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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