PR pros are poised to prevail in today's digital age

In an April Ad Age cover story, "The Chaos Scenario," Bob Garfield explains why advertising is in trouble and, unintentionally, sounds the rallying cry for PR pros everywhere.

In an April Ad Age cover story, "The Chaos Scenario," Bob Garfield explains why advertising is in trouble and, unintentionally, sounds the rallying cry for PR pros everywhere.

He writes, "Fragmentation, the bane of network TV and mass marketers everywhere, will become the Holy Grail, the opportunity to reach - and have a conversation with - small clusters of consumers who are not consuming what is force-fed them, but exactly what they want." Sounds like what we've been doing in PR for more than a century.

So how will we answer this rallying cry? Before you respond, it's important to set the context for where our profession is now. Today, in the digital age, clusters can number in the thousands, each having as much influence on a client's brand as a top trade title had just five years ago.

PR has always focused on influencing opinion by connecting closely through dialogue and ensuring key messages resonate clearly - from journalist to reader, reader to friend, friend to friend, and so on. For morphed PR pros, establishing traction within digital spheres is a natural step in the craft's evolution.

Certainly, paid media (advertising, sponsorships, etc.) has its place in the marketing toolkit, but some of the most exciting innovation is occurring on the unpaid side, primarily in PR. In fact, no bucket in the marketing mix will morph more in the coming years than PR. To speak of ascendancy is not hyperbolic.

The digital ecosystem is a new landscape with sites, sounds, images, and emotion. A brand's essence can now link to the events and moods of the day, even the moment. For marketers, this requires different skills, for sure, and a different approach to planning and execution.

In the future, PR pros will be constituency managers who identify, analyze, and interact with each of the micro-segments that relate to a client's brand.

So which skills will be most useful? For starters, we'll need to better understand both the constituents and communities, how they form, how our client's brand will interact, and how to moderate and modulate dialogue within. Sure, tools to screen, filter, and self-select give the consumer unprecedented control over the nature of the dialogue, but that's a small price to pay to establish a more meaningful connection with your brand. That connection is rooted in dialogue, and the stronger the dialogue, the stronger the brand.

Few would argue the impact digital channels have on how clients are perceived. Micro sites, blogs, online social networks, and viral campaigns launched over wireless networks are some of the new tools. But aren't ad agencies and interactive shops already driving programming in these channels? Yes, on the "paid" side, through banner and blog ads, for example, there is significant activity, but on the "unpaid" side, we have an opportunity to innovate and succeed.

What makes our unpaid influence different? Consumers despise loud messages, unwelcome come-ons, hyperbole, and unsupported claims more than ever because they have the power to block them. In the dichotomy of the ad side of the house versus the editorial side, think of unpaid digital communications as the editorial side; only now editors number in the millions. Tapping the constituent media sources within these digital spheres of influence will strengthen dialogue as effectively as traditional media relations has done for more than 100 years. Because of its immediacy, it may even be more effective.

As we enter the third phase of the web - the "social web" - PR finally has its shining moment. Phase one of the web, which focused on website building, and phase two, the growth of e-commerce and search, were tailor-made for ad agencies (and so- called interactive agencies). PR, however, could not truly capitalize on the web as a vehicle until it became social, a buzzing hive of conversations, opinions, customer-driven news, and widely dispersed insights. Within the social web, PR pros are better equipped; our programming and tools - from news creation and opinion pieces to customer stories and editorials - have always been about stimulating and sustaining frank conversations with real people in a style, time, and place most relevant to them.

But PR's rise will not be easy. Building dialogue inside the social web, traditionally and digitally, requires new skills. PR pros must embrace constituency management, develop micro-segmentation expertise, drive decisions with data, use analytics to align PR results to business goals, and embed technology into the core. Communicating to a media list of thousands takes more planning, innovation, diligence, creativity, commitment, openness, and awareness than is now required to crank out another press release or e-mail pitch.

PR will get harder before it gets better, but today's PR pros will do something special; they will be the generation that redefines a noble craft.

  • Larry Weber is chairman of W2 Group.

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