Wednesday, January 27

Changing Paradigms: At What Point Does PR Become Marketing?

Do modern public relations professionals need to become quasi-celebrity spokespeople?

Karthik S, head of digital strategy, Edelman India, seems to think so. Last year, he wrote a post to convey the point, suggesting that public relations professionals that manage social media outlets on behalf of clients have an opportunity to "be the client."

The discussion evolved from a post that shared one possible model to integrate social media and public relations into a PR-driven communication plan.

I understand Karthik's point. Eighty percent of public relations professionals see social media as a key focus in 2010. And the concept, for public relations to move beyond providing mutually beneficial communication between the organization and various publics and toward providing mutually beneficial communication for themselves and the organizations they serve, has ample popularity and several living examples to propel it forward.

Right or wrong, a significant percentage of public relations professionals believe the field is moving in a direction where public relations professionals take center stage to communicate direct to hundreds or thousands of "fans" on behalf of select clients (preferably those who attract more fans), and that sheer temporary loyalty and enthusiasm from those fans will influence the mainstream media. Is that modern public relations or old school propaganda?

How media relations is sometimes misunderstood and undervalued.

I was reminded this morning of how media relations once worked, and still does in some cases. An objective reporter called a public relations professional after receiving an invitation to a groundbreaking of a public facility. The reporter had a preconceived hypothesis, wondering whether it was prudent for government to open a facility given the economy.

Many people can surmise where such a story was headed. It was meant to be a government waste piece.

But rather than develop a list of counterpoints and credible allies within the community, the public relations professional simply invited the reporter out to the facility. There, he spoke to patrons, employees, and later called various government officials. He asked tough questions.

The public relations professional laid out the facts bare, allowing the reporter to draw his own conclusions. And when the story ran, the reporter had shifted the direction of the story, more or less using the facility as an example of prudent government action that fulfilled the needs of the community as opposed to another example of misappropriation.

The public relations professional didn't need to spin the story, angle for more fans, or pitch another piece (for another client). She merely had to be authentic, engaging, and make it easier for the reporter to assess the facts. Likewise, the reporter, a seasoned professional, didn't need to validate the original hypothesis for himself, his readers, or any other party. Instead, he reported the truth.

For the public reading the piece, there is no other story. They won't suddenly feel compelled rush to the computer to friend or follow her, even if she was quoted. Her focus had clarity: serve both the reporter and the organization, no fanfare needed.

And at the same time, the community was treated to one of those rare examples when government was caught doing the right thing instead of trying to spin the story to appear right. (If only the federal government could learn such a lesson.)

Modern public relations infused with marketing changes the paradigm.

Imagine what might have happened with unnecessary layers of agenda.

The public relations professional would be charged with making themselves and the company look good, with the measure being how many more followers they might add at the end of the day. The journalist would be charged with making themselves and the publisher look good, validating whatever hypothesis their subscribers expect.

While that premise does not preclude the truth from being part of the equation, it certainly changes the objectives of those involved. It suggests that we never mind the facts, but focus on public opinion and build influence by pretending to follow the crowd. And, nothing builds the modern measure of "influence" faster than validating the opinions of others.

Even today, while listening to a webinar by Gaetan Giannini, assistant professor at Cedar Crest College, I noted that a shift in public relations at the university level seems to be driving public relations professionals to become marketers via social media. Giannini even suggested it be called Marketing Public Relations (MPR).

While MPR is still reliant on "connectors" (which adds bloggers to mainstream media), it also overemphasizes pushing specific messages to increase visibility and build the identity of the organization or product. And this begs a question. At what point is public relations no longer public relations, but rather spokesperson marketing?

And if spokesperson marketing becomes the definition of modern public relations, then the next question to ask is what happens to the truth?

In the more traditional media relations/objective reporter scenario, the truth seemed to be the priority for everyone. But in this new MPR model (especially if professionals act as quasi celebrity connectors/influencers), the truth seems secondary to the popularity and perceived credibility of the public relations professional. In fact, it might not even matter.


Karthik on 1/28/10, 12:26 AM said...

Rich - thanks for this post. Very interesting...and I'm not saying this because the post starts with my name :-)

Let me take the Ford-Monty example again. Assuming he is a corporate communications (client PR) person (as you had stated before), how different is his role compared to a representative from an agency?

Scott 'can' be the official spokesperson for all-things online for Ford. The agency rep may not get that power. But consider it from the objective pov - Scott is the social media spokesperson because he's dealing with consumers online, unlike the CXOs who deal with other groups not necessarily including consumer groups online - media, employees etc.

So, while traditional spokesperson agenda was to engage with groups of other influencers, a social media spokesperson(s)' agenda would be to engage with consumer(s) available online. CXO levels could do this too, if they had time.

But, is one social media spokesperson enough? For large consumer'ish companies, may be not. So, the analogy of using the PR agency's reps as secondary spokespersons, assuming they are in sync with what the brand values are and what they should stand for.

The other method is to let social media permeate through the organization and create multiple layers of social media spokespersons within the company - across departments. In such a case, the PR rep being client may not become relevant.

But, the Level 2 of this thought is overlaying the PR reps own network/ connections online. When he/ she is connecting on behalf of the brand with consumer groups online, why not use his/ her own influence to further accentuate the client's appeal (of course, with vaid disclosures)? This was the premise for the 'be the client' post.

Your point on authenticity/ truth is perfectly valid, but wouldn't that be the base on which the PR rep's influence is built/ will be built/ affected? I mean, if his/ her followers/ connections note that the kind of content they're generating seems to be at loggerheads with what others seem to be writing, their influence will naturally get an overhaul. Same thing applies for the client too - as authentic and un'spun' the news, the better the chances that people online believe/ trust it.

Rich on 1/29/10, 12:30 PM said...

Hey Karthik,

I always welcome discussions with thinking people.

There are many days Scott operates more like a friendly marketer than a public relations professional. And I think, maybe, that is something we ought to consider.

Again, I'm not saying public relations professionals cannot act as brand spokespeople (serving the organization and themselves), only that it changes the paradigm. And maybe it becomes something other than public relations.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that, but the entire scope of what they do will likely change. Likewise, while it seems to me that trust and authenticity are generally employed as a start up target for spokespeople, some of them forget that true authenticity requires you to be honest with yourself as well. Popularity has a way of undermining that, or so it seems.

I won't say who, but there is a prominent social media blogger who I am friends with. When I saw him two years ago, he said that his success was based on the idea that his content wasn't about him — but rather everybody else. I saw him again, one year later, and he said that his continued success was what producing content all about him, even when it appeared to be about everyone else.

What changed?

Somewhere along the way, after reaching a critical mass with about 20 or so fans who RT every post he writes, he forgot who he was (or maybe that always was who he was, I don't really know).

There is that. And then something else. I was refreshing my reader list today and couldn't help but notice that it doesn't look anything like it did three years ago. A few are the same, but most of the players have changed.

By your model, it begs that companies no longer chase after good communicators, but rather only those who are popular. That isn't public relations anymore; it's only publicity.

All my best,

Gaetan Giannini on 2/24/10, 4:10 PM said...

Thanks for mentioning the webinar & marketing public relations. Best, Gaetan

Gaetan Giannini on 2/24/10, 5:14 PM said...

Hi Rich.
I am afraid I may have left you with the impression that I think Public Relations should be replaced by “Marketing Public Relation” when the opposite is true. It is my belief that PR is a very wide discipline that spans many aspects of business, journalism, marketing, etc. and has a tremendous and enduring impact on our society. The teaching of PR has, however, resided in the journalism or communication studies programs of colleges and universities, and has been largely ignored by business and marketing programs. This is unfortunate because business and marketing students as well as practitioners need to understand the importance and bounds of PR. Likewise, it is helpful if journalism and communication student and practitioners to have a look at PR from a marketing point of view. If I had my druthers all students would have multiple PR courses, and business people would take some time to understand PR from all angles. I hope that makes some sense.
Also, it would be great to have your thoughts on my book, Marketing Public Relations. If you’d be kind enough to give me your feedback (and your mailing address) I’d be happy to send you a copy.
Thanks and keep up the good work.

Rich on 2/25/10, 6:50 AM said...

Hey Gaetan,

As someone who believes in integrated communication (all communication teams working together), I would agree with you that public relations students need more business exposure, especially marketing because they tend to disparage what they do not understand. And business students need more exposure to public relations, which tends to be lumped in a subset of marketing under promotion (equally inaccurate). There is more to marketing than mass communication.

I also think you are right that public relations courses do tend to overemphasize the roll of media (thus the focus on media relations) when there have always been more communication tools available to the public relations practitioner. The result seems to be that business people are not sure where public relations fits into the mix and, frankly, neither does public relations (given how many talks revolve around getting a a seat at the executive table).

I glad to learn that you don't want MPR to replace PR. What needs to happen in education is students do need a deeper understanding of how business works, and public relations needs to get back to it's evolved task of developing relationships with various publics (as opposed to it's early task, which was nothing more than propaganda).

Thanks so much for the comment. I would very much be interested in reviewing your book.

All my best,


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