The Public Relations Profession Today, Tomorrow And Predictions From 1999

Paul Holmes recently wrote a terrific essay, “What Is A Public Relations Consultancy?

His overarching theme is the profession has allowed itself to be defined by media relations, which constitutes just one component of PR.

Instead, PR should be defined as a social science and all that this encompasses.

The intersection of PR, social media and all things digital only accelerates the concept.

Paul emphasizes the importance of “developing relationships rather than delivering messages.”

Ironically, after reading the Holmes treatise I stumbled across my 1999 column for Marketing Computers that took a shot at predicting the future for the profession.

Here’s what I wrote 12 years ago.

The opportunity for PR lies in what has always been the focus of our advertising brethren: a direct relationship with a target audience. The Internet is all about content. We’re the content guys. We’re the people who will be driving interactive marketing in the future-but only if we can harness our broad communication skills and creatively apply them to the Net.

I still believe it today.

If you’re interested, the entire column sits below.

marketing computers

Guest Column
March 1999
Public Relations: What the Internet Can Mean to You
by Lou Hoffman

One of my all-time favorite press comments surfaced in the ’80s when I was supporting the debut of Philips’ CD-ROM drives in the United States. A reporter asked how large the CD-ROM drive market would be in five years. Keep in mind, the first CD-ROM drive had yet to ship, and the concept of over 500 MB on a single disk was a staggering industry leap. In response to the question, a Dutch senior executive replied without missing a beat, “Impossible to say. That’s like asking Mrs. Magellan how many lunches should be packed.”

With all due respect to Mrs. Magellan, here’s my take on how the tech PR industry will shape up five years out and a few ideas for plotting your career trajectory accordingly.

Let’s start with the greatest long-term challenge facing virtually every tech company. It’s not sales revenue, leveraging the Internet, or legacy customers. It’s the dearth of talent. Not enough qualified people-particularly technical people-make up the heart and soul of tech companies to fill today’s open positions. If you look at how the numbers play out, the situation is only going to get worse in the future.

That’s why I expect PR to be pulled into the HR arena. Specifically, I believe companies will look to PR for ways to be more effective in communicating their message to potential employees. When you think about it from a skill set perspective, it makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t a company want to deploy its strongest communicators in winning over its toughest audience? At the same time, PR will need to team with HR in this effort or end up exhausting energy untangling from the politics.

A second area that will impact PR is globalization. The PR profession talks a good game when it comes to global PR, but where are the tech companies who walk the walk?

In an effort to protect the guilty, I won’t name names. But it’s pathetic what passes for global PR at most companies. Almost everything is wrong. Fiefdoms at the country level result in insufficient communication. Companies allocate millions of dollars to the U.S. while the rest of the world begs for shekels. Firms also ram U.S.-centric content down the throats of local scribes.

This situation can’t go on-and it won’t. Looking out five years, we’ll see companies and agencies using technology to house multi-language content repositories accessible throughout the world. Since the virtual team concept will be in full motion, the same infrastructure will permit people and project management across the globe.

How many reporters are committed to a press event in France? You go online from anywhere in the world and notice that pesky reporter from Le Monde has already signed up for it. Another click and you’re reviewing previous articles written by the reporter on your company or client along with an internal database of the past year’s interactions with him.

You won’t need to become an expert on every market. No one expects you to monitor the latest government initiative in India to encourage the use of personal computers for education. But you will need a baseline knowledge of the major regions and broad issues which impact your market position. (If you’re looking for a good place to start boning up on the international scene, check out the Interactive Wall Street Journal which offers Asia Pacific and European editions.)

Of course, you can’t look into the future without addressing the Internet. It’s amazing how far this medium has come in such a short period of time. I remember Apollo workstation users threatening mutiny for changes to service agreements shortly after HP acquired Apollo in 1989. I got a call from what was then known as UNIX Today sternly warning me that if HP didn’t shape up, this group of testy Apollo users would take their complaints to the Internet.

“Whoa, the Internet!” I thought. “And if that doesn’t work, they’ll drop leaflets from a crop duster across the plains of Wyoming.” Yet, less than10 years later, the power of the Internet brings Andy Grove to his knees with a mea culpa during the Pentium bug fiasco.

Where’s it all headed? The opportunity for PR lies in what has always been the focus of our advertising brethren: a direct relationship with a target audience. The Internet is all about content. We’re the content guys. We’re the people who will be driving interactive marketing in the future-but only if we can harness our broad communication skills and creatively apply them to the Net.

A software startup, for example, worked with our agency on a contest to rename itself with a $50,000 cash prize for the winning entry. The company conducted the contest from start to finish over the Net, including promotion and notification of the winner in Imola, Italy. The contest provided fodder for all media, but also generated more than 40,000 entries and potential customer names. That’s what I mean by the Internet providing the means for PR professionals to participate in a direct relationship with the target audience.

With that said, media relations won’t disappear from the scene. The credibility associated with having a journalist tell your story will remain as strong as ever. It’s just that understanding the media relations game will become increasingly complex.

Let’s go back to the Internet. The fact that anyone with a message and a $59.95 web kit can suddenly become a publisher blurs the line between journalism and garbage. It’s no wonder that a recent study by Ogilvy showed growing numbers of people on the Net don’t trust the medium as a news source. The study showed that only 45 percent of Americans trust information garnered from the Net, while 96 percent feel traditional news sources are reliable.

Yes, branded news services on the Net have or will establish themselves as trusted, thereby influential, but these are relatively easy to identify. What’s going to be tougher is reaching out to the less glitzy media products on the Net that also create trust with a loyal, albeit small, constituency. The promise that narrowcasting held for cable TV will be realized on the Net.

The trend of tech companies getting into the media business brings another twist that will continue into the future. I remember watching a basketball game broadcast from Seattle on NBC a couple years ago. A sideline announcer cozied up to Bill Gates who just happened to be in the stands and ready to espouse the virtues of hosting top CEOs at his humble abode. Nothing like being a partner with a major media outlet to make a cream puff pitch fly. Navigating the gray area where business stops and journalism begins will be a challenge for all of us.

Finally, expect a backlash against the use of technology as the only means of communicating with reporters. Too many of us are comfortable carrying on email dialogs with the media without ever picking up the phone, much less meeting them in person.

Perhaps it’s a dream, but I envision the day when reporters will actually seek out skilled PR professionals for face-to-face meetings. What a concept! Two symbiotic professions actually getting to know one another.

Then again, I also believe the future will return us to the days of housecalls by doctors and doorstep delivery of milk. We’ll see.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “The Message Has No Clothes.”

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3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Juliet June 8th, 2012 8:16 am

    The Ogilvy report said “45 percent of Americans trust information garnered from the Net, while 96 percent feel traditional news sources are reliable.” Wonder what these percentages are at today?

  2. Lou Hoffman June 12th, 2012 7:22 am

    I don’t know about trust for information on the Net, but we can safely assume the trust for traditional news sources has fallen off a cliff.

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