Do PR agencies need to adapt or die?

Darika Ahrens at Forrester has blogged that that changing nature of ‘interactive marketing’ has the potential to make PR agencies largely irrelevant:

Why is PR at risk of losing their seat at the interactive table?

  • Traditional media decreasing in relevancy
  • Frontline ‘public relations’ online moving in-house
  • PR agencies tend to lack specialised service
  • Interactive marketing spend is dominated by Search and Paid advertising

She believes that the answer to the ‘problem’ facing PR agencies, among other things, is to build their search engine capabilities.

I haven’t seen the reaction to this yet though I’m sure there’ll be much breathless discussion of the topic across Twitter.

I have two core thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, ‘traditional PR’ is not dying as quickly as (it’s ever) been forecasted.  The reality is that traditional media still drives the majority of news cycles and much of the emerging online news is driven by key, identifiable influencers.  As a result the core PR business will survive for the time being.

Secondly, do PR agencies need to review the services they are offering and the skills of their people? Well that question isn’t reserved just for PR agencies.  Every PR and marketing professional needs to review their skills and capabilities in view of the new ways people are finding, sharing and creating information online. PR agencies are no different, they need to match the need for traditional services with services that address changing models of influence.  That’s their business.

The model for online marketing is evolving and changing in step with consumer consumption habits.  The idea that ‘interactive agencies’ will simply replace PR firms is at best a long shot and at worst a fallacy.

We live in interesting times.  One of the most enjoyable elements of a career in Public Relations is the constant need to change and adapt. The past ten years has shown me that change never takes place as quickly as people expect, but that change does happen. It’s not just PR firms that need to be actively looking at how the models of influence are changing, it’s every marketers’ challenge.


Today’s a busy day for the PR agency love meme. Haydn Shaughnessy over at Forbes has an interesting post on what PR companies are doing wrong.

The intersection of marketing, PR and CSR

I’ve been reading a variety of stories (links below) recently about Marketing, PR and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the one thing that became very apparent is that there’s a lot of disagreement and perhaps no little confusion about the intersection of Marketing/PR and CSR. In fact I found myself agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure with many of the opinions voiced in these stories.

This post isn’t an attempt to provide a complete view of these issues but I hope it outlines a number of things to consider when you’re thinking about CSR and how it fits with Marketing and PR.

CSR is a strategic business commitment

First off, let’s be really clear. CSR is not a marketing program or a campaign. CSR is a strategic commitment a company makes recognizing its role and responsibilities. You could think of this commitment in two major buckets – and this taxonomy is influenced by my employer’s view of CSR but is no less relevant because of that.

1) Working responsibly – a commitment by an organization to operate within the legal and social regulations as an integrated part of doing business. This encompasses adhering to legal requirements, being a great employer, enforcing strong corporate governance, and taking responsibility for working towards creating a sustainable enterprise.

2) Serving communities – a recognition that companies are made of up real people who live in local communities and that corporations can bring their resources to bear for positive social impact. This includes but is not limited to philanthropy and employee giving.

A CSR commitment requires resources, commitment and transparency. It must permeate the business and it must be both encouraged and enforced. It’s a long term commitment. Don’t make the mistake of dressing up a cause marketing campaign (see below) as “CSR”. It’s a sure fire way to damage your brand, your business and your goodwill.

PR is not CSR and vice versa

I am frankly alarmed when I see people increasingly equating PR and CSR as one. This is a fallacy. PR is about how a company reaches, communicates and informs its audiences from staff, to media, to customers, partners, stockholders and communities. That’s not to say that PR people can’t bring value to CSR. They can. The PR function has an inherent understanding of the perception challenges facing an organization, they can advise and support. When appropriate PR can help organizations communicate to their stakeholders about CSR. But the two aren’t the same. If CSR is done solely for the purpose of PR, it’s not CSR.

Cause marketing is not CSR

Cause marketing is a form of marketing where for profit and nonprofit organizations come together for mutual benefit. For example a company provides a donation to a nonprofit for each order made by a customer. The key thing to remember here is that it’s a type of marketing. It’s not CSR. It can be part of a CSR program, but not the whole.

Philanthropy is not CSR

Presenting a large cardboard check (or cheque) to a local nonprofit is not CSR. It’s philanthropy. As per my outline above, when it’s done effectively it’s part of CSR, but that doesn’t make it CSR. The most effective philanthropy is strategic. It ties back to the organization’s core business strategy. It is focused on creating positive, real, sustained change over time. It’s not a quick, one off check to the local animal refuge.

Organizations should promote their CSR commitment

Many organizations remain reticent about promoting their CSR efforts. Many worry about the potential negative backlash. I don’t agree. Increasingly customers and stakeholders will demand more information about how organizations are being responsible, not less. As long as CSR is a strategic, real, long-term commitment, then organizations shouldn’t be concerned about appropriate communication of that work. If you’re interested in a great introduction to this subject, I’d recommend Kellie McElhaney’s book Just Good Business.

Read on…

Social Media? Relax and Enjoy it..

As you might know, I’m not shy about sharing my often strong views on the shortcomings of many of the self styled social media gurus.

Recently, due to work and family commitments -  sometimes referred to as the real world -  my consumption and participation in social media has been extremely limited.  The upshot was that I spent time away from the gurus, and you know what? It was fantastic.

Twitter in particular has matured into a brilliant and smart, yet simple channel for finding and sharing information and connecting with people.  I haven’t seen Twitter’s recent usage numbers but I have been impressed with how many people have now jumped in.

So I learned my lesson.  Stay away from the hype and spend more time with real people, who are far more interesting, less annoying and often talk a lot more sense. Thankfully there are load of these individuals in every walk of life discussing whatever you’re interested in. 

Social media has become enjoyable once again.

Similarly I have changed my podcasting habits.  In addition to the traditional (Irish, British and American) radio shows I’ve always listened to, I’ve weaned myself off the usual breathless, hyperbole-filled inner circle stuff and now I’m just investing time in the real-world.

One social media related podcast I do like is Marketing over Coffee which is hosted by John J. Wall and Christopher Penn. It covers social media but from a different perspective. Instead of endless navel gazing they discuss how traditional marketing and social media can be used to engage with people, drive leads, create business opportunities etc. image

In other words they talk about how social media can work in the real world.  The casual discussion format is great and a nice departure from the usual social media podcast.  Give it a listen.

So, here’s a question for you.

What other real world PR and marketing podcasts, blogs, and twitter handles am I missing?

Let me know.


Relax, PR will be around long after the hype has gone

Sometimes you happen upon a blog post title in your RSS reader (yep I’m old school) that grabs your attention. 

Great headlines work.

Unfortunately you then read the post and find it has the consistency of a marshmallow, it’s gooey and melts away pretty quickly and has little substance.

That was my reaction to to David Armano’s post: Does PR have a Future?

Now let me say up front that I’ve read and watched a lot of David’s content and opinions and I’m not questioning that he brings a lot of insight, and value to the whole social media discussion, but this post isn’t one of his high spots.

I thought it was a good excuse to address some of the PR and social media related observations you see expressed regularly.

Social media is increasingly being used across business – yes it is because social media is a set of tools and channels that can add business value in a number of areas including marketing, investor relations, research, sales and customer support.

Social media is the most important thing to business – no, I’m afraid not.  It is of course important and useful, but you’ll find that financial management, creating great products, attracting and retaining great staff, providing great services and many other functions remain as important as ever – and arguably more important than some tools and channels. Will we no longer need sales people because ‘we’re all sales people’ and we’ll just put the products up on Facebook? Really?

Marketing/PR is dead, dying or going away – are you mad? Yes social media provides a great human interface to a company, yes it’s a powerful set of tools to reach and engage with people, but guess what, we still need people focused on the strategic imperatives of an organization, we still need people thinking beyond 140 characters.  When someone has an issue, what will they do? Will it be a great experience to send a random tweet in the hope it reaches someone who can help them? Really?

Everyone is a spokesperson – Firstly, I really marvel at how we make comments that ‘each employee becomes a representative of the company every time they engage in public’ like this is something new. It’s not. Of course social media amplifies the impact, but it’s not a eureka moment.  It presents opportunities and challenges for employees and companies, but how does it negate the need for professional communicators? Is this the transformation of product planning to an infinite number of employees in a room banging away on social media?

Businesses are becoming more social and rigid job descriptions will go away – OK businesses are becoming more social, but do we really think that everyone will move into a mass of generalist roles where we spend some of our day doing different jobs? How do we think that’s manageable? How do we think that’s a great idea? Why do we think that social media tools outweigh the value of real world experience, insight and knowledge? It doesn’t.

David closes by saying:

If "everyone" is a spokesperson to some degree—does public relations cease to exist? It’s probably not that simple since the reality is that "communications" will not end up as a free for all activity, but as something which evolves into more than just communicating but also interacting. In my mind—the key is relationships. Manage the relationships between all critical stakeholders who can make or break your business, and you hold the key to a more sustainable way of doing business. Sound like PR?

He’s right no it’s not that simple. There won’t be a free for all.  And yes PR is about managing relationships, it’s also about communications, it’s about problem solving, it’s about strategy, it’s about hard decisions, it’s about many things beyond using tools.

Here’s an idea. Why don’t we focus the discussion on how social media enhances an organization rather than trying to create doomsday scenarios which frankly aren’t based on any insight into how a business works, and shows a complete disrespect for the knowledge, skills and insights of a whole cabal of professional people beyond PR.

Pithy phrases and throwaway opinions don’t move the exploration of social media forward, they just reduce it’s credibility.

But of course, that’s just my opinion and your mileage may vary.


PR gives PR a bad name..


Welcome to Tuesday. 

I had a lovely week off (thanks for asking).  Travelling around the North Cascades is to be highly recommended.

Of course returning to civilization also means dealing with a backlog of post, e-mail and voicemail – and for you cool social media kids, loads of unread RSS feeds. (I remained joyfully unconnected for the week – something I would also heartily recommend).

It is of course ironic, and often humorous (but in a sad way), that PR people are the single greatest cause of negative perception for this “profession”.

Skimming my RSS backlog threw up loads of examples.  My favorite is Phil Gomes’ account of e-mail correspondence with a PR spammer.

Sammy: Thanks Phil, it would just take me ages to find your addres in our database.

Phil: Probably no more time than it took for me to fish your note out of the trash and find the link, I’d imagine.

Read it.


Also raising a smile is Nick Blakin’s guest post on the ever-reliable Bad Pitch blog.

Speaking of lessons, these are absolutely the only ten you’ll need throughout your entire professional life. Remember, PR isn’t all smoke and mirrors, and name dropping, and hot parties, and lookin’ good while you sip your free martinis at the lowliest dive on the block. That’s only 95% of what we do. To make it in this business you have to one day get your hands dirty. And that, I’m afraid, is the one really ugly truth.

Read it (and read the comments, they made me laugh).


Shel Holtz has some nice common sense on why PR and Marketing remain as relevant as ever.

If your reading was restricted to social media purists, you’d think that PR and marketing had no role left to play, that the rise of the trusted peer has so marginalized the communications profession that agencies everywhere should just fold up their tents and encourage their employees to learn a new trade.

Read it.


Typical isn’t it?  You go away for just one week, turn off the WiFi and… well nothing changes…