The Schizophrenic World of Public Relations

Neither public nor much about relations, public relations was always a misleading term to describe what actually takes place in PR agencies and corporate cubicles. These days, the definition has contracted further. When a client says “We need some good PR” you know she’s not calling for a strategy to develop favorable public opinion. She’s talking about publicity. Preferably, above the fold. Couple this basic role confusion with a shifting media target and exploding technology, and why wouldn’t PR be going through a massive identity crisis?

So Long as You Spell My Name Right

Public relations arose as a low-tech, person-to-person activity featuring stunts, events, and cozy relations with the press… all designed to attract attention. When it works, it still does.

The underlying science mass communications, opinion leadership, cognitive dissonance, etc. (studied by the grad school e-generation) does give public relations a patina of legitimacy. Accreditation of practitioners by the Public Relations Society of America is another gesture in that direction. But the business never strayed far from its roots. Get publicity, get attention. Spell the client’s name right.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots of room for real strategic planning and opinion sampling in any PR campaign. Online survey services like www.zoomerang.com, www.clicktomarket.com and www.inetsurveys.com are three URLs that belong on every PR person’s short list of bookmarks. It’s just that MediaMap, PRNewswire, and Business Wire are going to be tapped a whole lot more in the course of a day’s work.

That doesn’t mean the strategic intelligence of a Harold Burson, Pam Edstrom, or Regis McKenna is outdated. But more than ever before, PR today is about publicity and media, and the consultants performing the worthy function of steering corporations into provident waters are just in a different business. In the dot-com, high tech, and B2Anyone worlds, PR might just as well mean Press Relations… if not Press Releases.

That could be one reason PR is headed for the couch. Aside from role confusion, the press we’re trying to have relations with is fragmenting right along with the markets it serves.

Fragmentation and Cross-Dressing

What’s changed? In America, everything. Audiences are splintered into demographic shards, as prosperity and technology bring in their wake an explosion of interests and the time and money to pursue them. The gazillions of new print magazines, e-zines, and newsletters speak to our fragmented and passionate interests.

This proliferation goes to the heart of the New PR practice. The very concept of a “public” as an assemblage of people somehow constituting an audience vanished forever circa 1977 when the first Apple fell from the tree. From that time on, with increasing power, each citizen became an independent node in a communications network… and a publisher at will.

Under the velocity of change, the lines are blurring between traditional media and traditional PR. When Yahoo, to some folks, is a slick magazine and The New York Times is something you read online in the morning, it’s easy to see how online and offline media merge.

Today, newspaper editors and online e-zine staff can pull their stories off PR wire services or press rooms on commercial web sites. Independent journalists and staff writers can do a good chunk of their research by going to online material produced by PR people. The forward slash separating Online/Offline, PR office/Newsroom is a permeable membrane.

Although the basic paradigm continues unchanged (ad dollars follow the numbers in targeted media), what has changed, forever, for both media and PR, is the traditional way of reaching those targets. And here is where PR comes into its own.

It’s Only publicity…

Only publicity has the option to work both these areas, go beyond the mythical segmented markets, beyond the niche pubs, into the never-never land of chat groups, discussion groups, list servs, and bulletin boards that never saw an ad dollar.

This is Amy Gallivan’s beat. Here’s how she sees her work as manager of the new media department at Connors Communications, a strategic high-tech PR and marketing agency headquartered in New York City.

“Search engine placement is something we do, ” says Gallivan. ” We also visit highly targeted news groups and contact Open Directory editors frequently. I absolutely respect message boards and chat groups and wouldn’t commercialize them. But if I visit a Peter Benchley chat room, then I can be confident these people would be interested in my National Geographic shark special, right? We track the e-zines closely. I look at e-zines as the online brother or sister of traditional verticals. We take the client’s off line messages, give them an online voice, and go into the most effective niche, and that means mining online content.”

The point? PR people, by and large, are hired to get their clients publicity, not strategize. In the course of that work, they’re clearly part of the expanding news media universe, integral to the gathering and dissemination of news.

Technology

To this fragmented media universe, PR brings an awesome array of communications firepower. But the power to inundate is not the power to communicate. Nor does the efficiency of the Internet translate automatically into program effectiveness.

In one leg of our PR Survey Research (full results online next week at www.senyak.com), we asked: “What is the single greatest impact the Internet’s growth has had on your work?” There were 51 responses. From Respondent 22, here’s a typical answer: “Ease of communicating through email with a variety of people at one time, at all hours of the day…

Valium, anyone?

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