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Dinosaurs, Newspapers, and Public Relations

pr bannerLast night, during my weekly #bizforum debate on Twitter, I introduced an issue that’s been brewing for a while: The role of public relations (PR) in the future enterprise.  The debate was passionate to say the least.   I challenged the “dinosaurs, newspapers, and public relations” argument offered by many but on this night, public sentiment was clearly siding with the eventual demise of the industry.

For those of you not familiar with the #bizforum debate, each week I post a series of statements on a business-related topic to which I ask the community to either agree or disagree and explain why. “It depends” answers are not allowed during the debate.  My role, as debate moderator, is to play devil’s advocate and to push people’s understanding on topics beyond the sound bites and “me too” posts that currently permeate social media.

As a result, most thought my defence of public relations as a future leader in business strategy was simply a debate tactic, me playing devil’s advocate again. In fact, for years I’ve considered the PR function the most underutilized role in social media marketing and customer engagement strategy planning.

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

The debate’s topic was:  Customer Engagement Strategy belongs to PR, Marketing, OR?   Before I explain my rationale for supporting the role of PR as a leader in this space, let me start by saying that yes, all departments within the organization must own and be responsible for customer engagement; however, leaders are needed.  Good business leaders will tell you that anyone in the organization, especially those with customer-facing functions, is responsible for sales, yet there is always a VP of Sales who leads the company’s efforts, someone who is ultimately responsible.

As social media becomes a bigger and bigger factor in customer engagement strategies for business, non-profits, and governments, the role of “customer engagement” and “customer experience” has become more critical. Each job function within the organization has been staking claim to “owning the customer experience,” from marketing to customer service and from sales to public relations. If fact, new jobs and departments, such as community management, are evolving to tackle this important business function, which, in my opinion, only serves to “spoil the broth.” All must be involved but leadership is needed.

The Case for PR Leadership

About three or four years ago, just when I started using social media monitoring tools to analyze what is now being called “Big Data,” I realized that social media, unchecked, is really just a lot of noise. It’s an increasingly popular platform for consumers, which makes it an incredible opportunity for businesses  but only for those brands which can stand out in the sea of noise that’s being created. More specifically, for those who can sort out the key conversations that will drive business results. There are hundreds of social platforms, an unfathomable number of blogs, and a dizzying array of tools that purport to make sense of them all and deliver that filter, yet most businesses are still struggling with social media engagement. Case studies linking the effect of such engagements on business ROI are still few and far between.

Understanding how to make sense of that noise, leverage it, and connect with the right people for the greatest impact – regardless of the business goal – is what good public relations professionals have been doing since day one.

— They’re adept at monitoring public sentiment, predicting where a brand crisis might occur, being the first to recognize a crisis when it does occur, and quickly deploying a team to prevent it from getting worse.

— PR pros are clever wordsmiths who understand the importance of public sentiment and relationship building to sales and brand value.  This industry understands the role of identifying and managing key relationships within the community (albeit the media community), and especially those deemed influential.

— Public relations professionals are writers and strategists experienced at producing articles, press releases, or other prose that spark viral word of mouth across the public to support (or detract from) an issue, brand or product.

Does this sound familiar?

Strip out the terms “public relations” and “(traditional) media” and you might as well be describing some or the entire role of a social media marketer or community manager.

Yet, for the most part, businesses are ignoring PR professionals and their experience in favor of experimenting with how marketing, sales, and customer service teams can evolve to handle customer engagement through social media channels.

The Curious Case of the Missing PR Expert

Marketers and industry analysts have always claimed that social media is just traditional media that’s become more accessible to more people, thanks to the Internet and Internet-connected hardware. So why are the former masters of the media so maligned when it comes to social media?

Last night, many of the professionals engaged in the debate shared their views that public relations is dying, just like their beloved newspapers.

bizforum tweet 1

Bizforum Tweet 2

bizforum tweet 3bizforum tweet 4

These are just a sampling of the “PR is dead” arguments being made. Many shared the sentiment that PR is a push function and that engagement, the hallmark of social media, is not present in its vocabulary.  That may be the case for many PR firms, but certainly not for leaders in the space.

PR Is Its Own Worst Enemy

While I believe that PR professionals have already perfected many of the core communication, analytic, and outreach skills required by today’s social media and community managers, the PR industry has done little in the way of PR for itself.

Robert Moore said it quite succinctly:

bizforum tweet 5

I’d argue that the PR of today must have social expertise at its core and that it must take the necessary steps with its own industry to ensure that its professionals understand that their skills are uniquely qualified to become strategic leaders. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity for the industry and a larger missed opportunity for business.

One example of a PR firm that has taken the reins in driving customer engagement and improving customer experience – both online and offline – is Toronto-based Strategic Objectives. Many in last night’s debate, those who didn’t predict its demise, suggested that PR is just a function of marketing and that it simply pushes out messages created by the marketing team. However, the multi-award winning public relations firm led by Deborah Weinstein and Judy Lewis has become known for creating the messages that marketing shares with the business’ target audience.

Deborah provided the best definition of what I believe PR can and should be during last night’s debate:

bizforum tweet 6

Sensei Debates:  Dinosaurs, News Papers, and Public Relations

  1. So, what’s next for the PR industry? Will it die off or live up to its potential as a strategic leader in the customer engagement space?
  2. Will PR always be a supporting player to marketing? What is required to drive it forward?
  3. Are businesses (and the PR industry itself) missing out an opportunity to drive their customer engagement and social media marketing forward by not having PR professionals lead it?

Share your thoughts, pro or con, in the comments below.

Sam Fiorella
Feed Your Community, Not Your Ego

Images courtesy of OneQube™ SRM


Join the Conversation

Frank_Strong 5pts

Funny Sam, I think it's just the reverse. Any social media program *today* must have PR at it's core.  The transition is natural.  What is unfortunate, is there is an entire population of PR pros yet to wake up to this fact.  Those PR pros...are losing their jobs.  The ones that embrace social, and content, and video, and all this jazz, and apply the age old principles of editorial content, will never be out of work. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Frank_Strong Yes, well, that's my point too: the PR industry, despite the few that get it, are not doing themselves any favors by not embracing the medium and taking a leadership role. It has allowed marketing to take ownership; worse, it has allowed an entirely new department of social media and community managers to evolve to stake claim. 

profkrg 5pts

Just because you call it something else, doesn't mean it's something else. Like you wrote above, calling it "social media marketing" or "consumer engagement" doesn't make it any less public relations. These are all growing and changing functions of the same public relations role. The role of public relations practitioner is more alive and needed than every before, in my opinion. Just like the role of journalist doesn't disappear if the newspaper stops printing. It's the professional skills and ideals, not the name or the platform, that are important and lasting.

Latest blog post: Look! Media Internships!

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@profkrg Fair enough. I'm curious on your thoughts: Why do so many still think of the PR industry as one-way, push communications? Why are so many predicting its demise?

HeleneSmith 5pts

(Please note: This is a bit of a stream-of-consciousness, relaxed Saturday response -- meaning, not beautifully polished -- to the previous debate question, as well as some relevant, previous commentary.) 

I am shocked that there are people who believe PR to be a one-way communication model. At the core of genuine PR practice is two-way exchange -- and for social media, let's just speed it up to true real-time, make it relevant to tremendous numbers of different audiences, and make sure you are thinking on your feet even faster than before.

Not only have we been trained -- and learned by experience -- to share and facilitate communications for everyone's benefit (the client or your company, its many audiences, the market or constituents, etc.); bolstering marketing, operational, support, and service communications; no one else  -- NO ONE -- is as ready to deal with untrue or potentially negative - or worse, damaging - commentary online or offline, than PR.  

Other organizational functions -- marketing, product management, and support, for example -- are trained to listen and respond. However, NONE have to deal as frequently, or at all, with the NOW variable -- as in BE PROACTIVE OR RESPOND NOW - AND DO IT WELL -- OR YOUR COMPANY/BRAND MAY DIE. 

In fact, many of us who have been at this awhile have had to "save face" after damage done by someone in those other departments, both in old and new media environments. 

Extreme? Let's hope so. But who else would you want on the front lines? Someone who understands the subtleties and nuances of communications in every - EVERY -- situation, and to serve and support every purpose (especially marketing); but who is also prepared to identify the right channels and communicate truthfully and in a moment's notice whether the information is good or not-so-good? Someone to reduce or eliminate potential damage, honorably and honestly? Someone who knows how to speak in the many "languages" of different professional and consumer audiences, and within those audiences to the disgruntled and the loyal, as well as to the angry through to the happiest, fans? 

****Now let's talk about what PR brings back to the company, C-suite, client, etc.... PR brings the feedback that no one else has been trained to listen for, to the extent and magnitude as we are, over any "mass" communication channels. Of course sales will bring critical information back from the field. And PR brings it back from the masses; hopefully well *before* it becomes an issue. We know WHO to listen to, and what kind of stirrings have negative -- OR positive -- potential. We have been trained, and learned by experience, how to spot the seed of a story; so we can help our clients prepare accordingly. 

Now let's also add to all of this the fact that tremendous numbers of online influencers are, or were, journalists -- and many of them from the same verticals PR people have worked in for years. In my case, I also know the vast majority of the non-journalist influencers in our specialty verticals, because my clients have been partnering with them, and I've been interviewing them, for years. I know the OEMs, the customers, the distribution channels, the academia; i.e., the majority of influential people associated with "my" verticals. So, not only are we best qualified to communicate with the influencers; chances are we know many more than anyone else in the company, already -- and they already know, and trust, us.

I guess this must already be a cliché: to me, social media is PR on steroids. It's exactly what I do, at a faster and more important pace than I've ever done it before. And I love it.

(Cheers to the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, where the principles I learned there, way before social media, are so relevant now that it's uncanny.)

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@HeleneSmith You know, you could have just asked to submit a guest post.  But I will accept it in the comments just the same. :) 

On a serious note - I agree with you, obviously. However, we can't ignore the fact that too few businesses link PR with social media management. I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that the engagement which happens between brands and consumers occurs  on computer screens -- and now mobile screens. And those have typically been under the management of the marketing dept. 

Secondly, the concept of "engagement" or relationship building has always been under the management of sales, marketing, and customer service. Like it or not, PR has been seen as "pres relations" more than customer relations. Any wonder that there's always a sales and marketing dept but rarely a PR dept resident within the walls of many businesses?

This industry still has a long way to go to convince the C-suite that the training and skills owned by public relations professionals are best suited to lead social media engagement.  These conversations need to continue. 

HeleneSmith 5pts

@samfiorella @HeleneSmith Thanks, Sam. I'm sorry I went a little over... I didn't know I was going to until I did it. 

To your point about people seeing PR as press relations (and I agree that it's our job to educate): 

Publicity is actually a public relations function that focuses on press relations. There are many other public relations functions.

I'm going to give you all a break and actually leave it at that! (for now)

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR 5pts

Ahh, Sam. A man after my own heart. We're NOT dying (PR), we're evolving to earn a respectable seat at the table, finally. We are sorely misunderstood, and I want to state plainly that after 29 years in this field, we seasoned of the elders understand where we fit. I, for one, have had to innovate w/ every new technology to ensure my relevance. Those who insist on only doing one aspect of PR WILL die; no question. The blend and blur is fierce right now and only the strongest among us will survive.

Yesterday, I got a call from an extremely niche vertical firm; they didn't want media relations or publicity, but guess what? They did...after I explained why and how and to which media and they agreed. In my first conversation ever with them I also proposed digital marketing and thought leadership along with some social media. They hired me on the spot; my first conversation. And I said, gentlemen, I'm very happy to take your money today; however, let me think further about the strategy I'd like to offer you. Everything I've said today was based solely on a first review of your site and nothing more. Most of what I said today will be proposed; however, I need more time than 30 minutes to think about your complex space.

PR as we knew it is long gone; those whining about it are stuck in the past. There is so much opportunity to use the core strengths we bring, and the sky is the limit. We try things, adopt what we like, offer it up to clients and become a business consultant, a strategist, a blogger, a content marketer, a marketer, and so much damn more. 

(I just posted this on Triberr and wanted this comment here, too. This entire blog post is the impetus for a piece I'm writing right now which will appear on Steamfeed and my blog, too. I'm upset about this topic.)

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Soulati | Hybrid PR  I'm not sure I agree with you. Well, your statement that  you "seasoned of the elders" understand were you fit, at least. You do, clearly. You understand that your skills, as a PR professional, are uniquely qualified to take on the social communication strategy. You understand that you've had to adapt those skills to the new media. 

Too few understand this  - both PR  pros and the businesses who hire them. Too little too late for most. 

I'm not in the PR game, but I've always felt that social media engagement should be led by those with formal public relations training. Sadly, too few have adequately re-positioned their skills and services. 

samfiorella moderator 5pts

@Soulati | Hybrid PR I agree that PR pros are well suited to lead social media strategy but not that they understand this. If they all do, then they've done a poor job of selling it.

Maybe the PR industry needs a good marketing team?  (hehe, couldn't stop myself)


  1. […] His blog post is right here for your reading pleasure. […]

  2. […] Dinosaurs, Newspapers, and Public Relations – As PRSA holds their International Conference, something to think about. […]

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