PR – a two speed industry

This is an article by Daryl Willcox.
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Back in early 2007 I wrote a whitepaper entitled Public Relations versus Search Marketing – Clash or Collaboration? in which I warned how other disciplines – specifically search marketing – were poised to snatch the digital PR agenda away from the PR industry.

In an attempt to shock the industry into appreciating the significance of changes in the media I predicted the decline of the PR industry, overshadowed by the growth of search marketing. Was I right? Well, the simple answer is no, not yet anyway.

However, many of the other things I predicted at the time – such as search marketing agencies offering what could only be described as PR services and the rise of the ‘social media agency’ – did come true. Just look at the growth of We Are Social, which describes itself as a ‘conversation agency’ and is now over 100 people in six offices despite having been incorporated just three years ago.

Lots of people in PR did eventually take notice – and I’m not taking credit for that by any stretch of the imagination. When I wrote the whitepaper there were other, louder voices out there delivering a similar message.

But while the PR industry has now largely acknowledged the need to adapt to an increasingly digital and conversational media, not all are adapting to the fullest extent. The result, it seems, is a two-speed PR industry.

It was in fact Andrew Smith, managing director of escherman, who I overheard on Twitter using the phrase ‘two speed industry’. Smith, who offers consultancy and training in social media, search engine optimisation (SEO) and web analytics for PR professionals, says: “Many still see PR as fundamentally media relations, nothing more nothing less, whereas others now see media relations as part of a broader portfolio, encompassing social media, search and other things.”

Smith points to the latest PRWeek Top 150 PR agencies report which indicates some agencies are performing pretty well – despite the downturn – whereas others are suffering. Although an objective analysis has not been done, Smith suggests that perhaps those doing well are the ones that have embraced digital media, while the others are only paying lip-service to the concept of digital PR. To focus purely on media relations, Smith says, is a ‘zero sum game’, as such activity has almost become commoditised and although clients want it, they know they can shop around and drive the price down.

So the hypothesis goes that those who are not offering a wide, digitally-inclusive consultancy service are making less money because they are trapped in a fiercely competitive and shrinking world of traditional PR, thus perhaps explaining the dichotomy of the PRWeek league table.

Regardless of whether this analysis if the UK PR agency sector holds any truth, from my perspective as an observer of the industry, sitting between PR and the media, it is pretty clear that the PR industry is divided in terms of its expertise with digital.

So now we have established the PR industry is operating at two speeds what does it look like to be in the fast lane compared to the slow lane? Put simply, and this really is a simplification, a fast lane PR professional will understand the fundamental concepts behind search, be good at using lots of different online tools to identify audiences and influencers, identify relevant social media channels and focus on doing them well and be able to adjust their tone when speaking to social media authors rather than just treating in the same way as journalists.

Slow lane PR professionals on the other hand will tell their clients to start a Facebook page regardless of whether it makes any sense, add a few blogs to the press list and then start churning out press releases (and probably forget to include keyword links in them).

But why do some people in the PR industry continue to carry on as if the world – the media world – is not changing, when in reality it is probably going through the biggest upheaval ever encountered? Smith argues that it comes down to those who are in charge. The people at the top of many PR agencies and who are in the most senior in-house positions are those who were at the coal face during the golden age of media relations in the 1980s and 1990s. ‘They have a tough time of letting go of what they think works,’ Smith adds.

This kind of makes sense, and when you also consider that the current CEOs of many larger businesses, the ones with the biggest PR budgets, are from a similar generation then you can understand why it’s hard for even the most enthusiastic consultant to convince ‘them upstairs’ of the need to think radically differently when it comes to PR.

Although they are now beginning to demonstrate some leadership now on this subject, the CIPR and PRCA were painfully slow at identifying and championing the significance of digital media to the PR industry. To take the CIPR as an example, it has probably only been in the last 18 months that it has embraced the issue and even then this seemed to be as a result of a grass-roots campaign rather than leadership from the top.

But whatever the reason is for those staying in the slow lane, it’s a damn shame. Unless the industry can act with imagination and conviction as a whole then it is unlikely to secure its place as the lead discipline in communications. And perhaps PR will never be awarded the seat on the board, that industry analyst Paul Holmes so rightly described as ‘chief reputation officer’, that it surely deserves.

Daryl is the founder and chairman of Daryl Willcox Publishing and has written previously for Behind The Spin on how to tell if you’ve got a story – and write a press release.


  1. This is brilliant – and important.

    I hope the right lesson is learnt. To me it’s not that we should all drop media relations and retool as social media experts.

    The lesson is that there are diminishing returns in an agency business model. The money’s in consultancy.

    The consultant has first to diagnose the problem, then propose the solution using all available tools and channels. As you say, this is likely to involve a range of media channels.

  2. A brilliant post and I completely agree – a two tiered PR industry is hitting the nail on the head. Businesses in this sector need to be doing as well as saying they are doing. I still find it truly staggering the amount of PR people that aren’t on various social networks. Twitter for instance used to be a very geeky experience for a set few of us but now everyone is on it apart from quite a few PRs. Social networks should be key to us doing our jobs not just another potential revenue stream.


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