PR’s Branding Crisis

This article first appeared on Bub.blicio.us on August 13th, 2008. Since that time I’ve heard a tremendous amount of feedback from fellow PR and Marketing professionals who struggle with this very thing- gaining acceptance of PR’s expanding role into the realm of marketing and branding.
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This article has been brewing in my mind for five years but it just kind of sat there, not taking shape, only growing larger in substance. Two blog posts this week have kicked my ass in to gear to finally get initial thoughts down on (e)paper.

Steve Rubel, prominent blogger and, dare I say, PR person, started it off with this. Then Arrington followed up with this. Both completely reinforce what I’ve long believed:
PR has a branding crisis.

I’ve been in Tech PR for 10 years. I studied PR and communications in college after finding a natural affinity towards the field. The first 6 ½ years of my career was at PR agencies in Silicon Valley, beginning in 1998 right during the hay day. The only thing that mattered was getting press coverage. Everything moved so quickly that the way you proved immediate results for that boat load of money they were throwing at you was by the thud factor, or clip book, as it’s more commonly known.

There was no patience for PR strategy that involved developing deep relationships with customers to turn them into advocates for your brand. The Internet was pretty nascent to most of America so there was no reaching customers directly or being in engaged in blogging and social media. It was all press all the time. With some analysts thrown in forendorsement.

After only four years into my PR career I saw how narrow the definition of “PR” was. Clients would come to us to promote their companies but it was always through the media and rarely through non-traditional “PR” avenues. I witnessed time after time the demand from my clients for creativity in campaigns and promoting the company but some of the best ideas generated to directly connect with the audience were shot down if it didn’t guarantee press coverage. This, to me, missed the point of what PR should ultimately be used for.

I vocalize constantly that the old-school view of PR is really just today’s “media relations.” What PR should be known for is employing a multi-tiered approach to reaching customers with media as one avenue. Also known as marketing if you look at traditional tactical definitions.

Due to the increase of noise everywhere it became harder to establish brand, which 10 years ago people thought media relations could do. Which it doesn’t. Clearly. As hundreds if not thousands of dot.com’s can attest. Eyeballs and general awareness of your company does not create critical mass quantities of customers without continuous work on many fronts beyond media relation’s activities.

Media serves the purpose of informing but it does not provide an opportunity to engage with your brand, which is what PR should be. The profession is slowly getting there, if the market will let it.

The past five years PR and marketing services have converged with the “PR” (read: media relations) aspect becoming a pillar underneath a much larger arsenal of New PR tactics to deliver messages, connect with consumers and build business.

A “PR” person in today’s business climate should know how to promote a company or product through the media but also employ broader “marketing” tactics into strategies like market research and customer surveys to aid product development, message refinement and, yes, pitching to the media.

They should incorporate online marketing tactics like videos that show inside the company, marketing promotion partnerships, customer events and experiences and blogger relations (an entirely separate topic.)

Or employ more traditional marketing tactics like street marketing, direct mailers to customers and influencers or by creating event experiences that allow interaction with the company and products. All of these activities serve what the real goal of “new PR” should be — building your brand, engaging current and potential customers, and aiding the growth of the business.

Most business executives, entrepreneurs and VCs I meet and know are clueless as to the many activities of PR. I know I’ve opened the eyes of more than a few to the amount of work across multiple levels it really is. When done well and done right the amount of influence your PR person should be able to wield across all aspects of your business should make them your secret weapon.

PR = Flack, Spin, Bullshit, Avoidance, Manipulation

Thanks to, well, a lot of things PR is now a dirty word. I thought it still stood for “Public Relations.” As in, you know, relating to the public, via any means necessary but that’s not the general understanding and perception within the broader business community. Fabulous role models have shaped this enjoyable stereotype of being someone who is full of manipulation and acts mainly as a mouthpiece. Publicists hiding their Hollywood clients, press secretaries spinning off un-preferred questions, tech PR execs buried in client work with no time to research as deeply as they’d like (much like the over-worked media we deal with) or flacks sent out to act as a shield (often assumed, and rightly so, to hide some dirty laundry with vague statements that only incite more speculation.)
PR agencies love to preach “out of the box” thinking but at the end of the day are largely media relations shops, adding fuel to the media bitch-fire that we’re roasted over.
PR execs are not being adequately trained to approach client or in-house strategy with a big-picture communications p.o.v. This creates scores of short-sighted managers who then in turn mentor and create equally ignorant execs.

Meanwhile, the “media” continue to be sick of us but know that having a couple solid PR resources in your back pocket is a little bit of gold.

And then you have the companies, the executives and investors who make it difficult for New PR people to spread their little communication wings and fly off and make magic happen. Instead, because they often don’t have an understanding of the significance and impact of all these new communication outlets, they kibosh things that don’t seem like “PR,” because they won’t result in “media coverage.”

There is a massive education process that needs to occur and it needs to happen across several industry levels. So, really it’s much more than a branding problem, isn’t it?
I think New PR needs some New PR.

In closing I open it up to you with two questions:

1) If “Old PR” is largely media relations but isn’t called MR for media relations and “New PR” is taking more of a “marketing” approach by incorporating customer engagement activities, what does the term “PR” even mean anymore?

2) What is needed to create a universal definition of the role of a “PR person” and is that even possible when the perception offshore merchant account of what PR is is splintered within the industry itself?

I look forward to the dialogue.
Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “PR’s Branding Crisis

  1. I enjoyed reading your post and agree wholeheartedly with everything.
    I so wish that you added an RSS Feed to your WordPress site so that I can add it to my feed. It’s wishful thinking of myself that I will remember to check back to read your blog one, two or three months from now! Great work Nicole.

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