Tough Challenges Facing PR Counselors Today

The PRSA Counselors Academy surveyed its membership last May to better understand the issues facing the leaders of PR firms across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Not surprisingly, three key issues rose to the top: surviving the economic downturn, navigating social media and retaining a sense of authenticity as counselors continue to move from simple tacticians to trusted business advisers.


Surviving the current economic downturn is paramount for firms and those who run them. Business leaders have always had to deal with boom-and-bust economies, but many of those who survived even the Great Depression were eventually able to look back and realize that the worst of times actually created new opportunities.

That certainly has been the case in more recent recessions when new doors opened, leading to an ever-improving, more vibrant PR/marketing industry. Perhaps that again will be true for us at some point but, for now, it behooves us to look at today’s state of affairs realistically.

The impact of the current global economic meltdown has been seismic. We’ve seen major institutions fail and unemployment rise. Perhaps the most significant change has been a marked shift of financial power from New York to Washington, D.C., where government intercession with corporate ownership and stimulus spending has led to new opportunities for PR firms at all levels.

The financial power shift also has accelerated a marketing communications convergence driven by the rapid evolution of digital social media and the ensuing land grab among PR firms, advertising agencies and growing colonies of digital specialty agencies and consulting firms. Out of all these entities, it would appear that because of its historic emphasis on two-way communications, PR is best suited to take the lead in the social media realm.


The shifting sands of the social media landscape make for a difficult challenge. Players move in and out of the space on a routine basis.

Today’s social media darling is tomorrow’s social media pariah. Firms and the organizations they serve struggle to keep up with the machinations of it all as well as with the sheer volume of information being exchanged via the Internet. It was so much easier when PR practitioners only had to monitor e-mails, electronic newsletters and maybe a blog, but that no longer is the case.

Then there is the question of measuring success. Is success just getting a Facebook fan page up? Is it linking a Twitter account to a Web site or a blog? Is it tracking postings, visitors and fans? The answer really depends on what an organization is attempting to achieve through the use of social media. Savvy firm leaders know that the most dangerous mistake they can make is to treat social media as a tactic rather than an integrated strategy.

Perhaps what is most intimidating about social media to firm leaders is how different it is from traditional media. Social media has unmatched speed, reach and cycle time. Furthermore, it fosters faux intimacy and snap judgment unlike any other, meaning the organizations that successfully engage in it must do so authentically. Trust is a huge component of social media interaction and when people or organizations act contrary to what is expected of them, that trust is violated instantly and, in some cases, permanently.


People are quick to see through frauds, fakes and poseurs, thus putting more pressure on PR firms to deliver now more than ever. Whether executed by an outside firm or an in-house staff, PR programs must generate measurable results that can easily be linked back to strategy.

Firms that excel in this environment have cultivated an anticipatory culture at the heart of which is a commitment to providing authentic, strategic counsel for long-term client success. They create systems that allow various internal groups—from management to research—to work smarter and more effectively.

It is incumbent upon the PR practitioner to look over the horizon to spot new opportunities and provide the necessary leadership to keep both relationships and results strong over time. By going beyond the ordinary and expected, these practitioners continue to bring fresh thinking and new ideas to the table that keep clients and bosses engaged and enthusiastic.

It is an approach that cannot help but build respect and trust. As a result, the PR professional moves from a tactician to a trusted counselor and strategic partner, building relationships that endure and prosper.

PR professionals who thrive in this difficult and rapidly evolving environment will be the ones who seek out new opportunities, adapt most innovatively to the challenges of new social media and are able to build the kind of lasting client relationships necessary to be a business adviser at the highest levels. PRN


Sydney Ayers is the 2009 chairman of the Counselors Academy and the president/CEO of Ayers Public Relations. She can be reached at