What goes online

A simple mathematical equation in an uncomplicated world might go something like this: As traditional media outlets approach zero, so does the influence (and number) of public relations firms.

A simple mathematical equation in an uncomplicated world might go something like this: As traditional media outlets approach zero, so does the influence (and number) of public relations firms.

A simple mathematical equation in an uncomplicated world might go something like this: As traditional media outlets approach zero, so does the influence [and number] of public relations firms. The two entities, so it has been decreed by detractors, forged an allegiance near the River Styx to work together to the ends of time, to inform the public (for better or worse) and limit publishing to those with snooty journalism degrees. The plan was going smashingly, until some people (the names of whom depend on what time in the day you look at Wikipedia) created new publishing tools to empower the consumers and, in the process, devalue the traditional informational gatekeeper and its best friend, the PR agency.

Of course, if any story in the world were that easy to tell, then the world would not need PR agencies or marketers or even the press. Everything could be neatly summed up in a global, bi-monthly newsletter.

So it's safe to say that threats to the traditional subscription-supported media do not directly constitute an equal threat the public relations market. It's not just sloganeering that public relations is more than media relations. If PR was merely media relations, PRWeek would include one section (pitching the media) and no more than 30 readers (each one of our staff's mothers). Secondly, even if we were to take this misinformed theory and assume that media fragmentation will continue, then the business of media relations is shaping up to become even more complex over the next couple of years. It's lot harder getting your word out to 30 outlets than one.

As everyone reading this well knows, the business of PR is to assist all levels of an organization with communications support. As much as I would love for the public relations business model to switch over to more hand-to-hand combat (think of the riotous happy hours), sadly PR will continue to be mostly about communications (perhaps, some eye gouging? No?).

This is abundantly clear: the fragmentation of the media landscape has increased the need for companies to understand how to communicate effectively. Eyeballs are everywhere, and it takes a whole lot more today to reach critical mass.

But there are doubters abound, who think that the PR industry is scheduled for a shakeout. Tom Foremski, famously one of the first mainstream writers to switch to blogging, has questioned why the PR industry hasn't experienced the same fallout that the journalism industry has.

He writes at Silicon Valley Watcher, "PR agencies are hiring, they are making money, while the media sector is rapidly falling apart. Online advertising is disrupting mainstream media and blogging will disrupt the PR industry. Yet the PR industry is saying everything is okay. That is like the man falling past the 33rd floor of building heard saying, "No problem so far..." Jam tomorrow [smiley face omitted]."

Foremski boasts: "I remain unconvinced that PR can justify a larger spend when the media sector continues to decline."

First of all, the PR spend is miniscule compared to ad buys. True, public relations has traditionally experienced difficulties with measurement, but technology is changing that. CEOs have begun moving communications professionals to the C-suite at such a rate that PRWeek have the words "newly-created position" as a keyboard shortcut. And yet, communications expertise is still currently undervalued. Marketing budget-conscious Fortune 500 would be foolish to slash PR budgets in half (from high seven-figures to low seven-figures) while keeping a $40 million ad spend. The marketing shave, if any, will come from traditional advertising.

In another post, Foremski adds: "The winners in the new communications/new media sectors will be new companies, or what I call new rules enterprises. New rules companies are new, and they are formed around the emerging new business models."

In this new business model, Foremski talks about starting with the lowest cost business model and growing as the business grows. Foremski, who also asserted that he could disrupt Business Wire's business model, is predicting a cataclysm. And, as his previous comments evidenced, everything is currently going smashingly for the professional. So he, much like other blog enthusiasts who predict similar fates, can shake their fists, shouting, "Just you wait," while they, in turn, wait for their appropriate trophy kill.

But nearly every time an account goes up for review, it's one of those dinosaurs that were, perhaps, slower to appreciate the influence of the online market that wins the bid. Allow me to postulate why: the behind the scenes pitching (and work) done by these large firms today demonstrates more knowledge of the landscape than might be gleaned from their paucity of blogs or podcasts.

A Fortune 500 executive once said this to me, talking about potential agencies, "They don't have to maintain their own blog, but if I say, 'Technorati,' and they don't know what I'm talking about, the interview is over."

The other reason why the large agencies are winning Web 2.0 is education: they're either sending their employees to conferences or hiring talent from smaller agencies.

Well-read PR blogger Jeremy Pepper joined Weber Shandwick from his own firm Pop PR! There's a lingering rumor that another major PR blogger has interviewed at a large agency. Why would these blogging PR professionals jump towards shrinking ships?

When asked, Pepper wrote this, "While I enjoyed working at my agency, the fact is that I am not going to affect change from Phoenix. The best way to affect change is from within, and by being a part of one of the largest PR firms in the world, I hope to be able to help move PR forward for both the agency and its clients."

Nearly all the major agencies survived Web 1.0; no one has convinced me why Web 2.0 should be any different. The fact is that Web 2.0, as dramatically as it seems to progress, is not doing so quick enough to displace the incumbents. Pretty much everyone is up to speed on the environment. And, if they're not, enough people on their team are to carry the rest. Doubters may protest, but the Goliath stories amongst the Davids will be in the plenitude, even in this new communications space.

What goes online is PRWeek.com editor Keith O'Brien's bi-weekly column on how technology is changing how companies interact with and position their wares to consumers. Keith can be reached at keith.obrien@prweek.com.

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