EDITORIAL: Hi-tech PR: was it all froth and hype?

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

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