Danny Brown

PR in the Digital Age: Where Now?

By: Danny Brown | April 30, 2014 | 

PR in the Digital Age: Where Now?By Danny Brown

There’s a lot of talk about where the future of PR lies.

Much like its brethren marketing and, to a degree, advertising, PR is at a crucial juncture.

Where does the industry go to keep evolving?

After all, despite the great work being carried out by forward-thinking professionals in the space, it’s clear the mainstream (you know, the people that really count) still see PR as a shady backwater mud hole – even if out-of-date thinking skews the arguments put forward by those people, and it doesn’t matter if the people who read them don’t see what’s really happening in the PR industry.

So does that mean PR should just skulk away and accept it will never be seen as anything other than a profession full of spin doctors?

Far from it, but there does need to be a continuing adaptation of new thinking, forward thinking, and sheer hard work just to keep beating the new thinking drum until it reverberates in more dusty halls.

Accept the PR Disruptors

One of the accusations often thrown at the PR industry is agencies and professionals are clinging to the belief they should control the message.

From client news to product launches to crisis management, only the most positive and accepting of news outlets should be used and approved.

This approach won’t move the industry forward. Nor will it help to counter the incorrect thinking that this is the norm for the PR industry.

At the same time, companies and agencies afraid of losing control aren’t seeing the bigger picture – you still control the facts.

That cannot be changed.

Whether they’re accepted or not has more to do with your track record in authenticity and openness than it does with the medium on which these facts are being reported.

This is where the Disruptors – those new channels and outlets, such as bloggers, citizen journalists, and influencers – need to be collaborated with as opposed to feared and mistrusted.

It’s not just for promotional use, either.

Much like marketing, PR is often seen as putting out puffed-up information and fluff in order to part customers with their money (or, in the PR industry’s case, separate truth from fact).

Use Disruptors to counter this.

  • Use tools such as TraackrPulse Analytics, and Nimble to connect the dots between your client and those who can influence public perception (positively and negatively).
  • Reach out to third-party Disruptors with no agenda to send them the latest facts and news, and allow them to disseminate as they see fit.
  • Have an accessible area on your site where Disruptors can come of their own free will and access anything they need to create content.
  • Open channels to key personnel for Disruptors to connect with and question.
  • Allow Disruptors to create content based on facts, without dictating how that content must sound, and then share it with critics and supporters alike.

This is a basic set-up, but you start to get the picture on how Disruptors shouldn’t be feared, but accepted and worked with/respected.

Leave the Turf for Your Lawn

One of my biggest pet peeves – and not just with the PR industry – is the turf war mentality that seems to pervade when disciplines clash.

Whether it’s marketing vs. PR, PR vs. advertising, or even PR vs. PR, there’s one thing that rings loud and clear – the turf war benefits no one.

Seriously, does anyone think beating your chest and saying, “We showed them!” makes sense? Who cares? It’s not about you, and never has been – it’s all about the result.

So what if marketing is a better lead for the customer acquisition part of a promotion or campaign?

So what if advertising is a better lead for that native content program?

Who cares if PR is the better lead for the overall strategy and what part needs to be placed where?

While the disciplines may still have core differences, at the end of the day PR, marketing, and advertising have the same basic directive – get the result through allocating the right approach at the right time.

Turf wars are stupid.

They belong in the playground where we have our little imaginary lines and flags to capture – they don’t belong in the modern business world, and anyone who thinks they do needs to have a serious look at how their results are panning out for them.

Integrate and cross-collaborate, people. You know it makes sense.

Forget the Term “Digital”

Perhaps the biggest shift in thinking, though, is around the terminology itself. For some reason, we’ve allowed ourselves to get sucked in by the word “digital.”

  • Digital marketing.
  • Digital consultant.
  • Digital content.
  • Digital agency.
  • Digital ads.
  • Digital PR.

And on, and on, and on.


Why is it so important to make the distinction?

Does the thinking behind a strategy really change?

No – the tactics, and what platforms/channels to use, change. But the overall strategy remains the same – what’s our goal and how are we going to achieve this, and then measure the success?

The thinking the PR industry needs to adapt to the digital landscape is the exact reason it’s struggling with this so-called digital landscape, because, essentially, people do not change.

We’re creatures of habit. It’s why we’ll keep dating the wrong kind of person, or we’ll complain about the same bad menu at our local diner instead of finding another diner.

Consumers are the same (not surprising, given that they’re, you know, people too). While research channels have evolved, the basic questions remain: Can your company meet my needs and are your products reliable? And will I be looked after once I become a customer?

This question is asked in-store; on FAQ reading; on forums; on telemarketing calls; on email; and, yes, on digital. See the pattern?

The channel is irrelevant – it’s the answer that matters. So stop focusing on how to be better at digital, and simply focus on how to be better, full stop.

It’s not that hard, is it?

About Danny Brown

Husband. Father. Optimist. Pragmatist. Purveyor of not settling for the status quo. Aspiring to be many things. Never says no to a good single malt.

  • But throwing the word “digital” in there makes it sound so futuristic! Maybe we should also start throwing on some additional modifiers. “I’m in digital marketing.” “Oh, really? Well, I’m in hyper-digital marketing. So …”

  • Eleanor Pierce  Hyper-digital marketing! YES!

  • Eleanor Pierce  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuslWRCnbyA

  • Danny Brown From the golden age of the Simpsons (as an Oregonian, I am contractually obligated to love that show).

  • Focus on how to be better…period. That’s how you keep your eye on the ball.

  • bdorman264  Agree!

  • Guess I will have to take down the Carly Simon loop that hangs over my desk 😉

  • Eleanor Pierce  Yes! I keep hearing the term “digital storytelling.” And when I “go to there” to check it out, I see more digital than actual storytelling.

  • annelizhannan  Maybe if you put up the GWAR cover version. 😉

  • Thank you for this, Danny. As I go out and talk about Spin Sucks (the book), I find more and more people who say, “But we’re fighting a tsunami.” Many don’t believe we’ll ever be able to change the thinking at the executive level that requires us to track the vanity metrics and many don’t believe we’ll ever have a seat at the proverbial table because we’ll never be taken seriously. What I do know is it’s up to all of us to move this change…and that means we’re all going to be disruptors.

  • Danny Brown I had to look GWAR up! Yup, I keep up on trends alright.

  • BillSmith3

    Well put Danny.

  • ginidietrich  Remember when people said we won’t move to e-commerce because people want store interaction? Or we’d never deliver digital copies of anything because who’d trust the cloud (how’d that work out for you, Blockbuster?).
    I agree, the mindset is still stuck in some weird Rocky Horror Show time warp – but the walls are slowly being chipped at. Sooner or later, the results of those leading the charge will encourage the laggards that maybe there’s something to this new direction and thinking after all…

  • ginidietrich  And, PLEASE, Livefyre , we need a fix on the weird side effect Sidenotes is having on the Linkback feature..! 🙂

  • RAReed

    I love “the answer matters”. I mentioned similar points with a prospect yesterday. Getting at critical Information and insights helps establish objectives, builds strategy and teases out the correct tactics… and those could be, well, anything, as long as they provide the answer to the problem.

  • RAReed  I was always told to never say “it depends”, yet if you think about it, it does depend – on the answer. 🙂
    Cheers, mate!

  • As ever, Danny, you are ahead of the curve, so you can forget the term “digital” but I reckon there’s a whole swathe of professionals out there who need to embrace it before they can forget it. Digital is the force of disruption that has changed the industry in the last 10 years. Then again, maybe that’s just a recipe for another meaningless semantic turf war 🙂

  • HughAnderson  Here’s the thing though, mate – I agree that we need some stick in the ground to poke with. But let’s say we keep it as “digital”, which – as you say – is 10 years old. 
    Now, in 10 years time, when we’ve moved on to something different (let’s call it HumptyDumptycal), are these folks that took digital for another 10 years (or so) going to be behind again?
    Hopefully that makes sense! 🙂

  • Danny Brown No idea what you are on about!! Something to do with laggards never keeping up?

  • HughAnderson Pretty much. While people continue to embrace old thinking, they get left behind again by those looking to change that approach. The circle continues until someone draws a line in the sand and says, “That’s behind us now.”

  • Danny Brown ginidietrich  Yeah, pretty much everything Danny said. (I’ll just +1 (how that for a soon-to-be-obscure Google-+ Plus reference?) 😉 this whole post), I think we as communications professionals also need to start pushing back a little bit, asking these execs if they’d rather have an increase in Facebook likes, or profit.

  • Digital came into our lives with the CD, 31 years ago.

    That’s right – digital is your Dad’s marketing.

    The big change in modern marketing isn’t digital but connection.

  • PeterJ42  Don’t forget DAT Tapes! 🙂

  • schalkie365

    Danny Brown PeterJ42  yes, but the biggest mistake was parting with the vinyl.  we all deserve a kick in the ass for that one

  • Great post Danny.  Not to muddy the waters even more, but the PR tactics that you list for disruptors could also be categorized as “social media, social outreach, or influence marketing” no? Perhaps we should use the term “Social Relations” instead of “Public Relations”, as everything is public these days.

  • OpEdMarketing  For sure, mate – you could switch disruptor as any of the tactics/outlets you mention. Ans “social relations”? Not too shabby, mate, not too shabby. 🙂

  • sabreangel

    You raise an interesting point Danny, and I agree with much of what you say, but not all.

    I agree with your comments about “controlling the message” and how proper PR sets the pace of a story, not just trying to fan flames during a crisis. In addition to this, true PR consists of feedback loops that create engagement with audiences so that the content you create comes full circle. If you don’t measure how the work you’re doing resonates, you won’t be able to truly gauge sentiment along the way and how to make adjustments to your work.

    Where I start to disagree with you is about forgetting “digital.” You’re right that the tactics and platforms change and the steps of creating a strategy don’t change (goal –> plan –> measure) but what we know about behavior *has* changed because of technology. 

    You’re right that the basic and overall tenets of psychology are the same, but technology is certainly changing our interactions and helping us understand behavior in ways that we never did before. Consumers, in terms of how PR people or marketers understand them and how to reach them, won’t be the same because of that. We can’t simply just say “go back to the basics because it’s always been this way” because it just *hasn’t* always been this way. The foundation you speak of is the same, but we’re delving into data we have about aspects of behavior that allow us to segment markets in ways we never could before.

    I think you’re right in saying that the questions consumers will ask about companies is the same, but our capabilities on digital channels allow for more personalization. 

    The industry is really moving from having separate marketing, advertising and PR departments into just having a “branding” department in general. Because digital landscapes create the need to move quickly, all PR people need to understand more aspects of their brand than ever before. I see agencies and companies struggling with keeping these departments separated because they can’t move fast enough any more.

    So, I don’t think we need to go back like you’re suggesting, but instead truly move forward. Instead of adding “digital” as another channel (and touting it incessantly), companies need to change the overall setup of their company’s communications/marketing/PR/etc. departments to position themselves properly. Especially when most companies are *not* doing the kind of personalization on digital platforms that they really could be.

  • If the takeaway is to stop using the adjective, I find fault with that universally. I know nothing about marketing as a subject to teach but I am very skilled teaching digital marketing. On the media side, I’m familiar with a TV and a radio but I know nothing about those media as I know about online media and digital media.

    It’s great to say that the adjective — be it digital, social, online, whatever — is diluting; and it might be useful to call yourself a marketer and not a digital marketer — but doesn’t there come a point when you need the modifier?

  • Ari Herzog  Here’s a question to ping back – if you (as in, generic “you”) know nothing about marketing, how can you say you offer digital marketing? How are you offering this spoke of marketing when you don’t know anything about the parent hub, and how that drives the various parts of marketing?
    I’m not trying to be glib, but if the principles and “teachings” (for want of a better word) of a discipline aren’t understood, then the result is not marketing – it’s simply talking about social media and technologies, not what they bring to the marketing table. (Or PR, or advertising, etc).

  • sabreangel  Hi Sabre,
    First, thanks for coming across here after our Twitter “exchange” and expanding – so glad you did, great comment!
    I completely get what you’re saying and to a very large degree, I agree. Where I’m not quite sold is on the behaviours changed by technology. I’d counter with technology is shaped by behaviours:Want easier and faster access? Let’s build broadband and 4G.Want to read something at your own leisure? Let’s build subscribe options.Want to make your vacation easier? Let’s build partnerships and API calls between airport ticketing systems, hotel booking systems, car hire systems and tourist information systems, so all can be booked at point of contact.
    These are just a few examples of where our behaviour has forced technology to adapt to us, as opposed to us making different decisions based on technology. Yes, we are being asked to think bigger picture – but I’d say that’s more aimed at content creators as opposed to consumption.
    Perhaps it was the way I worded the piece (and, if so, I apologize for that, that’s my bad), but I’m definitely not suggesting we go backward. Agree 100% with you that we’re moving forward (or some are, some are sticking their heads in the mud still) and we need to keep this momentum going. 
    But for me, it’s the very need to add stuff like “digital” that’s holding us back, because we’re continuing to silo progress as opposed to enveloping it.
    Thanks again for a great comment!

  • sabreangel

    Danny Brown sabreangel  

    No problem Danny, thank you for creating a conversation piece!

    Our stances seem to be like arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg? Kinda hard to tell when it’s a cycle. I think we’re both right — I am just thinking more circular and less straight line.

    I agree that technology was developed based on our natural behaviors, but I also think it’s also changed our behavior. Technology then changes some more to adapt again and the cycle goes on. Digital technology has also amplified our behavior in ways that show us details about interaction that we’ve never really paid attention to before. This detail and increased capability drives new modifications to technology and also to the consumer’s desire for personalization.

    Yes, that’s a content issue, like you said, but also a consumption issue because it changes consumer expectations. 

    I think I felt you were suggesting backward movement because you were saying that consumers are still the same. I don’t necessarily agree with that.

    In relation to silos – I agree with you.

    I feel digital is calling attention to the fact that slios still exist in many companies and agencies even, and that this “siloed” approach to media no longer works. It’s not fast or nimble enough. The nature of digital media has broken down walls between us and the consumer that existed in traditional media, and you can’t translate what you do on digital platforms if your traditional platforms still operate slowly and in those silos.

    To your point, you can’t just “do digital” then, or do it properly, without changing how your overall organization works.

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