I’ve heard a lot of talk in town about PR being dead. I hear new communication technologies such as Social Media, SEO, SEM and Google have conspired to kill it. Advertising agencies and media buyers have also been mentioned as culprits. These talks are not happening in beer parlours and such other places. They are happening in PR circles. Young people who dream of making future careers in the profession are left in the lurch, confused. Many are waiting to see when and where PR will be buried before deciding what to do with their lives.
Do We Need To Fear?
My simple answer is, no. The root of this talk and fear is a book aptly titled “Trust Me: PR is Dead by Robert Phillips, a former President and CEO of Edelman, the largest PR firm in the world.
Robert Phillips is a thought leader in PR, a veteran of 25 years. He must be right. That seems to be the train of thought of the fear mongers. But they are dead wrong. I think what really gives them fear is the title of the book, not the contents. Many have not even bothered to read it.
The book is only a wake-up call to PR practitioners, and even other professionals. It draws our attention to issues in the PR profession that need to be addressed urgently if PR is to remain relevant in the current technological scheme of things.
Phillips is not the first to raise these concerns about the future of PR. In 2013, Paul Holmes raised similar issues in Holmes Report. What they are simply telling us is that the rise of digital and social media, and the attendant fragmentation and erosion of the mainstream media require that we begin to think and act differently by building a new repertoire of skills and tweaking our business models to reflect these new realities. So, this fear is unwarranted. Acting in line with their advice should be the way to go.
Those Who Should Worry
But there are people who should worry. Practitioners who believe PR is merely publicity in the mass media should necessarily worry. PR may be dead to them. Their only skills – making and maintaining traditional media contacts, writing and distributing press releases the traditional way – may not bring home enough bacon anymore. A new set of skills is needed now to navigate the digital world.
PR may also be dead to journalists, marketers, social media and information technology geeks who cross over to the profession without the requisite training and mastery of the body of knowledge which empowers professionals to navigate transitions like the one happening now. These gatecrashers just can’t fathom where PR is in the current technological milieu. Because we only see opportunities with the mind, all they can see at the moment with their untrained minds is PR sinking into oblivion.
PR may not be alive to PR professionals who are not keeping up with the current technological trends in the field. Analogue PR is an endangered species. It will be extinct in no time.
PR On The Rise
What real professionals see now is the rise and rise of PR in the current technological revolution. They see more opportunities for the growth of the profession. They see it becoming more global through the powers of the Internet. They see it taking its position as a strategic management function. They see real possibilities of two-way communication between their clients and their stakeholders, which is how PR was originally defined and what it stands for. They see social media providing unique opportunities for PR people to engage stakeholders directly, listen and feel their pulses without a third party — the traditional media people who sometimes frustrate and give them names, such as; flacks or spin doctors, just to discredit their work. This era gives PR an edge over other forms of communication. We should really be celebrating.
PR Is A Principle. Principles Don’t Die
The reason some fear that PR is dead is simply because they don’t know that PR is a principle, and that principles are eternal. They don’t die. They are good ideas that are not tied to time and situations. Let’s name them: truth, fairness, respect, creativity, compassion, social responsibility, learning; to name a few.
Principles are woven into the very fabric of humanity by our creator to promote our collective progress and ensure the preservation of the human race. They can’t die.
PR is all of these principles in one, namely: Good human relations known in religious circles as love. It is the glue that holds humanity together. If PR dies, humanity dies with it. What can die are practices because they are context specific. They change as we progress or retrogress in knowledge, technology and culture.
I am a proud African. I often tell anyone who cares to listen that PR started in Africa, which is acknowledged the cradle of human civilization. Anyone with a good sense of history knows that Egypt once ruled the world, being a superpower, for about 3,000 years. And PR was practised in full bloom. The duties of people we now call information officers were done by the scribes of ancient Egypt. Historians tell us they had advisors. One of them was Ptah-hotep who wrote, many years before the birth of Christ, of the need to communicate truthfully, addressing audience interests and acting in a manner consistent with what is being said. That is what PR teaches today.
It might surprise you to know that ancient Egyptians conducted PR campaigns. One of mankind’s most effective PR campaigns was developed and executed in Egypt by Joseph, as documented in the Holy Bible. The campaign educated Egyptians to store food during seven years of plenty for distribution during the following seven years of famine.
What communication tools did they use? Hieroglyphics and the official languages of the time. They also used plays, speeches and drawings of action pictures which could represent one word, many words or an entire idea.
What about their communication equipment? Certainly those of the times: wood palettes, reed pens and brushes made from reed stem, papyrus and ink.
Why this history lesson? It’s simply to make us appreciate the fact that tools and methods of communication essentially defined the practices of each era. They try to express the principles in the best way they can. The tools and methods used by the Egyptians are not what we use today. Even the press release invented by Ivy Lee in the 1900s has changed greatly today, but the principle behind its use remains the same. As you can see, practices don’t last forever. They die as times change.
PR Has Only Changed
In years gone by, we were masters of earned media. Good relations with men and women in traditional media outlets were enough to get our clients media mileage they needed while we smiled to the bank. Today, we must be masters of paid, earned, shared and owned media to succeed.
We must have what it takes to get our clients or employers’ messages out through advertising in conventional media and other channels such as ad Word and social media sites. We must be able to use digital media platforms such as Hubspot for e-mail marketing, lead generation, and landing page tests, and also use online wire services to distribute messages across a wide range of publication you can’t reach otherwise. You must extend your dragnets in relationship building to include bloggers for mention in their blogs. Creating and posting relevant and interesting stories of interest to targeted audience on social network site for sharing must be your forte. And creating websites, blogs and social platforms that enhance your communication experience with your target audience is now an indispensible arsenal.
These require a new set of skills; skills in new communication technologies. Blogging, micro-blogging, socials networking, blogger relations, coding, RSS, SEO and content marketing are new skills we must master. Without them, we are obsolete.
That is what practitioners like Robert Philips and Paul Holmes are talking about. They know Public Relations is not dead but its tools and method of practice have changed. If PR was dead, they would have told us so.