things my PR firms have done for me.
    Kindest regards,
    Ken Leebow

  3. Ken, I appreciate your comments, but, tell me, what *does* your PR agency actually do for you? If it’s craft a message and convey it to the media, then I again ask about the reality of messages being born and disseminating before the company or agency are ready to launch them.
    Of course we’re still at the very early stage of blog adoption, but it’s not whether Joe and Jane Everyperson are reading blogs or subscribing to RSS, it’s whether the thought leaders and opinion leaders in the industry are. And as the NY Times explained just a day or two ago, even the most mainstream reporters are now using blogs for research and I know that my presence in MSM has increased by blogging, not by using a PR agency.

  4. Dave, have you actually polled a “dozen business people to find out what their PR agency does for them”. Frankly I’d be amazed if you find ANY that say all their PR agency does is “managing and issuing press releases”. The only scenario where I could even imagine that is if a firm had a specific contract just to do releases, and even then I’d find it surprising they didn’t try to offer other counsel.
    Your comment about Waggener Edstrom and Microsoft PR is woolly. What gives you the idea that they do anything different to anyone else? They don’t. What you describe them doing is exactly what most PR companies do. You’ve defeated your own argument.

  5. Stuart, I’ve talked with upwards of fifty different entrepreneurs and businesspeople about just this topic, and I’ve been talking with businesspeople about public relations, marketing, and market communications for well over a decade. At the Blog Business Summit, at least a dozen different people came up to me after my workshop and told me that I had exactly pegged their PR Agency and the relationship their company has with PR.
    I appreciate that your experience is with more professional PR agencies, but realize that the experience of companies across the marketplace is not great. A lot of businesspeople are perpetually dissatisfied with the cost and results of their PR efforts, and part of what I’m trying to get at here is *why* that disconnect might exist.
    In your response, you are falling into the same error that other respondents have done: You aren’t actually addressing my argument that even the best PR agencies try to control and manage “the message”, but that the message has a life of its own nowadays, leaving PR doing… what?

  6. Well, could it be because the client thinks that PR is nothing more than press releases? Agencies need to push back, and some are afraid to, but too many start-ups think that PR is press releases with no strategy or thinking. Heck, too many established companies think that PR is just press releases, and don’t understand what all of PR is.
    It’s an education process, usually on the client side. To make such a Mailer-esque statement that PR is dead is just pushing the meme of the week, the same post that Alarm:Clock wrote when they said that all start-ups should not use PR.

  7. When I saw the title ‘PR is Dead’, I immediately thought you were talking about Google’s Page Ranking system. I was waiting for their market cap to fall back to Earth.

  8. Dave, With all due respect, anyone that claims anything is dead is oversimplifying their assertion. It’s tired shtick and surprising coming from you.
    You are focused on one tactic within one element of public relations… media relations. If that’s all people are using their agencies for, I feel for all involved. I suspect everyone you spoke with was dealing with press agents and press agencies… companies focused solely on media relations.
    There is a lot more to public relations than dealing with the media. To name a few… internal communications, events, crisis communications and creating an array of content to help raise awareness with target audiences. This is not controlling the message; it’s helping to get it out there in the first place. Most any product needs a package. They’re designed to help the consumer understand what they’re getting in the first place.
    When everyone makes the sensationalist assumption that the public relations industry is here to spin the truth, it is clear to me that the loudest people in my industry are unfortunately the worst examples of how public relations should be conducted.
    The organic anarchy you are proposing as it relates to creating messaging for a company would be fun to watch.
    Blogs are a tool. They do not slice, dice and julienne fries; blogs cannot cure the common cold or clean my oven. They are an impressive tool that several industries need to embrace and understand to be more effective in the future.
    Look back through history and you will see that new technologies do not clobber old ones out of existence. Usually they force the others to adapt and improve.

  9. Dave, thanks for the thoughtful post. I don’t think that PR is dead by any means, but I agree that most PR firms aren’t cutting it online (and not just in the blogosphere).
    As a matter of fact, press releases provide an interesting little example. Many of my clients (we are an online agency) still use conventional PR firms to write and release press releases; however, you would be amazed at how clueless these firms are about getting press releases in front of the right set of eyeballs online. Ask them about online strategy and they will invarably stare blankly and say “our press releases show up on Google and Yahoo News”. Well, duh, yes they do (only because your wire service knows what “RSS” is even if you don’t). But are those releases optimized on keywords and terms that reporters in the client’s space will be searching on AT THE TIME OF THE RELEASE?
    We still have great success with press releases that are 1.) relevant; 2.) visible in the right places online 3.) timed strategically. The fact is that over 90% of journalists search daily (especially in news search and increasingly in blog/rss search engines). Put a relevant press release in front of a journalist that happens to be researching your topic at that moment and you’d be amazed at how effective it can be.
    The issue isn’t the tool, it’s how the tool is used. And this is where I think PR firms are falling short. They just aren’t that savvy about the online space. One of MANY consequences of that failure is that (as you pointed out) they are still working off of a “before the internet” (and especially before blogs)assumption: that we’re still living in a singular world of “one to many” where the message can always be controlled. Many PR professionals just have not embraced the environment like Darren has (loved the example of QA labs).
    One final comment in response to Ken Leebow’s post (“It helps if PR folks understand the blog world, but it will be some time before blogs are really significant.”) Blog readers now make up 30% of the online universe. And Comscore reported last week that the top 400 blogs were visited by 50 million U.S. Internet users in Q1 of 2005. 50 MILLION! Blogs have arrived. The early adopter thing is over.

  10. Dave,for sometime now and on many blogs including Dave Weinberger’s and Naked Conversations we have come across the same flawed thinking as yours. Every geek in the shop is squawking that ‘PR is Dead’. When you scratch the surface you always find that the PR that died was a straw man version of PR (the old ‘not what you do Microsoft but what those other pr types do).
    PR is about communications. As technology has advanced and allowed more opportunities for communication over the last 100 years, PR has blossomed.
    Communication does not kill PR it fuels its growth.
    PR is latching on to blogs etc with some enthusiasm (have a look at global PR blog week 1.0 and 2.0, and Edelman etc) because its a great new business opportunity for us.
    This is a simple point but I have yet to come across many non PR practitioners who seem to get it.

  11. Okay, Trevor, let me understand. I haven’t been disrespectful to your profession, blunt, but not disrespectful. Yet here you are using loaded words like “squawk” to belittle my peers, and are skipping my entire discussion about managing the message inherent in the communications that you yourself admit is the core task of public relations.
    I’ll state my position again: for a lot of business people PR *is* issuing press releases. That’s not the state of the industry, sure, and again, as I’ve said before, the PR professionals who are here, on my blog, adding their comments are clearly at the forefront of the new PR, of understanding that it’s the message, not the medium. But I believe – and folks like Doug Free at Microsoft agree, from our discussion last week – that PR people who understand and *clearly communicate with their clients* that it’s about public relations, not press releases, are in the minority.
    I’m not really saying that all forms of PR are dead. Of course they’re not. But I am convinced that it’s time for PR to be reinvented and for the basic tenet of “creating and managing the client’s message across media” to be re-examined in a world where messages have lives of their own and spread like wildfire in the online world and hence to the thought and opinion leaders, journalists and analysts, along with customers and entire market segments.
    If indeed non-PR practitioners “don’t get it”, don’t you think that it’s pointing to a failure on the part of the PR profession to clearly and accurately convey the full breadth of services that an Agency (or department) can offer in this regard?

  12. Late to the game here but still know what’s happening.
    All of you PR folks who are screaming like stuck pigs about what you do for your clients, riddle me this: billable.
    Explain it. Extrapolate it. Define it.
    You make the majority of your money writing up releases and “following up” with your intended recipients (journalists, in most cases). Yet you preen and moan about PR not being dead, in spite of the fact that a lot of journalists really do despise your “follow up” calls (again – billables, children, billables).
    What are you providing? Your job is to get attention (not necessarily press coverage, but that’s how you yourselves define a lot of your worth). You make massive email lists, blast them to anyone who could possibly, maybe, have an interest in covering the company you represent, and then bug the hell out of folks with the same damn “billable” follow-up calls/emails.
    I really wish I could put my name on this because if I did you’d know just how sad your state of affairs is, business-wise, going forward.
    The world is changing/has changed, and a lot of PR folks are just denying reality and blathering on about your worth to the clients you have.
    Enjoy your money-making while you can, because if you can’t/don’t/won’t adapt and find a new financial model, you’re nothing more than the horse that most people used to ride into work.
    Deal with it.

  13. Dave, any business person who thinks pr is about press releases is wrong. That is the client is wrong not necessarily the pr person. I try to dissuade any client from thinking that pr is just press releases. I do so because I know if we just do press releases then the client inevitably doesn’t get what he wants (a better reputation) and when that happens they blame the pr person (shoulda sent better releases, shoulda sent more releases, shoulda heavied or schmoozed the jouno more). But its a market, some clients tell their agencies ‘we don’t want strategies we just want you to send out a release’ which equals I don’t want to pay for a strategy because I know that pr is just about sending out releases.So some pr people just do what their clients want to pay for and hope for the best. So what? All this stuff just goes with the territory. It doesn’t signal the end of pr as we know it.
    People overrate this message management stuff. We have to get people to focus their comments because we get so few opportunities in the media and because the media distorts (gasp yes folks they do). But we can’t stop the media from writing what they want to write / broadcast and we can’t force the audience to think something or other. Its always been a lot more complex than that. People do talk to each other, even before blogs.
    I don’t mind criticisms of the pr profession, I welcome them. I just wished they were more realistically based.
    As to Mr Anonymous by Necessity, a lecture on how the world is changing. If it really has changed what are you afraid of. I know journos hate follow-up calls because my company surveyed australian journos about it some years ago. But I also know they work. You simply get more coverage when you ring a journalist and pitch the story to them.

  14. Dave, you can’t be more right on the press release issue. Too many businesses — more than anyone thinks, and even including the smart ones — still think PR is about the release.
    I don’t think you’re right that PR is dead. I tell people I counsel that PR isn’t that hard. It’s just relationships with your publics, and the more two-way the street, the better. Tactics abound — blogging, media relations, phone calls, newsletters, 1:1 meetings, you name it — they all add up to relating with your publics so you both can learn. If one tactic isn’t working, shift until you find one that does the job.
    Of course, you have to have something decent to start with. I tell clients if they don’t have something of value, stay the hell away from outbound PR until they get their acts together. Else everyone looks foolish.
    PR isn’t dead. BAD PR is dead, deservedly so. Good PR — actually building relationships with your publics — is alive. It’s only alive in the smartest PR shops and companies, but that’s perfectly OK. I’ll take the smart business over the the moron that calls me looking for “a price quote on a press release.”

  15. PR is no more dead than the good old 12inch record! You are just headline grabbing and as such, part of a PR game too. What blogs do is not kill PR but give the Public an opportunity to put their diverse opinion on record. Unfortunately the blogging masses will seldom be heard, their commentary lost in the babble of background noise. So the astute who need to gain attention will turn to PR tactics to get their blog attention over others; and it will be the same game just a different venue.
    PR is not dead, you are the new PR 🙂

  16. I like a good Irish wake as much as the next PR gal (or guy), but let’s not start pouring the good Scotch just yet.
    As you note, those of us at Waggener Edstrom believe that the blogging and PR worlds can survive well together, especially if they approach each other with integrity, respect and objectivity.
    Bridging the two worlds comes down to three things: establishing mutually-beneficial relationships, fostering meaningful connections, and serving as conduits for transparent conversations

  17. So what do you suggest a small start-up company do to get attention?? Obviously you think that my letters to the business editor of my local publications are going to get thrown in the trash. If PR is about building relationships and influencing opinion leaders, where does one start if it is not through the media?

  18. Hold on, Moira, I didn’t say that you shouldn’t try to communicate with your local business publications. In fact, I think that’s a splendid way to get plugged in and get some visibility in your community. Remember, even if they don’t write about you, a bit of shmoozing with reporters can gain you a coveted spot in their Rolodex as a local expert, and they’ll call you for quotes on other stories instead.
    However, I think it’s important to realize the new reality – in my opinion, at least – that the opinion leaders are now reading online information sources, whether they’re CNET, BusinessWeek’s Blogs or us independent business analysts. To influence opinion leaders, you need to get your message to them, and that’s becoming the task of the online world, not mainstream media. If you don’t want to blog, then at least get involved with other blogs and add comments to start raising your visibility as an expert in your own community.
    Make sense?

  19. To say PR is dead is to say that purposeful communication is dead.
    Dave, with all due respect, the content that makes up your blog is no different then any PR campaign initiated by any company, government or individual. For better and for worse, you have created a forum for passing on and managing a particular world view and relationship with your publics. Every single human being that talks, writes or participates in any form of communication is interested in achieving this same goal.
    As one fairly obvious example, take the disclaimer on your blog’s comment submission form:
    “Because I value your thoughtful opinions, I encourage you to add a comment to this discussion. Don’t be offended if I edit your comments for clarity or to keep out questionable matters, however, and I may even delete off-topic comments.”
    Is this so different from what PR firms do for their clients? On a very base level what a PR firm does is edit a client’s comments for clarity, keep out questionable matters and attempt to delete off-topic comments.
    PR by press release is not a good thing and I think that you’d be hard pressed to find a PR professional of any merit who didn’t believe this. However, press releases will not go away anytime soon and will not die at the hands of blogs, nor will PR. For starters, public companies regulated by the SEC and other outfits are required by law to make certain information “pubic,” a press release is a formulaic and easy way to do this.
    Blogs are to communication what languages, printing presses, telephones, radios, televisions, fax machines, emails, newsgroups, chat rooms and the internets (as W would put it), were before them; another exciting medium for delivering ideas, opinions, rants, and raves.
    In the end, blogs will certainly contribute much to the art of communication and people’s ability to get their message out. But I think that we need to temper the notion that blogs will save the world from “PR”; as another poster so aptly put it, “PR is not dead, you [blogs] are the new PR…”

  20. Dave, yesterday I saw firsthand the differences you outline between traditional press releases and blogs as the blog network I belong to officially launched. We sent out a press release via PR Web, which will generate some attention … but the real buzz will almost certainly come from the blogosphere as we move forward putting out quality content. Thanks for helping me this difference more clearly.

  21. “Reporters don’t make story decisions and editors and publishers don’t assign articles based on press releases. Frankly, in my experience in newsrooms, the one place you can guarantee press releases go is straight into the recycle bin.”
    Ah, ha ha. Such an idealistic view of the world. Reporters and publishers do make decisions based on all sorts of things, like their owner(s)’ biases, press releases, all sorts of crap. If they need to fill column space, they’ll “rewrite” a press release and publish it as an article.
    If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read a music review (albums and now CDs) that pretty much was just the press release that came with it, verbatim, switched around a little, etc. I’d be too rich to be wasting my time reading blogs.
    Is “PR” dead? No, it’s the same ole racket that it has been and always will be. Then again, is the “blogosphere” changing the world? According to bloggers, sure. But did everyone having their own home page change the world? Not really. Is blogging a real medium that will matter in the long term? Or is it just another form of escapism for people who don’t leave the house often enough? Time will tell, but until then, I’m sure PR firms will continue in business just as they have.

  22. I’m late to the game here, but would be remiss if I didn’t chime in. I’m with Connors Communications in New York City, the PR firm that created HitTail as part of acknowledging that PR has already changed. First, there are even bigger splits in PR than discussed here. The Wikipedia page explains it well. But it seems like we’re here to discuss PR as a component of the marketing mix.
    Dave used the term findability early on, and that’s a major part of it. PR in the marketing sense is about motivating influential opinion makers to communicate on your behalf, so you can efficiently reach your audience through trusted sources without paying for expensive advertising. The influencers these days might be bloggers, journalists, and ever-more-often, both. Dave himself provided major coverage for HitTail merely by mentioning us at the Blog Business Summit. There was no press release. There was no pitching of Dave. There was just a product that got his attention, and some back-and-forth communication–some of which took place in blogs and some in email. And yes, there was a press release involved, but I have no idea whether that influenced or reached Dave.
    And finally, those influencers are not always “other” bloggers. Sometimes it’s your own blog or website content, and the influencer is actually the “editorial choices” made by the search engines when you type in a keyword. Yes, Google, Yahoo and MSN are themselves editors and publishers, which we the public relations field should (are) be vying for attention. Therefore, the connection between PR and SEO. I would say in fact that the connection is so firm, that they are one and the same–as is the practice of blogging/communicating effectively online, no matter what the label slapped onto the forum may be (message board, blogs, social networking, etc.)

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