Has PR reached its ‘Now or Never’ moment?

I write this with a heavy heart as being a PR professional for over 25 years, I have to declare that PR is dead.

Having done nothing but PR for over 20 years, I go cold when I type the words “PR is dead”. I can imagine that it's the same feeling as getting lynched with a sword and collapsing in a heap. "But that can't be the end", I murmur to myself and summon all my strength to rise and say there has to be a way.

PR used to be all about writing press releases and getting coverage. In fact in 1906, Ivy Lee, considered to be the founder of public relations, created the first official press release on the details of an electric train wreck in New Jersey. There was one press release in that entire year, but by 2009 there were over 3000 press releases issued in one day in New York.  As the industry began to mature PR evolved to positioning products, and creating a tangible positioning. 

The most memorable campaigns are the DeBeers campaign that linked diamonds with romance and courtship and better still the positioning of the wonder bra as a lifestyle accessory. But all these campaigns were confined to print and television coverage.

Definitely the time has come for PR to reinvent itself. The way forward is that we go beyond handling just "public relations" for our clients and transform into a full services role. No longer is it about selling, it is about being a friend online or getting into an interesting conversation. 

When consumers are online they are not looking for a salesman, they want to be part of a meaningful conversation. Advertising agencies do not understand conversation they understand selling, and measuring impact of column centimetre. This is the “now or never moment” for PR.

If PR as an industry can revive through this new avatar, we will be more successful than before because the soul of PR will remain the same – building relationships. PR will have a new name – Digital Marketing or Direct Marketing or just Creative Storytellers. 

This new age breed of creative storytellers will do four things:

  • Embrace big data for nsights and understand which story will sell with which audience, thus creating an integrated campaign and measure impact.
  • Constantly keep their ears to the ground so as to create content that will spark conversations on the web, go viral and get picked up by newspapers and television media. It may also get converted into a film like the Oscar winning Smile Train.
  • Successful storytellers will emerge as consultants who will pitch for projects. Companies will pose their problems online and individuals and companies will revert with their solutions. The best solution will bag the job. The retainer model, which most PR agencies survive on, will die. Also with digital emerging and the millennial being at the heart of decision-making, campaigns will be shorter. A good or bad campaign will die its “VOW” moment very soon.
  • A new age of Info-snacking will emerge where consumers will snack on information. Content will be shorter and crisper. As more and more people get connected to smartphones they will consume content and participate in conversation on the go. Press releases will get replaced with Twitter headlines, Facebook photo albums will be replaced by Instagram pictures, and Vine videos of 6 seconds will replace YouTube videos.

The new age PR professional will have a strong persona across all digital mediums and he will engage and respond in an always on conversation economy. Memorable campaigns will get created by just by being part of large conversations. 

The famous Oreo campaign during Superbowl 2013 was not a commercial but a tweet during the blackout. A simple message – “You can still dunk in the Dark”. The tweet got retweeted 16,000 times and favourited 4,500 times. Probably a best kept secret is that Oreo built a social strategy on their 100th birthday. The company set up a war room to figure out what was meaningful to its followers – who include 32 million individuals on Facebook and about 80,000 on Twitter. 

It is time for PR professionals to create memorable stories that will get recreated and retold.  As I write this I feel like a phoenix rising from the ashes and am reminded of the poem Phoenix by Carmen Colombo which he sums up with the words, “As long as I live, I learn, and live forever.”

Amrit Ahuja, Client Engagement Director, B2B & Technology, MSL Group Asia

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