Every time I read a blog or op-ed proclaiming the impending meltdown of the public relations industry, I think of that great Mark Twain quote: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
These pieces pop up regularly, as we work our way through a protracted economic downturn and an unbelievably rapid period of change in the communication landscape. They're pretty good reads, too. What makes better copy than the wholesale implosion of an entire industry? But what I like best about them is how the authors' complete misunderstanding of what public relations really is reveals a remarkably vibrant and exciting future for the industry.
The public relations that these pieces claim is about to go under is, in fact, long gone. It's a caricature of the old PR model -- former journalists with oversized rolodexes burnishing images with the rags and polish of traditional media. Using that outdated definition, supporting it with the very real crisis of print journalism and the contractions brought on by the recession, an impending industry meltdown is an easy forecast. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
But it is called public relations for a reason and, more than ever, it is exactly that.
PR is not about image management -- it hasn't been for quite some time. As the media landscape continuously becomes more complex and multidimensional, public relations is increasingly defined as the ability to empower organizations to talk with and listen to stakeholders in ways that they don't yet know how to do.
The days of superficial image management and one-way monologues are over. More than ever before, stakeholders believe they are entitled to relationships with the brands and organizations they invest in. Who else is in a position to shepherd that process, from initial spark of engagement to ongoing and evolving connection?
Not advertisers. Advertising was the megaphone that allowed organizations to speak without listening in the first place. Pushing messages in one direction, no matter how loudly or creatively, is not going to form or sustain lasting relationships with consumers.
In the light of this new reality, digital professionals endlessly and boldly proclaim themselves to be the future. But we are seeing that digital practitioners are brilliant at operating the tools of their media but, frankly, they are not particularly great at using those tools to engage people. The same is true for traditional media professionals. With incredible insights into the pathways of conventional media, they don't necessarily understand how to make those pathways run in two directions.
Successfully building multi-directional paths of communication between organizations and their stakeholders is now pivotal to brands' strength and survival. And the only industry that's really in a position to do that well -- to assess client needs and deliver solutions with more insight and less prejudice than anyone else -- is public relations.
If a client approaches an agency with a communications challenge -- and that agency has an entire floor of producers, directors, website and app builders and creatives -- what do you think the agency's solutions will be? If you say a website and a 30-second television spot, you're right.
With that level of infrastructure to support and justify, even with the best intentions and insights, an agency will reflexively reach for the solutions that employ what they consider to be their strengths and competitive advantages. Answers are not determined by the nature of a challenge, but instead by the internal resources of the agency.
Public relations simply doesn't drag that kind of legacy and infrastructure into every solution. As PR professionals, we don't really care what specific tools are used to tackle the communication challenge; we want to discern and apply the most optimal solution. Yes, that may indeed include traditional media; that may include social media; that may include the creation of a digital platform of some kind. But the adoption of any or all of these tactics is part of a holistic approach to solving client challenges -- it is not about trying to convince a client that any challenge can be solved with the tools in the agency's infrastructure.
If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To which I add, if you are a digital agency, everything looks like a banner ad or mobile eye candy. And if you are an advertising agency, everything looks like, well, advertising.
But when you are a public relations agency, everything looks like a relationship. And in this new era of connection and communication -- of unprecedented dialogue between brands, organizations, consumers and stakeholders -- that sounds pretty good to me.