[Originally published by O’Dwyer’s.]
When O’Dwyer’s asked me to write up my thoughts on the state of public relations trends and the challenges of managing a PR agency in 2014, my first response was, well, ambivalence. Why? In short, my outlook is both bleak and upbeat.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read that PR is dead, dying or—at the very least—mortally wounded, I’d be banking a lot of coin rolls. So, though I think the rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, I do think that public relations is in the midst of massive disruptions, upheavals, transitions and identity crises. We’ve all known for years that the old models of communication no longer work in this always-on age of social media, with a completely connected, insanely empowered consumer—and I mean “insanely empowered” as a good thing. But now when I say the old models no longer work, I mean the models we had in place just a few months ago.
Change is coming constantly—and fast. The industry needs to do more to keep up, and we PR professionals need to get over the traditional hang-ups that have held us back for far too long. My hope is that we can guide the industry through a true metamorphosis. And I’m optimistic that we can—if we aren’t afraid of some serious reinvention (it’s one of the trends I’ve been seeing for the general population, so doesn’t it make sense that PR should jump in, too?).
Having spent much of my career in advertising, I still can’t help comparing it with PR. Sometimes I miss the macho swagger of advertising, and I’ve long felt that public relations suffers from excessive femaleness. I don’t mean the number of X chromosomes in a given office (though a case could be made for that, too). I mean the attitude. PR can often be demure, polite and afraid to make too aggressive a grab on anyone’s attention. It’s an industry, unfortunately, that has been too willing to play it safe and follow the rules.
Last summer I wrote an opinion piece decrying an industry that was too feminized and politically correct. PC strictures have made too many people in PR timid, afraid to challenge the boundaries, and too willing to stay in a place where the risks are low—but (good to keep in mind) so are the rewards. When the Drum and Business Insider picked up the piece, the comments surprised me. Among them: “So men are better liars? That’s the message?”
That’s not the message. PR professionals should not lie—especially now, when they’re guaranteed to get caught (remember those insanely empowered consumers)—and neither should ad people. But we need to adopt some of the ad world’s confidence, swagger and, I will even say, ballsiness, which is by definition a masculine descriptor.
We need to get over any inferiority complex we have about our relation to the ad side of the equation. What we do is different but no less valuable. We need to know that, even when clients don’t always get it and procurement is threatening to turn us into purveyors of widgets.
The good news for now is that PR has a tremendous opportunity to flourish. Some of the major PR trends of the day can be viewed in a positive light:
- The end of New York City as command central. Although many people who have built their careers in New York might lament that loss, think of the opportunities for young communicators in Providence, R.I., or Austin, Texas. And those of us still in New York can freely form partnerships with the best minds all over the country. (My agency is doing just that by supporting SocialProvidence, a social media consultancy run by two 23-year-old recent college graduates, and partnering with an Austinite to help launch her pad for “athletic leaks.” Don’t know what that is? You will.)
- Goodbye to the old networked era. You know, the one when we could work only with certain partners who happened to be owned by the same parent company. Now we’re free to form alliances more creatively. While the collaborative economy complicates certain things, it presents a world of opportunities to learn from one another—and our clients and constituents as well—and to present game-changing work.
- Hierarchies are being upended right and left. Today’s org charts look nothing like org charts from even a few years ago. Roles are more fluid, collaborative, nimble. We are acutely aware that age isn’t what matters anymore. (In fact, it’s a liability, unless you work hard to reinvent yourself and stay relevant; the older, more expensive employees seem to be the first to go in any reorg.) Now everyone can have a place at the table. Years of experience don’t matter as much as expertise, passion and courage. There is nothing more infuriating than someone who tells me they deserve a title because of their years of experience. I would rather be called by my first name (a trend) than be referred to by any corporate label.
All these changes mean we must stick with straight talk. There’s no longer any interest in people who speak in jargon. What matters is communicating directly with one another—and with our audiences.
Direct communication, courage and passion … those sound like the hallmarks of a healthy future for PR to me. Do you agree?