There’s an interesting question buried in Tom Foremski’s recent broadside against the PR Council’s move to redefine what PR agencies do. The post is about the term “earned influence” to describe the work of the modern PR practitioner and move PR beyond “earned media” outcomes that some feel are outdated. (For the record, Foremski thinks it’s a useless and disingenuous term.)
But the other question is more provocative. It’s a fundamental challenge that he says limits our industry and could threaten the growth of the PR agency business overall, even as we enjoy the recovering economy and frothy environment for tech-based businesses.
How does PR scale?
“PR’s challenge is that it is an artisanal, hand-crafted service operating within a brave new digital media world that rewards scale. Ad agencies, SEO services, Facebook, Google, Twitter, know how to scale their promotional work through technology.
Where are PR’s scalable technologies of persuasion?”
The question is timely. Foremski has previously blogged that, from a technology perspective, the PR operations stack is “mostly fizzle.” And it’s true that when it comes to the earned media piece of many PR programs, it really doesn’t scale very well at all. Most agencies spend half or more of revenues on staff salaries and benefits. PR at its core involves a labor-intensive and relatively low-tech set of skills that is largely dependent on judgment, experience, and relationships.
For our survival, we must go beyond earned media content, a/k/a publicity. This is in part why industry leaders like Lou Hoffman are calling for PR practitioners to incorporate SEO in our content creation practices, and why many agencies are adding deeper capabilities in media buying, digital content, and brand journalism (whether you like the term or not.) PR work today may involve crowdsourcing ideas or content; creating apps or ads; or increasingly generating on-demand content based on same-day data analysis for instant distribution to take advantage of real-time marketing opportunities.
Some of these activities do scale. The analysis that informs strategy or evaluates results can grow exponentially, owned content production is somewhat scalable, and social sharing of earned media placements is routinely automated. But the core process of pitching journalists and working to get client stories published in credible media outlets is largely a one-to-one or one-to-few type of task. Sure, we can use software to plan media targets and email tools to send out pitches. We have great visual content creation tools, and social media amplification is routine for promoting earned media. But what we call a “placement” will always be the result of human ingenuity, relationships, and negotiation.
This may mean that PR category growth is limited, and that valuations even for the large multinational agencies will never reach those of comparable technology services firms. Core aspects of how we make our living may forever be more of an art than a science.
But even if Foremski is correct, the industry is far from doomed. And given its recent expansion and the opportunities to learn, grow, and take on new challenges that have opened to professionals over the past few years, I’d bet that most who make a living at PR agencies wouldn’t have it any other way.