Interview with PR expert Deirdre Breakenridge

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Deirdre Breakenridge talk about the future of public relations, and was quite impressed. The co-author of the book Putting the Public back in Public Relations, she’s smart, accessible and has a great, pragmatic view of social media, marketing, customer service and public relations. I asked her if she’d mind answering a few of my questions and, well, she’s a writer, so we’ve ended up with a nice novella. Please enjoy, and if you have further questions for Deirdre, please feel free to post them in the comments. — Dave
Discuss your background and professional experiences.
deirdre breakenridgeI’ve been in public relations and marketing for over 21 years. I knew in college that I wanted to practice PR and started my career at an agency in New York City after interning there for two summers in row. My background has mostly been small agency PR. When I was running a very small firm for my employer in Northern, NJ, I realized that I could start my own PR/communications company and build a business for myself. I launched the Breakenridge Group with two employees in 1997, while I was still studying to receive my MBA degree.
The Breakenridge Group lasted a little less than a year, when one of my clients, at the time, PFS New Media, asked me if I was interested in becoming a full partner of their agency. They acquired my firm and the rest is history. I’ve practiced so many different kinds of PR over the years, working with brands in healthcare, broadcast electronics, non-profit, HR, technology and telecommunications. I’ve always enjoyed working with different types of brands and organizations both large and small. Every company, no matter its size, has unique challenges.

Today, as a result of my dedication to the field of PR and advancing the industry, I teach at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I’ve been there for about six years as an adjunct professor for their Global Business Management program and I also have several books that I’ve written and published by Financial Times Press. My first book, Cyberbranding came out in the year 2000 and, unfortunately, by the time it hit the market a lot of the content was considered out dated (that’s the pace of change and the Internet). My other three books are still in print and they include: The New PR Toolkit, PR 2.0: New Media, New Tools, New Audiences and my most recent book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, co-authored with Brian Solis.
You’ve been in PR for quite a while, then, tell me a couple of your highlights and perhaps one or two stories that are just too embarrassing to share publicly (I promise I won’t include it in the interview <cough, cough>
I think the highlight of my career has been the speaking to the members of various organizations including PRSA, PRIA, FPRA, NAB, etc., teaching PR and marketing students on the university level and publishing books for the last 10 years. I’ve learned so much over the years from many brilliant PR, marketing and business people who have crossed my path. From listening and experiencing PR through other professionals, I believe it’s my time to “pay it forward” and help my peers and the future leaders of PR to learn how to adapt, adjust and excel in this fast paced world.
As for the stories that are just too embarrassing….I guess I was like every other PR person early in his/her career learning the ins and outs of the business, especially how to build relationships with the media. I remember one situation, within my first year, where I was so nervous on the telephone with a producer of a financial/business program that I forgot my client’s NASDAQ symbol and actually made him wait until I found it. I took my lumps for that incident. There were other instances of not having the right information or just not being prepared enough, even when I thought that I was, and then there was the occasional hang up. It’s actually these types of experiences that make you become more prepared, do more homework, work harder, read more and really excel in the business. PR is perseverance!
Social media will herald the death of PR, what do you think?
I believe that the opposite is true. Social media is propelling the field of PR into new and exciting territory. When I hear people at conferences or on blogs say that PR is dead, I don’t think they understand the true purpose of PR or its value. PR has always been used to strategically communicate to an organization’s public(s) and to build relationships with important stakeholders. Unfortunately, many equate PR with media relations, which is only one facet of public relations. So, despite the shifting media landscape, the decline of advertising and the many media outlets that are going under or shifting their business models online, PR is very much alive and well and actually busier than ever. Our roles and responsibilities go so far beyond just working with the media (although we still are) and it’s up to PR professionals to help brands to strategically communicate to groups, especially in the Long Tail of the web, through social media. There’s a lot of work to be done!
You and Brian recently came out with a book about the intersection of PR and social media. Can you tell me a bit about it?
public back in pr coverBrian and I wrote our book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, to help communications professionals understand that there is a new and better approach to public relations in the age of social media. The book discusses how we have to retire certain practices that do not work in today’s web communities, or that simply do not interest consumers we are trying to reach. Broadcast messages are no longer acceptable and businesses must tell a more humanized and customized story (not a one size fits all story in the form of a news release with spin, hype and jargon).
The new approach teaches professionals how to listen and to understand the dynamics of web communities including the culture and the sociology these networks. Today, PR people are learning that a bottom up listening strategy enables a brand to engage in conversations that lead to meaningful relationships, where the brand has the opportunity to become a trusted and/or helpful resource. We no longer have to work through a third party traditional media outlet to tell our brand’s story, instead we can move through bloggers or citizen journalists or even use social media communication to connect directly with customers.
Putting the Public Back in Public Relations reinvents public relations around conversations and engagement with both the traditional and the new influencers. When you put the Public back in PR you are truly able to build strong relationships with the people that matter the most to your brand.
Now share some dirt…what’s Brian like to work with?
There’s really no dirt to share. Brian is an amazing person. We worked exceptionally well together on the book. It’s funny when I think back to the days of chapter writing; we actually never met in person, until after the book was in production. When we finally caught up with each other in New York, at the PRSA 2008 T3 Conference, it was like we were old friends.
Brian and I worked through email, IM, social networking and a few telephone calls. Chapters were passed back and forth and it was an incredibly smooth experience. With Brian, what you see is what you get. He is high energy, driven, and one of the most passionate individuals when it comes to PR 2.0 and social media (although I’m not really sure he ever sleeps). No matter how many books I write, the book with Brian will always stand out in my mind as one of the greatest experiences in my lifetime.
I believe that apps like the FourSquare on the iPhone are the harbinger of the future. What do you think? What’s your vision of marketing and public relations in the next 10 years?
Sometimes it’s difficult to even imagine the future, as the present media landscape feels like it’s morphing every day. Change is the constant. I think that communications professionals will take the role of champions and influencers (less as facilitators and handlers), evolving with the media, getting much more involved and becoming really savvy with new communications tools and resources. The average PR person’s role will blur to include more of the web marketing functions including relationship, viral and web marketing.
As media is increasingly becoming digital and communications professionals are finding the Long Tail of the web, we will all learn to build relationships with a friendlier more personalized experience for the consumer. In addition, the many social networks and individual profiles that we see today will all connect at some point and become one big human network.
PR and marketing people will have to be prepared to promote their brands in new technological environments such launching events in a cloud or in a Google Wave. Although we have to keep up on our technology, one of the most important changes will be to constantly understand the sociology of the web and how people want to connect and interact with one another to build strong relationships in their communities.
We will also see more advances in search in the sense that the Semantic Web or Web 3.0 will be much more intuitive with natural language search and artificial intelligence. The Web will be able to handle sophisticated requests and the search functions will allow us to benefit with targeted and in-depth data, information and knowledge, even more than we have today. There are many exciting changes happening now and will continue to occur every day, as new applications surface and open source takes prominence in advanced web world.
Working on any other books? Don’t you think that books are kind of obsolete?
I’m actually working on the launch of a project, but just not at liberty to give any details right now. I hope that books never become obsolete. I must come from the “old” school where a holding a good book in my hands reminds me of vacation and getting lost in either someone else’s world or my own dreams. I think as consumers we will continue to control any and all shifts in media, and will decide how we want to consume content and in what format.
I have four teenagers at home and you would think that they no longer read books or have an interest in looking at magazines. The opposite is true. They always have a list of books that they want to read, love to go to Barnes & Noble to pick out their books, and the magazines in our house are abundant. With three of the four teens being girls, we have every teen magazine from Teen Vogue and Cosmo Girl to Seventeen and Glamour. The best part about their magazines, they cut them out and tape their favorite stars and on their bedroom walls! Now, this doesn’t mean that they are not glued to their cell phones texting far more than they should be and they’re also on Facebook for too many hours, when you’re wondering if they finished their homework. In my opinion, traditional media is in the hands of the consumer, and I don’t think it will become completely obsolete, at least I hope not in my lifetime.

Great stuff, Deirdre, thanks for sharing all of that with us. I’m still suspicious that there’s dirt on Brian that you didn’t share, but I’ll let you slide on that one. 🙂 If you’d like to learn more about Deirdre, check out her blog here: Dierdre

3 comments on “Interview with PR expert Deirdre Breakenridge

  1. Any thoughts regarding the effect of the economy on PR agencies, and internal PR people? My impression is that Public Relations people in general are the first ones to be cut, and the last ones to be asked back. Is this true? From an economic standpoint, is PR a risky business to get into?

  2. I fully agree with Deirdre with her approach to PR and Social Media. Too often the old approach of targeting everyone with one message does not work any more. the target audience has moved on also, grown up, or at least: grown into the next phase of taking in information. Thanks for the interview, it is enlightening.

  3. I agree here, social media should never stop good PR, but be embraced by it. The benefits to a successful social campaign are huge…
    A good interview

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