Can Social Media Save PR Firms?

August 24, 2009

Since the days of Eddie Bernays, PR people have loved to debate the definition of PR. Stakeholder this.  Third-party endorsement that. Trust me, for the first fifteen years of my career, I heartily joined the crowd that tried define just what it was we were selling. 

I’m here to say it’s an exercise in futility.

No matter what PR people say it is or isn’t, for the vast majority of the rest of the marketing world, PR means publicity, and that’s not going to change.   “Ahh, you’re wrong! What about social media marketing?” the APR accredited crowd exclaims. “That’s PR by anyone’s definition, isn’t it? Surely Facebook, Twitter, blogger relations and all that sexy new stuff is a natural extension of all the things PR people do so well: building word-of-mouth, creating content, engaging influencers, creating relationships, etc.”

Yeah.  Not so fast.  See, the ad agencies are trying to throw off their traditional shackles, too, and that leaves everyone scrambling to claim their slice of the social media pie, among other things.  Just take a look at this article from last week’s Business Journal (subscription required).  Read the headline and summary carefully.  It doesn’t say PR firms are growing on the strength of social media marketing. While that’s certainly the case, not a single traditional PR firm in town is even mentioned in the article.  I point this out with no malice or glee.  We’re all playing in the same sandbox now.   This story from the Miami Herald reinforces the point.

While social media marketing might fall well within most definitions of PR, and PR got there first, it’s simply not going to be the thing that helps the discipline break out of the increasingly shinking media relations box. The big dogs in advertising have joined the social media frenzy.  They smell revenue and they will get theirs.

What’s it all mean? Prediction: within 10 years, public relations divisions of ad agencies will be a thing of the past in the U.S. Most will be shuttered, the rest spun out as newly branded competitors. I’ll even go so far as to predict that within that same period, you’ll be able to count the number of PR firms in the Twin Cities on one hand.