PR must reinvent itself to survive the media disruption

The public relations field once stood as a leading pioneer in the social space. That positioned is in jeopardy, unless the industry can embrace the following skills.


I didn’t pick PR—PR picked me.

My career path has followed a distinct pattern in that I’ve always been drawn to industries in the midst of change and disruption.

I landed my first job as a graphic designer at a company that was overhauling how it produced marketing materials (migrating from traditional tools to digital). It was a huge change and those who were resistant to converting their skills to digital desktop publishing faced early retirement.

Next, I spent an intense year working at Fox News Channel, helping launch the 24-hour cable news network. Fast forward more than 15 years and that network is thriving, having tapped consumer demand in cable news and niche media coverage.

I’ve worked at the Chicago Tribune in digital news media and witnessed first hand the differences in how the “digital” team and the veteran employees viewed their work. I spent nearly six years working for one of the original digital agencies—agency.com—that was expected to transform the agency space. It doesn’t exist anymore. Corporate entities have swallowed up the remains.

It was at the tail end of my experience at agency.com that I discovered “social,” first through the blogosphere and then Twitter and Facebook. I did stints at other digital firms and even a start up, hoping these organizations would lead the way to a more connected form of digital communications.

Eventually, in 2009, I found a home with Edelman because it seemed the culture prioritized and valued everything that was changing because of the emergence and disruptive nature of social media. Back then, it was the PR firms that seemed to understand best what was changing. Today, it’s not the same story.

Search, social, and mobile are the three most disruptive forces in modern communications, and they are working together to wreak havoc on organizations and their agency partners.

I work for a public relations firm, so I feel a sense of urgency to start here and lay out what must evolve. The people we want to reach move effortlessly across a media landscape about which they rarely make distinctions. Increasingly, they spend time on mobile devices, skimming content in “streams or feeds.” The average consumer of media has the attention span of a squirrel on Ritalin. Getting them to pause to read anything more than paragraph is becoming increasingly difficult. The media industry has been disrupted and as a result, public relations is an industry in the midst of change.

Here are a few areas PR must embrace aggressively and do differently:

Creative

Most PR firms will say they have creative talent, but we have to ask ourselves if it’s the right creative talent. Can we produce apps that live in Facebook or mobile? Are we working on the next Nike Fuel or are we in position to just do the media outreach for it?

My most recent hire is a digital veteran who has spent most of his career at advertising and digital agencies. We aren’t going to just get people talking about things—we are going to create the things they talk about.

Analytics

Analytics in public relations has to move beyond just counting “placements” similar to the act of pulling together traditional media clippings. Analytics in public relations has to integrate with the other measurement functions of an organization (like connecting earned to owned properties).

It also needs to go beyond measuring and move into data collection and analysis. And analysis needs to evolve beyond merely analyzing into deriving core insights to inform decisions such as how to spend media dollars and what the tone of messages should be. I’m currently hiring a senior analytics lead for my team and I describe the ideal candidate as part measurement wonk and part digital planner.

Converged Media

Public relations was built on the notion of “earned media,” which differentiated it from advertising. Today, it’s all just content—part of the daily deluge of content.

Google began infusing ways to “pay” to help raise visibility with the search engine. Facebook introduced to the mainstream a convergence of media through things such as the promoted post. And the media itself is offering more ways than ever to make advertising feel like it’s a part of the editorial universe. This convergence defies traditional advertising, marketing, and public relations constructs—yet poses great opportunity for any of the disciplines that are nimble enough to master it.

This brings us to today and tomorrow. Here’s what I am seeing in the industry: PR got a head start on social but it’s been rapidly eroding. Companies that value customer service have moved beyond the ways many PR professionals think about social and are gradually evolving how they serve customers.

The advertising industry, which has always held “creative” in high regard no longer, sees social, digital, or mobile not as add-ons, but as core to their business. They are bent on not just talking about the digital world, but helping build it—and they also understand how to leverage creative communication to get people’s attention.

The partners who handle media transactions do so in bulk, but increasingly it will need to be done in real time. In short, it is the marketing and communications industry that is being disrupted. For those of us on the PR side, we must act quickly and decisively to re-invent ourselves in a way that looks more like the future and less like the past.

David Armano is managing director of Edelman Digital Chicago. A version of this story first appeared on his blog Logic + Emotion.

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