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.

Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman, MCM, APR, is a senior advisor to Spin Sucks and runs a consultancy, Martin Waxman Communications. He leads digital and social media training workshops, conducts AI research, and is a LinkedIn Learning author and one of the hosts of the Inside PR podcast. Martin teaches social media at McMaster University, the Schulich School of Business, Seneca College, and the UToronto SCS and regularly speaks at conferences and events across North America.

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