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Can PR evolve quickly enough?


Sounds like a major non-debate has incited a righteous rage in Will McInnes (he of Brighton digital hot shop, Nixon McInnes) on the subject of the PR world's less than rapid rate of change in the face of the media revolution.


Pic: Mr McInnes: *do* make him angry - he gives good rant.

And he's given me some serious food for thought ahead of giving a speech this week at the PR Week Forum. Thanks, Will...

Following an NMK panel session last week with a room brimful of PR professionals, Will's decided to tell the industry a thing or two in a post entitled World has changed: PR agencies haven't

I spoke to a couple of seasoned online-savvy PR bods afterwards, and they didn’t feel they’d learnt anything. Education wasn’t the objective. What we wanted to stimulate was a debate about where PR goes from here – and I particularly wanted to put forward reasonably well-argued challenges only to be smacked down by a room full of vociferous PR people (50 odd people).

It didn’t happen. There was no fight back.

The only responses that had a positive ‘PR’s fine’ outlook, for me, smacked of self-comforting hiding behind the cosy blanked of yesterday:

  • ‘PR’s always evolving’,
  • ‘things haven’t changed that much – clients still want XYZ’,
  • ‘Would HSBC have done their turnaround if the mainstream media hadn’t picked the story up from Facebook?’.

Yada [expletive deletive] yada.

It was the same old same old and frankly it was disappointing. I’d have been ashamed to have heard a similarly spineless defence from the digital community or from the marketing community (the two camps I’m caught between)

Will goes on to mount a point by point critique of what is wrong and why PR is dooooomed...

  1. You are dated and at risk in your current form
  2. You lie about your understanding of and ability to deliver in this new world
  3. Your market is being encroached by the wider agency community
  4. Yet your core abilities are needed now more than ever

I realise I'm quoting very extensively, but this provocative stuff that demands sharing (and a response).

Yes, you're always evolving, and yes, you will eventually, but what about now. You're out of date.

He's right about evolution, y'know. Being part of an evolutionary process, which PR professionals and their models are, since they operate in markets (complex adaptive systems) and are subject to selection, doesn't guarantee (a) progress or (b) avoiding extinction.

I've long said that PR skills are what are required in networks, as Will says in his post. My optimistic hypothesis, and being a PR by trade I'm always going to start with optimism, is that in the great communications shake-up PR should be able to take on a more prominent role in marketing communications.


Pic: Not all evolutionary roads lead to survival... (Credit: Kevitivity)

But that's the upside and theory - here're a couple of slightly glummer than usual thoughts I've been mulling about possible pitfalls for PR, the tar-pits of marketing and media markets in which slow-to-adapt people, companies and industries will find themselves.

  1. Old models are being disrupted everywhere - everyone and everything is on the line. Smart people can move into PR as easily as PR people can move out. The marketing disciplines definitions aren't that useful anymore. The smartest agencies, Edelman and PorterNovelli (if we are to read Mat Morrison's hire there as a strategic commitment to bring stratgic digital thinking into the business- and I doubt he would let them make it anything less) seem to be two of the PR agencies that look most serious about embracing the opportunities that disruption brings. Ach, the point is that it's not the survival of PR that's at stake, it's everything that's at stake.


Pic: Matt Morrison, newly of Porter Novelli... 

2. PR agency models may be less able to assimilate than be be assimilated: One of the curiosities of the PR agency business is that aside from the very largest agencies (and even including a few of them) most are businesses comprised of generalists, with business development, marketing, HR, client management, creative, copywriting, event management, media relations and measurement all done by the same people. I've never met the PR agency that has a project manager or a quality assurance person. This makes it hard to scale these businesses and it also means than they are perhaps less able to bring in new disciplines and approaches than businesses that are structured like, well, businesses.

3. Spin has no place in networks. PR's not all about spin - but some of it is. While listening to what people need and responding quickly to what people need (good PR skills attributes) spin, disingenuousness and messaging legerdemain are more easily exposed.


Pic: Waddington: Keeping it real...

: :  Bonus rumination: Stephen Waddington gives his perspective on his blog. He partly focuses on the need for satisfactory responses to questions like "how do you measure influence". Measurement is a major challenge for everyone online, not just PR.

I refer people interested in taking more than a subjective "it all depends" line on this vital question to the web analytics work of Craig Menzies at Forrester for one. It also nudges forward the real issue for PR peeps when it comes to really getting under the skin of the web and what should really be point...

...4. You need to understand some hard maths. No excuses. When I worked in PR I used to joke that no one ever went into PR because they were good at maths. Bar one or two exceptions, even the most brilliant PR people  looked a bit lost when anyone started talking about numbers. But to get to the core of how media and the web works people will need to get their head round a fair bit of technology, network theory and - most of all - web analytics. Thing is, as I'm learning, is that a lot of web marketers don't fully grasp how to make sense and good use of web analytics.


Pic: Linked - hard maths, but a must-read and must-understand... 

OK, so there's more to go on this topic. I'm not done yet - but this is my blog, my public notebook/testing ground, so I'll share this as is.

I this it all out of love. I didn't *leave* PR when I joined a digital agency, I wanted to see what happened when you mashed up PR and search. I've always regarded it as PR by other means to an extent.

Ultimately, there may not even be a thing called PR, or a thing called marketing (or internal comms, or customer service, or product development). But this is an argument that's worth having, because if there's one thing no one can afford in marketing and media today, it is complacency.


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I'm a PR man. Recently returned to the UK after three years doing volunteer work in Hanoi.

While I was away, because i was working fundraising for a grass roots ngo and I had no budget - we had to be creative in communicating with people.

Sponsors got to see what donations were achieving via flickr, we cut down on our phone bills with skype, my own blog even brought in several thousands dollars worth of donations.

But being out of the UK loop I assumed that everyone was doing this. I thought this was the natural PR evolution.

So when I came back and had my first interview I was amazed at the blank faces when I mentioned Flickr and Felicious, Facebook etc.

I was amazed after my relative successes that people were still more bothered about whether or not I was on first names terms with the business editor for the local rag.

Certainly from my own experiences PRs are making so little progress towards understanding (never mind utlising) all those web 2.0 tools.

Nicely said Mr Mayfield. There may not be a thing....

PR and marketing could be seen as different budgets, different people, different agents, but the work is coming together all nicley ain't it.

Absolutely, Drew - cheers for the comment.

Antony, this is excellent and thank you. It also is timely after Eric Schwartzman’s interview with CIPR Director General Colin Farrington in his On The Record Online podcast. There is a huge body of PR opinion that has not quite grasped what this is all about. They use web applications on their phones, buy online, have a FB account but imagine that online is not pervasive.

Colin puts it well. He records, and seems to believe, that there is an area of PR that is not touched by social media. What he fails to impart is that there is a balance and the scales are fast tipping to the point where traditional PR (press, events, lobby, conference etc) is the optional add on and not the mainstream of relationship building or communication.

The indicators are all there and yet many industry leaders don't see soaring media readership online, fast growing BBC podcast audiences, MySpace and Facebook, views and content contributions, huge paid for online interactive games players and lots more.

The leaders in the PR industry do little service when they fail to even recognise so many signs showing not just change but the magnitude of change.

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