Why isn’t PR suffering like the MSM?

Tom Foremski, pioneering journo blogger and driving force behind Silicon Valley Watcher, has been gazing into his crystal ball, trying to work out the end game for media in the light of the disruptive force of blogging. I’ve enjoyed several chats with him about how it might pan out and the types of business models we’ll see emerge.

In his latest foray to the future, he foretells the doom of PR as we know it. We’ll all go to hell in a handbasket, he delightedly mailed us. Why? Because mainstream media is withering in influence, so why hire a bunch of flacks to reach out to them? Companies are spending less on MSM advertising and more on search engine marketing, so why not pull that PR spend too? He says:

At some point companies will realize that the ROI on being mentioned in a story in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, or in trade publications, makes little difference to their bottom line. Press coverage might boost the egos of company senior executives but it doesn’t do much for overall sales.

I think Tom’s being deliberately mischievous here. Editorial in major print dailies still has a huge influence on opinion, and therefore the reputation of individuals, companies and organizations, and their commercial success. It’s not simply a vanity thing (though we can all think of instances where ego is a motivation) – it does lead directly to the phone ringing, to web traffic, to stocks rising etc. That’s not hard to track, or compare to PR spend, so let’s move on and give companies a bit more credit.

Tom’s fundamental point is that if the mediascape is decreasing, how come PR firms are thriving? Why aren’t PR firms suffering the same woes as their journalistic brethren on the other side of the fence? Remember the bust when we both went belly up? Where we shared the layoffs? How dare PR firms grow while the print press bleeds?

Ah but Tom, you know the answer to this. You were one of the first there. To jump the sinking ship of print journalism into the small life raft of blogging. And then all those other bloggers joined in. And suddenly there were millions of them. And they started talking about tech companies. And potential customers started reading those blogs and being influenced by them. And suddenly, there’s a whole new influencerscape to explore and reach out to. And oh, some of these bloggers weren’t that complimentary and harmed company reputations. And the corporate boards and marketing teams looked at the blogosphere and knew it not. And so the PR firm smiled, and quietly explored blogdom and helped the company to navigate that storm. To reach out to those bloggers and the prospective customers. To protect the shareholder value. And everything was good again.

The truth is, that while the MSM may slowly decrease in influence, it’s being matched by the growth of influence of other channels – blogs, search engines, podcasts etc. What hasn’t changed are prospective customers’ need for information (demand), nor companies’ desire to communicate their benefits (supply). Sure the currency may change from print to online or ad to editorial, but the essential equation is the same.

Those who adapt to that change will continue to thrive, and those that don’t will go the way of the print press. Victims of a change in communication channels, not in the demand or supply of communication.

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  • Related to Foremski’s point, I find travel companies are already noticing the declining influence of MSM.
    A CEO said to me: “We used to kill for a feature about one of our trips in the Times. But we’ve looked at the results, done our sums and now it’s not worth much more than a classified ad”
    As you say, Morgan, a decent mention in the press can still make a big difference. But increasingly I see this as a sort of sugar rush. You have to keep doing it – and more often – to make an impact.
    The challenge is for PR to help clients add social media tools to their communications mix and pick the most effective strategy at any given point to get their message across.

  • Discount travel for bloggers

    In his post prophesying imminent disruption to the PR industry, Silicon Valley Watcher Tom Foremski predicts the decline in many traditional PR practices.At some point companies will realize that the ROI on being mentioned in a story in the Wall

  • A good point Neil. Awareness alone doesn’t always lead to action, and you may see decreasing returns for each hit. I like the sugar rush analogy. Thanks for the client feedback – am interested to read that travel companies are using social media tactics to reach their audiences. Any why wouldn’t they?

  • From around the PR-sphere…

    I realize I don’t do this as often as I used to, however here’s a selection of some interesting PR-related links and reading… John Wagner poses an interesting question: Have PR firms recognized and adapted to the changes taking place…

  • Great piece, Morgan.
    I’ve been pondering related issues for sometime on my weblog Contentious.com, and more recently on my new blog RightConversation.com.
    Here’s how I’ve come to look at it: we’re entering an age of conversational media. This trend is bigger than the blog phenomenon, although blogs are one type of conversational media channel.
    We now have widespread access to media that allows audience members to converse publicly with writers, speakers, and organizations *and* with each other. We also have robust, diverse, and fairly easy search and aggregation tools.
    This alters the balance of media power.
    It takes power away from organizations that wish to avoid or control the public conversation (i.e., most mainstream media companies), and gives power to organizations and individuals that understand the public conversation and can work to enhance it. That means, in part, PR organizations (at least the smart ones) and, generally, opinion leaders in all fields.
    Anyway, that’s my take on it — but it may explain why certain PR firms are doing well, while many mainstream media companiews (especially news organizations) are struggling.
    Whadya think?
    – Amy Gahran
    RightConversation.com
    Contentious.com

  • Hi Amy – good thought. I would agree with you that companies which believe they have full control over their message need to realize that in fact they don’t. You can’t spin marketing messages to different audiences in isolation, since those audiences now have the tools to interact and to share experiences.
    Market forces suggest that those companies which understand that quickly will do better than those which do not. Same with any technological change. I guess PR firms are no different.
    Tom was really wondering why PR is doing well but the media is shrinking. Part of that is a short term thing, I think. PR is doing well since it’s receiving redirected advertising dollars. If PR doesn’t demonstrate it can make use of that money, it will flow elsewhere – and yes, perhaps that’s search marketing but perhaps it’s back into R&D to bake better marketing into the product.
    That’s just ebb and flow. The rising tide will lift all the PR agencies and then if PR can’t demonstrate ROI, it’ll move on. Some firms will hold onto it longer than others.
    But I have to say, I don’t think advertising is dead. It has ruled the roost for the last 50 years. It’s morphed into a new beast and is now going through a transition phase, victim of time-shifting and saturation. But the pendulum will move back. If companies all pull their TV ads, the cost will come down, and ROI go back up.
    New executions will develop – water coolers, in restroom urinals, back of taxicabs, on a plane ticket, sandwich bags – heck we produced and gave away a bunch of shower radios as an ad vehicle.
    So I think the situation is still fluid. I don’t think anyone would suggest that PR is the new advertising, nor that it will escape unaltered by the dynamics you mention. But isn’t that the fun bit? We haven’t exactly had much innovation for a while, so this is great.
    Thanks for highlighting your blogs. Have added them to my reader – loads of great stuff there 😉

  • I’m not convinced anyone really *knows* what is happening or what will be the outcomes. I’m largely with Tom on the notion of new media savvy ex-hacks making plenty from this medium. Tom’s coming at it from the pure ex-hack standpoint. Om Malik would probably agree, especially around news gathering.
    Where there is solid analysis around an unfamiliar topic, then people take notice. I’m getting regular calls because of my position on SaaS for instance. And those calls are coming from far and wide.
    I detect a desire inside PR to control this thing. I may be wrong and it may be my natural cynicism at PR generally. Regardless of what a PR pens, they’re still in the business of selling something. Which does ‘feel’ vaguely tainted. Again – my ex-hack point of view.
    But I’m reasonably certain you’re correct to talk about the spheres of influence and the fact that ‘old rules’ apply in that context.
    I am seeing some change in perception. MSM – even that which has converted online pubs to include blogging features – doesn’t seem to be fare well for people who need a continuing stream of information and who wish to interact. It’s the publishing policy that’s wrong. Not editorial. Publishers need those banner ads which are clearly losing their appeal.
    Vendors – with whom I have traditionally dealt, will still go for the ‘big names’ because they’ve established prior trust. Hence Tom’s success. But it isn’t guaranteed. I canned my first blog because while it did OK, it wasn’t tightly focused enough to sustain my interest so how could I persuade others the content would remain of a certain quality? My latest effort is much more successful.
    The important point is that I have learned a lot, changed approach and do more not less experimentation. Fortunately, my audience is tolerant.
    Jeff Clavier talks about the indirect benefit to authoritative bloggers. This is an audience thats’ really tough to satisfy. These people have enormous potential power as a result of their trust status combined with their monetized activities.
    The really, really big question remains: who of the so-called A-list will be able to sustain output and status before they get burnt out?
    The ex-hacks won’t. That’s a racing certainty. And neither will the flacks that come along for the ride. (IMHO!!!)

  • Morgan, your industry is like the man falling past the 33rd floor of a sky scraper “So far, so good…”
    Jam tomorrow 🙂
    It’s time for new thinking in your industry–but “you can’t get there from here” because you have established business models to defend. That why it’s an opportune time for a “new rules” PR company startup, imho.