Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself….
Some months ago I wrote a blog on purpose, and the related phenomenon of CEO’s social media presence as public advocates of commitment to purpose. Paul Polman of Unilever and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo are but a few examples. The blog caught the attention of Jo Detavernier, who invited me to write about PR from a purpose perspective. Having witnessed recent PR disasters with questionable ethics as a key ingredient (United Airlines, Wells Fargo, Trump tweets), I sensed the opportunity…
Blessed with a fair amount of ignorance when it comes to PR, and probably burdened by an equal amount of prejudice frequently confirmed by masterful spin-doctor PR role models like Kellyanne Conway, I accepted the invite… In good academic tradition, step one in the process was to conduct research. And where better to start than with the mother of all research engines: Google.
PR disaster is omnipresent
Following my PR disaster lead, I googled “PR Disaster”. Not because of schadenfreude, but simply because failure is the best place to learn. There must have been a few PR mishaps: my 0.62 seconds search yielded 426k results. Of course, the better known ones were listed multiple times. Then I decided to “narrow it down” a bit and googled “President Trump PR Disasters”. If controversy is his objective, it yielded results to be proud of: 791k results in 0.75 seconds. To avoid the semblance of prejudice (which by now I am sure you think I have) I conducted a similar search on President Obama and found 801k results in 0.68 seconds, but he had of course 8 years to work on his results. Conclusion: PR disaster seems omnipresent. Why is this happening, how is it happening, and –most importantly- how is the PR community responding?
In 2012 the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) took it upon itself to create an updated, common and global definition of PR and came up with the following: “Public Relations is a strategic communication process that builds beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics”. With most of this definition being aspirational, the (only) really operative word is communication. And, as it happens, communication finds itself in the middle of unprecedented technology-driven turmoil (the more fashionable term is disruption). Digital and smartphone photography induced massive global do-it-yourself behavior and put many professional photographers out of business, in fact making them obsolete. Likewise, social media is well on its way to completely and radically change how people and organizations communicate. Obsolescence seems like a clear and present danger for PR agencies.Communication finds itself in the middle of unprecedented technology-driven turmoil. Click To Tweet
The decline of PR
There is no shortage of articles, blogs and opinions on social media impact as it affects the PR profession. Some have ominous titles like “The Possible Decline of Public Relations” (Aaron Sarno, 2016), or “Is Public Relations Obsolete” (Mickie Kenny, 2014). Jason Mudd (2014) notes that “The Public Relations Industry ironically has an Identity Crisis itself”. Others acknowledge PR’s social media vulnerability yet see opportunity to come out ahead. Examples include “PR’s Identity Crisis: Where We Went Wrong And How To Rebuild For The Future” (Adriana Stan, 2016), “Social Media an Opportunity and Threat to PR” (Mark Evans, 2010) or a very affirmative Tori Morel-Orchard (2017), who headlines “Traditional PR Will Never Be Obsolete”. However, no matter how much sense of reality these and many other publications appear to display, they ultimately have a surprising element in common: A firm belief in a raison d’être for traditional (shall we call it “retro”) PR, led and controlled by PR professionals and very reluctant recognition of the social media revolution. This belief seems deeply rooted, quite consistent across many publications, and touches levels of denial that could easily imperil the very existence of the PR industry, an industry that is beginning to show signs of structural decline already (2016 Global Communications Report).The PR industry is starting to show signs of structural decline. Click To Tweet
Let me give you some examples of PR’s continued yearning for the past. After setting the stage with the observation that “not everybody uses social media”, a 2017 (PR) blog states the following: “Take business PR for example, some announcements might be suitable for social media but actually it mostly lends itself to the more traditional means of print and online copy in magazines, journals and newspapers.” This penchant for old school print seems pervasive and causes some of its proponents to draw the wrong conclusions from otherwise very interesting research by Neil Turman, PhD. In a study on Journalism in the UK (2017), Turman found that 89% of newspaper reading is still in print, with the average reader spending 40 minutes per day reading the newspapers. He noted that online visitors to apps and websites of the same newspapers would spend an average of only 30 seconds on the newspaper site (I.e. the newspapers that they had already read.). A recent PR blog from a reputable PR agency concluded that readers in general therefore strongly prefer printed information and would only be ready to spend 30 seconds on line, surely not enough to convey an important PR message. In other words, rest assured, this social media thing is probably a fad and (PR agency produced) copy in the printed press will prevail…
The PR industry seems to try to convince itself that PR will never be obsolete. While one can think of many legitimate arguments to support this statement relative to the PR process, the same does not necessarily apply to some PR agencies that may be in for a rude awakening if they fail to recognize the downstream impact of social media. In this context the real question is who practices PR, not whether PR will exist. Low or non-existing thresholds to do-it-yourself (DIY) PR behavior are today’s reality. Politicians increasingly create and market their own brand and directly address their constituents on social media. CEO’s (and an increasing number of employees) do the same while advocating their company’s purpose. Authenticity is critical, and with social media good and bad PR messages are picked up by a broad, global audience within minutes or hours.The PR industry tries to convince itself that PR will never be obsolete. Click To Tweet
Do-it-with-you replaces do-it-yourself
So what’s my point? When studying long term survival, Darwin concluded that it is not the strongest or the biggest that survive… it’s the most adaptable to change. Given reach and speed of social media, and easy access by all both as senders and receivers, it is arguably more important today than ever before that every PR message is well crafted, delivered by the right people at the right time, while leveraging the most effective media. As a consequence, the evolving PR business model and value contribution appear to be well served to adapt, and transition from the traditional do-it-for-you approach to the do-it-with-you approach. Consequently, this drives the need for expert (trail blazing) knowledge of social media, and primary service offerings like educating, guiding and coaching for do-it-yourselfers. Remember that many do-it-yourselfers do it because they (think they) can, not necessarily because they are qualified.
It may take a while and a few more high profile DIY PR mishaps to cool down and possibly reverse the DIY trend. In addition to offering the highest quality content, PR agencies can accelerate this process by fully respecting, recognizing and embracing social media as pre-eminent PR tools. I really don’t think that the (unattributed and overused) Bill Gates quote as wanting to spend his last dollar on PR still holds true, unless he meant that he was going to use it for buying a smart phone.