Nothing in recent years has done more to raise the credibility of
PR than the dot-com revolution. Old economy companies had to take note
when they could see the soaring valuations and acres of ink that these
new economy companies generated, fueled as they were by skillful media
and analyst manipulation. PR became the marketing discipline of choice
for the dot-coms. It was a 'strategic' business partner for the VCs. A
hi-tech PR heroine even graced the cover of Fortune.
Now, as we look back - as the dot-coms have finally been exposed for the
froth and hype that everyone now acknowledges them, for the most part,
to be - where does that leave PR? Does the dot-com phenomenon not, in
turn, expose PR to accusations that - far from being a strategic
business partner - PR was just the froth and hype machine?
Or at the very least, that it was a partner in the froth and hype?
There has been some soul-searching in the advertising community. Writing
in Advertising Age last month, publisher Rance Crain said that 'last
year's dot-com advertising burst did colossal damage to advertising's
reputation among the nation's CEOs.' He continued, 'The dot-com
advertising was so pointless, so stupid, so tasteless, that it shook the
faith of corporate chieftains in the power of advertising for their own
brands. Corporations don't have much faith in the ability of advertising
to sustain their business.'
Similar questions have been (rightly) raised about the credibility of
Wall Street, with last week's Fortune cover posing the provocative
question: 'Can we ever trust Wall Street again?'
But while many PR practitioners are currently licking their wounds at
the loss of revenue and jobs this year in the PR community, there has
been an almost total absence of self-examination as to both the moral
and business implications that follow on from the dot-com failure.
The knee-jerk reaction within the PR community has been to blame Wall
Street and to portray PR as simply an innocent storyteller for the
impact that the Internet (and specific Internet-based businesses) is
having/will have on the way we live. But if PR is supposed to be the
conscience of a company, was it not PR's role to question the paper-thin
business models and to counsel against a quick-buck, gold rush
mentality? And if PR is about the marriage of perception with reality,
where were the disinterested PR counselors to point out the enormous
gulf between perception and reality?
In a speech called 'The Waterloo of New Economy Marketing' delivered at
a PRWeek conference in London earlier this month, Edelman CEO Richard
Edelman argued that the dot-com phenomenon was a 'Perfect Storm,' with
VCs, investment banks, Web site consultants, ad agencies, the media and
investors all playing a part. But Edelman also argued that PR must bear
some of the responsibility for, as he put it, 'putting buzz before
beef,' 'failing to demand accountability and to test the claims,' and
'canonizing the role of the CEO.'
Edelman was brave to stick his head above the parapet. This is an issue
that needs to be aired. PR has some thinking to do. Because otherwise,
the age-old accusation of hype and froth will stand