Can PR Scale?

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to describe the work of the modern PR practitioner and move PR beyond “earned media” outcomes that some feel are outdated.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.

Google Hasn’t Killed The PR Industry

It’s good for any profession to have a few bomb-throwers, and PR is no exception. People who challenge, bait, or even criticize an industry can make it better. That’s why I’ve always been interested in Tom Foremski’s take. His 2006 post, “Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!” remains my favorite attack on the lowly press release, and, indirectly, on PR.

Foremski’s most recent post, Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies?’ is in the same hyperbolic vein. It comes in response to new rules that Google handed down regarding press releases. Essentially, Google has further tightened its policies in an effort to rid the industry of keyword-stuffed announcements of dubious quality. Google is now requiring that “anchor text” and URLs within press releases be converted to no-follow links, or links that don’t count towards page rank.

In other words, Google has just made it harder to spam the web through crappy content disguised as news.

So the problem with Foremski’s conclusion is that, while inflammatory and entertaining, it’s wrong, and any agency person can tell you that. The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.

The majority of PR firms don’t spend time posting irrelevant press releases crammed with keywords for temporary search traction. That’s the purview of small businesses and bargain-basement practitioners who can’t really claim to be professionals.

The irony of Foremski’s latest is that Google’s new rules will probably strengthen the hands of legitimate practitioners. Here’s why:

PR is not about manipulating search results. Ninety percent of professionals spend their time identifying, shaping, and telling stories on behalf of clients. And most don’t have enough SEO knowledge to game the system even if they wanted to.

Press releases amount to a fraction of what we do. They’re a tool, and like any tool, they can be used well or poorly.

“Earned” media is still the heart of publicity results. That’s the opposite of paid, which is what the Google crackdown is all about.

Press releases should be written for….the press. Yes, PRs today interact directly with customers and others through social media, but there are still journalists out there, and releases should fill their needs.

Good clients don’t use press releases as an SEO tool.  Any business using enhanced releases for SEO or online marketing deserves to be downgraded by Google.

SEO isn’t the new PR. In fact, PR just may be the new SEO.