Martin Waxman

What’s the Future of PR?

By: Martin Waxman | July 23, 2013 | 

The Future of PR

By Martin Waxman

There’s an old joke about the difference between advertising and PR.

In advertising you pay…in PR you pray.

These days, however, all the marketing disciplines seem to be doing their fair share of praying.

We’re all trying to figure out where the seismic shifts are taking us.

Public Relations Seems Lost

It wasn’t long ago when clients approached us for publicity – er, media relations.

And while we did many other things – including corporate communications, events, speeches, bylined articles, internal communications, public affairs, investor relations – it was our ability to generate awareness in mainstream media that kept our phones ringing. (Remember when they used to ring a lot?)

Our stock in trade was relationships – we had them, clients needed them. I used to love being a publicist. Nothing made me happier than knowing I was going to be on the phone all day, calling journalists, soft-selling them on one story or another.

Every morning, I read five newspapers and listened to the radio. In the evening, I watched several newscasts on TV. I was passionate about media, enjoyed chatting with reporters, and was always excited to see coverage come to life.

Fast-forward through the 2000s, which took us from a surge in media thanks to the online boom, to a similar decline due to social media.

Dark Industry Secret

The trouble is, the PR industry is resting on its laurels, on the way things used to be. Were we too late in grasping that a shrinking media landscape has a direct and very serious affect on public relations? Didn’t we notice the big impressions we proudly touted to clients were diminishing quickly? Why didn’t we admit it was getting harder to secure a placement even on a slow news day?

Like our other marketing colleagues, PR first grumbled and then grudgingly accepted, and wanted to get its piece of social media pie. But as a whole, many of our leaders didn’t want to do the heavy lifting required (i.e. test, participate, learn by doing).

Sure, we had some leadership out of the gate, but as an industry, we mostly continued along a familiar media relations driven path.

Now we have to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves: What is the future of PR? What are clients hiring us to do? And what can we do to show real results?

We could become ad agencies or digital agencies or get swallowed up by those same organizations. And maybe that’s a good idea. Though it’s not the outcome I want.

Paradigm Shift Required

Or we could stop paying lip service and truly shift the fundamentals of what PR is and how we practice it. That means turning the profession upside down, shaking it up, experimenting, falling on our face, getting up again, and ultimately walking away from some things near and dear to our hearts, and embracing risk by betting everything on others.

For starters, we need to be trained differently. How many PR programs currently have mandatory video, coding, and design courses embedded in the requirements? They all should!

If we don’t attract great people and teach them the right skills, we’ll continue our slow fade away.

Can Industry Leadership Embrace the Change?

My honest answer is I just don’t know.

There are a lot of smart people out there who look at their balance sheet, compare it to last year and are more than a little scared. As a result, they’re hanging tight to what they know.

Of course there are exceptions and we have evolved somewhat. But the changes haven’t been as radical as they should be.

Yes, we know publicity, but what does that mean in an age of digital and social media? And what more can we offer?

It’s time to dream about what the future of PR could become, and make that happen.

Tomorrow I will share my ideas about that.

So stay tuned. And in the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts about the state of the PR industry, and where it might be heading.

P.S. T minus two days until the big email marketing webinar with DJ Waldow. It’s free and you can register here.

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman is president of Martin Waxman Communications and conducts digital and social media training workshops. He’s a and LinkedIn Learning author, one of the hosts of the Inside PR podcast, and past-chair of PRSA Counselors Academy. Martin teaches social media at UToronto SCS and Seneca College and regularly speaks at conferences and events across North America. Find him on Twitter @martinwaxman.

  • rustyspeidel

    I think the first firm to understand how to cut through the clutter of all these digital options will be very successful. There are so many outlets now and so may ways to be heard that access seems to have zero value. We struggle to gain any momentum, any concentrated impact for our message because there are so many outlets of varying quality. 
    I know Gini is a big advocate for excellent content, which I agree can be useful. But the real power now can come from someone who understands how to re-consolidate impact. The media brands are losing it. Software companies are ascending. Individual voices are becoming brands. Formerly respected brands are dissipating in the morass of low credibility and opportunistic behavior. Where’s the trust that used to define the industry? Find a way to restore that and you’ve got something. 
    An example: we all loved to hate the record labels, but they knew talent, knew how to find, nurture, and yes exploit it, and knew how to create global impact. Without them, the music industry is languishing in watered-down ubiquity and mediocrity. I miss their vision, even though their royalty structures sucked. They have got to get on the digital train and soon. 
    Find your vision. Nurture it. Consolidate it like a laser.

    • rustyspeidel Thanks Rusty. Great analogy with the music business. It feels a bit like we’re all clomping around the swamps in circles not getting anywhere. As you suggest, we need a content machete to cut through and see the horizon.

      • martinwaxman rustyspeidel I don’t think it’s completely a matter of finding a way to cut through “clutter”. Creativity and timing have a hand in that. I believe it still comes down to understanding an objective, developing a strategy and executing with finely honed tactics. Agencies need to adopt a range of new skills sets and demonstrate the experience using them. There are agencies, but proof of their growth, that are moving in this direction.

        • BobReed Thanks Bob. I agree that it begins with a goal and strategy – wonder if the entire profession needs one to help us figure out where we’re going… rustyspeidel

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  • susancellura

    I am looking forward to part two! My question: what about people who think it’s easy to get free media coverage in this day and age, per your comments about social media? How do you educate them that sometimes a PR firm or professional is needed/the way to go?

    • susancellura Thanks Susan. Great question. And it’s not that easy to do because sometimes people ask for what they think they want, what they perceived their competitors have, or the results they used to get. This is where we need to use communications and a business case to persuade them this might not be the best route to achieve their goals and guide them on a different path.
      Of course, that’e much easier said than done.

  • gomezdm

    I think it depends on the industry you’re targeting as clients. Having worked in the public sector most of my career, I have been the client for PR and marketing agencies in the past. But when it came to media relations, we had better luck cultivating the relationships ourselves than relying on the agencies to do that, and reporters had a tendency to bypass our AOR and come straight to us. I’ve seen the diminished use of agencies in companies for which I previously worked. I’ve also seen budgets more focused on services we couldn’t otherwise do ourselves — videos, digital and traditional design, Web development, etc. Of course, that doesn’t rule out future use of an agency in time of, (cough, cough), crisis.

    • gomezdm That’s an interesting perspective, Diane and one that should make the industry sit up and take notice. Why do you think you had better luck with the relationships – that used to be one of the things PR agencies excelled at?

      • gomezdm

        martinwaxman  I think because these were, for the most part, local media contacts. We weren’t the “sexy” client — minimal national exposure (trades only). I worked in higher education and transportation. Both eventually eliminated the contracts when the majority of services were brought in house due to insufficient attention from the agencies.

        • gomezdm Thanks Diane. These days with social media and bloggers – everything is local and global at the same time. But if you’re just looking for the big MSM outlets, you’re missing a lot.

  • Bill Smith

    It’s not business as usual that’s for sure, especially if you’re phone stalking the remaining number of journalists actually working in journalism. The future is heading towards content marketing and I think we should embrace it.

    • @Bill Smith I think so too. Content + distribution or publicity isn’t a bad way to go. Thanks Bill!

  • Suze Carragher

    I’m excited for the future of public relations. We have all new tools to meet folks and let them know what’s happening.
    I have virtually met some of you and would be thrilled to collaborate with you. We’re smarter and more agile.
    It’s reminiscent of the message from EDS “The Running of the Squirrels.”
    “Its not the big lumbering competitors you need to worry about, it’s the small, nimble ones.”
    Stay nimble, my friends.

  • I’m not in the industry, so I’m speaking a bit from an outsider perspective, but I think several things are going to be critical for PR in the future (some of which are not “new”): 1) Really digging in an understanding the organization you’re representing in order to understand it from the customer’s perspective 2) I think the roles between you and the client are going to be different – you’ll have to be quite directive in explaining to the client the necessity of keeping all the “pieces” together (media relations, social media, etc.) 3) Your clients are going to need to trust you to “drive” especially in a crisis — and it’s hard to get an organization that feels like it knows itself perfectly to understand that someone who is LESS invested emotionally can do MORE for them when the ** hits the fan.

    • biggreenpen Thanks! I like that as an outsider you’re bringing a fresh take to the industry and some of the things we should do. Agree on all points. For the second one, I wonder if we also need to add providing effective policies and training so clients can manage some of the relationships themselves. That requires a shift from tactical (we do it) to a more consultative approach.

      • martinwaxman biggreenpen Yes! On number two — the clients are going to be right in the thick of the relationships for the obvious reasons so they need the right skills to handle the communications pieces that in evitably come up.

        • biggreenpen We’ll be shifting some of the relationships back to clients. I wonder if that’s where they should have always belonged. But you can’t turn the clock back :).

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  • I am telling you martinwaxman all you need to be a PR Pro now days is a smart hone and a twitter account.At least ginidietrich says that is her secret. 8)
    This question gets asked about advertising all the time. I wonder if McCluhan might be right. The Medium is the Message. The messages don’t seem to be changing. But the Medium is changing constantly.
    I remember back in China around 1050ish I met the inventor of movable type. I said ‘How is this going to change PR and Advertising?’ Then in the 1400’s a geek named Gutenberg showed me this press to make copies faster. I said ‘Joe! Dude! This is way cool! What will this do for the PR and Advertising Agencies of the future’
    But the message is always the same isn’t it? Even if the medium keeps changing?

    • Howie Goldfarb I think you make a great point about McLuhan. We do need to adapt to the medium. And boy, I didn’t realize how well travelled you were. martinwaxman ginidietrich

      • martinwaxman Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich Every year that goes by I am more and more convinced that McLuhan is always right. 
        It’s a structure vs. content thing…..and where the real change and innovation happens is in the structure.

        • JoeCardillo I know what you mean. Whenever I read McLuhan, I’m amazed at how prescient he was – as if he saw all of this clearly or had a visit to the future :). Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich

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  • Hi martinwaxman – I enjoyed your article as I think things have changed quite a bit and the industry has not caught up to the changes… I am used to offline old school Rubenstein Brothers type PR and now am using digital service (PR Web) which is quite the difference. I am not sure what the results will be. Though I used to p[ay a lot more money for offline than online, I had guaranteed press based on the relationships the agency I hired had with their clients. Only time will tell! Have a great one. Best- MJ mjgottlieb

    • MJGottlieb Thanks! I’ll be interested to hear how it goes.

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