The future of PR and social media

A fascinating debate about the future of PR has been triggered by Jeff Jarvis who writes one of the most respected blogs about the internet and the media, Buzzmachine.com. He also writes the new media column for the Guardian.

Jeff Jarvis has claimed in his new book, ‘What would Google Do?‘, that traditional PR agencies are doomed because they are just middlemen who represent the views of their clients. Therefore he argues they cannot help companies develop new direct relationships with customers,through social media. It has sparked dismay from traditional PR agencies and Edelman PR has taken him to task.

Here is my contribution to the debate:

1. Justin Hunt says:
February 24, 2009 at 3:46 pm

I used to be a new media writer for The Guardian and before then I was head of PR for Capital Radio in London, dealing with showbiz tabloid writers. I now blog for Media Week and have set up a social media consultancy in brighton called ItsOpen (itsopen.co.uk) which gives me a useful slant on this debate.

Traditional PR agencies who simply pump out client messages and will not dare challenge their clients are dead. There are a lot of traditional PR agencies who simply do not understand social media. And they could be dangerous to their clients. Or possibly reassuring to traditional, head-in-the sand clients. PR agencies grew up to a position of power on the basis of having close relationships with editors on newspapers and specific writers. Now they are scared. They don’t know bloggers and are terrified about what they might have to deal with.

I do believe there is room for a new kind of agency – which is what we are trying to create (itsopen.co.uk). PR agencies now have to encourage companies to open up and be honest, show more humanity and personality. You have to get them to create content which is genuinely useful and interesting to their audiences. Traditional corporate speak is no longer required. It was always sterile but now social media exposes it for what it really is.

The rise of social media presents a whole raft of areas which can be liberating for companies. For example after being restricted to the scarcity of print space they can now link, use podcasts, videos etc to talk in more depth and richness about their policies and what they do. Plus they can use crowd sourcing tools to develop better products and services as Jeff has covered before. The role of a new agency is to encourage companies to embrace social media to participate and have conversations.

There is so much more companies can do as well in terms of using these new 2.0 channels to distribute their news ie automated updates on Twitter etc and getting personally involved in social media. The best PR people were able to give journalists what they wanted.

The best PR people will encourage companies to give their customers what they want. PR agencies have to reinvent themselves. And it will be very painful for them. The current crop of senior PR people are not net natives. However what we are finding is that in-house PR people are catching up with what is going on because members of their company are raising issues with them. They are starting to feel the effects of the change. Bloggers writing about them. Questions coming into the press office from Facebook groups etc. These kinds of questions demand real honest advice. Spin will not work.

Heads of in-house PR, I think, are realising the inadequacies of the jargon of traditional agencies. They want real conversations with real agencies. They know the world is changing and they know that the reputations of their companies could be damaged in seconds by a blogger. They know they need to act differently.

The traditional PR industry is based on an old traditional media model. So long as you get coverage in the newspapers everything is fine. Which is obviously no longer the case. The guy at Edelman is desperately trying to protect the reputation of the agency. He wants to be seen as leading edge. He wants to demonstrate he understands the new culture because clients are looking to him for advice. He wants to protect his client income. He’s desperately trying to PR his agency. If he wants some advice, he should put a young member of his agency on the board and listen to him or her.

Overall the big PR agencies, in my experience, don’t get social media. They might talk 2.0 but they don’t grasp the fundamental change it represents to our lives and business. And that is why smart companies are looking for specialists, different kinds of agencies who are more in tune with the new 2.0 language. I think the rise of social media is going to enfranchise and bring to the centre new kinds of individuals with a range of skills.

Leave a comment