PR is a people business. Relationships, creativity, and strategy may be enabled through technology, but the essence of public relations can only come from the human experience.
As such, it is no small wonder that PR service companies - not the corporate PR departments, the agencies, or the pure technologists, but those organizations who assist in media targeting, release production and distribution, and the gathering and analysis of news and news materials - are the true innovators.
How then does one explain the paradox commonly experienced at conference exhibit areas where aisles are empty or attendees somehow walk an imaginary middle-line for fear that they might be approached by a service company rep? It's difficult to say since the PR service companies' success is inextricably linked to the success of the profession it serves.
Consider that service companies have taken the profession from Addressograph plates to satellite distribution, from clip books to sophisticated statistical modeling, and from the mail to the internet. Tens of millions of dollars - perhaps more than $100 million collectively - have been invested in innovating contact management, production, distribution, clipping, and research and evaluation.
Over time, the growth of PR service companies mirrors the evolution of the profession.
In the late '50s and early '60s, this "people business" became big enough to support a level of outsourcing-services to handle the non-relationship elements of the day-to-day: there were the newswires, the release reproduction and distribution services, and the clipping services. In the early '60s came the first computerized clipping tabulation service. These service categories tended to be media-driven, applying emerging technology to meet the evolving demands of PR people in their quest for visibility within the media and among journalists. PR pros made one-to-one relationships with journalists. Service companies did the heavy lifting.
Over time, the heavy lifters continued to evolve while simultaneously elevating the profession. For example, as recently as the early 1980s, broadcast PR was still heavily dependent on mail. At that time, during which it was becoming clear that US news consumption habits were shifting towards TV rather than the evening paper, satellite delivery of video was introduced to more appropriately reflect the needs of television news decision-makers who opted against static, paper-based releases and out-of-date video tapes.
Another example is in the area of media research in PR. Back in the '60s, PR Data employed giant mainframe computers to tabulate circulation, and, believe it or not, black adhesive tape was used to create bar charts on grid paper. Reports could only be used as historical retrospectives since they were delivered months after the end of a given period.
Now technology is used to accurately and consistently analyze as many as 10,000 news items overnight, a rate roughly 1,000 times faster than what humans could produce without the aid of computers.
The internet clearly represents how PR has been forced to adapt technologically. The underlying driver here, as in previous examples, is the increased velocity of business: speed, accessibility, and flexibility are all fundamentals of business today in ways that were hardly imaginable just ten years ago.
How far can innovation go? How automated can PR be? Just as the introduction of the telephone enabled relationships to be maintained and forged in revolutionary new ways in the early 20th century, the letter-writers who preceded phone-dialers seemed to relate with one another pretty well before phones existed. Technological innovations among PR service companies are abundant, but there remain human elements which computers will never be able to replace. Total automation is not in the best interest of clients as it falls short in its limited abilities for interpretation and nuance. As Albert Einstein once said, "Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination."
Without question, the PR profession will continue to benefit from the innovations provided by service companies in their quest to support the industry. But innovation cannot alter the essential human elements of a process which is built on creating and managing relationships.
So the next time you're walking down the aisle at a PR conference exhibit hall, venture to the left or right; engage service company representatives as the messengers of positive change that they are. Be comfortable reaching out knowing that a service or a technology can only aid you in your ability to accomplish what you as a PR professional can accomplish uniquely - only faster, more consistently, and with greater flexibility.