Dorothy Crenshaw April 10, 2014 | 07:00:16

PR Isn’t Dead, But It Should Be Reincarnated

Some prominent members of the PR industry were up in arms recently over a story in the Financial Times about companies who reject the traditional PR agency relationship and choose to handle their own public relations. “Publicity is Free With No PRs” featured such luminaries as Warren Buffet and Elon Musk and their propensity for interacting directly with key constituencies. (Which is puzzling, since Tesla just hired a senior director of communications who presumably has nothing to do.)

But the FT story didn’t bother me, because it basically highlighted the outliers. Though less colorful, it was reminiscent of Mark Cuban’s famous advice to startups. Sandwiched between “Never buy swag” (he particularly hates branded t-shirts) and “make the job fun for employees” is the pearl, “Never hire a PR firm.”  Cuban claims that most journalists he’s met prefer to speak to him directly, not through a PR professional, and I’m sure he’s right.

But there are a few problems with that advice: it reduces PR’s role to that of a go-between in a media relations campaign, and it assumes that most CEOs are like Mark Cuban. It’s not, and they’re not.

What’s far more interesting, and likely more substantive, is a book in progress by Robert Phillips, former head of Edelman EMEA. “Trust Me, PR Is Dead” is the title. The book’s not yet published, but Phillips recently penned a tantalizing preview of his call-to-arms. Here’s a sample.

PR is dead. Its business model, dominated on the consultancy side by bloated networks selling bureaucracy over transformation and generalists over deep expertise, is broken. Its philosophy – rooted in selling stuff to consumers, rather than addressing societal needs – is exhausted. A transparent world exposes the tired deceits of message management and spin.

Tough stuff, but there’s a germ of truth there. And unlike the selective reporting of the FT journalist, this indictment comes from an insider. It’s too soon to know what Phillips has up his sleeve, but it calls for nothing less than a reengineering of the traditional PR agency model.

And that’s the problem I have with the “PR Is Dead. Long Live PR” posts that pepper the PR blogosphere. It’s true that our industry has failed to set a new bar for creativity. I agree that we need to master the use of data and analytics, as well as tackle the holy grail of PR metrics. And I’ve long believed – perhaps due to personal bias – that the big-agency model doesn’t always serve clients well.

But most PR professionals, particularly on the agency side, worry about what to call ourselves and how to define the term. They worry about “better PR for PR”, as opposed to how we should truly reinvent ourselves in a world that’s changed pretty drastically over the last five years.

The paradox of the “PR is Dead” warnings is this: until public relations is disrupted in the way that the advertising industry has been, until we actually are threatened with the death of the business, our industry is unlikely to make the changes necessary to ensure the long-term health of the industry.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In one way, I almost wish those alarmist headlines were true.

5 thoughts on “PR Isn’t Dead, But It Should Be Reincarnated

  1. This is a great post, Dorothy. Thank you.
    I have been genuinely puzzled by the angry and sometimes Luddite reactions by certain leaders within the PR industry. They seem happy to sleepwalk over the cliff as long as they make money in the process. It is madness.
    And, when challenged as to “what next?”, they fall silent in their cowardice.
    I am not that bothered whether or not we call PR as dead (the title was actually my publisher’s idea). What is certainly dead is the false relationship between trust and PR and the business model that encourages it. More on this in the book.
    The point (that some seem determined to miss) is that we cannot go on like this. There has to be a better way. In this sense, the book is wholly optimistic. Call it what you will – reformation, regeneration, renewal or reform – a change is going to come.

  2. Well said, Dorothy. Like you, I didn’t find the the FT article all that objectionable. And any one who has read the FT’s Letters column ( in recent days, in which it has featured two lighthearted responses from PR pros to the article would realize that neither did the FT when it published the article. It’s also important for folks in the PR industry to keep in mind that the article was written from a British perspective of PR, which I have come to know is far less serious and introspective about the role and value of public relations than we Americans tend to view it.
    The reality is that PR has and will continue to serve a clear value and purpose to many businesses, organizations and individuals. But the outdated model of pure media relations is well on its way out and good riddance to it. It was never a good model in the first place and should have been replaced around the same time that ad agencies replaced their commission-only fee models.
    Rather than getting up in arms about this article (or the many others much like it that one can find on the Internet), I think the right approach for the profession to take is the one you have taken: brush it off, focus on what we do well, figure out what we don’t do well and get rid of the rest of the crap.
    Alas, I don’t hold out much hope that the PR industry will do anything more than complain in an endless series of blog posts that this article, and the many like it, are being unfair to the industry. Let’s move on, folks, for the betterment of the profession.

  3. Thanks, Keith. I like a good fight as much as the next person, but there’s probably plenty to fight about and advocate for beyond those who advise against using PR agencies.

  4. Great posting! I can’t agree more. In Korea, PR market is growing but so is the competition so we need to be creative in thinking ahead. What we need is to change Festina lente at the least.
    “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
    (Winston Churchill)

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