SWOT Analysis for the PR Industry

IStock_000005528172XSmallYou’re familiar with the SWOT Analysis?  It’s a way to think about the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of your company or project.  It’s often used in message development as well. 

Given the high-flux state of the Public Relations industry nowadays, I thought it might be wise to do a little self-reflection, SWOT-style.  Please note that in consideration of my readers’ need to “snack” on media, this is not going to be a full-blown analysis.  These are my top-level thoughts only. 

STRENGTHS – PR, done correctly, is custom-built for the Social Media era.  My simplified definition of “PR” would suggest that it’s all about developing relationships that lead to positive, public proclamations by influencers and consumers.  PR is good at telling the truth in a way that is palatable to appropriate audiences. 

Whereas Advertising is about the big interruption, PR is about the gracious reduction:  PR focuses on synthesizing a big message in a way that is both brief and of distinct value to every individual it reaches.

WEAKNESSES – I’ve been talking about this forever, but the single biggest weakness of PR in the Social Media age is related to scale.  As I noted back in June 2006, “[How can] PR practitioners possibly find the time & energy to create, monitor and nurture the hundreds of relationships that might (or might not) aid their clients?”

This is an unyielding structural weakness. No firm can afford to hire enough people to do a diligent job of nurturing relationships with the thousands of content creators whose opinions might impact any one of their scores of clients.  As much as PR agencies invest in training and monitoring and technology and good practices, they will still always be forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to overlook their intermittent foul-ups.

OPPORTUNITIES – Depending on whom you ask, Social Media is either the end of PR or its biggest opportunity.  As an unapologetic optimist, I’m in the latter camp.  For the first time in Marketing’s history, the “sizzle” is less important than the steak.  PR sells steak.  PR not only has a unique opportunity to step into the light and interact directly with consumers, but in so doing is gaining the authority to guide the overall corporate communications approach.

Tactically, PR has an unprecedented chance to lead on the content creation side, as well.  Used to be press kits and releases were the sum of our effort.  Today we can help devise blogging strategy; produce podcasts and vlogs; participate openly via microblogging platforms like Seesmic, Utterz, Twitter, etc.  In addition, in part via its content creation experiences, PR is also gaining a stronger hand in SEO approaches (and we all know Search is king).

Crisis Communications – often regarded as a strength – is also an even bigger opportunity nowadays.  Because the mainstream media now closely monitor the blogosphere, memestorms are fraught with ever more risk – they require rapid response; and PR is adept at planning for crises.  We can pull-the-trigger on a pre-approved response strategy within minutes of identifying the challenge.  

IStock_000005529296XSmallTHREATS – PR’s biggest threat is a lack of adaptation to the big changes wrought by the world’s biggest game of smallball.  The storied firms that deserve much credit for vaulting the PR industry to prominence (and even some respectability) are now scrambling to do adjust to a “new reality” that’s overturned the apple cart in just 2 years’ time. 

Those firms that continue to operate behind closed doors are closed-off to this opportunity.  Those firms that try to falsely exploit this opportunity will be closed off.

Another threat is the perennial question of Measurement.  This is not a threat because PR does not add value; it’s a threat because we (still) do not have a consistent answer as an industry.  (And we probably never will, given the varied objectives of our clients.)

Again, these are just top-level thoughts (here are some more).  What have I missed?

Posted on: June 2, 2008 at 9:12 pm By Todd Defren
18 Responses to “SWOT Analysis for the PR Industry”


  • Sarah Hill says:

    Fantastic post! We’re learning in school about the pro’s & con’s of social media and this post summed it up quite nicely!


  • Ford Kanzler says:

    On the topic of scaling, I suggest that as the shift from traditional to new media occurs, and with it the exciting multiplication of potential dialog opportunities, it will continue being a PR pro’s role to bring sharp focus to the traditional relationship creating effort.

    Technology tools have multiplied potential audience reach. But the number of hours hasn’t. Understanding where limited time should be spent, whether the PR practice is an internal, corporate (single market) or an agency (multi-client, multi-market), is an essential component of the value we can bring.

    “Running off in all directions at once” is becoming an even greater hazard. Being effective in PR has always included focusing on what’s most valuable in the long term, as well as for a particular campaign. Target media selection (whether new or old) is still a key value.

  • Paul McKeon says:

    Todd, just came to your blog following the Twit release post and have to say I agree with you — both on social media being an opportunity for PR people and also that people with a communications background are often better positioned for the change than marketers or advertisers.
    My thinking is that one reason is because our discipline has ALWAYS involved two-way communication, something traditional advertisers and marketers have been insulated from.

  • Cam Beck says:

    I like your take here. Cautious, but unbridled optimism.

  • Kyle says:

    Dave makes a great point about trust, it is certainly something I battle now as an internal player and getting senior management to trust an agency, any agency, in taking on what we all agree is PR’s greatest opportunity, social media.

    Kami, as always, hits the nail on the head…which gets me thinking of a post I wrote about a year ago and brings us full circle to Todd’s overall optimism; there is a purge going on within the agency world and only those that have drastically shifted (yes, I know) will rise to the top or even survive.


  • Kami Huyse says:

    Thanks Todd for extending this conversation, I too love SWOT analysis, but then again I am a geek like that.

    On the issue of scale, I think it is more a weakness for agencies than for internal PRs. Since as agencies we work with a number of clients we have to get up-to-speed on the intricacies of communities that are important to our clients, then we have to move on when the job is over. Of course, we can develop in that area and hopefully win new clients that play in those same communities, thus leveraging our hard gained knowledge.

    However, inside PRs can look at this from a Community Relations perspective and develop relationships over time.

  • Dave Fleet says:

    Hi Todd,

    Great post. I agree with you that social media is an opportunity.

    I also agree with Kyle that PR’s legacy is a significant weakness. Moreover, it’s not just a legacy but an ongoing pattern of negative actions by a small subset of PR practitioners. CBS’ recent article following the launch of Scott McClellan’s book is an example. That causes great trust issues, and social media is all about trust.

    Given that your analysis is focused on social media, I’d add another threat for PR agencies to the mix – other agencies, specifically marketing and web/interactive, moving into the social media space. It’s nothing new, but it’s something to consider given what happened during the last Internet boom.

    Building on Laurent’s point, it occurs to me that PR is progressing in somewhat the same way that manufacturing did over the last century or so – from customization, to mass production, to mass customization. As you say, the problem with social media is the ‘mass’ part of the latter.

    Sorry for the rambling thoughts – hope they make sense!


  • During a symposium at the 25th anniversary reunion of my PR graduating class two years ago — ya, this grizzled old veteran has been at this game that long! — we spent a fair bit of time discussing the implications of a rapidly imploding traditional media market, including concentration of ownership, and the rapidly exploding proliferation of new channels of user-created content.

    Our conclusion, many aspects of which are reflected in your post, Todd, was that we had been taught, fully a quarter century ago, that communications could never be effective if it was practiced as a top-down, unidirectional activity. By definition, effective communications is a conversation with and among stakeholders.

    The sad part of our discussion was that too small a proportion of our profession ever adhered to these principles, and they are the ones now so ill-equipped to respond to this new, customer-driven communications environment.

    BTW: I believe the biggest threat facing the PR industry is its unwillingness to submit to the discipline of measurement.

  • Todd this is a great post – I especially appreciate your statements in the weaknesses section. It will always be a challenge to keep up with every single blogger and online influencer and it’s impossible for a firm to be part of every single conversation. Unfortunately this weakness will cause some PR firms to believe they shouldn’t even try in the first place. The great thing about the new PR and the web is that there are so many opportunities. Sure, you can’t win them all but you can certainly put your best social media foot forward.

  • Leo Bottary says:

    Todd, I think it’s spot on!

  • I completely agree with you that social media is an opportunity. I think that it’s the ultimate opportunity. It gives PR people a chance to form relationships, perhaps in a different way then just media to PR person or PR person to media.

    I have always been told that when making a relationship with someone who can benefit you professionally, its also important to remember that forming relationships is all about making personal connections. I think that social media gives PR people and media people the chance to get to know each other on well, a more social level. It allows people to learn other’s opinions and thoughts on a completely different level than normal.

  • rick murray says:

    Hey Todd,

    This is a great post. Very, very nicely said.


  • Moksh Juneja says:

    love the way – the SWOT is done and compared to social media. By thoughts on the same is that social media is the more personalized and extended approach to PR.

  • laurent says:

    If I can draw an analogy. I used to work in manufacturing a long long time ago. Quality was done by a quality group while other groups were ‘producing’. But manufacturing became more and more complex: More parts, more suppliers, shorter leadtime, higher customer expectations and so on….the network grew more complex. The quality department had to transform and become a coaching/guiding/enabling group specialized in design for quality, statistics, methodology, measurement and so on. Quality became everyone’s responsibilities.
    I could see the same happening here. Front office, back office (engineers read and have blogs), customers, influencers, …it’s all a big open network now and anyone will do some kind of PR as part of their interactions with others. So the role of PR may not be as much to produce content/manage all relationships but to enable company employees with the right skills/tool/stuff to do their own little PR work – and if you do that way, it scales ;-) because it has to scale!!!

  • Kyle says:

    I always loved the SWOT analysis, it is a great way to put pen to paper and come out on the other end with some clarity. One of my first thoughts, among many, is in the weakness category. I think the legacy of PR is a weakness. Not for PR agencies themselves, but for the clients. There is SO much misguided perceptions of what PR is, or was, that ultimately it holds companies off from using their agencies properly.

    I saw it a lot on the agency side, but I see it even now on the ‘other side’. Trying to prove that a PR agency is the right fit for social media often hits a wall based on ancient perceptions.

    On the strength side is the ability for PR to balance a great deal of different tasks and goals…and do it with glorious results! I don’t mean this as contrarian to your comment about scale, I agree on that, this is more about PR’s ability to focus on one tree while standing in the middle of the forest.

    I’m sure I could keep going on…

  • Todd Defren says:

    Agreed, Christopher! I covered that exact issue not too long ago: http://tinyurl.com/27zypw.

  • It’s not just lack of adaptation that’s a threat, it’s a complete change in the methods of communication. PR traditionally communicated to the media, and left talking to customers to customer service. Suddenly, customer service is PR, and PR is customer service, and the PR professional who fails to realize that is dead meat. It also recalls Seth Godin’s comment that you can’t control what the first impression is, as much as PR and marketing would like to. Customers enter web sites through pages so far down inside the site, webmasters have forgotten they exist. They call customer service numbers that have been shared among friends as the inside loop to get help.

    PR needs to recognize that yes, customers are now the media, so media relations means customer service, too.

    I would say that any PR company that doesn’t have at least one of its PR representatives sitting in a client’s call center, working the phones for at least a week, doesn’t get it.

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