The PR Industry’s Death-Defying Pivot

For 99% of the history of the Public Relations industry, what good PR pros excelled at (and what they were known for) was exploiting SCARCITY.

Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, there were merely a few hundred publications, broadcast outlets and reporters who “counted,” when it came to getting a company’s message out to the masses.  PR was a gatekeeper to those resources.  PR pros could tout genuine relationships with those mass media channels and contacts, and/or could claim the hard-won experience of knowing “what would sell” to them.

With the rise of Social Media, what was scarce is now abundant.

Superman_Clark_KentArguably, too abundant.  For every mainstream news outlet there are a thousand relevant and legitimate news and op-ed blogs. For every mainstream lifestyle publication, there are five-thousand or more relevant and legitimate mom– and dadblogs, design blogs, shopping blogs, etc.  For every mainstream journalist there are thousands upon thousands of relevant and legitimate influencers on Twitter.

The PR industry needed to convince itself and others that the relationship-building expertise (and let’s face it, consummate ass-kissery, when necessary) forged via the 20th century media model was appropriate to the task; that MANAGING ABUNDANCE was no more tricky than LEVERAGING SCARCITY.

Add to this earth-shaking muddle the fact that Social Media also invited Paid Content campaign creators (a.k.a. advertising folks) and Customer Service concerns. Then blend in the prospect of adding workaday employees to the outbound communications duty roster, guided (or not) by newly-drafted “community managers” who might not know a thing about PR (but whose efforts fundamentally impacted PR).

See how hairy this situation got?  It’s still working itself out.  It will take years.

Yet by and large the PR pros I talk to in 2012 are way more enthused, engaged, enlightened and fun than the PR pros I supped with circa 2000.  They have been energized by the challenge; they have risen to it; it is literally revitalizing the industry.  Times are good.

There were those who thought Social Media (and before that, AdWords, if you can believe it) would end this industry.  Those doomsayers were right to suggest that PR needed a wake-up call (and they’d be right even today to suggest “not everyone gets it, yet”).

But it’s gratifying to know, even in these still-early days of transformative change, that PR pros won’t go the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers.


Posted on: March 21, 2012 at 9:01 am By Todd Defren
10 Responses to “The PR Industry’s Death-Defying Pivot”


  • Stephanie says:

    Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. There is an overabundance of thoughts on the internet. Most of these thoughts are from people who are not professionals guided by codes of ethics.
    That is the main problem inherent in social media and the internet in general. It is really hard to tell where a site is getting its information. Finding incorrect information about a product or company and removing it or correcting it will always be a constant battle. For every site that is corrected or removed, three more pop up in its place.
    The information given on social media sites can be harmful in a different way. Social media connects people to friends. People tend to value a friend’s opinion more than a stranger’s. Bad news, even if incorrect, can circulate quickly through a large group of people, and seriously damage the perception of a product or company.
    The worst part is that there is nothing we can do about that kind of information sharing. People are allowed to have their opinions and share them on social media sites. The only thing we can do is try to prevent bad information or experiences from surfacing.

  • Carl Vasquez says:

    It’s more important now than ever for PR practitioners to stay up-to-day and current with technology as well as field and industry innovation and trends. The firms that are willing to adopt to these new changes will succeed, while the ones that don’t will simply parish. It’s a lot like the newspaper print industry. They failed to become early pioneers of the internet and look what happened. If they had done this, perhaps they could have developed some content pricing strategies or developed other potential revenue streams. It is good to see that PR has learned from those mistakes.

  • cher says:

    There isn’t any doubt that social media has changed certain aspects of the PR industry. I wouldn’t say it’s changed our jobs but just the way we approach it. Our goals as practitioners are still to be that link between the public and brand, a company’s moral compass, and to effectively communicate messages. Now we just have new tools that give us the opportunity to reach more in a shorter time. Of course, it comes with its disadvantages relating to negative situations, but if a company is prepared like they should be, they’ll be able to flip the negative publicity on its head. The perfect example is the Domino’s Pizza Turnaround. Social media is always going to be evolving whether we want it to or not. I believe it’s up to us to acquire the skills we need to fully utilize the tools we’ve been given.

  • Laura says:

    While I think that digital communications have certainly changed the Public Relations industry’s landscape, I don’t feel that it is necessary for PR to completely change its basic principles in order to adapt. Public Relations is still about interacting and building relationships with publics (aka people) and it is up to the professional to discern which publics are most relevant at which times. Sometimes it does seem overwhelming to engage with the online community given the sheer volume of users as you mention; however, I think by working at listening to what this community is saying (learning and using their language, so to speak, rather than making assumptions) it should become easier over time to discern what works and what doesn’t in building these relationships.

  • Katie Bishop says:

    This blog is so relevant, especially for me, a soon-to-be PR grad. Becoming a PR professional can be daunting at times, but this blog gave me a hope that our skills and knowledge are still much needed. As a young professional, i consider myself very knowledgeable with social media and it seems this will benefit me when entering into my fist PR job. PR has become very personal, and I think this creates a fun opportunity with new PR professionals.

  • Dee Moore says:

    PR was a gatekeeper. that made me chuckle a little. as a Journalism major the term gatekeeper is often more use to describe a journalist. I want even say what words were use to describe a publicist.

    I feel so much has change in the world of public relations. There are new rules. Often times the relationship between client and publicist look more like a friendship instead of a business relationship.

    Social media has made the job of the pr even harder. there is only so much a publicist can do they can’t control everything their client say or do on theses social networks. Which sometimes leave the publicist running their social media sites. Which is sad because their clients should be mature enough to handling something such a twitter or fb.

    i agree with Geoff livingston that i the larger pr firms has not risen the challenges of the new ways in pr is done.

    But hey it Journalism a while to catch on the many changes so i do expect anything even less of another field.

  • Hi Todd:
    Times are indeed good, but I think there’s way more to PR than managing and buidling influencer relationships – be they scarce or plentiful. PR is becoming more and more about direct to consumer communications and marketing – creating the content (in all its wonderful multimedia, multiplatform forms) and managing the flow, syndication and engagement of that content as it goes through the digital communications ecosystem. PR shops are producing videos, broadcasting “live” web shows, building applications, designing digital properities, managing online communities and fighting advertising agencies on the right to be stewards of the brand. Digital communications has changed everything!

  • I understand where this article is going and as a boutique publicist have focused more of my efforts on gaining e-media notoriety for my clients. Social media is doubling the work the PR industry has to do, but it’s still all about building those key relationships and maintaining a clear sense of self for your clients and your message. Just “selling” any old message to any old publication is not PR, guerrilla pitching isn’t either … Of course there are a lot of bloggers, commentators and home-grown critics, but all of them don’t consider themselves journalist and it’s vital that PR folks don’t confuse them as such also.

  • I don’t think PR firms have risen to the challenge, sorry. I just don’t see it. Spamming the mass is no better than spamming the few.

  • great observation! The question is do relationships made over a bar, circa 1985 for me big guy, still matter in terms of reaching a client’s objectives? My answer, yes, but a little less so. News that gains momentum from social content and its ripple effect may well compete for the attention of those in the old school PR pro’s network. This is why those agencies are gaining billable time creating content that plays in the new and in some cases a compliment to the old timer.

    all the best,

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