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The Nine Lives of Public Relations?

Talk about time flying. It’s been about a year and a half since the first of a handful of pundits began sounding the current death knell for the public relations industry. The suspected cause of death? Social media.

Like previous reports of our industry’s demise, this one has been greatly exaggerated. Public relations isn’t declining at the hands of social media; it’s gaining, as social media provides opportunities to build relationships in new ways, and as companies seek guidance on effective and credible ways to leverage the new tools.

Writing for her agency’s blog last year, Susan Etlinger pointed out some of the prominent commentary: Robert Scoble, Michael Arrington, Jason Calacanis et al debating whether or not social media’s rise would precipitate public relations’ fall (see PRSA’s response to Calacanis’ comments).

Granted, some of the early chatter was driven by starry-eyed technologists. And, it’s been fueled along the way by bloggers who don’t care to be pitched by means of a one-size-fits-all media relations strategy — if at all.

But Don Wright, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, who is a professor of public relations at Boston University and editor of PRSA’s peer-reviewed PR Journal, recently told me just how wrong such predictions are turning out to be. By his estimate, approximately 70 percent of all social media programs are being driven by public relations professionals.

Writing on PR-Squared, Todd Defren gives an explanation as to why that might be: “The advertising industry will always have an edge in terms of sex appeal, and the future of advertising (particularly in a mobile online world) is still quite exciting. But advertising’s intrinsic, long-term value to the corporate brand is declining in the Social Media era. And the PR industry is the happy beneficiary.

If your clients or bosses still are asking who should be responsible for managing social media, tell them it should be the public relations professionals. And here are 10 reasons why that you can use to back it up:

  1. Social media puts the consumer in control, and public relations professionals are accustomed to operating in an environment that cedes control to others.
  2. Public relations has always been about engaging with key audiences to establish mutually beneficial relationships.
  3. Public relations is a two-way discipline. It disseminates information about an organization and brings back information for analysis and response.
  4. Like all the different forms of traditional media — television, radio, newspaper, magazines — social media is a conduit to engage audiences and build relationships. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the people who use it.
  5. Traditional media — while still important — is facing an uncertain future, encouraging public relations professionals to identify new means of engaging audiences and “earning” new media.
  6. Public relations is a content-creation discipline. The written word, certainly, but also photos, audio and video, which are expected with online engagement.
  7. In an environment where information moves at tremendous speed, public relations is one marketing and communications discipline that can keep pace.
  8. Social media are built on authenticity and the ability to trust “people like me.” Public relations professionals are — and will remain — the antenna, conscience and voice of the organizations we represent. We are the trust builders, speaking in credible voices while adhering to ethical communications principles.
  9. Public relations educators are some of the leading sources of social media research.
  10. Public relations is about connecting people and ideas. Technology is certainly a powerful tool for building relationships, but people and basic communication skills still come first.

On that last point, Edward R. Murrow may have said it best: “The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”

Michael Cherenson is the 2009 Chair and CEO of PRSA.

About the author

Michael Cherenson, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • Mike,
    This blog post is directly in line with some of the initiatives the PRSA Bylaw Rewrite Task Force has taken on during the past two years. One of the task force’s suggested concepts in the rewrite is opening up membership beyond the usually defined bounds of public relations. By opening PRSA membership to include different and more varied disciplinary approaches to communications, the Society is building a great foundation for its future. Clearly, PRSA is recognizing how our profession is shaping others, including social media. We have to think beyond one discipline or one tool in the PR toolbox.

  • Mike,

    Good article.

    Really thought you hit the reason why PR is placed to succeed with SM in your first point: Social media puts the consumer in control, and public relations professionals are accustomed to operating in an environment that cedes control to others.

    I think maybe this is the crux of why public relations professionals were at the forefront of using social media for effective communications with their audiences. PR people are used to having to work in a chaotic environment where they are not in control. Though I do think the profession has had mixed results over the years in regards to social media, some of the problems have come from senior leadership misunderstanding the new and old realities of communications.

    I also think this debate about the death knell of public relations is old. Read the 1998 book, the cluetrain Manifesto. Look at the conversations in the last ten years at the New PR Wiki or on the Global PR blogging week in 2004 and 2005. We’ve been talking about public relations demise for a while now. I think the old way of doing media relations will never go away, still has a place, even in the new world of blogging and social media. But how you build relationships is different. Public relations has a strong role to play. Though I personally think it is through strategy rather than tactics. To me the real successes in social media come from product marketing and customer service. Look at Dell and Comcast here. While PR has played a role, I don’t think we should expect PR professional to have the domain expertise in product marketing or customer service. However, how a company answers and responds with content to their customers can have one eye on the PR consequences of a response.

  • If we assume the social media is mainly or just about engaging external audiences to build brand and promote the business, then it might makes sense that PR should own it. But the promise and emerging reality of social media is so much larger than this, encompassing internal communications and collaboration, collaborative R&D with customers, partners, and others, etc., that it goes far beyond the traditional or even new definitions of PR. We’re in a transition period now, and most likely the very idea of “owning” social media will fade away in a few years as all major functions become more social.

    Meanwhile, has Don Wright published anything with his estimate of PR driving 70% of social media programs? I’d love to see any research on this.

  • […] The Nine Lives of Public Relations? I completely agree with Mike — public relations is here to stay. PR practitioners are catching on to social media must faster then the other branches of integrated marketing; thus, PR is dominating as a leader. (tags: advocacy PRSA publicrelations pr social media web2.0) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Beauty bLAB – Cha-Ching! The Spending Has Begun […]

  • Good post and nice comments.

    In short I believe that the legacy of mass communications and advertising – and the subsequent role of pr primarily as media relations is to root of the pr industry problem.

    For me, pr has always been about allowing organisations and public to adapt through sharing information. This is at the core of social media. I agree with Rob’s comment here that in a few years all major business functions will become more social. And that brings in organisational change, product development, and so on.

    Those PRs who have made open and transparent communications their stock in trade over the years, rather than focused on media relations, will be best placed to add most value in social media.

    I touch on a similar topic here here on my blog

    Interesting times!

    Steve Seager

  • As an intern at Fahlgren Mortine in Columbus, Ohio, I have worked on many projects related to social media. I think organizations and businesses are starting to realize how great of an opportunity it is to use social media to reach their audiences.

    But, to be effective, social media needs to be done right. Who better to do it than a public relations professional? You give a great list of points for why PR should handle social media.

    Great post.

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