Eighty-three years ago, Edward Bernays defined PR as "influencing people, persuading people, and integrating people with people." If Bernays were alive today, he'd be very confident about the future of our profession.
"If influence, ultimately, is what PR is all about, then we've never had a better time to play that game than we have right now," asserts Jeffrey Rayport, a former Harvard Business School professor and chairman of Marketspace. At the Council of PR Firms' 2006 Critical Issues Forum earlier this month, it was clear that many pros share that optimism about PR's future, despite fierce challenges from traditional media rivals like ad agencies and fresh new-media agency upstarts.
Rayport served as the forum's facilitator and set the stage for discussions by noting that PR - with revenues of nearly $4 billion in 2005 - plays a key but non-dominant role in the overall US marketing communications mix with its $475 billion annual spend. And he raised the day's question: What is the future of PR in a post-mass media world?
The forum offered a rich spectrum of perspectives from advertising experts, mainstream media leaders, online and word-of-mouth gurus, and champions of both physical, tangible brand expressions and their "Second Life" counterparts. And what did they advise?
Awaken. Seize the realities of the dynamic, constantly changing media landscape, where consumers are in the driver's seat and news is reported constantly through channels that seem to multiply overnight. In this climate, PR can excel. Ours is the only marketing communications medium that interacts fluidly with the types of uncontrolled consumer conversations occurring today. And our principles of accuracy, transparency, and ethical behavior have never been more important.
Advocate. We must continue to uphold these principles in our own firms. As Suzanne Vranica, marketing reporter for The Wall Street Journal, put it: "We can rush to the future, but we must fix the problems that got us in trouble in the old media... Problems are far greater in the new media because of the velocity of change."
Acknowledge. Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz claimed, "The greater risk now is that we underestimate how significant the changes are." Bob Liodice, Association of National Advertisers CEO, added, "Consumers are in control, clearly and completely. Marketers are learning to change, adapt, and let go of what was once important."
Educate. Most practitioners recognize they must do a better job of educating their clients. Paul Taylor of the Financial Times claimed, "It's now unusual for a day to pass without a story originating online, often from a blog and sometimes from YouTube." And consumers are already integrated. Word-of-mouth authority Ed Keller notes that half of all conversations about brands include some reference to another medium, such as advertising and editorial material.
Innovate. Thanks to technological advances, PR can now employ powerful tools that can truly accomplish the mission that Bernays established for it: to change social behaviors. We need to be at the forefront of creative campaigns that employ targeted, strategic messages through all the new channels - and then measure their effectiveness in a way that marketers and reputation managers can respect.
Today we're in "Boom 2.0" - our media now are wired people, social networking and consumer-generated, interdependent communications. We will help rewire the way human beings connect to each other, how they talk about our clients and their brands. And we will do so in a way that ensures trust and authenticity prevail.
Abby Gouverneur Carr is a principal of Bliss Gouverneur & Associates and is chair of the Council's Agency Management Committee.
The Council is dedicated to strengthening the recognition and role of PR firms in corporate strategy, business performance, and social education, serving as an authoritative source of information and expert comment and helping set standards for the PR industry. For more information, call 1-877-PRFIRMS or visit our Web site at www. prfirms.org.
This column is contributed and paid for by the Council of PR Firms.