Can Public Relations Save Its Self?

In the last couple of weeks, I have talked about some trends with Facebook and Google that are going to have a big impact on 2020 and beyond. This week will be no different.

You see, Public Relations (PR), like many other industries in the past, seems to be choosing irrelevance.

The world moving so fast. We’ve seen more change in the last several years than we have had in the previous twenty.

Customers have more power now than ever. They pick and choose how they will engage and be engaged and we need to be able to meet them where they are at with the right content at the right time.

As all this takes place, Public Relations (PR) as an industry doesn’t seem to know what to do to stay relevant.

The industry has some issues to deal with and one of the first is its reputation.

The Dark Side of Public Relations

I remember sitting in my Intro to Public Relations class watching a movie based on the book called Toxic Sludge is Good For You. It was a scathing indictment of the PR industry. After seeing it I wanted to throw up.

If you google it, you will more than likely see this description in relation to the book:

Common Courage’s number one seller blows the lid off of today’s multi-billion-dollar propaganda-for-hire PR industry, revealing how public relations wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phony “grassroots” front groups, spy on citizens and conspire with lobbyists and politicians.

Google Books

Sounds like a wonderful profession doesn’t it? What do you do for a living? I convince people that eating sludge waste is good for them. Wonderful.

The truth is, like every other profession, people practicing PR make a choice whether we will behave ethically or not. Just like lawyers, doctors, accountants, sales, politicians…the list goes on and on.

For some, PR has a bad reputation and yes, it can be sleazy but in the hands of somebody who is ethical it is used for good too.

PR For Good

Done well PR can help build companies and raise money for good causes.

While in school I did a case study for one of my PR classes (appropriately named Case Studies) on Make-A-Wish Idaho and a fundraiser it did to raise money in partnership with the Boise State Athletic Department.

I don’t remember the precise amount of money raised but was over $200,000 for the night.

My case study covered everything they did from the start of the campaign to the end. It included messaging, mailers, social media, and more.

It was one of the best events I’ve ever seen and it was all for a good cause. They didn’t use any ads. It was powered by PR.

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago? It’s another good example of PR at work for a good cause.

Steve Jobs was a master of public relations and it helped him rebuild Apple from a company facing bankruptcy to one of the most successful and profitable companies in the world.

There are plenty of great examples of PR that are too numerous to list here.

PR and Earned Media

Earned media is better known as media relations. It has been the bread of PR since the beginning.

PR is good at earned media. So much so that it has become synonymous with it.

Earned media is a great way to generate awareness.

A PR person pitches a story to a reporter or producer who picks it up and runs it as an article in a newspaper, magazine, or television show.

A CEO on 60 Minutes. An actor/actress going on The Tonight Show to talk about a new movie coming out. The article in a magazine or in the newspaper about an upcoming.

Lately, it has been hard to avoid an article on the new Star Wars film that is coming out.

These are all examples of PR at work and they can be good ways to reach your audience.

The problem with earned media is that prior to the digital age it was hard to measure. Companies don’t exactly like to spend on PR without results so the industry came up with some metrics to justify its work.

Smart thinking but they really didn’t mean much.

Advertising equivalents told companies how much they would have spent for an ad that took up the same space as an article would cost. Impressions told us how many people had been exposed to the message.

The problem is that just because somebody picked up the newspaper didn’t mean they read the article.

This isn’t to say this type of work is irrelevant because it’s not. There have been some great campaigns that have shown the power of earned media (and it is part of PESO) but there simply wasn’t a way to really quantify it other than in brand loyalty or in by the number positive things people might be saying.

The fact that PR is synonymous with earned media is a problem.

You don’t go to Taco Bell for a burger or to Target to buy a car so why would you go to a PR agency for paid media if you think they only do earned media?

PR Can Be More

If you have read this blog at all you know that I’m an advocate of the PESO model and it was created by…wait for it…a PR person. Gini Dietrich and her team developed it and have been advocating it for years.

For those who don’t know PESO is paid media (digital ads), earned media (media relations), shared media (social media), and owned media (where you own the content and the message).

Some of us picked up on it but some in the industry have fallen behind.

Marketing has been more than happy to use the PESO model and has been encroaching on earned media more and more. Advertising agencies have encroached on media relations as well.

PR can be more but it reminds me of Nokia and RIM whose reaction to Apple announcing the iPhone was, “What do they know about making phones?”

The End is Near

I would say that the industry is at a crossroads but that point came early in the decade and it still hasn’t figured it out.

The time to choose and be a leader was five to eight years ago. Now it needs to change just to keep up.

Businesses want results that tie back to the bottom line and this is difficult if earned media is the only trick in the bag. It becomes even harder when other industries are willing to adapt and offers these same services.

If PR as an industry doesn’t make the choice to embrace the PESO model and add in turn to the bottom line, it will die.

I don’t have much hope that this will happen. In the 2019 Global Communications Report from USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, it acknowledged PESO but advocated, you guessed it, earned media. Its opinion was that earned media was still the best way to get the message out.

Where Do We Go From Here

If you’re a business you may be business, you will have to consider if PR agency is capable of getting the results you want. Going to an agency that identifies itself as something other than PR may be a real possibility.

Heck, I don’t even consider myself a PR person anymore. After discovering the PESO model it seemed too limiting. This is one reason why I use marketing communication or marketing most of the time.

As I said at the beginning, people have more places to go for information than they ever have before and we need to meet them where they are at with the right content.

Earned media is part of the solution but it’s not the only avenue. If those in PR ignore this and don’t adapt to PESO, I guess I’ll be going to a funeral.

Shane Carpenter
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