Online PR For An Offline World

It’s a good time to be a public relations professional. Visit any career web site like Monster.com and search for marketing or public relations, and you’ll get dozens of great opportunities. Some are for in-house corporate positions, but most of them are for agencies.

Unfortunately, if you’re not interested in schlepping software or other high technology a la Silicon Valley/Forest/Alley/Desert/Prairie/insert-geological-climate-here, the field narrows to a trickle. Nearly all job classifieds in a recent search were for public relations professionals who want to work in high-tech.

But what if a communications professional wants to do Internet PR in an offline industry? What if, say, a person’s PR expertise is in the hotel or food industry?

Agencies are either specializing exclusively in Internet public relations or they are building Internet/high-tech practices in their firms. However, nearly all of them cater to high-tech clients such as software start-ups or Internet companies. Few of them (at least in the jobs they post) seem to do Internet communications for non-technical clients.

We Don’t Do Bricks and Mortar

It may be easy to wag a finger at the agencies for being short-sighted in putting all their proverbial eggs in one basket (or, shall we say, zip drive?). We might remind them of the economic boom the defense and aerospace industries in California enjoyed before federal budget cuts burst the bubble, leaving thousands of refugees from Reagan’s Star Wars program to audition for Michael Douglas’ role in Falling Down.

Or, going back further, we can recall Detroit in the hey-day of pre-Japanese vehicle imports. When Chrysler and Chevrolet (and really, the entire American auto industry) took severe financial hits, entire towns went belly up.

Just as a measure of the consolidation potential of today’s commercial Internet, there were once over 200 different automobile manufacturers in the Los Angeles area alone. Today, the United States boasts only two. This is not a sky is falling prediction. We are not trying to throw a wet towel on everyone’s pre-IPO fun.

But the fact is that industries are cyclical. At some point, the thousands of public relations college grads who are singing the mantra of high-tech — and commanding handsome entry level salaries — will be in for a surprise when, not if, this levels off.

The Land of Missed Opportunity

The point of all this — yes, there’s a point — is that agencies are not offering these services to more traditional industries because apparently these industries aren’t demanding it. Corporate public relations departments seem to still be trying to figure out what the Internet means to their daily jobs.

The other difference may also be that high-tech companies, all in fierce competition for people’s attention, may have “found religion” when it comes to public relations and media placement.

By now, most start-ups have realized that successful venture capital funding and subsequent IPOs can largely depend on the marketing or communications plan. Basically, young CEOs who grew up on a steady diet of jingles, slogans, and media hype are more aware of the need to create a buzz.

Lessons from the High-Tech Front

In too many traditional corporations, public relations remains an afterthought until some crisis hits the fan and the communications department is deployed to clean up the mess. Too few of them sit at the executive board’s table, providing high-level strategic communications counsel. Too many of them may sit at the executive board’s table, taking notes like a secretary to report in the company newsletter.

With all the hype and noise about Internet, dot-com and so forth, the high-tech start-ups realize that (even if they have a great product, service, or solution) they need aggressive communications strategy to be heard. They’ve realized, unlike too many companies, that nothing sells itself.

Which brings us back to the job market. What’s a public relations professional to do if software isn’t her gig?

Continue evangelizing the potential of the Internet and the web. Eventually, when things do level off, even the old stuffy companies will realize that, unlike poodle skirts and the hula-hoop, the Net is here to stay.

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