No, no, trust me: the purpose of PR is dead

Gosh, what a load of hand-wringing fuss about Robert Phillips' book Trust Me, PR is Dead.

Comms experts need to reinvent themselves to survive, says Adrian Michaels
Comms experts need to reinvent themselves to survive, says Adrian Michaels
If you talk about PR as spin over substance, of prattle over probity, of trite over trust, then I agree that its practitioners may be found wanting.

It’s also true, as Phillips says, that PR people have lost opportunities to thrive, have weakly embraced opportunities to measure their worth and much else besides.

But for me these are not the most important points. I’d like to kick PR from a completely different direction, with a potentially quicker fatal blow. I think the actual purpose of PR, at least as far as corporate clients are concerned, is dead.

Let’s try to remember what PR, from a business perspective, is all about. Traditional media outreach involves a company thinking of a decent tale to tell, and then having its PR experts or hired helps try to interest a journalist enough to write it.

Job done? No. 

What was the point of all that endless flirting in overpriced restaurants? The company’s name may be mentioned in the FT and framed on the CEO’s wall, well done on that; but what a waste of time and money unless customers see the article and buy more stuff from you.

It’s that last part that seems often to have been forgotten.

And why then is the purpose of PR dead? 

Because the advent and explosive growth of content marketing means that companies can talk directly to their target audiences without the disintermediation of uninterested journalists.

Companies now come up with the stories and write them for themselves. They are published on their own sites or social media platforms. 

That grating and squealing sound you can hear of handbrakes being applied at high speed is PR agencies repositioning as content-production specialists. 

But you shouldn’t ask press release jockeys to produce professional journalism when you can ask professional journalists.

If it’s journalism that companies most need now, traditional PR outreach has also been turned on its head. 

The task today is to tell influential people such as bloggers and people with large Twitter followings where the stories can be found, once they have already been written. 

Companies are becoming recognised as publishers of digital magazines, as experts in their fields.
And where do the skills usually found at a PR agency fit into that?

I say "usually", because the best PR people are realigning their skills successfully. 

Many agencies already have experienced journalists in-house. And of course media outreach is still valid in the mix of your strategies. 

I was unforgivably spinning when I said its purpose was dead. It is still twitching. 

But apart from in a crisis, or a large merger announcement, PR experts will have trouble finding a journalist to talk to. 

You may have noticed that newspapers are very thinly staffed. Soft business features hardly ever make it into the national press.

As your doomed search for journalists with time and interest plays out, you could have written half a dozen stories, created a web page or LinkedIn group for them online, made the words look and read beautifully and published the lot. 

Then you could have spent a little on some paid-for search or placement, some outreach to bloggers and others, and watched the traffic arrive. More traffic, more leads. More leads, more sales. 

That was the whole point of this expenditure.

There are obstacles of course. Doing your own content means being able to pull off proper journalism and having a newsroom mentality that can turn your marketing goals into compelling editorial at the right frequency. 

In my world, I don’t much care that PR has spun itself into a corner. 

A more important challenge for comms experts is that they reinvent themselves in the age of content marketing. 

If their offering and skills are not relevant to their clients, then you may as well turn off the life support.

Adrian Michaels was an editor, writer and correspondent for the Financial Times and the Telegraph before founding FirstWord Media

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