Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Is the Public Relations Bubble About to Burst?

A few weeks back the good people of the Publicity Club of New England invited me to speak on a panel with journalists from TechTarget, InformationWeek, and Mass High Tech, as well as a director from the PR agency Weber Shandwick

Ostensibly, the subject at hand was advice on launching a new technology product, but as is often the way with these kinds of events the conversation got tangential and we talked about a host of entirely unrelated topics. Things really got interesting when the journalists discussed the harsh realities of their working world. We all know that journalism is getting a beating these days and that the underlying economics of the news business stink, but hearing firsthand how threadbare tech journalism has become was shocking. The pool of professional journalists is evaporating fast.

Nor are new professionals entering the field. Earlier the same day I'd gone for lunch with an industry analyst, an old friend from my days teaching at university, who told me that journalism undergraduates are openly questioning what career future they have in an environment that places little value on professional news gathering.

None of this is new. What struck me, however, was the apparent nonchalance of the PR professionals attending the event. I'd argue that the wholesale destruction of professional journalism will have profound repercussions for PR pros, yet I don't see much concern.

The Hack/Flack relationship is symbiotic: If one disappears then arguably so goes the other. PR professionals, and especially PR agencies, need to rethink what value they deliver and how they fit in a new ecosystem for information gathering and sharing. Some thoughts:

  • The Content Kingdom?
    If journalism is crumbling, where will authoritative content come from? The question seems ridiculous, given that we're all drowning in a sea of conversations, a Babel of social media banter. Everyone's a journalist, right? The reality is more complex. Increasingly, creating credible, trusted content – developing a voice that is a part of the social media landscape – will be a critical part of PR. To my mind, this requires a degree of authenticity and originality that places a new burden on PR professionals to do what journalists have done.
  • How does news get transmitted?
    The age of mass media is dissolving so that most of us are exposed to numerous different sources of news and information, rather than a few monolithic and ubiquitous news organizations with formidable reach and influence. How information gets transmitted – and retransmitted – across a web of social connections is a problem that will plaque PR pros. In the old, massive media days, it was easy to operate within a limited network of gatekeepers, or push press releases out to a waiting audience. With this gone, PR pros need to think about how they can influence awareness and drive information transmission.
  • How do you measure success?
    One of benefits of our always on, always online world is that everything becomes visible and hence measurable. This is a boon to PR pros, who can make themselves more relevant and more effective by taking accountability for more meaningful business outcomes. Gone are the days when PR could measure activities and feel that is enough. And measuring nebulous levels of “awareness” is only a step in the right direction. PR pros need to meet real business goals – and take actions now to figure out how they can hold themselves accountable.

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