Must We Be Mad Men?

As part of the continuing series co-written with Steve Farnsworth, Lou Hoffman, and Paul Roberts, I’m tasked with tackling a Big Question about “how communications pros must evolve to stay relevant.”

I wish this were easy to answer.  Social Media turned the world inside out.

Riffing on Monday’s post re: the “creative destruction” of PR, on any given day I might tell you that “to stay relevant” the communications pro might need to acquire the skills of an advertising agency, an interactive shop, a production house, an SEO and analytics consultancy, etc.

For example, NextFifteen is launching a hybrid agency, dubbed Beyond, which according to what they told PRWEEK, “(blends) paid, owned, and earned digital media with technology and ongoing analytics.”

Intriguing.  So was FastCompany’s article on the whizzy production shop, Mekanism, which claims to have cracked the nut on viral marketing (and which is now hiring PR pros).

And on an individual level, it’s hard to deny the rant of Paul Armstrong on “Why PR people are f%cked.“  Armstrong goes on to highlight the incredibly clever and effective video resume of London’s Graeme Anthony.

To do PR, must we turn into Mad Men?

Maybe not.  After all, PR pros are arguably more highly respected than ever before.  The Madison Avenue gang is looking to PR to help them figure out how Social Media has changed the game.

And when I recently met with Lee Odden of TopRank Marketing, one of the leading lights in the Search Engine Optimization industry, he made a strong case that PR’s been missing the boat on SEO opportunities… Lee led me to ponder whether SEO — not creative — was the uncharted territory to which PR pros ought to mosey.

Looking at all this, arguably “to stay relevant,” our evolution must include everything from web development, video production, and art direction (owned media), to SEO, SEM and media planning (paid media) to enhanced targeting and influencer strategies, as well as event planning (earned media).  Oh, and yes, measurement and analytics, too.

Here’s the problem. The answer to “how we evolve” can now take several branching paths.  Each practitioner and agency must now pick a path (or two, or three, but not likely 6!) … and hope that they ultimately chose the right direction, and thrive.

Do you pick a niche and do it well, or do you attempt to master these many trades?  If so, how many?  If you are a corporate marketer, do you decide to seek a partner who blends these many skills, or do you opt for best-of-breed vendors?  It used to be that the “comprehensive” approach lost out to best-of-breed: few ad agencies offered truly great PR, and the reverse situation was unheard of.  But maybe “PR offering Advertising” is not so crazy an idea, anymore?

I left my crystal ball at home today. What do YOU see?  How would you answer these questions?  What have I left out??

Posted on: September 15, 2010 at 9:38 am By Todd Defren
26 Responses to “Must We Be Mad Men?”


  • Erik Deutsch says:

    One of the biggest challenges for PR firms these days is figuring out how to define themselves.

    I read recently that former NBC legal strategist Dan Abrams launched a PR agency that he insists be called a “media strategy firm.” Perhaps Dan and a growing number of PR agency owners think the term “public relations” has somehow become dated (in a fashion similar to the archaic term “press agent”).

    Rather than try to redefine themselves, I’d like to see PR pros boast proudly about their unique capacity to help clients find their voice and tell stories that resonate with target audiences — regardless of the type of media.

    Like Sally mentions in her comment below, I’m also preparing to teach a new course on social media best practices (albeit across town on the UCLA campus). While the class will focus on the latest digital tools and tactics, I won’t let students ignore the other essential skills they need to become PR professionals.


  • paul Roberts says:

    Todd, thanks for your insight and links to some other very interesting resources. I just finished reading the posts by Lou Hoffman and Steve Farnsworth and I can’t help but notice that a common theme seems to be that the industry is changing and converging in a way where it is getting increasingly difficult for an organization to even know where to turn for outside help. Do I need a PR agency and a SEO / digital media agency etc.

    Sometimes I can help but wonder if there will still be stand alone PR agencies 5-10 years from now or if in order to survive they will all need to become communications agencies.

  • Sally Falkow says:

    Excellent points from Lee and Todd

    PR people must expand their skills and SEO is one skill that is often overlooked. I coach PR professionals in new technologies and SEO and analytics do often strike fear in their hearts. But even without learning the 30% technical side of SEO there is a lot you can master.

    Some things do double duty – like learning to write good title and description tags. Not only will they improve your ranking, since they are the headline and blurb the searcher sees, good persuasive copy will also increase your click through rate.

    I’ll be teaching a class at USC Annenberg in the Spring on social media tools for PR and it will certainly include how to optimize content for search.

    If you are not yet optimizing your news releases for search you might find the PRESSfeed toolbar useful. I created it to help PR people with optimization of news content.

  • Renee Malove says:

    Wow. Hmmm. There’s a very diverse set of opinions on this floating around out there. The bottom line is, no one in the marketing industry, from research to advertising to PR, can afford to specialize exclusively anymore. These skills are too tightly integrated. PR professionals need to be able to draft press releases that will be picked up by search engines as well as journalists, because so many people turn to the Internet rather than the daily news for this information. SEO marketers need to have positioning, strategy and advertising skills, or they’re going to be wasting their time. Best in class has definitely been replaced by full package savvy marketers, and while it’s good to find your niche and ride with it if you can’t stretch your wings into other areas you’re going to be left behind.

  • I lean toward where Lee is coming from in that while yes, SEO, SEM and other social/digital analytics components can often be intimidating to PR pros, they really don’t have to be for the very reasons Lee states. And I’d also take it two steps further and put more of a challenge on the PR profession itself to remove some of the mystery behind these analytical aspects of the profession by doing the following:

    1. Let’s encourage our colleagues and new professionals to do what we often do best to get up to speed about SEO/SEM, etc.: RESEARCH. Research. Research. If you or they don’t know it, or think it’s too hard to understand, offer them 3-5 great blog posts (not just blogs, but actual posts on the topics) to read and give them a brief overview of key components to spark their interest.

    2. As a profession, let’s do all do a better job of demystifying SEO/SEM, Google Analytics, etc. Often, when we discuss this with colleagues who maybe aren’t as up to speed as others, we gloss over WHY these digital/social skills really matter to our profession and for client campaigns. I get the feeling that if we stopped talking about this in terms of how revolutionary it is changing the profession, and god forbid if someone doesn’t immediately get on board with it, but rather, we actually put more effort in on helping other understand the importance in the future of our profession, we will have a lot easier time getting outside business audiences to truly understand our value within all spaces (earned, paid & owned) of the media spectrum.


  • Arik Hanson says:

    I tend to agree with Lee. SEO is and can be a huge part of the mix for tomorrow’s PR consultant. It just fits in so naturally with so much of our work now. And, more importantly, as Lee says, it’s hard data (and results). The analytics/data side of online marketing/PR gives us, as PR practitioners, the opportunity to sit at the table we’ve always wanted to, doesn’t it? (Note: Not to be too self-promoting, but Elizabeth Sosnow had a great post about this on my blog earlier this week)

    That said, I don’t see the foundational skills of PR changing anytime soon: strategy and good writing. You lick those two skill sets and you’ll always have a job.


  • Lee Odden says:

    Hey Todd, I think what you’re talking about here is the convergence of disciplines that’s been accelerating as the web and technology become more ubiquitous.

    My take is that if marketers and PR professionals want to survive, let alone thrive, they’ll have to amp skill-sets. And what you can’t do yourself, you partner to achieve. Nothing new about that. Thanks for the mention by the way, it was a pleasure to finally meet IRL.

    My good man Rex, your comments about SEO make me thing you’re a little frustrated and I’m sorry to hear about that. They remind me of that scene in Liar Liar with Jim Carey where he’s trying so hard to tell the truth but simply cannot. It’s misinformation really.

    The SEO industry is essential to Search Engines and to the company websites the engines copy to generate search results. SEO is by far the most measurable investment in terms of specific return on effort and investment a marketer can make. The same cannot always be said for PR. I’ve seen the stacks of reports clients get from PR agencies that offer 99% of activity and about 1% of productivity about placements.

    This isn’t about SEO vs PR though.

    Saying SEO falls within web development is like saying PR falls within telemarketing. Why hire a PR firm when I can just get an offshore call center to spam journalists with unsolicited phone pitches? Then send them a press release and follow up with a phone call 5 min later “to make sure you received it?” Plummeting advertising in media, journalists losing their jobs and the increase in direct to consumer news business basically makes the PR person irrelevant, no?

    Of course not.

    Who will develop messaging strategy, identify influentials and the right media to connect with? Who will come up with compelling story ideas for completely boring products and services (as well as exciting products and services)? Who will understand the specific needs of time and resource strapped journalists and make it easier and convenient for them to write about the companies PR firms represent? Who will orchestrate information flow and facilitate media relationships? On and on, PR and Media Relations add value.

    As for your comments above, SEO is about 30% technical or code related i.e. falling within the realm of web development. 30% is content and the remaining 40% or so is about link acquisition and social signals.

    According to the Forbes Ad Effectiveness study, SEO (part of a legitimate $14 billion SEM industry) is the most effective online marketing tactic for generating conversions. That and more stats here:

    SEO is about as measurable and accountable as you get. Other industries besides online advertising can hardly offer clients actual custom acquisition and revenue ROI. Who in the PR industry uses SEO? Numerous PR firms, all of the news release distribution services and even the industry association, PRSA (our client).

    I shudder to think someone would suggest tossing an old web site in order to avoid paying for SEO advice to make more suited to attract and convert customers.

    For the readers of this blog that are accountable for company or client results, I would look at the realistic picture of how SEO and PR work together to facilitate and even amplify the effectiveness of PR firms before buying in to misinformation.

    • Rex says:

      First of all, Lee, thanks for the civil response.

      A good website takes care of that technical 30%. I assume you don’t disagree here, since your problem seems to be the price. As a cost, both in time and price, rolling a new website is relative. I’ve seen “SEO packages” that would easily buy a new website, sometimes two. Beyond that, I’ve rarely seen a website that was in need of SEO without being in need of other updates as well.

      You start a coal mine by picking coal up off the ground. Search changed remarkably fast with Google in the game. With some older sites, the smallest tweaks (changing the text of an H1, fixing up HTML semantics) could send them up three pages forward in the results if they were in a bad enough state. So yeah, there were great gains. Of course there were.

      The second 30%, content, I can’t really argue with. I can’t fault you if your job is rewriting content. But I’m used to typing up full press releases in an hour; how much content is on these sites? If you’re talking about more advanced techniques like keyword repetition… well, that’s a double-edged sword to me. You make your site better for robots but worse for people. And aren’t people the point?

      At the end of the day, I know some folks are just lost on what to put on their site. If you’re there to help ‘em out, fine. But I’d just hire a copywriter.

      Finally, it’s the last 40% that really bothers me. The link-building. This is the Mt. Sinai feeling, as Lou called it (and Lou, I’m not saying you agree with me on any of this, just using your impression of the SEO gurus). We can go over whitehat/blackhat all day long, so I won’t do that. PR is GREAT at doing this 40% the right way: Getting coverage and setting up a strong social media presence. Building partnerships with other sites is also a smart, honest way to get this done. Past that, I’m drawing a blank on just what you guys do for this 40% that PR doesn’t do. It’s either a delicious secret sauce, complete BS, or blackhat.

      Right now, I’m leaning towards BS. And that’s giving SEO guys a lot more credit than the blackhat option.

      To sum up this ridiculously long comment, I’d hire a copywriter and a PR firm. And if my site was from 2001, I’d go ahead and hire someone to redo that too.

      • Rex,

        “I’d hire a copywriter and a PR firm. And if my site was from 2001, I’d go ahead and hire someone to redo that too”

        Guess what? Do you think it’s purely high quality copy written for the user, mixed with social media outreach and initiatives when it comes to the difference between the top 5 organic results on the first page of Google results and contrastingly only being able to end up on the 2nd page of Google?

        I completely agree with you that high quality copy, and an intelligent PR initiative are critical. Except if you’ve got just one industry, and one niche market within that industry, show me one where there are less than 10 companies competing. Because if you’ve got more than 10, and if all 10 only go with copywriters and PR firms, someone’s gonna end up on that 2nd page.

        Who’s going to? the ones who don’t understand the reality of the approximately 200 signals Google uses to determine placement.

        Let’s talk about the markup and the site structure next. How many developers understand proper UX, let alone how the indexing and subsequent cataloging of information takes place in the Google system? Even if you follow W3C validation 100% across the board, it’s not enough. Topic relationship modeling, user mind models, content taxonomy – these are typically NOT how most web developers think when left to their own devices.

        Where I’m going with this is not that an SEO “guru” is needed. Instead, someone who understands how the Google / bing indexing and result determining process is needed. Either to guide other participants, or to train them. Because, left to their own devices, the vast majority of developers, copywriters, and PR firms do NOT, like it or not, understand the Google / bing factor well enough.

        I don’t run circles around most developers/copywriters / PR firms these days because I’m some “guru” of SEO. It’s because I get what they have not had or been willing to take the time to learn to integrate into their existing knowledge base.

        Maybe one day content cataloging from a search engine mentality will become required learning in your field or that of others in the mix. And if it does, more power to you. Until that day, proper, best practices SEO needs to go hand in hand with every other essential aspect of web development, web design, content development, and online marketing.

  • Rex you obviously don’t do any SEO

    Google has over 200 factors to SEO and backlinks is probably around 80% which has NOTHING to do with building a site.

    Meta tags does not count towards Google rankings….

    I would remove your comment before any people see how little you know about SEO.

    I find it funny that people who don’t even do SEO or who don’t rank for competitive terms think they have SEO figured out.

  • Nothing new here, actually. 35 years ago, in the midst of oil embargoes and gasoline rationing, Mobil Oil’s PR department (and agencies) created “op-ed” ads advocating its positions in a decidedly edgy, unapologetic tone. It underwrote PBS programs as ancillary efforts to its paid-space campaigns. Its PR chief, the legendary Herb Schmertz, was an aggressive, take-no-prisoners activist in all media. Today, he would be a social-media blackbelt to say the least. Advertising and PR have a long history of being allied, complementary crafts. The wiser elements on the client side skillfully orchestrate the duet to everybody’s benefit. Even when it means breaking up fights between the sibling rivals.

  • Rex says:

    SEO is an oasis in the desert. Drink it up and you’ll soon find it was all just hot sand.

    SEO is just a byproduct of good web development. Being the bridge between crappy web development and search engine results is not a role PR should clamber after. If your site sucks, get a new site built. Don’t pay an “SEO expert” to hack away at your copy with keyword groups while filling in a couple meta tags.

    It’s a sad, confused world we live in when SEO “experts” are charging more than legitimate web development firms. I don’t want PR to have any part of that.

    I like Mekanism’s take on it. I like where SHIFT is (and curious to see where they’re going). I definitely think firms should specialize, but in real stuff. Not SEO.

  • Lou Hoffman says:

    Love the line, “To do PR, must we turn into Mad Men?”

    Totally agree with your premise that tomorrow’s PR practitioner must evolve beyond the traditional definition to stay relevant.

    One observation and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and your readers’ thoughts on this one–

    I think areas like SEO, SEM, Google analytics, etc. often strike fear in the hearts of PR professionals as “too technical” and perhaps even intimidating.

    While there is a technical dimension to these areas, they can be learned the old-fashion way; i.e., with study and putting them into practice.

    Take SEO.

    Sure, there’s a fair amount of technical acumen that goes into gaining SEO guru status and the right to descend from Mt. Sinai with answers.

    But PR folks can still achieve a baseline of SEO knowledge that allows for a holistic approach to campaigns.

  • Alex says:

    Great post, I agree that communications practitioners need to branch out in terms of their skill sets and become more familiar with areas including web development, video, SEO, and others you cited rather than just adding social media to their toolbox since they’re all interconnected.

    I tend to lean toward trying to become more multi-faceted in communications rather than specialize in one area since I think it enables individuals as well as agencies to be involved in more business conversations than the Web specialist or the crisis specialist. At the end of the day, having a broader background enables you to offer a more well-rounded strategy. To put it as a basketball analogy, the all-around player is always on the court longer than the three-point specialist or the dedicated rebounder.

    That’s not to take away from the specialist at all though, you definitely need those dedicated resources since they’ll deliver the best website, video, or application; I just think there needs to be more strategists who can offer insight into all areas of the marketing communications strategy rather than one aspect.

  • Liz Wainger says:

    The question on how we evolve as PR folks is THE question. Unforutnately, PR is associated in clients’ minds with media (perceived as dying) relations which is why I don’t use the phrase “PR” to describe what I do as much as I use the broader term communications. Because in the end, what we are trying to do help our clients reach, engage and motivate their target audiences and we do that by talking with them through lots of different avenues. We have to integrate many strategies. We have to stop putting up silos and dividing ourselves into one camp or another. The brave new world in which we find ourselves demands something new–a fusion of advertising, PR, and marketing and that is very different from from what came before. The people who can figure out who to harness the best of the attention and engagement getting tools and strategies we have and who keep innovating with an open mind are the ones who will win.

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