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Is the PR industry missing the social media boat?

David Jones, SVP at public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard recently joined me to discuss social media and its effects on the PR industry.
Blogs, podcasting are all part of what we call “Web 2.0” what effect has it had on the PR industry? For the most part, the PR industry missed the boat on integrating the Web as a communications tool in the 90s. Marketing and advertising dominance of the area led to media rich corporate brochures popping up all over the web for traditional offline companies who weren’t interested in e-commerce. Many corporations and their web design/interactive/advertising firms were successful at building communities through their sites, but most Web sites were basically a bunch of ad copy looking for eyeballs or extensions to the brand imagery that really didn’t add much. The new social/collaborative/conversational approach that seems to be the thrust of Web 2.0 sits squarely in the areas that PR practitioners are traditionally expert at, including building communities of stakeholders and addressing their issues directly; persuasion through discussion and collaboration; taking a micro view vs. the macro view. PR has very much been about changing minds one-by-one through influencing the influencers such as the media. If the advertising industry was to start today, I doubt they would attempt to follow the model they’re are currently using.

With start-ups like FreshBooks being profiled by publications such as CNET and allocating little or no budget PR, what does a PR firms bring to the table that they might be missing out on? At what stage should a start-up engage the services of a PR firm? Every startup is different, so it all depends on the comfort level of the team with dealing with the media. Many folks are very media savvy and have no trouble handling their own PR in the early going. Some are terrified and want to hire consultants to help them navigate what can be a make or break introduction. Start-ups should consider working with a PR consultant to help get their message out to the stakeholders they need to communicate with. However, I’d suggest they get referrals from other companies in their space or journalists who deal with them to make sure they are getting the right fit. Hire the account team and not the name on the door.

Give us your best guess – what will the PR industry look like in the next 18 – 24 months? The PR industry will look the same to most people. There will be several boutiques that start up to service social media clients and most firms will develop the in-house capability to bring social media consulting, monitoring and blogger/podcaster relations programs to clients as a distinct offering. One benefit I see for the next few years will be a more common ground for marketers and PR folks as we will be able to track how successful we are at generating buzz with our audiences and hopefully be able to relate that to sales successes.

What exciting things can we look forward from Fleishman-Hillard in the next few months? Fleishman-Hillard is involved in a number of exciting initiatives. Our CEO has started blogging and social media is rapidly becoming a core skill for many folks throughout the network. We have talented bloggers already on staff and will be rolling out many more social media initiatives for ourselves internally and for clients throughout the world. Our NGT (Next Great Thing) team in NYC is continually filling our heads and our clients’ heads with future communications trends and evolutions beyond social media. FH Interactive and iStudio continue to do great work and lead the way on the online PR front. The traditional practice groups are collaborating more and more with the FH Interactive and iStudio groups to bring online PR ideas to life for our clients.


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