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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.

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