By Nicole Jordan

This article has been brewing in my mind for five years but it just kind of sat there, not taking shape, only growing larger in substance. Two blog posts this week have kicked my ass in to gear to finally get initial thoughts down on (e)paper.

Steve Rubel, prominent blogger and, dare I say, PR person, started it off with this. Then Arrington followed up with this.

Both completely reinforce what I’ve long believed:

PR has a branding crisis.

I’ve been in Tech PR for 10 years. I studied PR and communications in college after finding a natural affinity towards the field. The first 6 ½ years of my career was at PR agencies in Silicon Valley, beginning in 1998 right during the hay day. The only thing that mattered was getting press coverage. Everything moved so quickly that the way you proved immediate results for that boat load of money they were throwing at you was by the thud factor, or clip book, as it’s more commonly known.

There was no patience for PR strategy that involved developing deep relationships with customers to turn them into advocates for your brand. The Internet was pretty nascent to most of America so there was no reaching customers directly or being in engaged in blogging and social media. It was all press all the time. With some analysts thrown in for endorsement.

After only four years into my PR career I saw how narrow the definition of “PR” was. Clients would come to us to promote their companies but it was always through the media and rarely through non-traditional “PR” avenues. I witnessed time after time the demand from my clients for creativity in campaigns and promoting the company but some of the best ideas generated to directly connect with the audience were shot down if it didn’t guarantee press coverage. This, to me, missed the point of what PR should ultimately be used for.

I vocalize constantly that the old-school view of PR is really just today’s “media relations.” What PR should be known for is employing a multi-tiered approach to reaching customers with media as one avenue. Also known as marketing if you look at traditional tactical definitions.

Due to the increase of noise everywhere it became harder to establish brand, which 10 years ago people thought media relations could do. Which it doesn’t. Clearly. As hundreds if not thousands of dot.com’s can attest. Eyeballs and general awareness of your company does not create critical mass quantities of customers without continuous work on many fronts beyond media relation’s activities.

Media serves the purpose of informing but it does not provide an opportunity to engage with your brand, which is what PR should be. The profession is slowly getting there, if the market will let it.

The past five years PR and marketing services have converged with the “PR” (read: media relations) aspect becoming a pillar underneath a much larger arsenal of New PR tactics to deliver messages, connect with consumers and build business.

A “PR” person in today’s business climate should know how to promote a company or product through the media but also employ broader “marketing” tactics into strategies like market research and customer surveys to aid product development, message refinement and, yes, pitching to the media.

They should incorporate online marketing tactics like videos that show inside the company, marketing promotion partnerships, customer events and experiences and blogger relations (an entirely separate topic.)

Or employ more traditional marketing tactics like street marketing, direct mailers to customers and influencers or by creating event experiences that allow interaction with the company and products. All of these activities serve what the real goal of “new PR” should be — building your brand, engaging current and potential customers, and aiding the growth of the business.

Most business executives, entrepreneurs and VCs I meet and know are clueless as to the many activities of PR. I know I’ve opened the eyes of more than a few to the amount of work across multiple levels it really is. When done well and done right the amount of influence your PR person should be able to wield across all aspects of your business should make them your secret weapon.

PR = Flack, Spin, Bullshit, Avoidance, Manipulation

Thanks to, well, a lot of things PR is now a dirty word. I thought it still stood for “Public Relations.” As in, you know, relating to the public, via any means necessary but that’s not the general understanding and perception within the broader business community. Fabulous role models have shaped this enjoyable stereotype of being someone who is full of manipulation and acts mainly as a mouthpiece. Publicists hiding their Hollywood clients, press secretaries spinning off un-preferred questions, tech PR execs buried in client work with no time to research as deeply as they’d like (much like the over-worked media we deal with) or flacks sent out to act as a shield (often assumed, and rightly so, to hide some dirty laundry with vague statements that only incite more speculation.)

PR agencies love to preach “out of the box” thinking but at the end of the day are largely media relations shops, adding fuel to the media bitch-fire that we’re roasted over.

PR execs are not being adequately trained to approach client or in-house strategy with a big-picture communications p.o.v. This creates scores of short-sighted managers who then in turn mentor and create equally ignorant execs.

Meanwhile, the “media” continue to be sick of us but know that having a couple solid PR resources in your back pocket is a little bit of gold.

And then you have the companies, the executives and investors who make it difficult for New PR people to spread their little communication wings and fly off and make magic happen. Instead, because they often don’t have an understanding of the significance and impact of all these new communication outlets, they kibosh things that don’t seem like “PR,” because they won’t result in “media coverage.”

There is a massive education process that needs to occur and it needs to happen across several industry levels. So, really it’s much more than a branding problem, isn’t it?

I think New PR needs some New PR.

In closing I open it up to you with two questions:

1) If “Old PR” is largely media relations but isn’t called MR for media relations and “New PR” is taking more of a “marketing” approach by incorporating customer engagement activities, what does the term “PR” even mean anymore?

2) What is needed to create a universal definition of the role of a “PR person” and is that even possible when the perception of what PR is is splintered within the industry itself?

I look forward to the dialogue.

Thanks for reading.

…….
Catch me on: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Plurk, Brightkite, FriendFeed

Related conversations:

Scoble

PR 2.0 by Brian Solis

POP! PR Jots by Jeremy Pepper

TechCrunch

PR Squared by Todd Defren

Don’t Eat the Shrimp by Josh Morgan

SocialTNT by Marie Williams and Chris Lynn

Stage Two Consulting by Jeremy Toeman

About the Author:

Nicole Jordan

I'm a geek that left Silicon Valley to take a 1 1/2 year break in NY before coming back out west. I now live in lovely Santa Monica and am enjoying emersing myself in the local business geek culture. To me, there is only one "valley" and it ain't here.

Discussion

    no imageHayk Hakobyan (Who am I?)14 August 2008 12:11 am

    A really good piece!!

    1. There are two angles to look from: view-angle of the business for whom PR must be done and from the view-angle of the PR company, which will carry out the PR campaign.

    All that a business wants is to get its name out and promote its product. Many businesses, especially traditional ones, still go with PRs and think of PR as largely a MR as you rightly pointed out. For them “modern PR=traditional MR” because this what they think will propagate information about their business. Young startups, especially tech-oriented ones, go for mroe unconventional or new means, using blogs, forums, conferences, online video streaming, etc. to promote their business and this is what constitutes PR for them. They don’t care that much to get a traditional PR company as long as incoming PR requests are not overwhelming. Just then they might also get a PR company.

    From the point of view of the PR company, why address and widen ourselves when still many big money-paying businesses stick to the old PR model, that is MR. Few new ones, which target smaller businesses, especially in tech, are getting into new online means of marketing, branding and general promotion. Those small ones have no choice. In order for them to strive they have to utilize and benefit maximum from existing means and Internet is providing many new means.

    To conclude on the first question, PR means different things for different types of businesses and different types of PR companies.

    2. In order to be able to create a universal definition of “PR person,” we have to first define what means “universal media” and “universal means of promotion.” Before advent of internet, these two phrases were quite clearly perceived. Now, many new means of promotion and media mushroom every day. Not only existing means of online promotion are constantly enhanced, but also totally new means of promotion arise, not least due to creative folks engaged in gap and guerrilla marketing in promoting their products!

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    no imagebriansolis (Who am I?)14 August 2008 6:21 am

    Nicole, with PR pros like you, PR would never have had a branding crisis to begin with.

    To answer you question….it’s really quite simple, PR stands for “public relations” and that’s the very thing we lost sight of over the last several decades. The social web is forcing us to humanize our stories and our process of telling them – thus putting the public and relations back in PR.

    The art of evolution is not in educating others, but succeeding in spite of their lack of education and understanding. It’s not about the people who don’t get it, it’s about the people who do. Critics won’t learn unless they believe they need to. Let everyone else stay behind to try to educate. We have trails to blaze.

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    no imageAl Krueger (Comet Branding) (Who am I?)14 August 2008 6:54 am

    Nicole – great piece. I’ve been looking forward to it since you connected with me on Twitter (twitter.com/alkrueger) regarding my tweets on PR’s branding problem.

    I feel the same way you do about the current state of PR. It’s sad really. If you do a Twitter Search on PR, many, many, many Tweets are from journos or bloggers complaining (lamenting) about how terrible PR “pro” are at their jobs. Ugh. Spamming, terrible email pitches, old school press releases….overused cliched terms. Ugh again. While, I’m not the best PR person in the world – there are better ways.

    To your point about the new role of PR, I’ve moved to talking more about branding…and storytelling-driven branding, which allows me to use all of the great tools marketing has to offer – including the tool of MR. My progressive approach to PR and move away from “traditional PR” actually got me fired from my last job as PR Director at an agency in the Midwest. The owner wanted press releases, press releases, press releases and more press releases. That’s how I was able to start my own shop and things are going well.

    Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins (@rizzn) noted on Mashable that PR’s changing roll is much more focused on being a resource. I totally agree! There have been many, many times that I have shared contacts and information with my media contacts that don’t include my clients. Sometimes, it’s been a competitor or a complimentary service. In the end, it’s about “Helping a Reporter Out.” The journos I have helped – love it.

    Journos and bloggers are our friends and they need our help sometimes and that’s where we can fit in – not by forcing content down their throats. By taking about Branding and storytelling-driven branding, that allows me to talk about strategic development, planning and solid non-traditional (deep) storytelling and nine times out of ten, I’m talking to the business owner or to someone in the C-Suite. This is also a way to be able to council clients on what is and is not actually newsworthy.

    Nicole, keep the faith and keep on rolling.

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    no imageAndrew Warner (Who am I?)14 August 2008 7:37 am

    If the PR industry was your client it came to you for help reviving its image what would you do?

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    no imageNicole (Who am I?)14 August 2008 8:27 am

    Brian, thanks for the reply. I agree 100% about humanizing. Isn’t that really what helps companies establish brand loyalty in the first place? And thank you for being such an excellent role model for PR people everywhere.

    Al, you raise an excellent point- branding. Isn’t that what it’s all moving toward anyway. But even “branding” as a stigma for what it is and isn’t. I’ve had discussions where we ponder if entire market segments need to be more adequately renamed and/or redefined. At the heart is absolutely is about story telling. PR people are some of the best story tellers I know. But it’s not just telling to the media, right? It’s about telling it to every person you need to: investors, potential partners, customers, etc. and through multiple channels like sales, marketing, recruitment, internal communications and then the massive external communication pushes. I’ curious to hear your thoughts to the question Andrew asked.

    Andrew, I’ve thought about what all I’d respond with to your question but it’s too big for the comment section. I think it deserves it’s own post. :)

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    no imageAl Krueger (Comet Branding) (Who am I?)14 August 2008 8:37 am

    Nicole – Great points as well. I had a big discussion with a 30-year pr pro this week about what the difference between branding and marketing…probably deserves a post too. I’ll work on that.

    Storytelling-driven branding is indeed about telling great branding-moving stories to everyone (customers, investors, media, etc.). It’s about dramatizing your position and essence.

    Also, a HUGE component has been an effort to encourage my clients to “lift up their skirts” and show the world stuff they’ve keep private. Why not show the good and the bad. People are human – so are businesses. We all make mistakes. It’s about helping businesses (and their brands) be seen as living breathing entities that have personality. People connecting with people with personality – not brick walls.

    Re: Andrews question is a huge one…especially when you consider all of the thousands of people in PR. Let me think about it.

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    3.0
    no imageKevin Lewis (Who am I?)14 August 2008 1:08 pm

    Nicole, I just spent some time at an integrated communications firm and I wholeheartedly agree that PR and marketing are steadily becoming one. Great food for thought!

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    no imageJackie Peters (Who am I?)14 August 2008 2:11 pm

    Hey Nicole-

    Amazing post! I almost didn’t have to even read it since you and I have had so many conversations offline about this very topic. I’m so glad you’ve brought this out and started this conversation. And you ask some really great questions. I run into this problem time and time again in my work. My company started as a marketing firm, we even hired a PR firm to try to get us in some pubs. And now I would consider what we do to be quasi-PR – in the sense that it’s Public Relations, but certainly not what you would consider traditional PR. We rarely draft a formal press release, and rarely reach out to print media.

    It’s difficult to categorize ourselves, some who recognize the shift in the meaning of PR recognize us as a PR firm, others, who are still thinking in more traditional terms consider us a marketing firm.

    This is what prompted me to propose a panel for SXSW to tackle just this issue: what is this stuff that we do, who’s an “expert” at it, and what do we call it?

    Can’t wait to see this conversation continue. Well done!

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    no imageJulie Crabill (Who am I?)14 August 2008 2:50 pm

    Nicole, great post and something a lot of PR people have been lamenting for awhile, thanks for such great articulation. I would love to work with you to write the plan for the PR industry to better itself (to Andrew Warner’s comment). That could be not only fun but informative.

    I think one key thing in this new world of PR pros will be that people need to be realistic about what PR can do – and what types of businesses can best use its help. Crap will always be crap… and hopefully we, as the PR industry, can agree to at least cut the BS on our side and stand together to let executives who think that what they have is “Oprah-worthy” know that sometimes… it just isn’t.

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    Chris Lynn14 August 2008 5:26 pm

    Nicole: First off, thanks for the link love.

    Very well written piece. You hit on some of the themes that have been bubbling in my head for quite some time.

    The lines between marketing, PR and media are blurring. No longer can we just blast out pitches and pray they get picked up. We have to go back to the heart of PR–public relations, not press relations.

    What is the public? Well, in traditional PR, we often reach out to real-world assoications. Online, we should be participating in online communities, whether they are social networks, forums, blogs, twitter, etc. To become members of these communities, we have to dress, talk and walk like them–that means listen and create content that interests them. If that content gets picked up, gravy!

    The problem is, so many people want to see direct return from their PR budget. When we move to social media, our goals have to change. Raising brand awareness, decreasing customer service calls, or even driving traffic to a site can be tracked for ROI. Counting number of blog hits as though they are news clippings is old school, and should be forgotten.

    Best,

    Chris

    BTW, I <3 u!

    no imagePaul Kim (Who am I?)14 August 2008 8:14 pm

    Nicole,
    Interesting post. I will preface my response by saying that I’m in no way an expert in the field and may be naive/uninformed in my observation. That said, I find myself questioning the definition of “PR” today and how it fits into my own organization. After some thought, I think the role/image of PR is in a transitory state; it’s not clear what the end state will be but it is clear that it won’t stay the same. Here is my $0.02:

    Traditional PR held some obvious value propositions whether it be providing “media relations” or simply representing the face of a company. But the advent of the internet, broadband ubiquity, social networking, and all these disruptive forces, have collectively disintermediated some of these traditional roles. For example, I recently found that I could write my own press releases if I knew of a suitable wire service. During the my dot-com bubble days in Silicon Valley, I would never have thought of that possibility. But this doesn’t mean PR is no longer necessary. Why? Because I can’t spend all my time writing press releases due to the millions of other responsibilities that already take up too much of my time. What it does mean, however, is that PR roles/images will change but the landing will likely be a soft one. Here’s some perspective: the industry possibly hardest hit by the recent wave of technology innovation/adoption is the music/record industry, which faces a far more lamentable future than any media profession. I think PR firms are in nowhere near as bad a shape as the record labels.

    So what about a more comparable analogy? Try business development, which, today has taken the form of sales or strategic alliances/partnerships. I think PR will go through a similar marketing shuffle and will either recast itself as an extension of marketing or rebrand itself as an entirely new industry. Either way, it’s evolving into something else but I don’t think it will ever go the way extinction.
    pk

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    no imageCliff Allen (Who am I?)14 August 2008 10:58 pm

    Excellent review of what PR is and what it could be — if executives would allow it.

    When I had an advertising and PR firm in the 1990s we had many of the same pressures that PR people face today. Clients wanted press releases and ink in the best publications. And, of course, lots of sales inquiries.

    We explained to clients how the trust and relationship between a publication and its readers affects a reporter’s view of PR people.

    Many reporters and editors rely on PR people who actually understand the industry that the publication covers. Why? The reputation of the publication and the reporters is on the line with everything they write, so they naturally rely more on PR people they know and trust. In other words, where there is an actual relationship.

    Since I had been a reporter and columnist, I could use actual examples of how PR people had influenced articles I had written. Once they understood the value of the long-term relationship between a journalist and a PR person, clients were appreciative of what our PR team could do for them.

    Sending press releases to a reporter or blogger who you don’t know has about the same chance of success as a telemarketer making cold calls.

    And, of course, PR is much more than media relations. It’s up to PR people to educate executives on how the many aspects of PR actually helps a company build the relationships needed for success.

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    no imagenicole (Who am I?)14 August 2008 11:22 pm

    Wow. I am overwhelmed by the response all around. I knew there were others out there like me: passionate about this industry, desiring a higher respect for those of us driving integrity throughout practice. It’s encouraging to hear so many thought leaders speak out and echo the same sentiments. I greatly appreciate all those that read this thought piece and especially those that responded, sharing their own experiences and opinions.

    Hayk: You are 100% spot on when you say young start-ups got for new means. The younger generation of entrepreneurs learned from their predecessors. They’re more aware that what builds business in the long run is customer loyalty, not a splash in the pan media relations purge. Which, by the way, if you’re a SV media darling is a slam dunk. Reporters complain about vaporware but they fall victim to it themselves, buying into pre-hype, mesmerized by impressive VC firms and marquee exec names. But I digress…

    The problem with money-paying businesses sticking to the old model is that the client ends up frustrated with results because it’s not producing the traction they “think” it’s going to, and agencies (typically) end up equally frustrated since they knew it was going to turn out that way anyway but were likely vetoed on a more holistic approach. That’s why the need for a new level of tolerance and understanding during this category shift is beneficial.

    Al: I think you and I are going to have a lot to bounce off each other. ?

    Kevin: What do you recommend, per Andrew’s question? What’s it going to take?

    Jackie: Thank you, as always. I plan to examine the dynamic between “marketing firms” like yours and what it means in the coming years for PR firms bottom lines.

    Julie: You’re one of the best in the biz. I’d love to tackle this monster with you.

    The one and only Chris Lynn: I <3 you too. And in respect of your no bullshit tone: blasting pitches is crap. It’s a filler for an activity sheet. Getting on the phone, offering substance, building relationships, that’s what adds value. Mark is dead on in the mashable post. We are connectors and master connectors (and strategists) at that.

    There is definitely a need for new metrics. The social media category is rapidly innovation on this behalf but if your execs just can’t grok the big picture of all the moving parts it can still be frustrating to explain. I look forward to hearing more from you as you educate your clients on this topic. ?

    Paul: You make a lot of good points and demonstrate quite clearly what I’m referring to. As someone who is not involved in the industry it’s hard to grasp the full value PR adds. That is the PR industry’s fault. We have not done a good job of communicating the many ways we help you.

    You may be able to write your own press releases but let me ask you this: Do you know which wire service is most effective? Do you know what the optimal release time is? Do you know the process in which to release to bloggers (give them something extra and special no one else gets, btw,) when to release to which press? Do you know what “coverage” counts and what doesn’t and in what tone to follow-up with reporters to show them how your business is affecting the broader landscape? To you coordinate SEM practices and also push across all your distribution channels? I don’t mean to single you out with questions but most people don’t realize that behind PR is an immense amount of psychology and art, when done right.

    It involves understanding human behavior, knowing the boundaries and being able to spot mutually beneficial (and altruistic) opportunities. At least it should be. I think we can get there. From the people I heard from today – all leaders in the PR field – we’ve got a good base to educate the current and train the new.

    PR people often act as a reality check for their executives who are trapped in the box of their office, living and breathing their operating plan. Executives lose sight of what the big picture story is pretty quickly. Often what they think is going to be important (which it is in the sales cycle) is going to matter to press. But it often doesn’t. Press want the what’s next; The, what’s-changing-the-market or putting Google-out-of-business. Customers just want to know how you’re going to help them.

    Everyone, thanks again for your input. I look forward to much more.

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    no imageJosh Morgan (Who am I?)15 August 2008 10:17 am

    The challenge is creating an equivalent of the “thud factor.” The thud in question being the sound a thick book of press coverage makes when dropped on the desk of your client, and often more importantly your client contacts boss.

    A shift from media-centric to customer-centric is happening. This should still fall under the description of public relations but falls outside the business perception of PR as mostly media-centric.

    Customers create content, and customers influence others, a big part of our job is trying to help companies talk with their customers as opposed to at their customers.

    One other issue, that I’ve touched on before is that since so much of what is being done now in our field involves content creation on the fly on behalf of clients, the traditional big agency model of a few senior people that create and junior people that distribute information can’t work for this new model. We’ve all seen what happens when people without sufficient background try and speak on behalf of a company. It doesn’t end well.

    The good news is that the change is happening. The other good news is that there is still a need for the tried and true tactics.

    We’ve got new tactics to use to help our clients, and some new strategies. But our end game is the same. Help companies sell more widgets/ideas etc.

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    1.9