These days, it seems like the marketing media's constantly spouting proclamations about how social media and digital marketing have changed the face of public relations. And true enough, there's some validity to the notion certain practices are changing—as has always been the case.
Guess what, though? The traditional (allegedly "old school") PR expertise many are now declaring irrelevant is anything but. In fact, these time-honored practices can only help savvy PR pros execute Web 2.0 publicity campaigns more successfully.
Everyone likes jumping on the PR 2.0 bandwagon. There;s money to be made and reputations to be built by those proclaiming change—whether in books, articles, speaking tours, and Webinars—about how PR is an all-new game in the digital world.
But in spite of everything that's supposedly changing, we're still essentially dealing with applied behavioral science. The "target audience" or "social network," depending on which jargon you prefer, is still comprised of homo sapiens. People's brains aren't any different than they were 20 or more years ago, save perhaps for some with digitally induced A.D.D.
Let's remain more closely focused on what continues being essentially valuable in PR, as well as acknowledging what's relatively different in today's wired or wireless marketing world.
Today's business crunch means contract resources are being slashed in nearly all market sectors. It's certainly not a demonstration of "the new PR." Anyone who's been around for a while has seen marketers quite mistakenly slash promotional budgets in downturns. So the downsizing of PR organizations is bogus evidence of what some deem as global changes in public relations practices.
Rather than claiming "a whole new world of PR," I suggest those riding this shiny new bandwagon look closer at the so-called "old school" talents which have always been, and continue to be, essential. Strategy. Conversation. Information. Credibility. Community. These are all applicable to how PR has been and will continue being practiced by agencies, consultants, or corporations. Sorry, but new technologies and those with somewhat shorter attention spans, don't amount to a total sea change in human behavior.
These are the persistent truths everyone working in public relations needs to continually keep in mind, regardless of their market or the technology tools available to, or appropriate for, their work.
Strategy. The old saw, "strategy first, then tactics," still holds. Sure, random tactical efforts applying new media technologies may break through and win attention and make it rain for marketers. Luck happens. That said, businesses willing to strategically apply and control tactics on- or offline will be more successful than those without clear, simple differentiation and a sharp communications focus on creating brand value.
Conversation. Public relations has always incorporated two-way, public relationship-building methods. Unlike advertising, it applies engagement tactics and puts business and organizational representatives next to and involved with their constituencies where conversations can occur. For example, trade events—a long-respected PR tool for getting face-to-face with consumers, buyers, or influencers—won't be replaced by Facebook anytime soon. Humans want to look each other in the eye, touch the merchandise, see it demonstrated and have first-hand experiences (conversations) with those who are telling the business story.
Information. This is often now referred to now as "content." PR has always applied facts and information to support the sponsors' strategies and objectives. Even a cursory look at the work of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, shows how research and information (as well as psychology) are applied to PR campaigns. Speeches, articles, books, and movies are all among the information-laden vehicles supporting effective PR outcomes. With the Web’s virtually unlimited publishing capacity, information remains among the most valuable PR assets.
Credibility. Without the network's faith in a source’s truthfulness, can there be any effective communication? Lose your public credibility today—or even back in Roman times, for that matter—and yo'’re reduced to less than a whisper. Risk losing credibility at your or your organization's peril. Obviously, this is even more true in an age of instant communication everywhere.
Community. Humans are tribal. Hardly a new concept—it's just that the tribes today can also be united or divided by digital communications. People want to share ideas with others having similar interests. This has always been so and it continues on Twitter or at Starbucks. Creating and building communities certainly isn't new to marketers. Brand-specific owners clubs, users groups, or "friends of" organizations existed long before we lived.
Think of the offline communities you know of and you're looking at a classic public relations strategy. Whether it's a meeting of the Porsche Owners Club at a racetrack or a chainsawing competition sponsored by Stihl, Echo, or Black & Decker, creating community has always been a favored brand-building approach. After all, your best prospects (and perhaps salespeople) are your existing customers. New online communities are a natural phenomena of human nature.
The real argument isn't about public relations or social media techniques. It's about communications technologies' effect on a business' relationships with its constituencies. The relationships have always been there, but customers now have the means and expectations for far more actively participating with favored or dis-favored brands.
The key problem is, which communications channels should companies focus on? Social media makes sense for many marketers. Others are unconvinced or poorly prepared for dealing with the potential real-time communications threats to brand equity. In any case, some persistent truths are best kept in mind…whichever PR path is taken.
Ford Kanzler is managing partner of Marketing/PR Savvy in El Granada, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.