6 ways PR was different two decades ago

The author reflects on his 18 years of experience in the public relations field—a career that included fax machines and physical press kids. Remember those?

I turned 40 today and that means I’ve reached a significant milestone in my life: I’m a hell of a long way from when I spent time faxing my press releases.

Eighteen years ago, I was an intern at Dorf & Stanton Communications in New York. That firm hired me as an account coordinator, and I’ve been a PR guy ever since. In my career I’ve held only PR or marketing positions, although I once “double dipped” and sold digital cameras to some big retailers.

I’ve worked on both sides of the agency relationship and never looked back. While I deliberately stayed the course over the years, the PR category changed dramatically over the same period of time. Here are a few of the many ways being a PR guy is different now than it was 18 years ago when I first punched in:

The Internet was, say, rudimentary at best. If you were lucky enough to have Internet access, you needed the patience of a saint for times when web pages would stall when loading. Also, it was crazy heavy with text. There were minimal images and graphics—primarily because website templates were eight or 10 years from commonality—but there was lots and lots of text to read.

Email was comically bad. It existed but was buggier than Lake Winnipesaukee. You would commonly read an email, and never see it again. And that was only the beginning. It was exceptionally unreliable and, without naming names, a number of my clients weren’t comfortable using it. It was really an “internal only” tool and, as a result, I managed a lot of telephone calls with clients and press.

Faxing happened with good regularity. I clearly recall “reserving” time on a row of fax machines at our office and faxing like wild when I had pieces of client news. Amid fax number lists—like contacts lists, but for fax numbers—and fax machines were cover letters. Lots of cover letters. I’m certain the world is an improved place with less fax use.

Voicemail was a way of life.
In fact, Kodak, a major client of mine, had a voicemail system independent of dialing a particular office. You would leave a recorded message that was intended to be picked-up by another party. Mobile connectivity for business was a long way off.

Stuffing press kits was a BIG part of the gig. Especially around trade shows such as Comdex (remember that one?), Toy Fair, or significant client events. I clearly remember stuffing, unstuffing when an error was identified, and then stuffing again. Lots of press kit stuffing, with dividers between the releases, sleeves of slides, and thick spines on the press kit. I think the Kimberly-Clark press kit weighed four pounds—and it was all paper.

One-directional communication. While PR—in contrast to advertising or other disciplines within marketing—has always been about engaging with an audience rather than directly talking to it, the most dramatic change in communications over the length of my career has resulted in companies engaging with their end-audience, directly, through social media. Previously, a wall of third parties (media, analysts) interpreted and translated key messages before moving them forward. However, now the channel exists for more direct client-to-end-audience communication, and that makes our role in the process more valuable. The PR skills we’ve always had for engaging are now enormously beneficial.

Were you working in PR or at a PR agency 18 years ago? What would you add to this list?

Scott Signore is the principal and CEO of Matter Communications, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a firm next week.

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