The PR industry is in a state of crisis. Most in the industry don’t realize it yet, but they feel it – at least subconsciously.
Time and attention are harder to earn than ever. The average client PR engagement ends far more quickly than it did even five years ago. Journalists don’t need to rely on PR professionals for access or information in the same manner as they did in the past.
The traditional press release has been hijacked and bastardized.
Moreover, the industry has been plagued by short-term thinking, an over-emphasis on the process of pitching and an under-emphasis on actual storytelling, a homogenization of tools and media databases and an overall lack of being able to prove its value.
There are several reasons for this.
The frustrating thing is that we all know PR works. It’s powerful and arguably more effective than any other promotional activity that exists. But it’s still broken at a deep and fundamental level.
The list of what needs to change or evolve is long. However, speaking from an agency point of view, the following rise to the top of the list:
We Need to Change What We Measure (and Kill the Impression)
We become what we measure, and in our industry, that means we’ve been reduced to impressions, actions and pitches. But by using only the quantifiable aspects of PR to measure our success, we have led the industry into an Orwellian alternate universe that’s doomed to fail. We’ve lost sight of the human side of our job: telling stories that change minds, hearts and behaviors.
We must break our addiction to the holy impression — and it won’t be easy. Clients, understandably, want to see tangible results for the work we do. And while impressions may seem like the best way to measure results, they paint an incomplete, inaccurate picture of our work.
To bring back the beauty, grace and effectiveness of PR, we must find a better way to measure our success.
We Need True Immersion
Truth is, because of client budget restrictions, our industry often doesn’t have the hours in our retainers to truly immerse ourselves in the brand – to come up with that story we’re trying to tell and package it in a way that speaks to humans authentically and meaningfully. We need to go beyond the idea of understanding our target audience or being able to recite product features and benefits and find ways to sympathize – empathize – and to truly connect and add value to our customers. But again, too often clients aren’t willing to pay for the amount of time that it actually takes. Which leads me to…
Lack of Integration and Rethinking the Paradigm of Earned, Owned and Paid
People don’t view the world through earned, owned or paid. We bucketize these things based on internal needs or budgets. PR can’t be truly effective if it’s not integrated with other disciplines.
What’s the big idea, and what will that experience look like to human eyes? How will that experience differ from channel to channel? It’s not just about being everywhere, it’s about being at the right place, in the right way, solving the right problem, at the right time. If we can’t take the time to “unbucketize” our brains and integrate our media approach once and for all, we’ll be slaves to the press release forever.
We Need to Be Experiential
Since non-marketer humans don’t view the world through a channel-driven lens, we need to create experiences that match the world the way they see and experience it. We need to create more experiential campaigns that utilize not just traditional PR programs, but larger human experiences. That means pushing PR to be bigger than just media outreach and integrating experiences both online and offline.
Pitching Versus Storytelling
Too often, we pitch “stories” that don’t tell any story at all. We send out a press release about a company’s slightly shinier widget, blasting countless journalists with news that isn’t news and wasting their time and energy.
Why do we insist on making this such a painful process for every party involved? Why have we taken the human element out of something that hangs its hat on relations? And why have we failed for so long to challenge the way that PR “works?”
We need to embrace the human-centered approach. We need to take a stand for something and let our beliefs guide our work. We need to sell our ideas the same way we’d sell ourselves: through truth, authenticity and telling a good fucking story.
Journalists are people. They’re busy. They care about their readers. We need to remember that. Respect that. We need to give them the same love and respect would we give our own customers.
We Need to Tell Interesting, True and Authentic Stories
People care about brand transparency more than ever. Studies prove it. They gravitate toward brands that are honest about where their products come from, how they’re made and how the brand is making the world a better place.
For PR professionals, it’s not just about telling authentic stories — it’s about creating them. It’s our job to be a force for good — to seek ways to give back to the public. Nearly half of Americans believe that brands aren’t as honest as they were 20 years ago, and that is a shame. Brands have the opportunity to do good. And campaigns like Coca-Cola’s Small World Machines and Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels do exactly that.
As PR professionals, it’s our responsibility to restore faith in brands — and the world at large.
Responsibility Without Authority
Another challenge is that PR agencies often don’t own the brand or brand messaging. It’s handed to us. We don’t shape it. We didn’t create it. Yet, we’re responsible for winning hearts and minds with limited tools and purview.
If we’re responsible for making the dinner, we should have a say in buying the groceries. But more often than not, we don’t have the opportunity to offer our creative and strategic skills. Instead, it goes like this: Here are the groceries. Here’s the cookbook. Here’s the fully cooked meal. Now go out, and make the world fall in love with this dish.
Retainers limit our thinking. They hold us hostage to the billable hour. They force us to think in terms of actions, not ideas.
They also become the weapon of choice of the time-police.
They are the ruiner of PR’s potential for good.
Retainers limit our hours, our thinking, our creativity and, inevitably, the efficacy of PR as a whole. They turn PR professionals into time-management machines and force us to think in terms of actions, impressions and other buzzwords that PR has come to be known for. We need to start setting and managing realistic expectations. Big, huge, brand-altering ideas can’t happen when we’re scrounging for hours.
Reliance on Tools and “Best Practices”
I hate a reliance on tools. They kill craftsmanship, authenticity, creativity, etc. when used as differentiators. It’s not the tool that is bad, it’s the reliance on the tool. They become crutches for the lazy and unimaginative.
Combine a reliance on tools with “best practices” and, at best, you simply level out the playing field (in an industry where one would hope to stand out).
We’ve become killers of big ideas and creative thinking. We’re enabling our laziness, not only as individuals, but as a whole industry. And this is drawing the wrong “talent.” We need to find new ways to use old tools. We need to find better “best practices.” And we need to reignite the passion for problem-solving in an industry that has LOTS of problems. Unimaginative rule-followers need not apply.
Reliance on Relationships
The velocity of change is intense. Simply knowing someone at XYZ publication doesn’t cut it anymore. Relationships are good, but stories are better. Never underestimate the value of capturing a stranger’s attention with a highly engaging, well-told story. Nine times out of ten, that will outdo the fact that you went to school with someone’s ex-roommate’s uncle.
The Bastardization and Misunderstanding of Social
There once was a time when brands were afraid to be on social. Now, everyone wants to be on every channel. But not every channel is appropriate for every brand. For example: Preparation H does not need a Snapchat filter.
It’s crucial that we stop abusing social media. Social media has become a major part of the practice of PR, and influencers can often be as valuable — or more valuable — than reporters. We need to use it selectively, strategically and to communicate openly and honestly — on the channels where we belong.
Lack of Knowledge and Understanding From Non-PR Professionals
Just because you can type doesn’t mean you can write the next great American novel. Just because you can swim doesn’t mean you can cross the English Channel. And just because you can send a press release doesn’t mean you can do great PR.
There’s a huge misconception about PR: that it’s so easy, anyone can do it. (Or worse: that it’s unnecessary.)
Where does that misconception come from? The success of PR isn’t easily measured, and perhaps that’s why it’s not respected as a “real,” strategic, specialized skill. Perception and reputation are difficult to quantify. But just because PR is elusive doesn’t mean it’s fluff. There’s a strategy and process behind everything we do, and it takes specialists to do it right.
If you work in PR, you’re no stranger to unrealistic expectations. Your client wants a placement on the front page of the New York Times. But is that the best place for their story to be told? Is it the right audience? Is the story they want to tell the right one? The best one?
Which leads me to my next point…
We Need to Say “No” More
An agency shouldn’t be its client’s yes-man or press release factory. A healthy client-agency relationship means working as partners. And sometimes, partners say “no.”
We need to say “no” more often — even when it hurts — because it’s in our clients’ best interests. Because we’re in it together.
That also means we need clients to trust our judgment and expertise — to allow us to craft bigger stories and experiences that will truly impact consumers’ behavior.
Where Does This Leave Us?
So, now we know what’s broken. Albeit from an agency perspective, but it’s a start. The big question is: how do we fix it?
The easy answer would be to try to address each one of the items above one by one. That’s an iterative exercise. At best, it would make things marginally better – for a short period of time – maybe.
The answer is simple and strikingly obvious in my opinion.
If Good PR Changes Hearts and Minds, Great PR Changes Behavior
Great PR changes behavior. Period.
Great PR changes behavior – and it should be measured by behavior. Great PR motivates. It makes us feel. It makes us think. It empowers. It educates. It inspires. It entertains. It changes humanity. It changes our expectations. It changes what we feel. What we believe. It changes society. It changes the human condition. It makes people happy. It changes our way of life.
We need to change and/or impact how humanity experiences a brand. We need to impact how people experience the world relative to a brand, category, our worldview.
That has many implications, but one huge one.
We Need to Take a Human-Centered PR Approach
The commonality between all of these points is this: we need to treat people like people. Whether they’re consumers, journalists or peers.
We need to respect consumers by making campaigns that entertain, educate and help make the world a better place. We need to make reporters’ jobs easier by bringing them big ideas. Creating “surprise and delight moments” that not only make reporters more receptive to receiving our correspondences, but also show that we appreciate and respect them. And we need to treat the client-agency relationship like a partnership, an integrated team — even though it will require trial, error and growing pains.
What All of this Means
In summary, the opportunity is there. Consumers distrust advertising. But they trust their own hearts and minds. They trust their friends and loved ones. They want and need a world that is based in authenticity and truth.
Public relations is a beautiful profession. But we must protect it. Guard it. Push it. We must bring PR into the digital age where consumers are empowered and brands (and agencies) truly have to earn their trust.
PR must redefine itself. It must reinvent itself. It must change and it must tell this change story. In short, we must bring all of our talents and skills to bear to do PR for the PR industry.