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April 25, 2017

Simon Cowart


VP of Growth

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s.

As my colleague, pointed out in her most recent article, the public relations industry is celebrating its birthday. One hundred and twenty years after Ivy Lee founded PR we’re at a crossroads. This $14B global industry’s future is uncertain as other industries and new subsectors take over our very mission of reaching and persuading target audiences.

Merriam Webster defines PR as the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm or institution. While I do believe that public relations is still about influencing, engaging and building relationships with key stakeholders to contribute to the way an organization is perceived, this outdated definition doesn’t go far enough in today’s digital, big-data and multi-platform world.

Today, brands demand hard ROI in the form of numbers versus public opinion. No longer are PR firms measured by loose numbers like ad value equivalency, rather our clients want to see how we go a step further than “perception” and “goodwill.” Bottom line, they want to know how we’re actually getting them revenue. Therefore, the age-old definition of PR is entirely too broad – causing confusion and giving our competition leeway to begin to take over pieces of the pie that are rightfully ours.

The Controversy: What IS PR?

If you feel like you are always being asked this question and don’t have a good enough answer, or heck, if you don’t even really know how to answer it at all anymore – you are not alone. In fact, only 27% of agency leaders believe that by 2020 the term “public relations” will adequately describe their work. Even back in 2012, the problem was evident as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) sought to redefine the definition of PR.

The organization began a huge campaign to solicit new definitions from industry organizations, professors, students, professionals and even the public at large. In just two weeks, it received almost 1,000 definitions. The initiative seemed to cause quite the stir, and after what the New York Timesdescribed as contentious conversation, the winner was chosen. Public relations had a new definition according to its leading trade association: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Clearly this new definition didn’t hit the nail on the head. Since then, annual operating profits have consistently fallen, dropping from 18.6% to 15.3% in 2016.

Just ask Old Spice and Apple circa 1997 – when their profits were falling. They aggressively repositioned their brand within the marketplace to ensure long-term success. Maybe the PR industry should eat our own dog food and do the same thing?

Where did it all go wrong?

I won’t bore you with an entire timeline of this industry. According to the Museum of PR the earliest signs of public relations date back as far as 37000 B.C. But the age of mass media could be thought of as PR’s golden age – from swaying the public opinion during the Great Depression to the mass adoption of televisions, leading to a whole new medium to communicate to the public. And who could forget the cyanide-laced Tylenol deaths, when Johnson & Johnson set the crisis communication standards in the early 1980s. Throughout it all, PR was there to prove itself useful. It solved a very clear pain point. Times were simpler, and public opinion was easier to gauge as people were only accessing a few mediums to receive information about everything from world news and popular culture to consumer products.

Enter the rise of integrated media in the early 2000’s. You know, that time when agency players like Edelman, Weber Shandwick, FleishmanHillard, and others flourished, expanding their communications scopes and markets during the early 20th century as they purchased and conglomerated many advertising, marketing and public relations firms.

Then, to shake things up even more, a few short years later and social media became even more prevalent. This is about the same time that other, smaller agencies cowered and allowed new subsectors to take over our very mission. Lucky for me, during the 2000’s recession I couldn’t find a traditional PR job, but rather, I filled a digital marketing role. My employer didn’t know where social media fit, and since I was the only millennial on staff, they handed these channels over to me. It was evident from the start, as I was feigning for PR work, that social media DID indeed belong in PR. This medium was yet another way to create long lasting relationships between businesses and buyers, not to mention it was capable of providing a two-way conversation. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE ELSE AGREE? A few years later when I was working at an agency, I watched as social media was spun out as its own department – rather than being an integrated service offering. The client results after that department’s creation were lackluster, to say the least.

Now, social media specialty shops are a dime a dozen. A simple Google search reveals there are 20+ social media agencies on the first page in ARPR’s hometown of Atlanta alone. And, there are an additional 40+ full-service marketing and advertising agencies on that same search that proclaim social media as a core capability. Who can blame them though as AdAge’s 2016 State of the Agency Report shows that despite total revenue and growth declining, digital revenue for U.S. agencies surged 13.5% in 2015 to $19.3 billion.

That said, more and more agencies are jumping on the digital bandwagon. Yesterday it was social media, today it’s content marketing and lead generation. But these tools, strategies and channels aren’t the solution, they are just a means to the end that should not have been thrown so hastily to the wayside by PR practitioners. After all, we’ve always been the ones directly and authentically communicating with audiences, we’ve just been hesitant at embracing new tech to do so.

The New Definition of PR

First, I believe we all need to agree this definition should be timeless and have the ability to withstand any additional technological advancements. Next, I believe we need to stop shortchanging ourselves … why are we limiting our area of expertise and allowing other industries and subsectors to take over and own anything that has to do with technology, analytics and hard ROI?

And before you traditional marketing folks get upset and think we are encroaching on your territory, I also firmly believe we can all play nice and share the stage. PR, marketing and sales teams all have a significant role in communicating and influencing key audiences, yet they often lack understanding of the core functions and value of the other teams. Technology can help close the gap to create common goals, giving all three teams a holistic picture. For example, marketing automation software can provide the insights needed to track a user’s journey from a company’s top-tier headline to its blog all the way to a solid conversion via one of its gated landing page where the sales team then takes the lead to nurture and ultimately close the sale.  At the end of the day, we all want the same thing – to help our businesses or clients achieve their overall goals and objectives.

I do still have faith that this beloved industry of ours can change, but it has to happen now. I am calling on industry leadership to revisit our definition. Trade associations, academia, practitioners and more – let’s all gather and put a stop to the guessing, confusion and constant revisions. I can’t think of a better time than the 120th year of our industry to move beyond this crossroads, choosing a path that is concise, timeless and enables us to continue to innovate and grow. PR truly is fun and flexible. It’s quantifiable and trackable. It’s collaborative. It’s lucrative. And it’s really, really impactful.