Quick — Send in the Clowns

PR used to be the Clown Prince of business. Now it’s a technically efficient profession, marching suit to suit with advertising, research, media and the MIS department. When did it stop being fun?

Yesterday, P.T. Barnum paraded midgets and giants around the country to get publicity. Carl Byoir’s Minute Men appeared in movie theaters across the U.S. during the change of reels to pitch the war effort. Dean Jennings threw full dress wine tastings for Paul Masson on a broken down barge in Sausalito.

Nobody has time for that kind of stuff now. Those pratfalls were the media vaudeville acts of a simpler time; a time when people unfolded their morning newspapers to actually find out what was going on. In Y2K, newspapers are among the last to tell. Or are they?

The Internet Is What Drives PR Today

Back in the old print based days of the 20th century, when we started working with a new client, we would sit down together, do some research, start generating some ideas and come up with a plan. By the time we built a list, made some calls, shot photos and produced basic press backgrounders, presentation covers and video clips, a month might have gone by.

Today, that whole process from handshake to follow-up press release might take 24 hours. “We’re on e-time,” said Michael Tchong, “You get an idea in the morning, get financing at lunch, go public in the evening.”

And where is this speed taking us? Sometimes it seems not very far. Today, the processes of PR are clearly orders of increased magnitude. PR practitioners have access to vast data and satellite based systems to send messages world wide, instantly. Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?

The PR Research Project

Watching this new, deadly serious PR sprouting up in the midst of the old-line business is one thing. Taking an objective snapshot is another. We opted for something in-between, a patch study of PR agencies using 300 names, just to see what the field data showed. Roughly half the sample came from the O’Dwyer report list, a good source for a relatively undifferentiated selection of PR agencies. The rest was skewed heavily toward high tech, with names drawn from the Public Relations Society of America high tech group, and a random sampling of the PR reps pitching stories at a recent computer conference.

The 68 responses to this survey present a fairly clear picture of PR agency practices under the Internet gun. The majority (62 percent) of respondents were female. The average age was between 25 to 30 years; pretty much the way it looks around any e-PR agency office.

We asked two questions to gauge the extent to which the Internet had changed PR behaviors: one exploring the way work takes place, the other the objectives of the work itself. (The full survey is online at www.senyak.com/.)

“Have email and online services replaced your hard copy distribution of news releases?”

With all respect to the U.S. Postal Service, it’s probably safe to say that its days as the primary source of fast-breaking news are over. The PR industry agrees. Overall, 84 percent of respondents report increased use of email, and 78 percent report declining use of post office mailings to distribute news. This is not “stop the press” news, but it does confirm the anecdotal data.

Cross tabulating to see patterns within segments of the PR agency universe, we find another unsurprising conclusion. High tech PR agencies are leading the rush to e-media with 40 percent having “largely” replaced hard copy distribution with email and online services. One in five flat out don’t use the mails to distribute news at all. In contrast, in the more traditional, business oriented PR agencies, only 19 percent have “largely” made the move into the electronic age, and fewer than 8 percent have sent back their Pitney Bowes machines.

For Beatus & Buzzhead Associates Print Still Rules.

That young (between 25 to 30 years, 62 percent female), highly professional group over at our favorite e-PR agency, B&B Associates, is based in a converted olive oil storage shed on the edges of San Francisco’s trendy South Park section.

They spent all their college years in a Microsoft Windows 95/Power Mac environment and fewer than one in ten ever worked for a newspaper. At their fingertips are detailed lists of every writer on every publication everywhere. They have a T-1 connection to the Net and can cram as many press releases through the pipe as they want without licking a single envelope. They can have it end up in the right editor’s email box pretty much instantly. And, mercifully, briefly.

Unlike the PR warriors of the 20th century whose stock-in-trade included martinis, crammed presentation folders, expense accounts and media relationships, the folks at B&B trade in electrons and use metrics from the client’s ad department-data not even as tangible as smoke and mirrors.

Technically, they are very good at it. They just don’t seem to have the time to be all that creative. The greatest impact the Internet has had on B&B is to create more work and more pressure to produce. As Respondent #4 said, “We work faster, harder, longer. More time is put into each account because clients change their strategy more frequently and have more news to release more frequently. ” Is it any wonder the clowns have gone home?

Given their typical e-PR profile, how do you think the folks at Beatus & Buzzhead Associates answered the second question

“Roughly, how much of your time is spent developing articles or placing publicity with writers and editors of (a) Online Media (b) Print Media (c) Broadcast Media?”

Three out of four people in the agency spend MOST of their time working with traditional print media.

Go figure.

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