Now & Then: A Retrospective on 3 Years in PR


For any other era or generation, a timeframe of three years would be a mere blip in the overall timeline of anything—a career, a trend, a lifetime, etc. But for me, that three-year timeframe marks a coalescence and convergence of so many factors, all of which pertain to PR/communications in some capacity. First, it is the length of my tenure as the editor of PR News, a tenure that is ending as of today’s publication date (Nov. 16, 2009—exactly three years, three months and 15 days since I took the role of PR News editor). As is often the case, the departure is bittersweet: I’ll be leaving behind colleagues and a profession that I love (journalism), but I am doing so only because I was given the opportunity to join a new venture, MH Group Communications, which is rooted in the convergence of traditional PR and social media. From my editorial vantage point, this convergence occurred over the course of—you guessed it—the last three years. That’s not to say social media was absent prior to 2006. Blogs were a known medium that many companies had already begun to explore. Facebook existed, though it didn’t accept non-student users until Sept. 26, 2006. That same year, Twitter was in its embryonic stages of development, but it wouldn’t become part of the global business vernacular for another two years. Suffice it to say, social media’s emergence had emerged, but its proliferation … well, that was still to come. 2007: THE YEAR OF GENERATIONAL THINKING As the rumblings of social media’s impending explosion picked up steam in 2007, business communications professionals became distracted by a separate—though, they would come to find, intimately related—challenge: a widening generational gap in the workplace. More “vintage” managers hailing from the Baby Boomer generation suddenly found themselves at odds with—and even reporting to—twentysomethings, who had decidedly different ideas about how the workplace should operate. Dubbed Generation Y, these individuals challenged the status quo and introduced new cultural dynamics. Compared to Boomers’ “patience is a virtue” mentality, Gen Y-ers’ governing beliefs were more along the lines of “now or never.” As a whole, these young professionals were creative, innovative, hard working, productive and good at multitasking. At the same time, they gained a reputation for being entitled, self-righteous, demanding and quick to walk away from a job if they found it unfulfilling. As this trend solidified, it began to receive a groundswell of media attention. Headlines noting Gen Y’s dichotomous identity—and the intra-office conflicts it increasingly caused—appeared almost daily in traditional and digital media alike, and communications execs began collaborating with HR to facilitate better strategies for recruiting and retaining this new breed of employee. I too covered the Gen Y vs. upper management issue in the context of PR, but I also lived it. Smack dab in the middle of Gen Y’s age bracket, I could understand and even appreciate both sides’ wants and needs. But, more relevant to the conversation at hand, this generation gap was one of those converging and coalescing trends that ultimately resulted in the modern communications environment. 2008: THE YEAR OF POLITICAL THINKING Another game changer for communications came in 2008 from the most unlikely of places: the presidential campaign. Barack Obama’s path to the White House was paved in social media, which he used to generate support among a traditionally apathetic demographic: Young voters, who also happened to be the same Gen Y-ers that were challenging workplace dynamics. By empowering voters and giving them a say in the election process, Obama upended yesterday’s model of campaigning and replaced it with what is surely the future of politics—a future in which social media plays a major role in facilitating transparency, open dialogue and collaboration between and among various constituents. 2009: THE YEAR OF APOCALYPTIC THINKING Obama’s election and subsequent inauguration marked a political and social shift within the U.S., but it also coincided with an economic collapse that reverberated throughout the entire world. With the global recession came revised priorities for businesses and consumers alike. At the same time, social media’s trajectory reached critical mass, with Web platforms like Facebook and Twitter experiencing phenomenal growth rates. So, as budgets were slashed and staff sizes shrank, social media became a way for businesses—and especially communicators—to do more with less. This proved to be an opportunity, for social media and communications professionals alike. The former had already experienced widespread adoption among most audiences, but senior management (coincidentally, the same group that struggled with that whole generational conflict situation) still didn’t really “get it.” Now, though, social media became more attractive: Its bottom-line benefits were compelling, and its cost (or lack thereof) was recession-friendly. As for communications execs—whose quest for a seat at the table dominated conversations just a few years earlier—their natural ability to manage the intangibles that were suddenly so critical to success (reputation, brand, engagement, etc.) made them invaluable. Likewise, their age-old competitors—marketers, who historically commanded bigger budgets—lost ground as traditional marketing approaches ceased to resonate with consumer audiences. Which brings us to today. On the cusp of a new year, a new decade and—hopefully—a rebounding economy, business and communications has come a long way since I became editor of PR News three years ago. As for what things might look like three years from now, you’ll have to ask the incoming editor, Scott Van Camp, whose rich experience as both a journalist and PR practitioner will surely add new dimensions to the PRN brand. And as for me, I’ll still be writing—as a blogger on MH Group’s site and, I hope, as a second-time author (my first book, Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications, co-authored with Paul Argenti, was published by McGraw-Hill this year). Plus, I’ll still be on the PR conference circuit, just as an attendee instead of a reporter. So, thanks to everyone for their continued support of PR News. I’ll be seeing you on the “other side.” PRN CONTACTS: I can be reached at courtney.barnes@mhgroupcom.com. Scott Van Camp can be reached at svancamp@accessintel.com.

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