Revisiting the PR Crystal ...


Back in 2015 I wrote that PR’s version of the industrial revolution was underway. Just like the industrial revolution recast the world of manufacturing, digital, the mobile phone and general fight for attention were reshaping communications.

We’re also seeing more of those life-is-better-than-fiction events. Who can forget the Republican Party landing at Four Seasons Total Landscaping instead of the luxury hotel to make their case for a stolen election.

Politics aside, I captured 10 symbols in 2015 that PR had transformed into something that doesn’t fit in a tidy box.

Did they come true? How did these symbols play out?

My assessments follow each vignette.



1. Meet Max Swisher

I first met Max, 12 at the time, at Great Bear Coffee in Los Gatos where I coaxed him into ordering a hot cocoa before starting our interview. You see, Max’s blog on consumer electronics had gained such a following that the likes of Dolby and HP were courting Master Swisher.


#1 of 10 symbols: Max Swisher, founder of "Good Morning Geek"


The power of influencers has definitely come to pass. Not just the Kim Kardashians of the world asking for $100K for an Instagram post that promotes the latest lipstick, but we’re seeing the rise of micro influencers in the B2B world.


2. White House Advances Owned Media

Sure, the Obama White House engages Twitter, Google +, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, SlideShare … and the list goes on. But the administration’s true digital savvy comes out in how it shapes in-depth content with a storytelling bent, attracting a mass audience. Exhibit A occurred on December 2, 2014 when the White House cracked the Techmeme Leaderboard, the algorithm-driven list of the most syndicated online “media properties” when it comes to covering the tech industry.


#2 of 10 Symbols: Screengrab of White House website homepage


Who could have predicted the next White House administration would turn to Twitter as the best way to directly communicate with the masses; thereby marginalizing the media.


3. The Saga of

In the course of delivering a freezer to a couple in Dripping Springs, Texas, the driver from a Sears Hometown Store accidentally ran over and killed the family dog. Making matters worse, the manager for the Sears Hometown Store claimed it was the couple’s fault for allowing the pooch to roam at his leisure. Less than 24 hours later, went live, quickly gaining national attraction and helping Sears “see the light.” Credit to social media guru Steve Farnsworth who captured the debacle as a case study.


#3 of 10 symbols:


This saga absolutely nailed the online vigilance required by brands in the digital era. It’s also given rise to a cottage industry of software tools that track and even anticipate when the bad stuff is about to hit the digital fan. Furthermore, companies recognize that the speed of their responses can often be the difference between “no big deal” and their stock tanking. Speaking of the financial markets, consider how Reddit’s WallStreetBets community caused stocks like GameStop and AMC to spike. Crazy!


4. It’s a Bird. It’s a Plane. It’s Sponsored Content

While many fixate on native advertising, the partnering of publications and brands in the making of journalism is the more jarring trend. For example, The Huffington Post teams with Johnson & Johnson to produce a channel called Global Motherhood. Good luck discerning what comes from The Huffington Post and what has Johnson & Johnson’s fingerprints on it.


#2 of 10 Symbols: Screengrab of Global Motherhood on Huff Post


The pursuit of revenue by publishers has blurred the line between editorial and sponsored content. While I question the long-term consequences of trying to fool the target audience, it’s working. The global spend on sponsored content is expected to hit $13.4 billion in 2020, nearly double the $7 billion it was predicted to hit in 2018, according to Polar.


5. Fortune Magazine Gets into the “PR” Business

Showing just how far publications — even the most prestigious brands — will go to generate new revenue streams, Fortune offers a service called Trusted Original Content. For a fee, the publication will write stories for companies to distribute on the platforms of their choice. Might Fortune write content for Johnson & Johnson to be published on The Huffington Post? That would be rich.


#5 of 10 Symbols: Fortune Writes Articles Exclusively for Advertisers


Many publications have established in-house content shops for a revenue double dip, creating the content and distribution. The T Studio from the New York Times does exactly this with price points that typically land in the $500K range.


6. Google Strives to Squeeze the Technical Gamesmanship out of SEO

With the launch of its Hummingbird update in 2013, Google let the world know it intends to crack down on those conducting unsavory acts to game SEO and specifically organic search. It turns out that many of the “signals” associated with PR — like links back to the company covered by a publication — are the very ones that Google favors in deciding what to serve up for a given search.


#6 of 10 symbols: Graph showing growing importance of content for Google's algorithm


The days of link farms in Bangalore determining whether Google serves up a brand on its SERP (search engine results page) are gone. Instead, signals of quality content such as average time on a page dominate the game, a good thing for communication consultancies. In fact, we’ve come to use the term “earned search” to describe increasing the relevant traffic from plugging keywords into Google because the keys to success resemble earned media.


7. The Wall Street Journal Bombs at BuzzFeed-like Storytelling

This one still cracks me up. On June 20, 2013, The Wall Street Journal tried its hand at BuzzFeed storytelling. Riffing on a Department of Labor study, the Journal creating a slide show comparing the stats of American workers to animals. Can you say non-sequitur?


#7 of 10 symbols: WSJ list-icle on top 8 ways humans spend their time


Everyone has the visual storytelling religion. More than the crush of information, the increasing use of mobile phones to access articles, podcasts and cat videos puts a premium on visual content. I also think we’re entering the golden age of being a commercial illustrator.  If you can draw, there’s a blog somewhere looking for your artwork.


8. Facebook, a News Media Platform

Facebook generates up to 20% of the traffic to news sites. Even more revealing, 30% of U.S. adults get their news on Facebook, according to a Pew study.


#8 of 10 symbols: graph showing dominance of Facebook as news source


In spite of Facebook’s many face plants over the years, the platform continues to strengthen its hold on news distribution. The 30% of FB users who got their news from the site in 2015 has continued to grow. It also explains why foreign governments have infiltrated Facebook as a means to disrupt U.S. elections. If you want to change the perception of millions, Facebook is the platform. Will kicking Mr. Trump off the platform have an effect. Let’s hope so.


Graph showing % of U.S. adults who use social media sites as pathways to news


9. Messaging and Media Are Converging

The best example sits in China. Called WeChat, the social media tool has almost 500 million monthly users who not only send messages, but play games, check train schedules and buy stuff. In short, WeChat has become part of everyday life in China which explains why brands are leveraging the platform (IKEA platform below).


#9 of 10 symbols: Ikea ad on WeChatToday:

WeChat now owns China, the second largest economy in the world. Virtually every type of marketing campaign in China whether it involves a dog grooming service or a mobile phone includes WeChat. Yes, the Chinese government has started to crack down on its domestic tech giants including Tencent which owns WeChat. Still, it’s hard to fathom WeChat being extracted from the fabric of Chinese society.


10. The Crush of Information is Only Getting Worse

The phrase “content is king” has been uttered so many times, it’s become a cliché. And it’s not even true. Content is not king. Compelling content is king. Unfortunately, if you believe Mary Meeker’s number crunching, the amount of digital information that rains down on us will double from 2014 to 2016. Even if she misses by 20%, that’s still a sobering stat.


#10 of 10 symbols: graph showing exponential growth of digital information


No need to update the chart. All of us experience the never-ending onslaught of information. Of course, much of this information that comes from companies trying to win over buyers is dreadful: “Me, me, and here’s a little more about me.” That’s the opportunity for communications consultancies like us, guiding (pushing?) our clients and creating content that actually matters to the target audience.



If you have your own symbols that capture the moment, scoot them my way.

As I continually share with our staff, there’s never been a better time to be in the communications industry.


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