Survey finds most 'virtual practitioners' have extensive PR experience

Syracuse, NY: In a study on "virtual" PR and marketing communications, lecturer Richard Toth found virtual practitioners are predominantly professionals with 11 or more years in the field that by and large charge less than their traditional counterparts.

Syracuse, NY: In a study on "virtual" PR and marketing communications, lecturer Richard Toth found virtual practitioners are predominantly professionals with 11 or more years in the field that by and large charge less than their traditional counterparts.

The qualitative study was done in conjunction with a Syracuse University graduate program in information management. The survey involved 19 respondents among more than 70 practitioners in the Central New York and Washington, DC/Baltimore markets. The study defined "virtual pros" as those who predominately use technology in their meetings and/or comprise a 'virtual agency' where they partner with colleagues on a more informal basis than the tradition agency relationship. The 19 respondents filled out at least part of the questionnaire and returned their feedback by fax or e-mail before Toth's deadline.

Over two-thirds of the respondents have been in the profession 21 or more years and nearly all have 11 or more years of experience. Additionally, more than half have been practicing virtual PR for more than six years. Half said that they've had at least six clients in this function.

Toth, formerly an adjunct professor at Syracuse University who will lecture in the University of Maryland communications department starting this fall and serve as a consultant, said he expects this virtual trend to continue as baby boomers age and seasoned PR professionals look to assemble practices that benefit them in the latter stage of their careers. Additionally Toth thinks the use of technology in this manner is good instructional material for the next generation of PR professionals.

"As they enter their careers, they need to be aware of other things beyond what's traditionally in the textbook," he said.

He added: "One of the things that was most interesting [about the survey] was the real passion that I saw and heard from the participants."

Toth said the point of the survey was not that traditional agency work was ineffectual, but that there is another facet to the industry.

"[Virtual practitioners] like to have the choice that these virtual work teams provide, as well the choice of being able to work with diverse professionals. It's not the same organization all the time," Toth said.

The study found that virtual PR, as well as collaborative partnering among senior professionals, is evolving to meet new market challenges and opportunities. Practitioners cited cost-effectiveness, speed, accessibility, and flexibility as enhancements from using technology. Cons included forgoing face-to-face interaction and the difficulty in getting together in-person and coordinating styles and schedules with team members.

"Face-to-face time, no matter the situation, is still important," Toth said, adding that a client he spoke to said he was more likely to enter in a virtual relationship if he's had a fair amount of face-to-face communication.

"In particular, it's better if that [virtual] individual worked with the client in a traditional situation."

Laurie Mercer, an upstate NY PR practitioner and proponent of 'virtual agencies' was one of the respondents who found the technique refreshing. She works with 10 satellite professionals for a party supply store Party City franchise, with 11 locations in New York and Erie, PA. Toth handled the Syracuse area PR.

"There is a truth behind PR being regional to some extent," Mercer said.

She said she enjoyed the virtual agency set-up because it provides creative freedom.

"With an [traditional] agency, you tend to be in meetings and think the same way; this is a hit-the-ground running [approach]," Mercer said.

She said she was overwhelmed by the responses to the ads she placed in the local newspapers looking for PR professionals to handle the local store. The franchises were on their own to craft PR campaigns and, subsequently, needed better visibility, she said. The practitioners communicate daily via e-mail, phone and fax and have quarterly evaluations. Mercer serves as the direct contact for the franchise president John Gaffney.

In another situation, Toth said a virtual team he was a member of lost a potential Northeast-based client, whom he had worked with in a traditional setting in the past, to a Midwest-based traditional firm.

"The prospect was concerned with the team that didn't have a brick and mortar location and that the core group didn't have a shingle hanging for 15 years," Toth said. "It's going to take some risk-takers on both sides."

He conceded: "Maybe not having a formal name is part of the problem."

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