Lessons from PR’s missed opportunity
I remember it like it was yesterday.
My spine still tingles at the wave of anticipation I felt walking through the door to start my first PR job.
The industry was buzzing, attracting top graduates in droves; I felt lucky to be invited to the party.
So I arrived: 25, full of theory, careers fairs, interviews and Kool-Aid, ready for a career in big ideas.
So why, a generous decade later, am I (and so many of the colleagues I’ve met along the way) no longer working in PR and so pleased about it? Want to wind me up these days? Just call me a PR guy.
So what’s caused this rather depressing outcome?
Where’s The Big Idea?
Somewhere, along the way, the things that made the industry so exciting – the innovation, the passion, the creativity – became harder to find.
Worst of all, the big ideas that made the industry’s best known names became as elusive and rare as a lost, winning lottery ticket. In came people, processes and perspiration to replace them. And what happens when scalable actions substitute sustainable ideas? The industry bloats. Then it bursts.
What’s The Measure?
Surprisingly clients were more complicit than complaining. The mutual struggle to achieve meaningful measurement led to monthly output filling up scorecards and guaranteeing bonuses because the industry chose activity metrics instead of outcome metrics.
I can also remember the feeling sitting with a monthly activity list (two press releases, three features, two articles) and no idea of what to put in them. Did we do them? Sure. Were they any good? Unsure.
This is where PR failed: internal teams, and their agencies, traded the pursuit of big ideas for solid production processes and settled for churning out lots of unremarkable stuff.
The World Changed
Usurping quality with quantity left the industry with deep problems; a thought spins on a dime, a process turns like a tanker.
You don’t need Columbo’s overcoat to conclude that flexibility and agility, in this day and age, are good things.
That’s why locked-down PR processes, focused squarely (you might even say loyally) on a dwindling number of media channels, spectacularly failed to respond to the relentless rise of new big ideas: social media, blogging, search engines, analytics…
A senior press officer, head firmly buried in the sand, once described blogging to me “as the ramblings of lonely geeks sitting at computers – in their pants.” Don’t be shocked – the bedroom-dwelling, scantly clad, burger-munching blogger was PR’s anti-poster boy for many years.
We’ve all heard of a solution looking for a problem, we ended up with a solution looking for a journalist.
And they’re thinner on the ground these days.
Just to be clear, I’m not having a go at PR people (or Fernando Torres for that matter). There were, and always will be, lots of great people in the industry. This is a lament for an industry (at large) that got stuck in its ways and didn’t fulfill an enormous potential to do new things for new markets.
It is also a warning. It can happen again.
I’ve been (what’s now called) a content marketer for five years. It has made the limelight by fusing big ideas with innovation and passion. It’s definitely the industry for which my 25 year-old self would be sharpening his CV. I imagine the PR industry started on a similar wave of creativity.
Content marketing’s strength is a virtuous circle of creative skills: writers, social media experts, analysts, designers, film-markers, animators, search engine optimizers, database marketers, planners, journalists – you name it, they play here.
But the clamour for content and the rush to provide it means we’re in danger of losing the thing that glues these skills into more than the sum of its parts: the big idea. It’s the valuable, sustainable, measurable, compelling, and, (in the original sense) key word alert, marketable part of any content campaign.
Cherish it and we’re on course for a thrilling change to the marketing world forever. Lose it and we’re just blowing the next bubble down a production line (three blog posts, one paper, two infographics) until it inevitably goes pop.
And then what are we left with?