The True & Remarkable Fate of Public Relations

IStock_000005355437XSmallAbout a week ago, the famous tech blogger Robert Scoble announced that his family was expecting another joyous care package from the stork.  (Congrats, Robert!)

Shortly thereafter, he tweeted:

“State of marketing on Twitter? FAIL. Not a single company got back when we announced our pregnancy. This is a good thing but won’t last.”

Let’s ignore the weird logic of simultaneously complaining about being ignored while at the same time saying it is “a good thing” that the twitterstream was not polluted with marketers. (If P&G had quickly tweeted an offer for “free Pampers,” would you have been surprised to see Robert vilify them for cheapening his wholesome family news?)

Let’s focus instead on this possibility: Consumers may increasingly expect that their online ruminations will be monitored and responded to in real-time.

As Robert’s tweet and Jeremiah Owyang’s recent post about “community representation” suggest, the day may be coming when consumers — singly or in ad-hoc special-interest groups (SIGs) — demand instant satisfaction from corporations.

This represents a monstrous scalability problem as the hordes increasingly move online.  For the firms who figure it out, though, the karmic and revenue benefits could be equally monstrous.

Imagine this scenario:

IStock_000007411590XSmallYou bought a lightweight laptop.  Just 3lbs.!  But the powercord that the manufacturer shipped it with?  It’s another 2lbs.  So much for alleviating your achey shoulder! You blog about it.  You post a Flickr photo of the laptop and cord tipping the bathroom scales at over 5lbs.  You tweet about it.  A handful of your online buddies commiserate.

… And not long after, the manufacturer reaches out to you publicly and offers a lighter-weight powercord if you’ll just ship back the original two-pounder.

That laptop-maker just made a customer for life.  They’ve birthed a new evangelist who will sing their praises online; who will defend the manufacturer from other consumers who complain.

Now imagine you arrive at the airport only to find that the flight’s just been delayed by three hours!  You’re peeved.  You tweet about it.  Suddenly you get a tweet from a rival airline: they’re taking off for your destination in the next terminal, in 90 minutes — and they will save you a seat, including a free upgrade, if you can hustle over there.  Now that’s worth eating the change fee!  And, again: a new fan-for-life is born.

This is the new, hybridized service/marketing dynamic that ComcastCares and RichardatDELL are striving to achieve.  As such examples become less hypothetical, we’ll pity and hiss at the companies that DON’T listen and respond in real-time.

PR does have a role in this new world order.  Though, unlike Jeremiah Owyang, I don’t foresee SIGs banding together to pay PR to intermediate with brands (the brands are better off treating directly with the communities).

IStock_000008373355XSmallHowever, I do see PR sometimes serving as a stopgap between Corporation and Consumer: PR already does a ton of monitoring and analysis of both media and socialstreams.  We can vet the issues; alert clients to rising customer angst; analyze which users need to be ushered into the red-carpet service channel; defend against frustrated claimants; etc.

Isn’t this the business of Customer Service?  Not marketing or PR?

That’s more debatable than you might think, in a world in which every consumer is becoming a standalone media outlet, indexed by Google.

The stakes are too high to allow direct public interaction with online consumers to outsourced foreign workers or underpaid college kids.  PR becomes the middleman — escorting the disgruntled to the right Customer Service resource and soothing the crowds at the gate in the meantime.

(Not to mention getting hits in the mainstream media, and all that traditional stuff.  We’ll be busy.)

I can tell you that this future is coming because I’ve seen it happening with our own clients.  Not necessarily every day, but such services are on the rise, almost by necessity.  Pissy tweets must not languish unanswered.  Not anymore.

Is that the future you saw for yourself when you joined the PR industry?  Probably not.  Is it a role you want?  Is it appropriate?  Do you see an alternative path?

UPDATE: Loic LeMeur also recently wrote about a similar topic.

Posted on: March 30, 2009 at 11:10 am By Todd Defren
92 Responses to “The True & Remarkable Fate of Public Relations”


  • Megan says:

    Upon joining PR you realize you have to carry many hats, and people-leaser has always been one. It is definitely appropriate. PR professionals are tailored in communication delivery, something customer service reps are only rehearsed for. Not to mention the strategy that goes along with many crisis management initiatives and business development opportunities.

  • mitchell says:

    We should look at the future of public relations, as PR people. The idea of people wanting responses in real-time is increasing. In my Ad/PR Research class, we focus on this issue. The question I have been wondering, “Why did Twitter get created?” I thought the use of Twitter was to satisfy the idea of real- time business communication. There is no doubt that the examples of the computer and plane flight are debatable as either customer service or public relations. However, I have found that there is more than one definition for public relations. I have encountered, contain the words: communication with an organization and the public. This article was great. I enjoyed it and really like reading what others think on PR-related topics.

  • Janece Matsko says:

    I’m sure this has probably been mentioned to you before but one company that exemplifies the Social Media Marketing Model better than any other I have seen is USAA. They have done a phenomenal job of having an official presence on all social sites and respond to any negative customer comments quickly. They responded to several angry tweets immediately and turned those negative voices in to life long customers.
    They have a page of links to all of there social efforts at:

  • Josh Rangel says:

    Great post, Todd. As a young PR professional it’s interesting to observe and be a part of an industry that is in the midst of change.

  • Dana Smith says:

    Always thought provoking, Todd. As well as slightly depressing. No, this world is not the one I look forward to engaging in. The death of so many traditional media outlets and the layoffs of my editorial colleagues and friends has saddened me personally and frightened me professionally. For me, PR has always been about the wonderful stories we’ve been able to tell about our clients. It’s also been about the relationships. I guess I better start getting use to these new relationships we’ll be building–mediating?–in the future.

  • matt john says:

    Scoble tried to capiltalize on the birth of his baby (congrats) by trying to get free stuff through Twitter and complaining when he wasn’t approached by anyone?

    I think the sentiment would be cheapened if a company did offer Scoble vouchers. Good for them for being engaged in Twitter but I’d look more closely at their reasoning. Most of us would know that they are only trying to leverage his massive social network to their benefit. Wouldn’t that encourage those with large social networks to complain about service or products, subliminally asking for handouts more often?

    Seems pretty disingenuous to me.

  • Lisa Cruz says:

    I couldn’t help but think of this story that ran in the New York Times about Spirit Airlines approach to customer service.

    As PR professionals, it’s very important to think big picture and how all of the pieces fit together and customer service is a huge component of an agency’s communications efforts.

    Thanks for making me pause and do some thinking this morning about your post!

  • Peggy Dolane says:

    Excellent job at looking into the crystal ball and pulling out clarity and insight. Love how you not only look at what the future of the public relations profession might look like, but you’ve also given inspiration about how we might shape our future roles as guides and advisers to our clients.

    We must keep in mind that while every consumer is becoming a standalone media outlet, indexed by Google, the influence of these people may not be truly reflected in the volume of their output.

    Take the increasing anti-ADHD drug chant debate going on in such public forums as the Washington Post. You’d think that everyone who gives their kids ADHD meds were being hornswaggled into it. Yet a recent poll (albeit small and unscientific) I ran recently showed that 70% of parents of ADHD children use drugs with reluctance or because they work as nothing else has.

    I see plenty of PR professionals spouting off about Twitter without using much at all themselves. And there is more than a few of us that still “just don’t get it.” As PR professionals we must stay on top of emerging communications platforms, such as Twitter, by being avid and active users. Twitter is just the stepping stone to the next thing. You’ll miss it if you aren’t on board for the ride.

  • Todd, thanks for the thought provoking post. While I see large brands, like Comcast and Dell, using this new model to reach out to customers, I think it presents an even larger opportunity for small companies that don’t have dedicated customer service (or large customer service depts), but rather have the whole company – including PR – engaged in this important role (and where even just one disgruntled or one happy customer can truly make a difference to the success of the company).

    As far as what I envisioned doing when I entered the industry 15+ years ago – honestly, while I couldn’t envision the tools, I did have lofty ideals about engaging with (my client’s) key audiences on a daily basis so this model is actually closer to my original intentions. As one of the previous posters mentioned, it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks though – we try daily to get our clients to understand the sniper vs. shotgun approach. It’s an uphill battle, but some of them are starting to get it.


  • Great post. I’ve been tossing this topic over in my mind and advising clients a bit less eloquently than you write here, that at some point in the near future Twitter will be a customer service app. That is, a customer will merely tweet her complaint (not necessarily directed @ the company) and expect a response.

  • Nick Vehr says:

    Very challenging post. Good PR that is not sustainable with good customer service will become bad PR. Outstanding and instantaneous consumer response may turn good customers into advocates, but if it isn’t repeatable and scalable it will be bad for business. It will be fascinating to see if customer service in a Twitter world results in dramatically changed business models. Another example of how technological change drives business innovations. Thanks for making my head hurt this morning.

  • Julie Wright says:

    Love the post, as always, but double-love the Chat Catcher. Very cool.

  • Christa says:

    Great, great piece, Todd. I couldn’t agree more. We’re transitioning from a shotgun message to a sniper-rifle approach. I’ve been doing this sort of one-on-one outreach for one of my clients (mostly via TwitteR), and I think it really makes a difference. People appreciate that someone is listening – after all, if we want them to listen to us, we must first listen to them. It’s difficult teaching old dogs the new tricks, though.

  • KateNonymous says:

    “And not long after, the manufacturer reaches out to you publicly and offers a lighter-weight powercord if you’ll just ship back the original two-pounder.

    That laptop-maker just made a customer for life.”

    Not quite. They’d probably have made a customer for life if they told me privately that I could keep the heavy power cord as a backup. Instead, in your scenario, I’m incurring the cost of shipping the power cord. That’s not going to endear me to the company when online merchants like Zappos have set a different standard.

  • Ryan Miller says:

    Great Post Todd.

    You laid out some great examples of how brands can make or break evangelists for their products / services.

    As more and more brands get online, and as more people start Tweeting about them while expecting a response or restitution – will there be some sort of threshold developed as to when it becomes ‘worth it’ for a brand to respond?

    I wonder if there will be certain criteria for a freebie or response as people start to expect one. Do I need to have a certain number of readers or twitter followers that I can tell which will spread that message. Its like the web 2.0 equivalent of ratings….

    I could (and hope) I’m wrong, but its going to be interesting to see how this kind of interaction scales…


  • Kami Huyse says:

    Back in the day, when I first started blogging in 2005, I though that the role of PR could be as a type of ombudsman, pleading the case of the customer to the management. Now that has morphed into the customer service bridging model that you describe above. I am working with a number of clients, including Network Solutions, that are doing just that. PR serves as an adviser. I am also working with clients that are empowering the front line of employees to respond directly when they see something in the social nets.

    My concern has been that the social networks become the only way that you can get satisfaction. Companies still need to work on making all of their customer service world class and the social networking aspect of that should be an extension of an overall customer-centric approach.

  • I’m going to disagree–slightly–on the ‘woe be to thee who ignore the pissy tweet.’ Having worked in customer service, I can tell you unequivocally that there are two types of annoyed customers: those who have a right to be annoyed, and those for whom being annoyed is their latent state. I don’t think it’s reasonable, or necessary, for a company to chase every negative mention. I call it “chasing every rabbit,” and it’s a good way to completely waste time and run in circles with some people.

    The scalability issue is nothing to sneeze at–when Dell and Comcast started making waves with their efforts in this area, I pointed out that they had just elevated customer service from entry-level to C-suite, because of the very wide range of complaints that come in need to be matched with someone who knows almost every aspect of the business in order to know where to direct the customer (or solve the problem). We all despise phone trees, but they are there to direct people with problems to those who are best equipped to solve them (allegedly).

    I truly believe that PR has a place in this mix, but like everything else, this role should be thought through and make sense from the larger perspective of the client’s communications goals.

    Also, on a purely personal note, I truly dislike seeing tweets from people who simply don’t want to go through the established customer service channels companies have set up–it seems very lazy to me for someone to tweet a complaint if they haven’t even tried the 1-800 number yet; and yes, I have seen this! Give the company a chance to make things right, at least. If it doesn’t work, then go the public forum route.

  • Picking up on Susan’s point about cross-functions – if we were to design a company today, would it have 3 silos? (Marketing, PR, and Customer Service).

    Maybe we should play musical chairs – if PR is the new customer service, then is customer service the new marketing, and marketing the new PR?

    Customer service probably talks with more customers than marketing.

    Marketing probably knows how to reach specific consumers through behavioral targeting than PR. (not with ads)

    PR probably can get things done across the organization quicker than customer service.

  • The really interesting questions are where are those filters and who should monitor them? Brands continue to get demonized when they invite others to help them in social media monitoring, and yet customers get angry when they don’t do it right. Great read.

  • guy stephens says:

    Really interesting post and picks up on what I see as the underlying value of twitter – real time. The ability to communicate with customers, general public there and then. I use twitter every day (@guy1067) in my work at Carphone Warehouse to provide customer service to our customers who have problems with the service we have provided them, or to provide relevant tips or links to members of the public.

    There are lots of negative tweets and I actively try to embrace these, as I see them as customers providing honest feedback about something we are not doing right. The by product of all of this interaction with customers is PR, both positive and negative. I do not actively set out to seek opportunities for PR, they present themselves as soon as I choose to respond to a tweet.

    I do think we are only just starting to scratch the surface of the potential of what the concept of twitter or even twitter as a platform can give to us.

  • Perhaps it’s just me but if I saw that Pampers had sent Robert some diapers when they wouldn’t do that for any other new parents on Twitter, I’d think they were pandering to his internet celebrity/ego and I’d think less of them.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Yes, but that’s NOW. I am suggesting that, in the future, ANY consumer might get some kind of deal/discount/freebie!

      • But should they? Just because you have a kid and announce it on Twitter, a company should give you free stuff? I think that’s a slippery slope to walk and will just create even more entitlement in this country.

        I feel like an old curmudgeon sometimes, but I really think people have come to expect getting something for nothing and this notion just plays into that.

  • I agree – the risks are too great to not have an agency or in-house oversight and/or a highly skilled and trained communications-customer service dept.

    However, I wonder – how are brands going to pay for this? Where will the marketing dollars come from? Perhaps a reallocation of ad dolllars…

    I think this role will ultimately go towards a new niche PR sector, much like employee relations or grassroots/WOM firms.

    • Todd Defren says:

      As I noted, yea, it’s a monster scale issue. Some combination of internal/external/cust-svc/pr will likely emerge. Coordination will be key, and I see PR on the frontlines of THAT initiative.

  • Wow, so all irritated customers will need to do is tweet or blog their annoyance and poof! Wow, companies are going to need whole depts just to monitor twitter and blogs for these complaints!

  • Jon Clements says:

    It’s happening already for us. I blogged about our experience recently with a furious client customer on Twitter (who was also a journalist/blogger with national newspaper connections – so doubling the potential impact). We were there and able to engage, so creating a happy customer, a visible thumbs up on Twitter and a subsequent blog post praising the client’s willingness to interact. Here’s the story:

  • My presentation at the Business of Community Networking conference in Boston last Thurs. touched on many of the same themes.

    Companies have to bridge the artificial divide between marketing and customer service — for example cross functional teams so the functional organizations are better informed of the other’s social media plans/responses. We divide the functions from perceived organizational imperative, but the customer sees one product.

    We don’t want her to have one experience before the sale and a completely different one afterward. And not just whether it is “good” or “bad” A huge social media presence in the marketing process, but the only was to reach customer service is the phone or maybe email is just as much of a disconnect.

  • Katie Adams says:

    I think it’s an intriguing question. It does point to the necessity of creating more cohesion between companies’ PR & customer service & marketing departments – without each understanding the others’ role in working directly with the public (whether through call centers, retail shops or the blogosphere) it can become unnecessarily confusing and create unproductive division between departments.

    I have always maintained that there is (or should be) an important distinction between public relations and media relations efforts. Everyone who works for a company is involved in that company’s public relations – their actions or inactions make an impression (favorable and profitable or unfavorable and unprofitable) on the people whom it tries to capture as customers. I think if media professionals do a good job of maintaining credible relationships with reporters, bloggers, etc. AND if they can demonstrate the value those relationships bring to overall public relations’ efforts the time spent will be more valued by leadership within an organization and more appropriately resourced.

  • David Mullen says:

    Todd – very interesting read. Here’s the weird thing for me, though. I agree wholeheartedly, yet don’t know how I feel about it.

    I’ll try to explain…

    I agree that this will be a necessary but difficult area to navigate moving forward. It’s interesting that Scoble expected free stuff at the mere mention of a need and I fear this mentality will spread to a point where we all feel entitled to whatever free goodies we want just because we dropped a tweet or updated our Facebook status.

    That said, I agree that companies who can take advantage of some of these opportunities will benefit. I’ve already told several non-Twitter friends about what Rockport did for @unmarketing and how @unmarketing is singing the companies praises across several social outlets. That’s a very good thing.

    And, I agree that you can’t outsource this to a foreign country or underpaid, couldn’t-care-less college kids.

    So here’s where I’m not sure how I feel about it. It seems like a glorified customer service role to me, however important. Many PR pros get into the business because they want to be strategic communicators. While meeting these opportunities would be strategically thought out and planned, those executing against it are really just glorified customer service folks.

    I speak from offline experience. My name was the only actual human being’s name on the web site for a former client – a Fortune 500 company. I got a decent share of calls from customers who wanted to talk to a PERSON. I spent about 15%-20% of my time getting these calls, funneling them to contacts, etc. While it was an important function, it was what I liked least about the job because it really disrupted forward progress on larger, more strategic initiatives at times.

    Maybe the answer lies in this being part of the community builder’s role – a la Amber Naslund and others – and more companies setting aside money and resources to create that position within the organization. Because it IS important. I mean, I’m an advocate for calling PR “people relations” because it’s becoming less focused on “publics” and more focused on “people.”

    At the same time, though, I don’t know that I’d be excited about spending 20%, 50% or 100% of my time executing it tactically. Maybe I’m looking at it too individually, though. I wouldn’t be excited about spending my time doing the very important job of financial communications, either, so I don’t do that. People who are passionate about it do. This will probably be the same way.

    • TDefren says:

      “I don’t know that I’d be excited about spending 20%, 50% or 100% of my time executing it tactically.”

      Few people WOULD be excited by that prospect, David. A senior-level PR pro would be wasted on this assignment. This could be one part of a junior PR person’s role … but JUST ONE PART (i.e., it will be spread out amongst many colleagues), *and* they would need to be highly trained in advance.

  • C.C. Chapman says:

    As usual Todd, you are making sure to raise issues that far to many are ignoring and doing so in a fashion that any brand can understand.

    I’ve been through this personally with a brand and I can safely say it DOES work. While you won’t be able to always fix the problem, most consumers when they do throw something out like this just want to be heard and listened to. At a minimum you must do this and let the person know you are listening.

    Brands saying they “don’t have time” isn’t something they can say right now. Customer Service is more critical today then ever and as the economy continues down the path it is on right now and people are even more cautious about where they spend their money they are going to spending it with people and companies they trust and build a relationship with. NOW is the time to do this or your competition will do it for you.

  • Ann Douglas says:

    Your post makes a lot of excellent points that go above and beyond PR and touch upon Twitter etiquette, pitching vs. spamming, and knowing where and how to draw that line.

    I’m a pregnancy book author and I’ve only once sent a copy of one of my pregnancy books to a pregnant celebrity. It was someone to whom I felt a personal connection. (I’m a major fan of that person and had been for years before she announced her pregnancy. That gift was a gift from the heart.)

    It wouldn’t seem genuine for me to send a copy of my book to Robert (even though I follow him). He might feel like I’d be asking him for an endorsement down the road; and I’d feel like I’d be intruding on a private event in his life. This is because, at this point, I’m *just* following Robert. We haven’t had the opportunity to build up a rapport. In fact, he hasn’t got a clue who I am.

    I think that Twitter works because its based on relationship-building and an understanding that people want to get to know other people, not hear endless product pitches.

    If people start using it as the opportunity to toss products at someone based on the content of their tweets, people will stop tweeting. Or they’ll have to block even more people (those who don’t understand the difference between tweeting and spamming).

  • shana ray says:

    Article on the fate of Public Relations. Is response via Social Networks up to Customer Service or PR people?

  • Jen Wilbur says:

    PR is part of customer service now, if you’re doing it right. In my two corporate PR gigs, the PR team was closely involved in customer service. Not just when a customer was a member of the press, either. If we heard a customer that wasn’t happy, you never heard, “let customer service deal with it.”

    And yes, as customers can be more vocal easier and via other channels than their local consumer affairs reporter, that responsibility grows for us.

    • Colleen Gatlin says:

      I concur…it is something that I’ve learned and embraced in my own communications role, but also see it throughout many roles and groups in the organization. It’s not going away, so understand it and learn how/when/where it can be so valuable.

  • Great post Todd.
    We have been encouraging PR pros to put a stake in the ground with their clients as brand champions among consumers and media alike. Now is the time for PR to take a bigger piece of the marketing pie away from traditional advertising agencies. Branding is as much about outreach and engagement as it is about marketing speak and flashy ads.

    On a side note re Scoble – I tweeted when we found out we were having a boy, and when our son was born just 3 weeks ago. Companies on Twitter sent my wife some Outdoor Clothing designed for expecting mothers, a book about traveling with kids, as well as a handful of great resources and websites. Why? Because most of my followers are PR pros. This is indeed a branding opportunity fostered by PR.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Exactly. It need not ALL be about “disgruntled” consumers; PR will do EVEN BETTER as we help companies REWARD and SURPRISE consumers who might have a relevant interest in their brands.

  • Peter Kim says:

    Just as a parent doesn’t react to every single demand of a child, brands shouldn’t feel compelled to jump at every negative opinion. We need filters and aggregation.

    I wrote that report that Jeremiah references about a year ago with Mary Beth Kemp. We included a timeline of how this would play out from 2008 – 2013 that looks like it could still hold true.

    • TDefren says:

      Agreed, Peter – and I am arguing, in part, that PR can be that filter/aggregator.

      Feel free to send me a free copy of that report. I won’t tell anybody. ;)

  • To use a sports comparison, the manager of a big soccer club in Europe no longer deals with tactics and formations as much as massaging egos of superstars and working with the media to combat the latest rumors of their demise.

    It is was it is. I’ve learned this myself from “being a brand” on Twitter and encountering the situations you used as examples above. It works both ways, good and bad.


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