Why traditional PR is dead – and what to do about it

I recently read this post at Brian Solis’ PR 2.0 blog on Social Media Marketing and wondered — why is PR changing?

I believe PR is changing is because different people are doing the writing.

We’re shifting from a media landscape where stories are written primarily by journalists, to one where a large chunk of stories are written by domain experts who blog and contribute to online forums. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll call them bloggers, even though they’re published online in blogs and online forums, and sometimes offline in books.)

Bloggers are different than the journalists they are replacing. Bloggers are often experts in their field, active practitioners who have built up their knowledge over years. Journalists tend to have a low-level of expertise in the domains they writing about. Their training is in writing and, well, journalism. In the course of writing a story, they cannot even come close to the level of expertise of a blogger writing about their area of specialization.

Journalists in theory have no agenda, and a commitment to objectivity, to report both sides of the story. Bloggers are likely to have an agenda, and have no commitment to objectivity. Online publications, seeing the influence of bloggers, are inviting them to write stories as guest contributors, further reinforcing their influence level. Bloggers are happy to oblige, since this increases their readership, AdSense revenue, and number of lucrative speaking engagements.

So how does this affect PR?

In the past, a public relations firm with little knowledge of a product or market could sling press releases or info packets to publications run by editors and journalists who a) had a low ability to detect vendorspeak (also known as BS); and b) wanted to cover all sides to the story, i.e., all leading vendors. Slinging worked, with a more or less predictable conversion rate.

Today, slinging doesn’t work. Bloggers hate it. I believe this is because bloggers are different than journalists, as described above. They require contact from someone who:

  • Understands the domain reasonably well
  • Knows the blogger’s personalities, agenda, alliances, and the perspective the blogger is likely to have concerning the product/service being promoted
  • Can gracefully enter the conversation in a way that is respectful and provides value to the blogger in exchange for the their time.

In short, PR is shifting from a slinging exercise that’s the domain of someone who’s worked with various publications, to one that’s best conducted by a knowledgable evangelist. Evangelists aren’t new. Nor are they some kind of rare, exotic role. They are simply knowledgeable outbound marketing folks, freed from the obligations of having to manage a product or meet a sales quota. They are able to travel extensively, without any obligations other than getting the word out to as many people as possible. Guy Kawasaki was one of the more prominent evangelists in the 80s. I’ve worked with numerous evangelists in the 90s and this decade. Traditionally, they’ve been the person you rolled out to the speaker circuit and to help clinch your largest deals. In addition to these activities, I see their role evolving to include meetings with top bloggers.

That’s the crux — social media requires an evolution of the role of evangelist. And perhaps as traditional pubs decline in number and importance relative to blogs, our industry needs to shift headcount from traditional PR slingers to social-media-savvy evangelists.

But that’s it. Evolution, not revolution.

So, what steps should an organization take to shift to PR 2.0?

Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) and VPs of Marketing should ensure their PR staff have deep product, marketing, and domain knowledge. Either ramp up existing PR staff, or bring in new team members who have been successful evangelists, product marketing managers, sales engineers, or consultants.

PR staff should ramp up their product and domain expertise, fast. I believe that a proficient PR team that has done this should be able to produce Social Media Plan to complements their Traditional Media Plan. The SMP should contain a list of all influential bloggers, links to their online presence points, their "influence index" (using data from Technorati, Google, Compete, etc.), their agenda/point of view, their alliances, their actual or expected opinion of your product, and how to contact them. The Social Media Plan should provide a prioritized list of who to contact, and how to gracefully enter their world.

Product (Marketing) Managers with revenue responsibility can no longer safely assume that the PR department has things under control. They should become more involved, because often, they are one of a handful of people with the product and domain expertise required to succeed in the PR 2.0 world. Because PM’s and PMM’s have plenty to do already, they should lobby their CMOs to "upskill" the PR team.

In summary, PR 2.0 = evangelists – PR flacks + Social Media Plans.