Why Your PR Firm Is Stuck in the 19th Century

This is a guest post from Michael Dolan.

The entire public relations industry is in the last spasms of a loud and painful demise. PR is useless in the 21st Century because everyone is their own personal brand and their own personal media. The gatekeepers took a permanent vacation the minute the media world hit the web and John Q. Public became John Q. Citizen Journalist. Why bother hiring someone to chat up a reporter for you when you can email them yourself? Even better, why bother with the reporter at all? Just write up what you have to say and blog, Tweet, Facebook and Flickr until you get the word out.

What is disturbing is the way that the PR industry is doing everything it can to hold on to their piece of the pie. Instead of adapting and offering clients something they can use, and put value in, they are throwing up a smokescreen. The PR industry is building up a wall of half-truths, scams and frauds to make Dark Ages Isure the billable hours keep rolling in.

There are two big areas where PR firms just won’t let go, and are screwing their clients in the process: media relations, press releases and connecting with the media.

Until recently, reporters and PR people were the best of friends. It was a give and take relationship. PR people gave reporters a story that placed their clients in the most favorable light possible, along with a little bit of lagniappe. Some tickets to the game, a nice dinner, an expensive bottle and a good time were frequently provided to grease the wheels of journalism. The reporters wrote about the publicists’ clients in a way that made them look fantastic. A great PR person would have relationships at all the big publications going back years, and having a Rolodex, meant just that: having a bunch of hard to get contact information for how to get in touch with writers.

This world ended with the onset of the social media world. Want to get a hold of a reporter? There is a hot link to their email at the end of every article. In many cases there is even a working phone number with an extension. As for long term relationships,   these are mostly a thing of the past. First, what journalist do you know has kept a steady gig at one publication, on one beat for any length of time in this current media climate? It’s a rarity. Most journos are desperately doing their best to keep enough writing gig balls in the air to keep the lights on. The idea that a reporter will stick around in one place long enough to help a PR person again and again is becoming quainter by the second. Why not type that up on carbon paper while you’re at it?

The expansion of the web into every corner of the world has also made readers much more informed. It’s nearly impossible for a flack and a journo to collude and pass off something slightly dishonest or spin worthy. The truth to just about everything is a quick Google search away. Journalism has never had to be more honest and truthful, and people know when they commit something to be published, it will be checked out from every angle. If a reporter fudges something to make a company look good, and help out a PR buddy, they will be called out for it.

However, it is just as simple for a business owner to send something nice to a journalist, as it is for a PR person. Still, most reputable publications now have gift policies, or at the very least the writer needs to declare if they were setup on a media tour, or a given something free to review. Then again, if you try to buy off a journalists these days, you might just as easily end up on the wrong end of a vicious tweet or blog post calling shenanigans on your shady dealings.  What it all comes down to is the inter-connected media world we live in has made relationships between journalist and PR people practically worthless.  Even at it’s’ best, nothing you should be paying $450 an hour for.

Take a good look around the web at your favorite publications. Can you find an article that was written because of a press release? It’s doubtful. You might dig up something here or there, where a writer was feeling lazy, but it’s uncommon. With all the information in the world at their fingertips, journalists can research and find whatever they like. The chance the most wonderful thing they stumble on out there in the great World Wide Web is your press release can be quantified in decimal points. It’s like hitting that half-court shot when they pull your ticket at a Nets game. It could happen, but don’t spend that prize money just yet.

Those being the case, why do PR firms still recommend, create and bill for press releases? Good question. I still hear people talking about putting releases out “On the Wire”! Really people? Did Thomas Edison rise from his grave to assist you in sending out your news release? Press releases are a relic from a time when information was a hard to come by commodity. That is not the case in 2011. In fact, we have the opposite problem. Too much information and not enough filtering. It’s absolutely egregious that supposedly reputable PR firms charge an arm and a leg to recommend that their clients send out news releases, and a further two limbs to create and distribute them. It’s an out and out fraud.

PR firms know that a press release isn’t going to get any traction, or get any pickup. They know that they’ll have an intern or the most junior staff member write it up. They know they’ll charge you a ton to “distribute “it through a service that is a glorified email list serv. Yet they still do it. From where I’m sitting, that is a first class scam. It’s a way to tack on additional billing for doing work that they know will be ineffective from the get go.

It’s never easy hearing that you’re lively hood is on the way out. I imagine fletchers, blacksmiths, telegraph operators and typewriter repairman have all felt the way some PR firms feel right now. The work you’ve been doing for years has been crushed under a wave of technology. Is there a place for PR firms in the 21st Century? Certainly, but they need to be looking at Public Relations from a 21st Century point of view. It’s time that firms took a long, hard look at what they do for clients, and why they do it.

About Michael Dolan:

I’m a Geeky PR strategist and online troublemaker for hire. Writer. I love designing social media and alternate reality games. Up for creating an online ruckus? Me too. Bike Racer. Cyclocrosser, BMX’er and reluctant roadie. Photographer. Atheist. Book Nerd. Resident of Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn patiently awaiting The Singularity.

My writing, photography, media work and creative projects have shown up in the NY Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian, Wired, Crain’s, NY Post, Mashable, Gothamist, Time Out NY, PR Breakfast Club, Oprah, Travel and Leisure, Fox News, New York Magazine, NPR, Kinky Jews and many other fine media outlets worldwide. I like to document the oddities and bizarre moments of modern life life on Flickr, Twitterand Foursquare.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire…@EvilPRGuy.

Image – *tomasrotger.com 


@jeffespo the notion that PR folks and journos no longer have relationships is pretty silly. this coming from a digital guy.


@LauraChristo as a current #pr student I can tell you were not trained that way. The article also had some serious grammar issues.


@LauraChristo When I wrote that piece, I wasn't going for "Anti #PR", so much as anti the way most agencies execute PR these days.


Who makes $450 an hour? I'd love to talk to that person.


PR got its start in the early 20th century. Hard to believe it's a field that's less than a hundred years old. If you find a firm stuck in the 19th century, then they're really doing it wrong!

I think saying "PR is dying" is an oversimplification. It's more apt to say that the way people communicate is rapidly and majorly changing, and PR with it. Whether everyone ends up calling the thing on the other side of all this transformation "PR" or not is just semantics. There's still going to be a need to craft and tailor a message to various publics. There's an increasing need to even identify those publics, since a dozen new online communities pop up every day.

Writing a press release fit that need really well 40 years ago. Today, you're right, it's not as useful. But I also can't think of a decent PR firm that does just press releases and media relations. Not that I'm even actually thinking of any-- focusing on those two things alone would knock them out of the "decent" category by itself.

An aside, and a small rant:

It's funny to me that PR has a PR problem. I constantly see this idea that PR people are "evil," whether it's said tongue-in-cheek or pitchfork-in-hand. I have to ask: Who does that help? As a PR practitioner, why are you furthering this idea? Aren't we just driving the ethically-minded young folks from the profession? Aren't we just creating that very reality of evil PR?

PR should serve as the consciousness of an organization. It has an incredible capacity to promote doing good things within a business that could otherwise be just about profits. What's evil about that?


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