Why PR is Dead and Called Something Else

Adele Cehrs, CEO / Founder, Epic (Just Re-branded When and How Agency)

Close your eyes and think of a PR person. Who do you see?

Power hungry Olivia Pope? Stonewalling Sarah Huckabee? Aaron Eckhart defending Big Tobacco in Thank You for Smoking? Let’s face it – Public Relations has a PR Problem.

To tell you the honest truth (and yes, most of us actually do) I don’t recognize myself, or my peers, in any of these folks. OK, I admit I’d kill for Olivia’s wardrobe (figure of speech, folks –really). But I’ll be the first to tell you my profession is evolving and many of my peers are having a hard time keeping up.

It’s been 20 years since I made the leap from journalism to PR. The person who trained me showed me how to craft press releases and pitch my stories to the media. In journalism school, I had been taught how to ferret out the truth. Now, I was learning to spin.

Back in the early 2000’s, there was a well-worn way of doing public relations. You’d go to your trusty Bacon’s (now Cision), a huge book of media sources, to create a targeted list of reporters. Then you’d craft a press release in safe, generic corporate-speak. Your client would give the press scripted quotes. They got the media coverage they coveted while still controlling the entire message.Underlying this unspoken arrangement was the understanding that maybe someday the PR person might provide the media with an actual scoop. As a result, many stories were written or aired simply because the PR person had a relationship with the reporter.

The rise of the Internet caused a sea change in journalism, public relations, and marketing.

As local news went away, PR people like me lost the contacts they were used to pitching. Enthusiasm for social media swept the country, and new platforms popped up like mushrooms. PR people tackled these new media in two ways:

1.   They dabbled in social media, pushing out posts and tweets that basically condensed the information in their latest press releases.

2.   They took on the roll of “Creative Police,” critiquing or second- guessing any social media communication that seemed a little bold or unexpected, or didn’t narrowly adhere to the official messaging.

Neither approach proved all that effective. The cautious approach to social media, pushing out vetted, vanilla messaging, had little impact. Playing content cop didn’t work so well either: Nobody likes to see those blinking lights in their rear view mirror.

Social media requires that brands take risks, show some vulnerability, admit mistakes, and sometimes even court controversy. This is all counterintuitive for PR people whose professional training has made them risk-averse. 

As public relations struggled to evolve, the discipline began to lose status in the C-suite. Rather than playing the role of valuable strategic partners, PR people were being viewed as fixers whose main purpose was cleaning up messy situations or party promoters.

I believe my industry has reached a tipping point. Marketing has taken over social media with PR as a subset. Both disciplines occasionally overlap. Even the name of our profession has changed. Now, we use terms like strategic communications, influencer marketing or media management. But the best PR people have evolved along with the profession by learning the following lessons:

Stay Relevant

Most brands are truly relevant three to five times a year. Some of those magic moments are obvious. If you’re in the snow shovel business and the blizzard of the century is about to hit, get the word out! But there are also magic moments that require that you pay attention. For example, when Roseanne Barr tried to blame a racist tweet on Ambien, Sanofi, the maker of the drug, tweeted out “Racism is not a known side effect of Ambien.” Brilliant way to insert your brand into an ongoing conversation!

Timing Is Everything

Time, the “when” you need to insert your company in a trending conversation, share company news, react to a crisis or, better yet, prevent one, is the most important variable in real-time marketing.

The edge goes to the brand that can move at the speed of culture. If you’re too late, no one cares. David Beebe, former VP of Global Creative and Marketing for Marriott International and the founder of their content studio says companies should implement the 45 minute rule: Send the post out to managers and if they don’t correct it within 45 minutes, go ahead and post!

With predictive analytics, trending conversations and preparation – brands can – and should -be ready to respond fast.

Perfect Isn’t Possible

Perfection isn’t possible in the Internet age. Just think of all the annoying typos in online content. Of course, you should use spellcheck, think strategically, and post things that jive with your brand’s personality. Remember, you can’t anticipate every negative response or shut down every troll. Think beyond the individual post and the number of likes it gets. It’s about how everything ties back to the larger brand story. And, who better to tell that than corporate communications experts (AKA PR professionals).

Get Real

Here’s the flip side of “Perfect Isn’t Possible”: To err is human. Whereas defensiveness turns people off, a little brand self-deprecation can be endearing. Putting your weaknesses forward, within reason, only makes your message feel more authentic.
This is why we are changing my agency, what we offer and its name to When and How. Stay tuned for the new version of kick-ass communications.

I recently took the leap of prototyping an idea and I think it is going to be killer for interactive crisis communications training. This will include crisis video scenarios and virtual expert advice and I am thrilled with how it turned out.

Communicators from major corporations and associations will be attending the Brink + Drink on June 13th at the Teddy & Bully Bar in DC from 6 – 8:30 pm. There’s still time to join me or send a member of your team. Click here to register: http://bit.ly/2JncFfoBrink


About the Author: Heralded as a “crisis communications expert” by the Wall Street Journal, Adele Cehrs has worked with companies such as Lockheed Martin, DuPont and Verizon. With her finger on the pulse of the ever-changing marketing landscape, Adele has interviewed more than 100 chief marketing officers from household brands such as Hilton, MasterCard, and Tommy Hilfiger. As a speaker, she has keynoted events at the United Nations where her remarks were translated into 27 different languages. She is the founder and CEO of the When and How Agency, which specializes in timing for corporate communicators. Visit: www.whenandhowagency.com for more information. 

1 Comment

  1. Steve Cody on June 10, 2019 at 8:11 am

    With all due respect, this is complete and utter bullshit. Thanks to seismic societal changes in terms of disinformation, Purpose-Washing and endless societal crises forcing organizations to take a stand, PR has never been MORE important. We, and we alone, recognize the difference between education and storytelling vs. crass selling. And, a major feature in The Wall Street Journal remains the currency of the realm for EVERY integrated account we represent. We’ve witnessed countless “bright shiny objects” wax and wane through the years. I remember a few years back when the PR Council surveyed members asking if the PR moniker should be dropped. You don’t hear those discussions anymore. PR is at the very top of the the integrated marketing pyramid and I’m shocked to hear a practitioner think otherwise. PR’s best days are still to come.