Old PR Ideas Masquerade as New Discoveries

A couple years ago, I invited Tom, a wizened marketing executive, to join me on an industry panel out west. He happily accepted, cracking wise about being an interloper amidst a sea of PR pros.

Also gracing the docket was a self-proclaimed PR diva, who was making a name for herself in social-media circles.

As a crowd settled in for lunch, she stepped up to the podium to deliver the Keynote. iPhones and tablets were whipped from pockets, with attendees eager to promulgate every morsel that emerged from her lips.

Within minutes, heads were nodding, Tweets were flying, and the gathered throngs were in a trance. Then my own phone buzzed; it was a text from Tom, sitting across the room. Using a few choice words, he questioned Miss Diva’s lack of foundational marketing knowledge.

Every pronouncement and breathless insight were little more than recycled concepts from years gone by, but with a sparkling new coat of digital paint. Yet the audience was eating it up.

A few minutes later, there was movement to my right. Turning my head, I saw Tom abruptly stand and leave the room. His text from the hall followed: “I’m learning just as much in this empty hallway. Save yourself.”

His demeanor could have been mistaken for sour grapes or perhaps a bit of jet lag and altitude sickness at our Rocky Mountain venue. But I believe what Tom observed is increasingly permeating the PR world.

A growing segment of our industry is losing touch with basic, effective principles that have driven news generation, program positioning and human interaction for decades. Too many pros are becoming transfixed by digital platforms and punditry without understanding what’s at the heart of how we operate.

That’s not to say the more experienced among us don’t need to adjust our halos. Case in point: a December 2012 NPR Digital Services report on what types of local content on Facebook resulted in the most sharing and engagement. Categories such as “crowd pleasers,” “news explainers,” and “provocative controversies” drew oohs and aahs (and likes—we can’t forget the likes) from veteran practitioners and even university professors.

The nine “findings” are certainly valid. But they’re simply classic news-making territories that have been wrapped with a giant silver bow and re-gifted.

Should senior PR executives care about this trend? At the end of the day, does it really matter if teams don’t fully understand the basics as long as the outcomes are positive? And why would we want to squelch the enthusiasm of a new breed of communicators?

Maintaining excitement among teams for the roller-coaster-like industry that is PR is absolutely essential. But don’t we want to avoid cheap thrills, the ones that are too easily earned and leave a bad taste in the mouth after time has passed?

As leaders, it’s our mandate to push, cajole and motivate teams to find new avenues for communication, and then celebrate those discoveries far and wide. Imagine the wonder and awe that surrounded man’s first encounter with fire. However, save the festivities for when they’re really earned.

So how to you connect new and old, the tried-and-true with “let’s roll the dice?” First, find your leveling point.

A few months ago I was asked to lecture to a group of junior and senior communications students at a university, specifically addressing new technologies and their application to PR.

A few minutes in, we began discussing video and its power as a storytelling tool. But as I related today’s opportunities to the racks of Beta SP B-roll tapes that clogged my office just five years ago, it was clear that something was amiss.

Two quick questions revealed the truth: not only had roughly 80% of the students never heard of B-roll, but none had any familiarity with analog tape. A 60-second explanation took care of that, and brains began processing again. We can’t assume those connections have already been made. It’s up to us.

To be credible, leaders have to keep pace with advancements in technology, communications models and human behavior.

Trying to imbue a deeper understanding of communications theory without being able to show its practical application in some such as real-time media or geo-referenced mobile analytics will draw glares.

So as the year progresses, make a pact with me: the industry can only be made stronger, more effective and more valuable by applying learning from years gone by. You need to be willing to carry the torch, tending to its flame as only a veteran communicator can. PRN



Mike McDougall is president of McDougall Communications. He can be reached at mike@mcdougallpr.com.


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  • David

    Great post. I am not the most adept technocrat, having begun my career in the non-computer era, but know the importance of messaging, advertising, public relations and communications. Technology is becoming the tail that wags the dog. I don’t care how good a person is with technology, one’s effectiveness is only as good as the quality of the message. And you can always hire a technician or a firm to help with the technical end of things.

  • http://andvertising.com/ David Wojdyla

    I’m a 57-year-old ad guy who dabbles in PR. Without question, this is the most inspirational post I’ve read since turning the big five-oh. Thank you, Mr. McDougall, for your rallying cry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.nelson.9480111 Steve Nelson

    It was around 7 or 8 years ago that I commented to a group of social media professionals that what they were promoting as expertise was 80% tech and 20% content. That did not go over well. I might have oversimplified my case that social media has been around since the first cave paintings. My personal belief (and experience) was that receiving over 500,000 contest entries via traditional mail for a single radio promotion seemed like a lot more important than 500,000 likes online today. It took commitment on the part of the individual to fill out a form, put it in an envelope, spend money on a stamp and then go mail it as opposed to the world of simple mouse clicks. Today a marketer looks at Facebook performance in “likes”. It certainly counts for something but somebody was selling that soap/soda/sunscreen via social media years ago – sans today’s technology. It’s the idea that should drive the technology, not vice versa. Hello out there!