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The Real Reason Public Relations Is Getting Killed

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Every time I read an article about public relations, my heart sinks. For an industry that is supposed to be about communication and building relationships, our industry is pretty bad at both. Moreover, a recent article on MarketingProfs claimed the information age killed public relations.

Everybody is looking for something to blame for the steady demise of the industry, but they should really be looking in the mirror.

We're not that great at telling our own story, and—let's face it—PR's reputation has been in the toilet for years.

I've been working in the industry since 1997, and it was bad even then. Customers were often unsure of exactly what they were going to get in return for the payment of the monthly retainer. Even now, excessive retainer fees, a lack of transparency, no clear value proposition, and dubious business ethics (such as most PR professionals selling publicity as PR and asking, "What's your budget?" before asking their customers anything else) coupled with no clear ROI means that the reputation of our industry is currently at an all-time low.

Is it any wonder we find it hard to be taken seriously?


The PR Industry Is Broken

The industry is broken; it is not fit for the purpose it purports to have been designed for. The model is broken; the ubiquitous retainer and cookie-cutter PR process do not help the majority of agency customers. The definition has been bastardized to the point that most newcomers to the industry never fully understand the fundamentals of PR.

The result of all that is that nobody—not even people working in the industry—is clear about what PR is. We cannot agree on a single definition. There is no consensus on what value PR delivers or why businesses need it.

That is what is killing the industry. Not the information age. Not social media. Not the devastation of the traditional media industry.

So, what do we do about it?

Defining Public Relations

There is no hope of repairing our reputation, communicating the value of what we do, and delivering on that promise until there is a clear definition that we can all stand behind.

When I tell people that I have a PR company that helps entrepreneurs build the relationships they need to grow their business, those people often look slightly confused. Some people immediately assume that PR is about media coverage. That's hardly surprising considering the majority of articles published by PR people talk about media coverage. Some people talk about social media. I explain that media coverage is generally just publicity, and that social media is a series of delivery platforms—not a discipline in its own right—in the same way that billboards are just one way for advertising agencies to deliver the work they do for customers.

I explain that my definition of PR is everything that an organization does to build mutually beneficial relationships with its audiences. That is effectively the same as the PRSA definition.

However, I am often told that definition sounds more like Marketing than PR. I've also been told that it is old-fashioned!

The truth is that, without relationships, achieving anything is difficult. Imagine that you manage your most important relationships—spouses, family, best friends—in the way that most businesses manage theirs with journalists, via an intermediary. What happens when the intermediary is no longer there?

The problem is that this model is how PR has been sold for decades. Businesses pay an agency for its contacts and have them manage relationships on their behalf in return for a monthly fee. When that doesn't deliver the results they want, those businesses stop paying the money, and they no longer have the relationships.

The truth is that those businesses never had them in the first place. But rather than building them themselves, businesses replace their publicity agency—because that's what most are selling—with another agency that operates in the exact same way as the one they've just fired.

I liken the model that most PR agencies use to sell publicity to that of leasing a car. You pay for the privilege to use the relationships—until you stop paying the owner. At which point, you have nothing. It's crazy… and yet businesses still continue to buy in, knowing that the chances of success are slim. Knowing that it hasn't worked before. Blinded by the promise of a new, shiny, team of "professionals" energized by the opportunity to make empty promises. If they're honest, most of those people are energized by the prospect of the retainer income because they know that, whatever happens, they'll have the cash at the end of the engagement regardless of whether it has delivered value to their new customer.

The traditional PR agency business model has to change.

PR, Marketing, and Publicity

One of the big problems with PR is that it is not positioned correctly by so-called PR agencies. That is primarily a result of the definition being incorrect.

Correctly positioning PR, marketing, and publicity—and communicating the value of each in relation to the other two—are central to demonstrating the value PR delivers and helping customers to put all of the pieces of the communications jigsaw puzzle in place.

I've already explained that...

  • PR is everything an organization does to build mutually beneficial relationship between it and its public/audiences.
  • Marketing is everything an organization does to use these relationships to get an audience to take action on its behalf.
  • Publicity is the communication of information to an audience without the goal of either building a mutually beneficial relationship or expecting them to take action on behalf of a business.

The definition of each is the result of the intended outcome, not the process or the composition of the content. So, each activity can be part of a PR program if it is designed to build relationships, a marketing campaign if the desired outcome is to get an audience to do something, or a publicity program if the intent is simply to communicate information.

So, why do most PR people only talk about the media audience? Because that industry is built on a model that sells activities—press release writing, media pitching, interview management, and, increasingly, content creation services—rather than a model based on intangibles, such as developing strategies for building relationships, which takes time and are tedious to bill by the hour.

Moreover, PR requires an understanding of how to build relationships—and the majority of people working in our industry—at least on the agency side—don't have the necessary skills. Just media pitching and updating social media sites can be done by most 10-year-olds.

Strike by Maserati

Strike is the first 90-second TV spot run by luxury car manufacturer Maserati during the Super Bowl earlier this year. It has all the hallmarks of an ad, but is it a piece of publicity, marketing, or PR?

I consider that spot of the most beautifully conceived and executed pieces of PR I've seen in a long time. It might look like an ad, but it is categorized by the desired outcome. The desired outcome is to build relationships; therefore, it's a piece of PR content.

* * *

Until we, as an industry, can agree on a common definition for what we do, quantify the value that it delivers, and create a new business model that charges based on solving customers' problems and delivers on its promise, the PR industry will continue to be misunderstood, undervalued, and viewed with skepticism by the only people that matter—our audiences.


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Lyndon Johnson is the founder of THINK | DIFFERENT[LY], a public relations company that helps entrepreneurs deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time using the right delivery channel

LinkedIn: Lyndon Johnson

Twitter: @THINK_Lyndon

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  • by Steve Fri May 16, 2014 via web

    Thanks so much for this interesting piece about PR companies adjusting to the new realities of marketing. It takes guts to objectively look at your own profession and critique it. I'd like to add that top quality writers who offer content marketing strategies can be extremely valuable for PR reps to partner with. Based on my experience, PR firms are often so closely focused on the campaign & immediate needs of the client that they lose since of a longer term more effective strategy of brand engagement. This requires telling an ongoing story that people (potential customers) are interested in....a marathon rather than sporadic relay :)

  • by Jen Beever Tue May 20, 2014 via web

    I think that some PR professionals are adapting to new technologies and changing their services successfully. Clients have always complained to me that it was difficult to measure what they were getting from PR firms. Now that everyone is a publisher through social media and content marketing, PR pros can help their clients become thought leaders by self-publishing and curating on social media AND get picked up by major publications. Social media is more measurable, so if PR firms can project and measure results. You could say that social media and technology has reduced the role of the PR pro as the one with exclusive PR contacts, but it has also given great PR people better tools to leverage to get results faster.

  • by Lyndon Johnson Fri May 23, 2014 via web

    Hi Steve,

    I agree that content can be a valuable tool for PR, marketing and publicity - the challenge is to understand the fundamentals to be able to work out how to use content effectively to deliver the desired outcome. My experience, over the last 15+ years, is that there are very few good PR and marketing writers. Many people think they can write, but there is a big difference between putting words on a page and writing to elicit a specific response. Writing in the style of an individual or organization is also not something most can do well.

    My concern, specifically for my industry, is that agencies/consultancies are bolting on content creation/content marketing strategies because they see it as a way to make money - rather than understanding how to use it, or having the ability to deliver good quality content. The fact that a PR company now sees the future of the industry as marketing should be a red flag.

    The same can be said for storytelling - telling a story, and telling the right audience, to the right audience, at the right time and delivering it via the right delivery channel are two very different things. Most, I suspect are telling a story to anybody that will listen, rather than people that are likely to do business with them.

    Would love to hear your thoughts. Best wishes, L

  • by Lyndon Johnson Fri May 23, 2014 via web

    I agree Jen - some are adapting, but I don't think it is necessarily about the technology. The technology is easy to learn, whereas the fundamentals of PR takes time and experience.

    I don't believe that simply publishing content positions you as a thought-leader. I make the point that just because I blogged about being a 747 pilot wouldn't qualify me to fly the plane; it also doesn't mean that what I write is credible. It could be convincing if you know nothing, but to a real pilot it could be laughable.

    I'm in the process of writing something about the supposed third-party endorsement provided by the media and will record a PR Espresso http://thinkdifferently.ca/differently/category/pr-espresso about it. It's a fascinating topic.

    In terms of measurement and relationships - I think that the best metric for PR is the quality of the relationships as a result of PR activity. Relationships held by the customer, not managed by the agency/consultancy.

    I'd love to hear more about how you're measuring the value of social.

    Best wishes, Lyndon

  • by Tsotlhe Sejeso Sat Oct 10, 2015 via web

    beautiful information. but i need clarity on this topic here "why do you think PR is undervalued in some organisations?"

  • by Lyndon Sat Oct 10, 2015 via web

    Hi Tsotlhe,

    I think it is because companies have been conditioned not to expect value by the majority of PR firms.

    PR companies determine how much companies spend - asking prospects, 'what's your budget'. [Your budget has no relation to what you need to spend to get an outcome].
    PR companies determine what the outputs are by telling people it's about coverage and awareness. [It's not, it's about building and maintaining relationships]
    PR companies tell customers that measuring PR is difficult and complex. [It's not. It's very easy if you measure the right thing]

    As a result, companies have come to expect to pay a lot of money for something that isn't tied to commercial goals and that the likelihood of being able to quantify outputs is remote.

    I'm trying to fix it. I have a framework that helps businesses develop a strategy that is focused on achieving commercial outcomes; how remove risky assumptions, and how to measure progress.

    Please let me know if you have any more questions and if I can do anything else to help. You can reach me at lyndon@comms.bar or 647-773-2677.

    Best wishes,

    Lyndon

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