Four Business Opportunities for the Evolved PR Agency

This post is a response to last night’s event at the Horn Group called Is Social Media Killing PR? Sam Whitmore moderated Kara Swisher (media), and Susan Etlinger (PR) and me (analyst) for a lively debate, which resulted in the crowd chiming into the issues. I don’t think the conversation evolved as far enough as I wanted to see it go, so here’s what I wanted to share.

For years the Public Relations industry has ironically one of the worst reputations –esp since they are hired to look after the reputations of their own clients. Things only got worse as some brands got punk’d; the introduction of self-publishing tools that allowed anyone to connect to each other using social technologies, causing a shift in power. We’ve already talked to death about the risks and the changes that are happening to this industry, yet I’m hoping to elevate the viewpoint out of the gutter and focus on the larger opportunities –and risks at the industry level.

Four Business Opportunities for the Evolved PR Agency:

1) Enhance Existing Functions
First of all, some things that are already in place need more focus, for example, it was discussed last night that now that influencers (press, media, bloggers, analysts, customers) can directly be reached by clients –PR professionals can be bypassed. In fact, when you look closely, everyone’s doing press, analysis and media.

A) Be a filter for clients: There’s a tremendous amount of noise now being created, creating an opportunity for PR folks to filter, sort, and prioritize what matters. You’ll need both access and understanding of brand monitoring tools as well as the ability to see patterns in the noise.
B) Council rather than conduit: Although strategic council has been happening for many years, now that clients and influencers can connect directly, this could result in a business shift resulting in more focus on coaching, less on pitching. Mary Trigiani suggests the same.
C) Extend Social Strategy: Most firms don’t have a strategic response to social media across the whole firm. While the young digital natives may use these pervasive tools, they lack strategic insight, yet the immigrant executives don’t fully understand how these tools change the communication lines.

2) Differentiate
Two potential customers were at the event, and both lamented that they can’t tell the difference between one firm to another –they all offer similar promises and relationships. The opportunity for PR firms to be more vocal in the areas of expertise they provide are at hand. PR firms should become part of the community they serve –regardless of the client they have on the accounts receivable. Instead, be known as the expert firm in your industry, not just pitching, but also serving and helping beyond your clients needs. There’s a business opportunity here for some smart entrepreneur to create a VRM system that allows clients to recommend PR firms to other brands.

3) Extend to the Entire Customer Lifecycle
I alluded to this yesterday in the panel, but this is perhaps the single largest opportunity for the evolved PR firm. As we know “Public” relations involves prospects and customers, social technologies mush up the lines between when this starts and stops. As a result, PR firms how learn how to offer value to other areas of the organization beyond corporate communications can find new revenue buckets in product marketing, product management, product support, and beyond.

4) Fix Your Own Damn Reputation
I’ll hit this again: it’s very ironic that an industry so focused on keeping the image of their clients reputation pristine is unable to shine their own shingle. Use these social tools to tell your story –and to get your clients to tell your story –on your behalf. Although the HORN group was the only firm to take this challenge head on, the industry as a whole needs to fix this, but it can’t be insular within the PR community, but looking outside the circle of pros.

Related Resources (I’m updating this list)
Nov 14th, the next day: There’s really a tremendous amount of different voices, angles and perspectives on Wed’s discussion, read below.

  • Do read the responses from the attendees in twitter (the audience has the control), they tagged it with #prblog.
  • Ravit Lichtenberg Live blog: Is Social Media Killing PR? Live blogging from girls in tech and Horn Group.
  • Kara Swisher was taking video, and posts her thoughts, although she can make execs shake in their boots, she really makes me smile. Find out what the CEO of Yahoo and I have in common.
  • Cece (a marketing stakeholder) said we were taking on baby step topics and missed focusing on how PR should meet the need of marketing –and the business. She’s right.
  • Susan Etlinger, our host and panel mate gives her thoughts
  • Sam Whitmore the moderator poses some additional questions, I think we’ve all concluded last night’s event really just opened up far more discussions, this is all healthy.
  • Jennifer Leggio was covering this for ZDnet, and has published why PR is not dead, but shows it’s weaknesses.
  • There are photos coming in tagged Horn Group, it’s a thrill to see how all this feedback and media comes in real-time.
  • Charles Cooper from Cnet says that PR is killing PR, and that I focus to heavily on Social Media (which is my primary focus, yet he has a point)
  • Charles Cooper from Cnet says that PR is killing PR, and that I focus to heavily on Social Media (which is my primary focus, yet he has a point). Thanks to Chris Kenton for backing me, appreciated, thanks.
  • Kenneth suggests that Marketing and PR still has a core strategy –social should be left to the side
  • Adrian Chan publishes an email he had with a PR pro at Edelman discussing what we did and didn’t get.
  • Leave a comment below if I’ve missed anyone, sometimes trackbacks don’t show up

    Photos from last night’s event:


    56 Replies to “Four Business Opportunities for the Evolved PR Agency”

    1. Good PR (IMO) should always have been managed in house to begin with. There has been a lot of negativity about PR as a practice that seems to have increased in the last 6 months. It is no coincidence that this negativity has come at a time when the Blogosphere is now carrying more weight then conventional media (where PR has it’s roots).

      You raise excellent points Jeremiah that PR firms should heed should they want to continue to be relevant (and not piss off media), I would add the following as well;

      1) Always offer to pass the conversation off to a company insider, do not act as their guardian or speaker.

      2) Note the new pecking order when introducing a new product or feature…(I always start in the blogosphere, and even then give the new Kings their due by reaching out to them first)-Conventional media is now secondary for me.

      3) Do not “spam” – Who you reach out to is even more important then how you reach out. If the editor does not cover your field, do not waste their time.

      4) Do not reach out to the media just for the sake of it…In other words, do not try to make an “event” out of something that is not, like adding a small feature to your product.

      5) Your PR firm is NOT just about reaching out to media, nor even as Jerremiah explains. Your PR should be aware of awards and events where it is a must attend (or be known) ie. demo , crunchies,etc.

      6) Your PR firm must be aware of all SN’s, and more importantly how they are different in importance based not only on country, but culture as well.

      I have another dozen important points regarding this topic somewhere on my blog but unfortunately archived 🙂 …If I can locate the post, I will add more to the comments.

    2. Thanks Andrew, it always amazes me how quickly you’re my first –and often most insightful commenter, much appreciated.

      What’s interesting is that many of the points you made were also discussed last night.

    3. Jeremiah:

      You mention it here and it is worth emphasizing. Clients are interested in results. If clients are telling YOU they can’t distinguish between one PR firm and another, then the PR firm needs to focus on producing a portfolio of RESULTS and posting those results online-on their Facebook page amongst other places, so they can direct clients who are happy with their work to post comments, etc.(in other words, use the tools).

      I have found the absolute best source of business for my company to be the testimonials which showcase bottom line sales increases my clients have experienced when using my services.

      I don’t know how PR firms track conversions from their efforts to actual sales, but maybe this tracking mechanism needs to be tightened up or followed more closely and then posted or twittered about?

      One more thought, is the phrase “public relations” outdated? It doesn’t say anything. Maybe that’s why it’s difficult to get clients to understand value.

      As you said, there’s so much noise that even what we call ourselves has to be more explicity focused on benefits and/or a tagline added that does the same.

      I’ve found this to be very helpful as my company, The Kaleidoscope Partnership, doesn’t say anything, but when I add the tagline..turning online social networking strategies into offline profits..people get it.

      Thanks, as always, for a clear, concise and thought provoking post.

    4. This situation got me thinking. Are we going to see an influx in social media expert lawyers? One of the main issues that seems to be holding brands off from tasking their PR firms, agencies, community managers with diving head first into the “conversation” is the fear that something “bad” will be said or that one voice will contradict something another voice said.

      The sad reality is that in the country these issues probably will start popping up in the form of litigation. We haven’t quite reached that point yet, but I can’t imagine it’s far from happening. Are the next Harvard Law degrees going to have minors in “Tweet Language” or “Documentation of Facebook Wall Comments?”

      Yes…silly example, but I think my point is that in the near future brands ARE going to get tested. My hope is that the judge and jury rule in favor of the brand. Otherwise the hesitancy to be more involved in the social media space will grow even larger.

    5. Most PR firms have zero idea of how to leverage social media. A few have a clue, but not nearly enough. PR has a lot to fix before it starts billing hours for social media work.

      Adding a social media fee sounds like a great idea, but how much are a few outsourced tweets and blog posts really worth?

      I have playing the pessimist lately- many companies shouldn’t even bother with social media strategy. They get caught up in the hype and the results are often lackluster.

      Twitter, 1 billion tweets or not, isn’t going to help most businesses. We can argue this all day long. It has very specific values, it’s not a panacea.

      PR is not dead, it’s broken. There are plenty of medium and large companies who will continue to hire expensive PR firms with few results to show for it.

      Good points about what is PR. Old school PR was about about how a companies interfaces with the public. Go look it up. New PR is about sending/spamming untargeted emails and nothing has changed for the most part except for the few enlightened individuals in the “new” PR space.

      There is PR as in promotion and relations and there is crisis PR. The two are totally different and should be addressed as such. Tweeting is part of PR, but a monkey could do it. Don’t get me started on outsourcing blog writing, talk about a disconnect between the goals of PR/social media and what consumers need.

    6. Great post, Jeremiah, very thoughtful. To which I’d add several quick points:

      – Differentiation is extremely difficult for PR firms, even as they move (or should move) more aggressively in the directions you’re suggesting (all of which I agree with). Real differentiation in a services business often comes down to differentiated capabilities. You can tell a better story, claim better process, etc., but those can and will be copied quickly and easily. Capabilities are harder to come by, especially in the social media space where there is still far more hype than deep experience. So actual differentiation in the PR sector requires a pretty major effort to develop new and different resources and capabilities, not just tell a different story or create new “offers” based on the same old resources. You get at this with your first point, but probably even more needs to be done.

      – Following the above, there may also be a big opportunity for PR firms to help their clients differentiate in a substantive way. Typically this would be done in-house with help from brand and marketing firms, but it’s still a rarity in practice, at least in B2B tech and services firms that I work with.

      – Finally, there may be a real opportunity for PR firms to help clients with true thought leadership. Not just good content (although that is still desperately needed by most firms), but actual deep research that supports a truly alternative point of view on the market. Most of what passes for “thought leadership” these day is either superficial opinion or thinly-veiled sales pitches. Again, it’s not something PR firms have emphasized before, but it’s a critical need in the market and they are as well placed as anyone to make a move in that direction.

    7. Thoughtful post.

      I 100% agree, but especially about lifecycle. PR’s experience in conversations and content creation makes it perhaps more valuable in turning existing customers into advocates than in acquiring new customers.

      In the future, PR and customer service will blend together in some cases, and the smart PR firms should be pushing that mixture.

    8. What’s going to differentiate PR firms moving forward is the ability to extend the social strategy across the entire agency. Saying you have a ‘social media division’ is like saying you have an ‘internet division’. It’s not a niche anymore, it’s part of the entire communications fabric.

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    9. While I agree with all your points Jeremiah, I am continually surprised at the harsh criticism leveled at the PR community, by its own. Yes, social media and all the online opportunities have changed the landscape. But that’s a good thing.

      At our agency, online reputation management, working with bloggers, tweeting, and all the rest have just become part of what the PR team does. It has replaced some of the media relations work and in some cases, become separate initiatives. We counsel clients on when to participate (if they don’t already – and most don’t) and when to let things go.

      This is not rocket science. The agencies that figure it out will thrive and those that don’t, don’t deserve to.

      When the economy takes a dive, the smart CMO recognizes that PR is a much more economical way to stay top of mind and be relevant. Our agency is busy and so are lots of other PR folks I know. I see this as a terrific opportunity to expand the relevancy of the “evolved” PR agency.

    10. Brandy, I couldn’t agree more. To that point, Gannon Hall made a great point during the panel last night when he said that at the end of the day we need to look at social media as another set of tools that we can use to communicate. It is time for us to all get on board with the changes that are happening in the industry.

    11. I like Leslie’s suggestion that the term “public relations” is outdated. Our work touches customer support, product marketing and even SEO. Rather than mourn the death of old PR, I’m excited about new opportunities. I just don’t know what to call it yet.

      My experience in emerging media is that I’m being asked to do more online marketing tasks that have concrete conversion goals rather than more subjective “publicity” tasks. Coming from an interactive marketing background, that suits me just fine.

      With new territory comes new accountability. We have the tools to measure the impact of our efforts like never before. Tools like Tweetscan, Google Trends and Radian6 provide wonderful measures of whether or not our online efforts have got people chatting, searching or posting. And more importantly, propagating the client’s messages.

      As Jonathan Schwartz likes to say “Control is an illusion.” But at least you can attenuate and amplify!

    12. What’s broken are “agency” staff models where a company sells a client some positioning and placement process (pr, ads, banners – no matter), executed by clueless newbies at 3x billable rates. The issue was exacerbated the past few years by A-list poseurs that jumped on Social Media as a new business/self-promotional pitch message rather than a client strategy. Having spent time as a client, I agree with the point that it’s generally easier (and far less expensive) and faster to home grow experts than to partner with agencies. And as monitoring systems and outsourced agents efficiently sift through the high volume clips and messages for nuggets, it sure doesn’t leave much room for big agencies.

    13. I was at the panel discussion and wrote a summary of the panel on my blog. For me, the panel was billed as “Will Social Media Kill PR” but delved, as Jeremiah highlighted, too much about what I call PR 101 meets Social Media.

      What I had hoped to hear is how social media can help PR gain the seat the table and provide additional value from a MARKETING perspective. In the end, PR is part of marketing, not the other way around. While marketing intuitively understands that PR is important, if PR continues to relegate itself as securing hits versus how they can provide value in terms of marketing, we will see the same discussion in 5-10 years when another fancy communications tool is introduced.

      At what point can we get beyond the current (past?) conversation of PR agency model is broken, bad PR folks, PR spams, etc, – to one that discusses how PR is ADDING value to the entire process in language that business executives and marketing understands?

    14. Jeremiah,

      Great post, great panel & good to catch up with you last night.

      I thought the “Horn Group guide to the Internet circa 1996” said it all…

      While the stated topic (“Is Social Media Killing PR?”) was catchy, I think most pros in the room realize social media is just a new tool, a new channel, a new way for companies to “relate to their public”. It’s not the first, will not be the last.

      The role of PR is a strategic advisor across all available channels as they evolve through time. Seeing that Guide to the Internet binder, a physical artifact of that process, brought it all into perspective for me.

      Also plus points to the audience member who said where are the metrics PR? In the print days this was excusable, but not in online & social media. Going forward, I’d love to see our PR firm start a metrics department and use the powerful tools of online advertising to track the impact of social media efforts (Link-to-Lead, Link-to-Conversion, etc.). It’s not the be-all-end-all to our investment in PR, but it might go a long way toward weathering the looming economic uncertainty.


    15. Jeremiah–
      Totally agree with your assessment, especially that PR should be monitoring online conversations and analyzing what they mean for a brand. (And then using that insight to influence campaigns.) You also mentioned last night that you’re not sure PR has the skill set for that yet. Can you say more about that? Thanks for the great summary.

    16. Jeremiah,

      Great points as always. As someone on “both sides of the fence” – I work at Horn Group but also get pitched for my blog on mediabistro – I can understand the different points of view on this debate.

      I think a lot of the smart firms out there are already doing what many of the commenters mention here: tracking online conversations, creating solid content, and providing strategic counsel. That being said, there are also a lot that aren™t.

      In the tech space especially it is appealing, and possibly easier to think, “Hey, I can do PR myself,” when you see CEOs like Jason Calacanis having success in this area. However, with all due respect to Mr. Calacanis, he runs a different kind of company, and many CEOs don’t have the kind of desire or personality required for his style of PR.

      Many of the clients I work with simply don’t have time to be tracking all of the conversations, knowing exactly when and how to respond, creating messages and putting them out to the right people, etc. etc. They are busy selling and growing their businesses and developing new products or services. That is the reason why they hire us to work with them.

      What often gets in lost in the mix are questions clients ask their PR agency, such as:

      Can you shoot/edit video or write copy for our website?
      Does this conference matter?
      Should I go “off the record” with this reporter?
      Should I respond to that blog post?
      How would you rank this analyst firm?
      Can you write the application for this award?

      If your PR firm provides the right recommendations or solutions to these questions, that information is very valuable.

      Regarding the comments on “results,” advertising is very successful at monetizing at a higher level than PR because it is guaranteed. You can buy advertising. And while you can buy a PR firm, you can™t buy good press. (And, yes PR is much more than press, but I feel many of the results comments are geared towards this area.) A feature in the Wall Street Journal could be well worth more than any ad your company places that year, but the PR firm doesn’t charge you more that month.

      The agency model also offers some benefits that have not yet been mentioned in this post. Todd Defren makes a compelling case here:

      Lastly, the PR industry is a diverse business, and when we look at just the area of tech PR, we get a skewed perspective. For example, consider healthcare (pharma), government relations/public affairs, investor relations, etc. where social media has vastly different implications.

    17. Thanks for the post.

      Fully agree, I would however change you A, B, C into C, B, A.

      Start with the strategy, then council and propose plans to execute, then monitor.

      The noise is contextual to your strategy.

      Let’s say you want to influence Personal Computer users.

      Poorly formulated teen comments can be your golden nugget if your target community is teens 😉 and just noise if you focus is IT professional


    18. Jeremiah, it was so great to have you, and you’re right–we didn’t get much beyond the lens of media relations last night. What I saw from the audience was real ambivalence toward social media at all–as a threat, as the trend du jour, or as this fluffy California thing that doesn’t affect real business.

      We know that’s short-sighted. The “audiences” we’ve been “targeting” are talking back. It’s happening, it’s mainstream and it scares people.

      So yes, social media is a real shift, and had we gotten to vision, we could have delved deeper into the opportunities you outline here. We will do that.

      But from where I sat last night, I saw a microcosm of the cultural barriers to social media: confusion, ambivalence, fear of letting go of strategies that no longer work, but also a lot of curiosity and pockets of innovation. We should learn from that; we may not have taken the conversation as far as we wanted, but it’s the price we pay for inclusion; for being social in the first place.

      And ultimately I believe it’s our responsibility as early(ish) adopters and strategists to help bring the next group along–whether they’re PR people, marketers, customer service reps or plumbers.

      If we accomplished some of that last night, I’ll be happy. Thanks again.

    19. Jeremiah, great points both yesterday at the event and here on the blog. It’s great to see the topic being elevated to practical discussion of next steps and ways for people to take control over change. I especially like your emphasis on not forgetting that regardless of tool–it is still all about the story.


    20. Jeremiah,

      I’ve been reading about this seminar on a number of blogs, and I have to chuckle a bit. Great title, but it’s clear that major effect of social media on PR is to expand opportunities to reach customers, which in turn provides more ways for PR to demonstrate its worth. All in all, social media is quite a lifelife — one that I expect will keep PR a healthy and growing part of the overall marketing mix despite tough economic times.

    21. JO…I agree it wasn’t about the title, it was the topic, the curiousity, and the conversations. As we all invest more in interactive marketing and the online shift, putting together strategies to take advantage and thrive in the mix is more complicated than ever.
      It was a great event to get it out into the open, and Sam was excellent pulling in the audience and covering many grounds that clearly are on everyone’s mind.

    22. Some good discussion here. Unfortunately, most of the PR vs. Social Media debate elsewhere completely misses the point, thereby exposing and perpetuating common misunderstandings about the relationship between media and PR.

      We are all media.

      Media = a transport mechanism for messages. Media can be anyone or anything that carries a message, whether it’s the skin of your butt that carries a tattoo that carries a message, or the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Long before blogs, and long before the arbitrary label “social media” was invented, individuals always served as media. It was called word of mouth. Not too long ago, traditional media had a monopoly on reach of influence, which helped drive and inform word of mouth. Social media has only served to dilute traditional media’s absolute influence.

      The role of good PR is to develop ethical strategies and tactics for leveraging all media to deliver messages that are beneficial to the goals and objectives of a client.

      If we look back in history at PR industry best practices, good PR has had two primary roles:

      1. Package client information into packets of information that carry messages that can be carried over media to reach a desired target audience, who, upon receiving that information, forms perceptions and awareness that lead that target audience to act in such a way that is beneficial to the originator of the message.

      2. Build relationships between the originator of the message (the client) and the carrier of the message (the media) grounded in honesty, transparency, and a mutual respect for each others motives and needs. The client wants beneficial message delivery, and the the media wants to propagate truthful and insightful information that benefits their audience.

      So will social media kill PR? Never. As long as there are smart PR people capable of leveraging traditional media, social media and future forms of media for the benefit of their clients, there will always be clients willing to pay for this valuable service.

      Mark Coker
      Dovetail Public Relations

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    24. PR will not be imune from this – and the PR agency as we know it will also become irrelevant insofar as we continue to position ourselves as an intermediary between “The Public” and their “Relations” with the organisations we represent. However, the skills PR people have will make us better placed than those in other agencies to help organisations adapt to the world of social media.

    25. PR and the whole web is becoming a mashup of different disciplines. As traditional firms struggle to make this switch, the need for a clearly defined Social Media strategy and Brand Reputation management piece should not be an afterthought. Old habits are hard to break however and many get left in the dust by failing to see the train coming. Very nice Post. It still holds water as of this post date. Fundamentals have always been the key to any strategy and you hit it spot on.

    26. PR and the whole web is becoming a mashup of different disciplines. As traditional firms struggle to make this switch, the need for a clearly defined Social Media strategy and Brand Reputation management piece should not be an afterthought. Old habits are hard to break however and many get left in the dust by failing to see the train coming. Very nice Post. It still holds water as of this post date. Fundamentals have always been the key to any strategy and you hit it spot on.

    27. Self publication has been a disruptive technology – but my view is that the bulk of blogs at least are written without and audience. PR companies usually spend more time creating an online presence, and that leverage will ensure the survival of those on top of their game [the 'evolved'].

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